Yesterday, I flew to Miami on American Airlines. Weirdly, I’ve always rather enjoyed aeroplane food. I mean, it’s obviously revolting, but there’s something about the little trays and wrapped butter that can only engender excitement: they all add up to the sum of my going somewhere far away, towards new places, people and memories, both formed and triggered. As I was being treated – and thank you very much AA – to a Business Class flight, the food was plentiful. For my pudding I was served a giant round ball of ice-cream, swimming in butterscotch sauce, topped with whipped cream and chopped nuts. I haven’t had butterscotch sauce for years, not since my mum made it and I last ate so much of it that it put me off until now, what must be some 25 years later.
My relationship with food now is on the whole a fairly balanced one, I like to think. Balanced, that is, relative to being a woman and, furthermore, one who is occasionally on public view. Every now and again I’ll lose weight through some faddish thing, the Dukan diet or an Ayurvedic detox, then keep an eye on things, then take the eye right off the ball until a look at the scales sends me back to Googling ‘lose a stone in a fortnight’. But my shape never changes hugely and I live, as most do, wishing I was about half a stone lighter, took a bit more exercise and had a free pass to a salon so that I never had to wash my own hair.
I think my generation – 70s kids – was probably the last to enjoy a childhood where food was nothing but simple pleasures. The 70s hit that magic period before paranoia set in about toxins and weight: E-numbers (the blight of my sister’s childhood; she was an 80s baby), organic hype, local food, Jamie’s chickens, corn syrup, Gywneth Paltrow… the myriad of edible elements we worry about on a daily basis in 2013. Pre-1970s food wasn’t so great either: children ate what they were given and what they were given was largely over-boiled vegetables and suet puddings. My mother, born in 1949, remembered the intoxicating arrival of spaghetti, muesli and yoghurt. My father’s favourite food is mushy peas, because it was something digestible that he was served at school.
Food fads and diets, of course, are nothing new. My grandmother swore by half a grapefruit every morning as a magical solution to burning off calories eaten later. She used to tell me of Parisian models in the 1950s fed pills by their agencies – one left her pills on the mantelpiece, only to find tapeworms crawling out of them a few days later. Physical exercise was considered extremely important to many women born in the 1920s and 1930s, with many doing quick daily routines when they got up in the morning. At the turn of the last century, corsets might have helped with creating an ultra-flat stomach but they were a cruel reminder of any second helpings. You would be laced into your corset by a helper the first time and that shape would be retained so that you could hook yourself in thereafter: it would be very uncomfortable to wear if you got any bigger and if you didn’t have a lady’s maid to hand to let it out a bit, you’d be constrained all day.
So. Back to the butterscotch sauce. Hot and sweet. Too much of it on my ice-cream, with a small cup on the side of an extra helping. This was my mother’s treat on a Wednesday night. Actually, on any night. Every supper had puddings with names as sickly as their high-sugar content: Angel’s Delight, Viennetta ice-cream, Spotted Dick, Bread & Butter pudding, Apple Brown Betty, rhubarb crumble, mashed banana with brown sugar and cream, custard on anything or on its own. Never a yoghurt, not even a fruity one, let alone plain and unsweetened, or slices of fruit or even a cracker and cheese. But strawberry jelly, Arctic Roll, Neapolitan ice-cream, pancakes with lemon and white caster sugar. Each pudding came one shade or three of the artificially enhanced rainbow. Glutinous lashings of fructose syrup on the tinned peaches filled each mouthful, expanding within, coating my tongue in its clingy texture, each tooth wrapped and shiny from chowing down nightly on mouthfuls of sucrose. Despite faithfully brushing my teeth twice a day, I had five fillings and two gold teeth by the time I was 13 years old. (To put this in perspective, my nearly-15-year-old stepson has no fillings and is yet to lose all his milk teeth.) “No need for braces,” my dentist would smile brightly. “Your teeth are perfectly straight.” That was considered a win.
I think puddings, for my mother, were a sign of love. Not that love wasn’t lavished on us daily, in a thousand different ways, but because every night she had the power to bestow a treat, and this pleased her. To not give a treat would not have been seen as, say, levelling out the balance so that it could be a treat by the terms of its definition (something warmly appreciated thanks to its occasional appearance) – no, to not give a treat would be to be strict, or boring, or following a discipline of denial. Moderation, when it came to love, was not my mother’s line.
Which was not to say that she was greedy. I mean, she dieted. She was usually a little heavier than she’d like to be but she knew that she only had to stop the treats and she’d be fine. She was funny, very beautiful and glamorous – I don’t think anyone except her noticed the little extra on her hips. Sometimes there would be a brief enthusiasm for the latest fad – callisthenics (which appealed at first because it was based on doing only tiny movements; it soon wore off because you had to do hundreds of them); Rosemary Conley’s Hip & Thigh Diet; some strange green powdered drink sent over from the US; the pineapple diet, in which you ate nothing but pineapples and the weight fell off but your mouth felt blistered and sore.
When not on the diet – and even when she was on one, she still gave me the same food – we had our usual repertoire. Frosties for breakfast, then toast thickly spread with butter and marmalade. School lunch (mint-green custard has always stuck in my mind). Home from school, I’d be rewarded for my toil and strife with crumpets spread with Golden Syrup, toast and marmite, French Fancies and ginger nut biscuits. Supper was more or less on rotation and almost everything was some sort of meat with mashed potatoes: Shepherd’s Pie, Corned Beef Hash, Barbecued Spare Ribs, Fray Bentos pies, lamb chops…followed, (un)naturally enough, by pudding. The only change was on Friday nights, which always meant fish, but not fish so that you could actually recognise it. Smoked haddock or squares of cod would be disguised in fish cakes, kedgeree or a quirky fish pie which was topped with crisps and grated cheese. Most things got slightly burnt: “Charcoal is very good for cleaning out the insides,” she’d say. I still like burnt toast. Before bed we’d have a mug of hot Ovaltine. The arrival of the microwave was enthusiastically welcomed.
Recalling it all now, I wonder that she didn’t just pour me three bowls of sugar a day and be done with it.
Weirdly, however, right alongside all this was a new health consciousness. My mother had Multiple Sclerosis and diet was supposed to help her. This took us to the new and rare health food shops where every single packet appeared to contain sawdust and often tasted just as exciting.
Each morning, the whole family had to ingest several enormous vitamin pills – why were they so BIG in those days? – that came out of sweet-jar sized dark brown bottles. Mum was vegetarian for a few years, off and on, in the 1970s. It was a hard time not to eat meat – you certainly couldn’t maintain it if you went to anyone else’s house for dinner (“If I chop up the bacon very small,” said her mother-in-law, “could you still have the salad?”) and you’d have to invent a meat-free option on a restaurant menu as it wouldn’t be specially put on there. At home we ate a lot of recipes from Crank’s (the only vegetarian restaurant in existence), the basis of each dish being either pasta, potatoes or lentils, except on high days and holidays when you’d have all three at once. Everything would be covered in white sauce. Nut roast for Sunday lunch became rather a favourite. Samosas were my reward for helping in the supermarket and I remember becoming very fond of Sesame Snap bars and carob chocolate. Even now, I prefer brown rice and wholemeal bread…so long as it’s followed by cheap vanilla ice-cream.
I only remember it all as being very tasty. Others thought so too, as my mother apparently had a reputation amongst her friends as being something of a cook, albeit one who had never so much as clapped eyes on a bottle of olive oil. If you were invited to a dinner party more than once you knew, with what she presumably hoped was reassuring familiarity, what you would be served. G&Ts on arrival, with Bombay Mix and Twiglets handed out by me. (Waitressing duties over, a thrilling glimpse of the guests having been caught, I’d be sent to bed.) Smoked mackerel pate to start (fish mashed with cream cheese); cheese souffle with salad followed by a pudding from her favourite recipe book, ‘Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone To So Much Trouble’, which consisted entirely of dishes which were a cheat of some sort, usually involving tinned salmon. The dinner party pud was Greek yoghurt into which spoonfuls of lemon curd had been stirred, then garnished with slices of kiwi. There would be masses of wine, from a box (I liked to blow up the silver bags the next day, for use as stylish cushions, so long as the tap was kept hidden underneath) and smoking throughout. There’d be a joint with the coffee.
Despite all this, or maybe because of it, I was a slim child, rarely ill once I’d grown out of the childhood illness phase. It wasn’t what we’d do today, but it was just fine then. Without coming over all Louisa May Alcock, every morsel was served with love. And that kept us happy and healthy. I’ll take that over Agave Syrup any day.