The chill is settling in… hot chocolate is on the menu, and it makes me wince. The power of the memory I associate with it is just too unpleasant. Suddenly I’m back in my seat at a long table in the primary school canteen. I take a sip from a plastic cup of hot chocolate, but there is a skin on it. It attaches itself to my upper lip and stays there. As I recoil, it hangs down over my chin. I’m covered in hot goo and embarrassment. This can never be allowed to happen again.
Food has a powerful ability to bring back memories, and when conversation flags, people often turn to reminiscences about foods from their childhoods. Butterscotch flavoured instant whip seems to have been a widespread favourite – but what memories are attached to it? I remember my beautiful aunty Audrey, in a black sweater with her fabulous auburn hair in a beehive. She had an excitingly modern electric whisk, and would lift me up while I used it to make instant whip – always butterscotch or chocolate mint. It also brings back the sadness and guilt I felt when I grabbed for her long amber necklace and broke it, sending the pretty beads bouncing over the floor.
Even the most mundane foods have memories attached. As a challenge, I thought of biscuits, and remembered my mum's homemade fudgies (secret ingredient - Camp Coffee), and an American volcanologist who ate them by the score. And I remembered my very earliest days at infant school, when we used to bring snacks in little greaseproof paper bags. Sweetly, we all wanted to share the things we brought, but it wasn’t easy - one digestive biscuit between six or eight little kids doesn’t go. Our solution was to put everything that everybody had brought into one bag and crush it all into a delicious sweet and salty mix of biscuit and crisp crumbs. It was easy to share and fun to eat. I can taste it now.
Think of a person from your past - maybe a grandparent. What food springs to mind? For my husband, the memories were instantaneous – his grandmas were bread sauce and Battenburg. For me, Didcot nana is forever associated with the deliciously naughty sugar sandwiches she used to make for me - thin white bread, thickly spread with salty butter and sandwiched with a generous sprinkling of crunchy white granulated sugar. I knew she loved me. My earliest forays into the world of cookery took place when she invited me into her kitchen to 'make a mix'. I'd be helped onto a high stool or allowed to sit on the kitchen worktop from where I could reach to rummage in her cupboards. I'd find gravy browning, custard powder, cornflour, cocoa, perhaps a tiny bottle of peppermint essence or food colouring, and with great seriousness I would spoon these ingredients into her mixing bowl, add water and stir with a great big wooden spoon. Then I'd take it into the room where granddad was sitting beside the fire, and he would pretend to eat it. I loved it.
Drayton nana is associated with Sunday dinner, and two-way Family Favourites on the radio, with crackly voices wishing each other well from far flung army and navy outposts. Later, Club biscuits (plain, orange or mint - never the horrible ones with the currants) and the wrestling or Golden Shot on the television. My brother and I would dare each other to take her extra strong mints - she teased us with them, offering them when she knew we would have to spit them out.
If you remember eating with a person, chances are you’ll remember the food. Memories of old boyfriends include watching Chas demolish a pile of whitebait (so heartless!), Mark skimming the evil-smelling scum off a pot of mince in his mother’s chilly kitchen, and Dez’s soppy grin as he tucked in to one of his trademark doorstop watercress sandwiches. The woman who broke up my parents’ marriage responded to my vegetarianism by boiling up some carrots, and demonstrated her sense of culinary adventure by throwing in a bay leaf. Bay leaves make me gag.