I wrote the first draft of this piece in the memoir writing taster course which I held on Thursday 23rd May at the Quaker Meeting House, Sheffield. It was a privilege to meet the amazing ladies who participated and the writing exercises definitely helped people (including me) to delve into their most precious memories. The course has also enabled me to build links with bereavement charity Your Good Mourning, which has a shop here in Walkley, Sheffield.
There’s still room on the second “Open Your Memory Box” taster course, on Thursday 30th May, from 1-4pm at the Quaker Meeting House. Email me at email@example.com or call 07815966874 for more details!
Psychedelic cows and proper chips
My mum wouldn’t allow fancy biscuits in the house. Just plain digestives, to be nibbled with a glass of milk in the evening or spread with margarine and jam for a special treat. Mum knew that any other kind of biscuit would get instantly demolished by my dad – and me, given half a chance. She wasn’t mean – mum was constantly cooking and baking, but as a 1970s wholefood enthusiast, mum distrusted foods that were ready made. This was long before it was fashionable to make your own cakes, smoothies and pizzas. When I went round to other people’s houses for tea, I was invariably served the standard kids’ diet of the time – rubbery burgers, instant mash, baked beans and fish fingers. Mum’s cooking was always delicious and cooked from scratch, unless we were camping and got to have stewing steak in cans, tinned green beans and canned carrots – my favourite! Mum took cookery classes and learned to cook vegetarian meals, exotic curries and stir-fries and was well ahead of the times in terms of food, encouraging me to help out in the kitchen.
In a memory probably shared with lots of people from my generation with slightly alternative parents, I remember helping mum to drag big bags of lentils and kidney beans back from the wholefood cooperative in Kendal in a tartan shopping trolley.
When I went to visit my maternal grandparents, I had the opportunity to gorge myself on sweets, chocolate and slabs of jaw-breaking toffee that my Gardan (our family name for Grandad!) broke up with a hammer in the kitchen. Visiting Nanny and Gardan in Nottingham was always an occasion for a feast. Nanny was also a great cook and her baking was feather-light, even her rock-cakes. Their house was always warm and comfortable; a place where you could curl up on the sofa next to the cat, with the comforting smell of pipe tobacco and freshly cooked chips. The chips were cut by hand and cooked in a proper chip pan to perfect crispness – something else we weren’t allowed at home – we were only allowed oven chips. Nanny and Gardan both grew up in slum conditions in the 1920s; in large families where TB was rife and the kids had no shoes. But together, they were determined to give their own children the best possible chances in life, encouraging reading and learning. A big part of the comfort they provided came from food. Gardan’s vegetable patch in the back garden yielded potatoes, Brussells sprouts and in August, a seemingly unending supply of plump, juicy blackberries for pies and crumbles.
The cooking was very traditional – garlic was “foreign muck”, even though they eventually ventured on holiday to France and Spain. At Nanny and Gardan’s, I was allowed to eat white bread, delicious with melted butter, dipped in the bright yellow yolk of a boiled egg.
The year after Nanny died, I went to university in Sheffield. Gardan gave me plates, cutlery and various kitchen appliances to take with me. I loved the steak plates (although I was a vegetarian by this stage) with psychedelic cows on them and the floral tea plates. It was like taking a piece of that comforting home with me as I embarked on my new, independent life. Eighteen years later, a few of these items have survived, but they are dwindling. I was gutted to chip one of the floral plates the other day. The ancient Moulinex whisk valiantly mixed my first Christmas cake two years ago, then died in a puff of acrid smoke, just as I was lining the tin. Gardan died in 2001, so these everyday objects and a few other items, are all I have to remind me of my wonderful grandparents. At least I can conjure them up with memories and words.