We all have to eat things we don’t want to, sometimes.
I used not to believe this was true. As a six year-old I got into trouble for not eating my tapioca pudding in the school canteen. Tapioca pudding, through a six year-old’s eyes looks like very small white slugs floating in a sea of sick. It had a dollop of strawberry jam on the top. Strawberry jam, through a six year old’s eyes, looks like the damage to somebody’s knee when they have just fallen over in a pile of broken glass. Tapioca smells like it looks – like sick. Strawberry jam smells like something that might exude from the glass beaker of a mad scientist. I didn’t refuse to eat it, I simply couldn’t persuade the spoon to go anywhere near my mouth.
The big white-coated Dinner Ladies stood on either side of the pig bowl, monstrous sentinels. One of the other kids had shown me how to conceal disgusting food under your upturned spoon and fork, but there was too much this time. A whole bowlful of tapioca: it couldn’t be concealed.
“You will return to your place at table until you have eaten it all up,” commanded the teacher on duty. So I returned to my place and sat there as the canteen emptied. There, with my plate of slug-tapioca and torn-flesh-jam, and my green plastic cup of water, I sat and waited, on a tiny wooden chair in a cabbage-smelling canteen. After five or ten minutes a normal infant would have been suffering agonies of boredom; they would have been missing their classmates; feeling left out, left behind, deprived of whatever might be going on in class. After a while I must have tuned out. That’s what they don’t understand, you see – that we absent ourselves. Tuning out is what happens. We don’t have to decide.
At first I was thinking, at least I’m alone-ish in here. This is a different turn of events. I am somewhere I wouldn’t normally be at two… and then three… and then half past three… on a summer’s afternoon. It is not unpleasant. The sun is yellow and quite warm, streaming through the open door. After that, I don’t know where I was – some faraway purple planet with pink dragons and two moons, or making daisy-chains on Nan’s lawn with Sally, the fat Labrador. The teacher had to stay and stare at the congealed tapioca pudding with me, which probably hadn’t been part of her plan.
However, I have now grown up and have finally learned my lesson. Sometimes, you do have to eat the prune yoghurt. I used to put a large teaspoon on honey in it, but now I’ve had to give up sugar, honey, chocolate etc. in an effort to reduce the headaches. In any case, honey doesn’t make prune yoghurt taste any less uniquely prune-like. The two tastes turn their backs, stick their noses in the air and refuse to speak to one another.
It’s all down to money, of course. I’ve never been one to waste food – was never one of those people who bought a stack of ready-meals from the chill cabinet and threw half of them away at the end of the week because they’d gone past their sell-by date. But now it’s a matter of eating one’s way through the fridge/store-cupboard or going hungry. I’ve learned the art of combining things that never in their wildest dreams, as they huddled on my store-cupboard shelves, expected to be combined.
Have you tried boiled pasta, boiled rice, grated cheese and a sprinkle of mixed herbs? I haven’t yet, either, but it’s on the horizon.
Have you tried mushy-pea and mashed-potato omelette? That’s not bad, actually. Funny colour.
Vegetable curry and baked beans on toast, with half a tomato? Toast is a good way to use up stale bread, but after a while even the toast gets too tough. Then the birds get their share.
Another way of dealing with it is to free your mind – sounds hippie-ish – free your mind, brothers and sisters, of the concept of a meal. You do not need to have meat/fish/protein of some sort plus two veg. You do not need to have savoury first and sweet afterwards. You can have a bowl of cereal plus half a tin of mandarin oranges, a slightly soft digestive biscuit, three cream-crackers, a small lump of cheese and a slice or two of cucumber in any order you like – your stomach won’t know the difference. In a pinch you can be a strict vegetarian and still eat the cats’ tuna in a sandwich – eat first, agonise about it afterwards. Fighting the cats off is another matter.
Free your mind, brothers and sisters, of the concept of mealtimes – of breakfast, lunch and dinner, or – if like me your place is firmly below the salt – breakfast, dinner and tea. It’s just as easy to graze, as you would have done if you’d lived in the Stone Age.
When I see what some people have to survive on I know I’m fortunate. I have an eccentric, erratic diet but not necessarily an unhealthy one. I rarely cook, which is just as well as the wiring to the cooker’s gone weird. I microwave. I eat raw. I eat whatever I can glean from the village shop, mostly in tins. It varies from week to week since the shop’s there for the benefit of the holidaymakers at the caravan sites rather than the private citizen. When I’ve gone through all the other flavours I hold my nose and eat the prune yoghurt. Prune yoghurt is probably good for me.
I see pictures of children drinking water from filthy streams. I see people fighting over a handful of rice, or living on leaves and grass.
I have no reason to complain.