Of all the relationships I have had in my life, familial, romantic, relationships with friends, colleagues or acquaintances, one of the more intriguing ones has been my relationship with food. Now before you get excited, you may row any notions you may have that this is going in an inappropriate direction, right back in. While I am non-judgemental and to each his or her own as it were, we’ll steer clear of food fetish for the purpose of this discussion.
As a child growing up in a time and place that meant food was not as plentiful or varied as it is today, it was generally accepted in our house that you got what you were given and you should be lucky to have it. Of course there were ways and means around this which I’ll get to, but for the most part, there was less choice and treats were scarce on the ground.
I remember stealing (as I considered it then) sugar and making sugar sandwiches. That would be funny if it wasn’t so sad in hindsight. It was a furtive affair and while I can’t recall the earliest age at which I did this, I do know I needed to use a chair to climb onto our yellow, Formica-topped kitchen table, which I had to stand on to reach the cupboard or ‘press‘ as we called it, to get to the sugar bowl. I guess it was in the late sixties and I’d scurry away to eat my sweet treat in secret, sometimes to the ‘cloakroom’ which was essentially the dark space beneath the stairs where we hung our coats, hence the posh name. You’d swear we lived in a mansion – the cloakroom indeed!
Sweets were gold. What you couldn’t buy for a penny back then was luxury. Black-jacks helped me to remove more than one loose tooth I can tell you, albeit unintentionally. I rarely had any money so when I did have the odd tuppence, every ha’penny spent; had to be considered carefully. Chocolate was for when your aunties gave you money or for Easter when you got your eggs. In normal times it was all about quantity. As many items as you could afford and in that mix, choosing those that would last the longest, they were the things you had to balance. Toffees and gobstoppers lasted ages, so I either went for hard-boiled or chewy and cheap.
Of course once you had them there was a very important competition that you had to deal with and it is the thing we call, sibling rivalry. If you and your brother or sister had sweets, there is no understating the value of getting on up on them. If you could somehow have even a small quantity of your sweets left after they had eaten all of theirs’s, then by God did you thwart the bejaysus out of them.
“Have you eaten all of yours?” This was a question only to be asked when you were confident that they had finished off their stash and when you had some left. Only then did you produce the secret store that you had squirrelled away, so you could rub it in their face. Ah the joy of it. We all did it back then. You could slurp loud and long, fingering the remaining few precious sweets, tasting victory over your close family rival and it made your goodies taste even sweeter.
“MA! He’s lickin’ his fingers at me!” I kid you not, I’ve heard it said. “He’s makin’ faces MA!”
Being grassed up only meant that you’d gotten to them and the victory was complete. Of course sometimes you were on the wrong end of a thwart and that was the worst thing that could happen.
If sharing is caring then, not sharing too much was pragmatic. When you offered your bag of crisps to your friend or sibling, it was vital not to let them get a whole hand in to take a dirty big handful – and the feckers would! No, you would strategically shuffle a small quantity of crisps near the top of the bag and squeeze below that point, so they couldn’t take more than you wanted. Now there would usually be some challenge like, “I can’t get any” to trick you into widening the opening to the bag, but only the truly inexperienced sharers fell for that old chestnut.
School offered a whole new realm of Smart-Alec’s. I remember being asked for a crisp when I was about seven years old in the school yard. He was an older, bigger boy and I did the ‘holding the bag by the neck trick’ trick only to be outsmarted by the more streetwise older boy. Instead of trying to reach in, he spread his hands and smashed them together in a clap, with my bag in the centre. It burst and my crisps went all over the place. Again, it was a different time so there was no three second rule. We’d pick anything off the ground and eat it, so my crisps were malavogued in a flash by the descending hoard of his friends.
Ice pops, well “Gis a lick?” was easily defended by sliding the whole thing into your mouth to cover it with your saliva. They wouldn’t want to after that. Knocking it out of your hand was often the response to that one. Spite was a common tool of the loser as I recall.
In terms of actual grub, well like I mentioned it was eat what you’re given, but I was the baby of the house for seven years, so I suckered my mother into accepting a couple of exceptions just for me. Dinners were regimented to the day, so you always knew what was on the menu. We all had our favourites and treats when they came, were truly treats. Sometimes on a Sunday, my Mam would make fairy cakes with butterfly tops and a squidge of cream on top, with coloured sprinkles to finish it off. I can still smell them baking just thinking about it.
I loved Angel Delight and when I came across it again a couple of years ago in the local supermarket, nostalgia lured me to buy it and eat the whole pack, just to enjoy the memory. I’ve done that a few times over the years but it’s never quite the same. In fairness it is mostly cheap and nasty stuff I remember and it feels weird to think how special they were to us back then. Denny burgers, Dream Topping, Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies in a tin, it is mad how food memory affects us.
My mam used to make jam lattices just for me from the off-cuts of apple tarts and Joanna has made them specially for me, (along with other old treats I have told her about) just to see me smile at the memory.
As I hit my teens, money was a little more plentiful, and our treat options expanded along with the daily menu. Spaghetti Bolognese made its way onto the menu and while it seems hard to imagine anything less exotic, back then it was a whole new experience. I remember my first Chinese meal when I was fifteen. Sweet and sour chicken balls from a Chinese take-away in Thomas Street.
My first Pizza from Pizza land in O’Connell Street was like I had been transplanted to America. These things only existed on the telly up to that point! God be with the auld days eh? It seems almost impossible to imagine a world without pizza. Restaurant dining was not something I was used to as a kid. We never had the money. I’d go to the pub with my Da and uncles and drink coke while they drank Smithwicks or Bass and I’d have mustard on my ham sandwich because they did. Mustard made me feel grown up.
Mc Donald’s eventually arrived in Ireland, now they are all over the camp of course. Nothing was twenty four seven, on Sunday everywhere was closed and no one seemed to mind. From teenager to young adult, I discovered drink and as I looked about twelve until I was in my mid-twenties, getting served was always a challenge. Pubs closed for the ‘Holy Hour’ during the day and never opened late. Sunday closing was even earlier and if there was a bar extension for a party, it had to be applied for.
Then until now, I have always had a reasonably healthy relationship with food. Not too much of anything bad for me except the occasional splurge and I pretty much eat everything ,except I draw the line at Lychees. I mean come on! I like my veggies but I’m not a vegetarian, I’m less inclined towards desserts as I get older strangely enough and when it comes to alcohol, I lean towards a drop of red wine and then if I take more than a drop, I tend to lean back again.
That being said, my childhood experience with food has shaped me. In particular with regard to table manners and while I don’t care what fork someone uses, I tend to like a little decorum at the table. All of which brings me to something that was said to me recently in contradiction to this. Apparently I eat crisps like a serial killer! Well hey… no one’s perfect…
Haven’t read a Max Power book yet? I think it’s time to pick one up.
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