That was what Nan used to say, if you asked what was for dinner. I used to wonder where she got all her Sayings from – “It’s as black as yer ‘at over Will’s mother’s”, “Up in Annie’s Room Behind the Clock”, “Jelly, Alice?” Grandad had a few of his own. If you asked him how old he was he’d say “As old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.”
The best meals I remember ever were Nan’s Sunday Lunches. Many years later I became a vegetarian, but I can’t pretend not to have relished that great, steaming plateful of chicken or roast beef, gravy, Yorkshire pudding, peas, home-made mint sauce, roast potatoes at the time. Nan did the best roast potatoes in the world. And the best gravy. And the best pastry.
She grew up in the country and went into service at the age of thirteen or fourteen – so she had a range of culinary and household skills, both rural and ‘gentry’. In summer, she would pick cherries from the tree in their garden and bottle them in kilner jars for the winter. They had damson bushes, and raspberries, and she made jam. I remember the steamy, sticky kitchen and that dense caramel-sugar-fruit smell. The jam, of course, we had on bread – cut thin by grandad with a dangerous-looking breadknife. He sharpened it himself, so it had a kind of curve to it, and he cradled the loaf lovingly, slicing towards his chest.
The cherries we had with ice-cream from a home-made cold-safe which had to be raised and lowered on rope pulleys – under the washbasin in the bathroom. The bread and jam we had after Sunday tea. I got sent out to buy a jugful of shrimps from the Shrimp Man, who appeared in the road on Sunday afternoons. And there always seemed to be celery in a jug, and salt to dip the ends in. Tomatoes were straight from the garden and tasted and smelled like tomatoes rather than water and Egyptian tomato-growers’ pee.
On winter evenings Grandad would toast crumpets on the end of a long brass toasting fork – so hot that when you buttered them it melted instantly and ran down through the holes in the crumpets. Sometimes there was toast, made on an ancient electric toaster that lived permanently in the middle of the table. It had a glass flap with a black knob on either side, opening outwards from the top, and a red-hot element on either side. You opened the flaps gingerly, deposited a slice of bread on either side and closed them again, equally gingerly. Until years later I believed toast always sported a lattice of charred black strips.
I actually saw that toaster – well, not that toaster, but that model – in a museum of 40s/50s domestic life, on a visit to Bletchley Park – the country house where Alan Turing and his associates broke all those codes using the Enigma machine during the war. I was more drawn to ‘my’ old toaster than the Enigma machine, which looked a bit lashed-together and steam-punky. At the time, of course, it was the white heat of technology.
Things have gone downhill a bit from those days. I used to pity one of my husband’s bachelor friends, who appeared to live on Mars bars and minced beef, in a basement flat. He told me he wasn’t interested in food at all and ate merely to live. I started off pitying my mother, who used to cook for herself but now cannot, because of the dementia. I once spent part of one of those interminable meetings with Mum’s social workers, her Mental Health Team, her Care Agency Boss etc. – so many people to look after one old person – discussing her failure to eat regular meals. We were discussing random, margarine-smeared Ryvitas; midnight slices sawn off those interminable Tesco current cakes; the several thousand Activia yoghurts in the fridge, which she swears she rotates but doesn’t, any more than she looks both ways when she crosses the road. No – straight out there. Once more into the breach. Basically, she had a cupboard full of cake, cat food and yoghurt.
And then I went home and faced the truth. In spite of living only fifteen minutes’ drive from a farm shop, with a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables second to none, I had a fridge full of Activia yoghurt – not quite so many, perhaps – bread, butter, cheese, Economy Marmalade, Sandwich Spread, Peanut Butter and Marmite; a packet of softening Custard Creams in the cupboard, and a venerable bag of rice I couldn’t be bothered to boil since it would mean washing-up a saucepan – and flinging a succession of determined, fur-shedding cats from the cooker-top whilst using it. And after all that, only the usual baked bean/tinned curry/grated cheese slop to go with it.
Be honest, I said (sternly!) – you live on this now, don’t you? You know how to cook. On the rare occasions you have people staying with you, you actually do cook. You are perfectly capable of following a recipe. You could even now whip up a Sunday lunch (vegetarian version) preparing the vegetables, organising and timing everything so that it all comes together at exactly the right moment – just like Nan did. But what you do is sit in front of the TV set (often still in your nightie and dressing gown) glued to the Migrant Crisis or Brexit on the 24 hour News Channel, or some abstruse science programme about Black Holes, Event Horizons and the True Nature of Reality whilst slurping bowls of instant porridge or sugar-infested granola, with additional spoonfuls of granulated sugar on top, and occasionally – almost every time, in fact – dribbling the sugary milk down your chin/dressing gown.
So why wait? Why not just book yourself into the Old Folks Home tomorrow?