My mother was a cook, a charlatan, and a woman of no discernible principles when it came to her kids. Her unabashed lies were beyond our innocent comprehension back then. Only as the years rolled by have the true depths of her despicable talents become apparent.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should declare my bias up front because, as a Brit abroad, I enjoy the privilege of Californian hindsight. Furthermore, to misquote Gilbert and Sullivan, “a housewife’s lot is not a happy one,” and my mother, in particular, bore a heavier burden than most.
Picture the scene from yesteryear, approximately 1970, in darkest Europe. Some may quibble about whether or not England is or was in Europe, but take it from one who knows, it might as well have been the Dark Ages. Without adding to the many myths regarding the oxymoron of British cuisine, suffice it to say, pasta had never been seen on the island and spaghetti had yet to be imported.
To refresh our collective memories and enlighten those who were yet unborn, microwaves and convenience foods did not exist. Food lacked flavor and didn’t fare much better in the texture department, unless you include rock cakes. Supermarkets were emerging, but their shelves did not bulge with temptations. The milkman called daily, the fishmonger and baker weekly, and a horrid little man came every once in a while with an unappetizing selection of meat of dubious heritage closely related to horse.
Other merchants called infrequently. The coalman came once a year. He parked his lorry outside the house where he blocked the single-track road in both directions for an hour while he hauled sacks into the yard, trudged down two flights of stone steps, and dumped the coal into the coalhouse. Yes, I did say 1970s.
But back to food. Did I mention the grocer and the greengrocer, whose respective and differentiated services still cause confusion? They also arrived in their vans, one blue and the other white. They similarly blocked the road as they edged down our hillside road of tall, narrow, terraced houses. They brought their physical provisions and jovial banter when neither a check nor a credit card would seal the deal—cash only.
Hence, my mother’s ability to feed us should not be underestimated. She provided fresh, hot food for a family of five, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks of the year, year-on-year ad nauseam without encouragement. In return, she received an annual perfunctory thank you on Mother’s Day, if anyone remembered to remind us.
With that proviso in place, I should like to list of few of the many crimes my poor benighted mother committed before we reached the age of maturity. Then, and only then, when we had to cater for ourselves, did we begin to comprehend the full magnitude of creativity, imagination, and sheer perseverance of her culinary endeavors.
Her crimes may be divided into three broad, overlapping, and inconclusive categories: foreign, feral, or furry.
By foreign, I mean non-edible objects. Not just the obvious hardware, such as skewers conducting heat into the heart of a baked potato, or the charm hidden in a Twelfth Night galette, or the silver sixpences buried in a Christmas pudding, but other seemingly innocuous items, such as string in its many and various guises. Not only the twine tied around the bouquet garni, which unraveled, but also the string netting designed to secure a rolled roast, to say nothing of the sutures closing the wounds on stuffed beef hearts. Note: these were especially prevalent during periods of rampant economic inflation, when every kind of offal became so much more attractive to the penny-shrinking budget.
What about the conglomeration of foreign substances manufactured to aid the cook? Rogue strips of aluminum foil gummed to the bottom of pies, cakes, and pastries. Ditto for plastic wrap and wax paper.
Less artificial, but every bit as unwelcome, were the other realms of detritus that marred the eating experience: grit in the mint sauce after gathering fresh herbs from the garden. My chore. Also, the occasional aphid. No amount of washing seemed to eliminate the wildlife’s determination to live. Everything from slugs, snails, and caterpillars, to spiders, ladybirds and, worst by far, the green shield bugs armored by their lurid casings. They all came along for a free ride in the lettuces, tomatoes, and salad fixings. Luckily, summers were short-lived in England. The rest of the year brought us far more fascinating challenges.
The feral category is not for the faint-hearted, nor the gastronomically challenged. Here, we find a veritable stockpot of rogues and cheats. How could it be fair to offer orange juice to offspring, reconstituted with too much water? Even if one overlooked the snobbery issue, the resulting diluted orange-colored flotsam fibered water did nothing to boost our morale or vitamin C intake.
No doubt Mother believed any shortfall would be more than compensated by the quantity of pips (lemon) and peel (orange) littered around the rest of her cookery triumphs. Certainly, we never had issues with roughage, due to an abundance of twigs and hard herbal leaves, to say nothing of those toothpicks of rosemary liberally festooned upon any savory dish. I expect the speckles and shards of eggshells served the same purpose, cunningly scattered in soft-crumbed aromatic cakes to deceive the unwary. Unlike the cakes’ more obvious and noticeable dangers, the silver baubles decorating the surface were designed to crack your teeth and alert your fillings to an imminent appointment with the dentist. Molar cracking whole spices belong here too, not to be confused with their less lethal cousins, the leathery or sometimes brittle-dry bay leaves—also a choking hazard.
Many of the latter matters were due to the Cordon bleu craze that hit the UK shores at about the same time as household budgets shrank like chestnuts forgotten in the oven. How did those leathery, yet brittle husks manage to cling to the chestnut meat with such tenacity?
Talking of cheats in those cash-strapped times, I believe I can forgive a whole host of petty misdemeanors collectively classed as “meal padding,” as opposed to food adulteration. Here, the cook stretched a pound of ground beef to feed eight by adding lentils, oats, or breadcrumbs in disproportionate quantities. Food fraud is not only a modern phenomenon by the multinational corporations. Generations of cooks have acted similarly, but for far less profit.
Cruelty of that order, fodder masquerading as food, took a further ironic twist in the form of cooking chocolate, a curse to every child with its promise of delight and its bitter-dark betrayal.
I’m reluctant to mention fish bones at this juncture, as they swim between the foreign and the feral groupings, but where should I put hair, other than in the dinner? A single strand of hair is unforgivable, but is it worse than a clump of fur? And while we’re on the subject of the follically oppressed, I remember that ceramic jar of drippings by the stovetop. There, layers of collected lard were interspersed with accumulated detritus, flecks of black and brown unidentifiable particles, with the odd cat hair gummed to the rim. Was that indentation on the surface a furtive feline lick? Cats like bacon too.
With a warning to vegetarians, all of whom were suspect back then, I turn to the rogues of cartilage, gristle, and bone fragments lurking in the murky depths of casseroles, which should, in many ways, have a category all to themselves. How many limp vegetables were revived and given a second chance at existence, only to sink and drown in elaborate sauces designed to disguise their baggage? Why couldn’t they rest in peace in the compost heap? So much of the true horror of casseroles occurred seconds before serving. Then, the fat globules and neon-orange oil slicks were swiftly stirred and emulsified from view. Why orange? What animal, when alive, could survive with that coloring?
A substratum to the feral category covers some of my personal quirks. Technically, they are edible, but as we Americans would say, less preferred. Exhibit one: the thick rubbery skins on milk puddings. Exhibit two: the burnt bits contaminating an entire dish with their pungent pervasiveness. Exhibit three: nuts. Nuts in general, as opposed to those pesky peanut legumes, were fraught with friction, especially almonds. They dominated the festive season when homemade marzipan was a must. Why did they fail to crush in a uniform manner? Why would such a busy woman attempt such a feat by hand without the assistance of any domestic appliance? Her grinding success produced an almond paste with a stick-to-the-roof-of-the-mouth factor to rival Super Glue, but I refuse to remain cemented to the past.
Lastly, I arrive at the furry bracket of food, probably the most heinous and deserving of capital punishment. Here, food adultery doesn’t come close, although dubious husbandry does. Where does fur belong in a kitchen? I can tell you where it was in ours: on beans, canned or fresh. Fur—or more accurately mold—grew in abundance and crawled over the surfaces of cheeses. Jams and jellies were bedecked by creeping penicillin and nobody dared mention their contamination for fear of the consequences. My mother, in response, would wield a spoon or knife to remove the majority of the offense, saying, “A little bit of fur never hurt anybody.” My body rebelled.
Somehow, those offenders are far greater than the petrified grapes at the bottom of the fruit bowl or the mummified carrots at the back of the veg box.
Did you know that furriness can take liquid form? Not the juice from an overripe fruit or the syrup from a past-its-best strawberry, but the suppurating leakage and oozing slime from putrid mushrooms. Was I the only one who gagged at flotillas of curdled milk in lakes of addled whey in the days before sourdough bread became common in England? Which brings me to another conundrum. Why soak rancid meat in a bath of milk? Was that punishment for the milk or the meat? What possible purpose could it serve? Would it wash away the toxins or baptize the bacteria?
Without dwelling upon the capital crimes, there were other assaults upon the senses, all of them, taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight, often simultaneously. Like the times when the pressure cooker’s warning siren was ignored, and the occasions when the weights shot away and pockmarked the ceiling. Those memories remained long after the trauma had dissipated. The sound of the kettle whistling throughout the whole house, wailing for attention, waning gradually until only the stifled pops told of remaining condensation bouncing around the interior, seeking solace. The auditory torment from scraping slices of toast, free from a crisp coating of charred crumbs. Prior to the invention of extractor fans, the doors would be thrown wide and black smoke swept out by the armful and apron-flap-full, waves of throat-clogging noxious fumes billowed from the basement.
Who could forget the clothes rack, the misnamed “airer,” hoisted to the ceiling above the kitchen table? There, socks, towels, and underwear slowly dried and stiffened, while they absorbed several days worth of cooking smells and the physical spatterings from a wayward whisk. How to obliterate the horrific textures and smells, or the abhorrent sight of a raw cow’s tongue, complete with glands and tendons, gray-skinned and flaccid, lolling on the kitchen counter?
Now I’m pushing sixty myself, I find my mother has corrupted my thinking when it comes to my own children who are picky and particular and have far too many food fads. I suspect children are more vulnerable to the less familiar and the harrowing scenes of carnage in the average kitchen. This is especially true when I take account of the vagaries of the weather and the lack of reliable refrigeration in years gone by.
Additionally, children are better in every conceivable way than their middle-aged, harried, poorly sighted parents. Children’s sensory systems are fresh and new and in fully working order. Furthermore, and perhaps because of their heightened awareness, they prefer the bland. Their taste buds don’t wish to be excited, teased, and tickled. They crave predictability, devoid of nasty surprises. They know what they like and have no intention of tasting anything outside their comfort zone, and who can blame them?
In the current climate of food waste, obesity coupled with malnutrition, abundance dogged by a scarcity of nutrition, I wonder how I have the audacity to criticize my mother? So saying, am I doing any better myself? Here in California, I fight on a different battlefield, one with pantry moths, armies of marauding ants, and legions of confused flour beetles—yes, that’s what they’re called. Are my children better off on their controlled diet of organic quinoa, humanely raised tofu, and free-range kumquats? Only time will tell.
All too soon, my children will put me in a home for retired gentlefolk, where my body, mind, and taste buds will wither. Together with other discarded parents, I’ll confess my attempts at American barbecuing and of the many terminal cremations I have committed. I live with the hope that I’ll still have the stamina to make my favorite pâté and beetroot sandwiches or fig jam and feta ciabattas. And, if all else fails, at least I have the satisfaction of thanking my mother for my peculiar and idiosyncratic palate.
About the Author
Madeline McEwen is an ex-pat from the UK, bi-focaled and technically challenged. She and her Significant Other manage their four offspring, one major and three minors, two autistic, two neurotypical, plus a time-share with Alzheimer’s. Website: madelinemcewen.com.