Like sex and money, food can be the highlight of your life or the cross to which you are nailed. Famine to feast; we live on see-saws, tipping between what we want and what we need. Where necessities are scarce, innocence truly is bliss. In the webless world of 1960’s Glasgow, kids like me had no idea if any part of their home life was ‘normal’ or ‘average’. I lived in a tenement flat with my parents and my older brother. Every family I knew lived in a tenement flat. Our home featured zero bathroom facilities, but we had the use of a toilet cubicle -outside on the ground floor down twenty steps- which we shared with five other families. In my street this was perfectly normal.
Our feeding arrangements were equally drab. Until I was about fifteen we never ate anything anywhere except in our kitchen. There were no visits to cafes and restaurants or supper parties with other families. My dad worked long, life-consuming shifts in a steel factory so almost every mealtime saw a table of three. My mother, the only cook I knew, would place three pre-loaded plates onto an easy-wipe plastic tablecloth in front of her two sons. It was the exact ritual I used this morning to feed three dogs. And like dogs, we ate everything, every time. Breakfast cereal, bread and jam, boiled egg, mince and potatoes, round biscuits from plastic packs. It may sound unlikely, but I struggle to recall any other foodstuffs.
No-one ever suggested that eating was a pleasure, rather a function we were expected to perform. My brother and I never questioned the quality or value of our meals, simply cleared the plates with a kind of solemn resignation. To better illustrate the experience, let me describe the cooking of mince (mum’s signature dish) as observed by my twelve-year old self.
Place mince in a pot. Add boiling water and salt. Simmer until meat is shrivelled and grey/brown. Strain and serve with boiled potatoes.
Around 1970 my brother pioneered a seasoning technique to enhance this boiler’s delight, namely, adding HP sauce and mashing everything into a yellow/brown mound which could be shaped before eating. It helped. Nothing attractive or nutritious ever graced our table; green vegetables were a mysterious cult-food, not for the likes of us. The sole exception was Xmas, when Brussels sprouts would make their startling reappearance. To us they were an annual torment: bitter, foreign, mini-footballs, piled up next to the slice of turkey-like substance that mum had peeled from a reformed slab.
A half a century later, I find my mother’s monochrome cuisine easier to understand, if not to stomach. Not long ago, I spent one entire year researching for a book about life in 1940’s Britain, and learned a lot. My mum became a teenager the year Hitler’s blitzkrieg troops had driven the British army back to Dunkirk. Torpedo-laden U-boats were roaming the seas hunting for victims, and UK food imports had dwindled. Supplies of fruit, vegetables, spices -and a lot of other good stuff- had all but vanished. The social consequences were dire and sometimes bizarre. I read one particularly absurd pamphlet from 1941 describing (I’m not kidding) exactly how to make a ‘pineapple’ out of a turnip. Young women, my mother included, attended classes where sorcery like this was taught by scowling matrons who had presumably trialled similar concoctions on their own helpless children. I picture my mother recoiling in disgust and confusion from such advice. I picture that miserable teenager queuing for hours to receive the pitiful slivers of butter, cheese and meat that made up her ‘rations’. I see her losing interest in food, and deciding the whole business of mealtimes wasn’t worth the effort. My brother and I were chewing the fruits of her indifference. And dad wasn’t about to complain. Having served in RAF Bomber Command, he was no stranger to low-grade meals, although come to think of it, he did a great job of avoiding dinner time in his own home.
In 1970 I made friends with Gino Gnulati. Gino and I were both in the school football team, and fanatical players, devoting every minute of spare daylight to kicking, running, heading and bursting footballs. One fateful night, as darkness and rain began falling on the school football pitch, Gino and I reluctantly accepted it was time to quit and set off towards home. The Gnulati household was was en route to mine. I mentioned I’d be getting my own supper, as it was mum’s night out at the bingo hall. Gino suggested I ate with his family, assuring me there would be at least eight of them and one more wouldn’t matter. I accepted the first dinner invitation of my life. As may be guessed, the Gnulati clan were Italians, from the south, and Gino’s mum wasn’t about to break any stereotypes. She was beautiful, large, excitable, incredibly hospitable and had apparently spent all day loading a huge table with more hot, delicious food than I had ever seen assembled in a single place. Gino assured me this was just another suppertime. ‘Delicious’ wasn’t a word I understood until that evening. Within minutes of arriving, I found myself heaving ever-larger portions of strangely wonderful things into my suddenly bottomless belly. I was surrounded by a crowd of loud Gnulatis doing the same thing, although they had also mastered the art of arguing in two languages while gorging. Around nine p.m. they rolled me to the door, handed me a paper bagful of home-made pastries and I waddled home, farting and belching in juvenile ecstasy.
My friendship with Gino lasted two more years, until his family moved to England and we lost touch. (My home was not connected to the telephone system until 1973). I had been eating with the Gnulati family at least once a fortnight, but never spoke about those wonderful meals in my own home. My private restaurant had closed and it’s existence would remain a guilty secret. My mother’s cooking efforts were comparatively dreadful -I knew that now- but I still had no idea why. There was no way for me to discern if cooking was a skill you acquired or a god-given talent not everyone received. I didn’t want to hurt my mum’s feelings by complaining that much better food was even a possibility. Perhaps, I speculated, Mrs Gnulati had access to special Italian foodstuffs or equipment – what did I know? Our family rolled on tiny financial wheels. I had grown up with the knowledge of many luxuries that were beyond our reach, and tasty food seemed just one more. I would no sooner have blamed my mother for failure to cook than my father for earning too little. I never doubted they were doing their best.
Without planning to, I lost interest in food. I had a busy, energetic childhood filled with sports, competitions, hobbies, ambitions and books. We couldn’t afford to buy much happiness, so our pleasures were made, not selected. As a teenager I must have had at least twenty hours of vigorous exercise every week. I was boldly, fashionably thin, and always in excellent health. Mum persevered with her attempts to keep mealtimes as painless as possible (from her perspective) by seizing upon every potential short-cut to cover the plate. I can recall the triumphal gleam in her eye the first time she served us mince from a can paired with powdered mashed potatoes (just add boiling water!) All her Christmasses had come at once. Normality resumed. Eating was once again a task, a hiccup in the sequence of pursuits that made up our day.
Once acquired, this mindset evolved into a lifestyle that I carried into adulthood. I left home at 18 and passed a good 15 more years with the blank indifference to food gifted to me by my mother. Eventually, I was taught to take pleasure in meals and mealtimes, and nowadays I could reasonably be accused of having gone too far the other way. I’m not a quite a food Nazi, but there are increasingly few things I would rather buy than cook, including bread itself. The mere sight of a microwave has me pulling on my jackboots. My brother and I talked -finally- about the gruesome, limp diet on which we survived childhood, and gradually pieced together a few explanations. Mum was a chain-smoking caffeine addict who drank too much whisky. Taste buds probably under-performing. Impatient, she had little time for complex or careful preparations in any area of activity. (The aftermath of her experiments with interior decorating was an unforgettable sight). She was also something of a dreamer, inclined to vanish into her own head, which in the end she did, courtesy of Alzheimers. Let’s face it, she was never going to be much of a cook. But we didn’t starve, and apart from my brief, unconfessed adventures into Italian cuisine, I never felt I was missing much. I’d say the whole issue is best framed by my recollection of a poignant domestic squabble from December 1972. Xmas was 48 hours away, and around six p.m. my dad returned from the factory, exhausted after a week of heroic double-shifts intended to boost our festive budget to unheard of heights. Unfortunately, he returned via the Cross Keys pub, where some shrewd entrepreneur had sold him a very large, live goose. Mum insisted he take it back and reclaim the money. Dad insisted he would kill it downstairs in the backyard. The goose crapped on the kitchen floor and honked for its life. My brother and I were dismissed while parental battle raged. In the end, sanity prevailed, dad gave in and headed off downstairs with the bird shrieking blue murder under his arm. Mum called us into the kitchen and handed me a five pound note. ” Go tae the corner son, an’ get us a tin o’ mince and a big pack o’ Smash.” …… “Anything else Ma?“…….. “Oh aye. Twenty Woodbine and a box o’ matches. And get a wee somethin’ fer you an’ yer brother. It’s Xmas, after aw.”