Mark continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo was six months old.
Three of my grandparents grew up working-class poor in the cramped and shadowed yellow-brick terraced streets of South London: the fourth, poorer still, in rural County Cork in Ireland.
I picture them as children, running their neighbourhoods ragged with great tumbling gangs of flush-faced friends; scabby-kneed, whippet-thin, always hungry.
I see my grandmothers endlessly playing hopscotch on the pavement, their heavy heads of unruly hair bouncing as they leap from square to square. I see my grandfathers locked in titanic, do-or-die, 16-a-side football matches in streets that have never known cars. I see them all hurrying home, holding hot hands with smaller brothers and sisters, as the light fades on another day, always hungry.
And they were always hungry – not just with the consuming hunger of childhood but with the hunger of not enough. Not enough money in their parents’ pockets, not enough food on the table.
Bursting through their respective doors, taking their places around their jostling tables, my grandparents meals would have been quickly served. The food was simple, repetitive – leftovers, cold cuts, shepherd’s pies, thin stews – and bulked up as best it could be with bread or potatoes.
All four of my grandparents lived long lives – long enough to see a land they no longer recognised. It was now a place of unimagined plenty; of stocked cupboards and groaning supermarket shelves; of foods from across the far-flung world; restaurants, cafés and coffee shops on every corner.
In his late years, one of my grandads would sometimes raise a puzzled eyebrow at life and scratch his head.
‘It’s a rum old world,’ he’d say.
And it is.
The land we know now is one that remains divided between those that have and those that don’t; where the curse of poverty still clings grimly through generations. Some still go hungry – but for many, maybe even for most in the Western world, food has ceased to be a want and has become instead something of an obsession.
People get passionate about food in ways they never did. Countless hours of television are devoted to it. Glossy recipe books stretch for miles on bookshop shelves. Chefs are celebrities. Every other High Street shop is now a place to eat or drink.
And food used to be simple. It isn’t now.
Now we are encouraged to eat high-fibre this or low-fat that; we know we’ve got to eat five of these and none of those. It’s become so complicated that there’s a whole new culinary lexicon to describe things we never even knew existed. Such as free-from bio-diverse organic superfoods. Or quinoa.
There’s a kind of madness that surrounds food now. It has long been big business, of course, but now it’s entertainment, showbiz, glamour, health, life choices, lifestyle.
Thankfully though, in the grip of this madness, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed – and that’s the association between food and some of our most potent and enduring memories.
You may have jumped to an understandable conclusion at this point – that what I’m slowly working towards is talking about food as the centrepiece of celebration, food as feast. I’m not. There’s a lifetime of memories to be digested in weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, gatherings of friends and family. But they are subjects for other days, perhaps.
What interests me now are memories made at other, simpler times: when food and place and a passing moment come together in a sudden surprising alchemy.
What I’m talking about is why it is that baked beans and bacon make me ten years old again; rabbit transports me to Catalonia; cheese and tomato sandwiches can only mean Ullswater; fish and chips are Westward Ho!; and oysters are a cloudburst on a London summer’s evening.
Let me quickly explain.
1. Baked beans and bacon: I am ten-years-old and at a small boarding school in the south of England and it’s cook’s night off. Every Thursday her husband does the honours and all he can produce from the kitchen are baked beans and heady mountains of bacon, roast potatoes and toast. Schoolboy heaven. One hundred and fifty muddy boys roar excitedly up the hill from the playing fields below. It’s that buzz of shared anticipation that has stayed with me.
2. Rabbit and Catalonia: It was a Sunday and the village was deserted when we arrived. The day was warm and our legs weary from cycling; we’d promised ourselves lunch but everywhere was closed. And then we spotted a small A-board outside an anonymous building. Hesitantly we pushed open the door – and found the whole village sat at noisy tables passing plates of steaming food. They invited us in, found us a table for two in the corner. We ate rabbit. Unforgettable.
3. Sandwiches and Ullswater: We’d caught a steamer ferry to Howtown and climbed a fell through a hail storm to reach a sheltered rocky ridge. The skies cleared. I put my arm around my wife and held her. And nothing has ever tasted as impossibly good as those cheese and tomato sandwiches.
4. Fish and chips at Westward Ho!: We’d walked the near deserted beach in April sunshine. For long stretches, it was just us and the gently lapping sea. And then fish and chips, eaten on a grassy bank with greasy fingers and the sun still on us.
5. Oysters in the rain: It was a summer’s evening by the Thames. We were in a restaurant under a canopy and I was encouraging my wife to try oysters. They arrived as the heavens opened and rain hammered on the canopy. We sat laughing and slurping as the rain cascaded and flooded all around.
There are so many more memories like these; I could keep going for some time giving you five more and five more. But I will spare you that.
We all have such memories, I think. They have nothing to do with the modern obsession with food, with all the madness – they are simple, immediate and capable of carrying us back to other times, putting smiles on our faces and our hearts sometimes in our mouths.
It’s difficult to explain exactly why this is. But I believe I have part of the explanation at least. Because there is something about sudden joy in all of them. And there’s something about sharing, the moment and the food. And perhaps it’s that sharing that’s most important of all.
And the reason I mention this now?
Because there’s one more recent memory to add. Butternut squash and Theo: the sight of a small boy with his first meal joyfully smeared on his smiling face.
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