(Cover from my mum's cookery book - the one she could never find the ingredients to use.)
My mother was a very good cook, so I knew the taste of well prepared meals and school dinners did not compare well to the food I was served at home. School dinners were awful. All the food was cooked in Stockport, a town about five miles away, and transported in the large, lidded metal trays from which it was served. We stood in line with our plastic plates and watched the ladies in the kitchen lift the covers from the steaming food. As each lid was lifted condensation dripped into the cabbage/mashed potato/steamed pudding - whatever was inside. A few items, such as lumpy custard and gravy, were cooked on the premises but that did nothing to improve the quality. I understand now that it was a valiant effort to ensure at least basic nutrition for all the nation’s schoolchildren. My parents were only asked to pay five shillings a week (25p). But the food was truly dreadful.
From the time I started school until the time I left, school dinners were an inescapable blot on daily life. Bringing a packed lunch to school was simply not an option. We either stayed for a school dinner or we went home for lunch. Our canteen, regularly used as a classroom, was a large, white-painted wartime relic. There were rows of pegs to hang up coats on either side of the door but the rest of the room was filled with long plastic-topped wooden tables which were used either for our food or our work. Old wooden bench seats matched the length of the tables. The school had tried to cheer the benches up a little by painting them bright colours, but they were old and neither comfortable nor steady. They swayed with every movement. Sitting alongside other children who rocked or fidgeted played havoc with my writing in lessons or slopped the water in my plastic cup at lunch. If my class happened to be there for a lesson just after lunchtime the canteen ladies would still be clearing away, clattering, laughing and banging as they went. Sometimes they would forget that we could hear them through the serving hatches and start singing together which was quite funny. Our teachers tried hard to make the canteen look like a classroom. The posters they put on the walls were from companies like BP showing ‘British songbirds’ or ‘What to look for at the British seaside’ but it was a draughty building (the door rattled constantly on windy days) and the whole space was permanently infused with the scent of over-boiled potatoes, carrots and onions with an underlying hint of wet floor mop.
There was also the problem of the dinner ladies who monitored the whole eating process. They stood at the serving hatches as we queued up with our plates to ensure, despite protests, that all children sat down with everything on offer on their plate. (Luckily, refusing lumpy custard was one of the few choices considered acceptable by the dinner ladies.) We were never deemed to have finished without having our plates inspected and leaving food resulted in sometimes being made to ‘sit there until you've eaten it’. I can remember being reduced to tears on odd occasions. I just loathed the taste and texture of the boiled beetroot cubes that had been put on my plate. As an adult I can understand the dinner ladies’ frustration. They had so recently been through six years of warfare when they were desperate for anything to eat, and in some families, like my own, the years of deprivation stretched back much further.
My parents rarely had enough to eat when they were children. They both grew up during The Great Depression of the 1930s. My mother was one of four children. For her family, life was a daily experience of hunger and want. Her father was a nurseryman and there was very little gardening work for him in the industrial north-west and those who did not work had no means of feeding their families. When they were hungry, my mother and her siblings would be told to say a prayer; the family often relied on the Little sisters of Charity to bring them something to eat. My father was one of three children brought up in the same town. Their father had been killed in a terrible industrial accident when my father was four, leaving their mother with only a tiny widow’s pension to feed them. I had been told that my parents were poor when they were young, but when you are small, the world you know is the world that everyone knows. The days when, as a toddler, I gobbled down my share of our tiny bacon ration, pointed to the food on my father’s plate and said ‘More!’ had ended. The shops were filled with food and so the abundance that I experienced was taken very much for granted.
My mother may have been an excellent cook but there was little question of trying exotic food in my family. My mother loved all things French – especially the food, or rather the idea of French food because despite owning a cookery book called ‘Plats du Jour’ most of the ingredients listed in the recipes were unavailable locally. So our regular meals consisted of meat (roast, grilled, boiled, casseroled), potatoes (in some form) and another seasonal vegetable. In summer that was usually peas, which I loved because I could help shell them and they were sweet enough to eat raw. My favourite dinner was lamb chops which were not only very tasty but had the added bonus of permission to pick up the chop bone and gnaw away to get the last little bit of flavour. It was probably just as well that my mother couldn’t use her cook book. My father harboured an extreme mistrust of foreign food. When he went abroad on business, despite staying in very comfortable hotels, his meals would consist of tins of corned beef he had carried in his briefcase, and bread he bought fresh from local shops which he would combine into sandwiches.
We did very occasionally eat fish – something that had a heavy mustardy colour and an even stronger smell; I grew up thinking its name was ‘smokefinandaddy’ and I’m still not sure of its correct title. It had a strong salty taste and I didn’t care for it at all. Kippers had a nice flavour, but I seemed to spend most of the time extracting its unpleasantly wispy little bones from my mouth. Our local fishmonger was a good place for children to visit. The owner gave children Terry's chocolate Neapolitans! But it was quite a walk away in Cheadle Hulme village so I wasn’t often greeted by heart-sinkingly fishy aromas as I climbed the stairs to our flat. Potted shrimps were something I met for the first time on a family visit to Manchester's Old Shambles’ pub – I don’t know if it’s still standing now. It had tiny low-ceilinged rooms with uneven, randomly sloping wooden floors. I remember the surprise of finding a fishy treat which tasted lovely but did not have to be carefully dissected to remove slithery skin or clingy bones. Unfortunate experiences with cooked fresh fish were probably why fish fingers were such a favourite with my generation.
We never ate salad at home, but summertime family visiting carried the risk of being presented with the hateful stuff. Salad was served ready plated and always consisted of the same arrangement; a few leaves of lettuce, a slice of boiled ham or tongue (occasionally corned beef), sliced tomato, maybe cucumber and some sliced boiled egg. Radishes were sometimes included but they were treacherous and to be avoided. They were bullet hard and an over enthusiastic attempt to spear one with a fork could all too easily flip it half way across a clean tablecloth leaving a dribble of creamy dressing in its wake. Salad was all so watery and tasteless, the only way it could be rendered palatable was with a great deal of salad cream and bread and butter.
The only kind of lettuce readily available then is sold now as ‘round lettuce’. Compared to Iceberg and other crispy varieties widely available today it was limp and chewy. Sliced boiled ham was salty and fatty but cutting out the meat and leaving the slimy white fat brought sharp comments, particularly from grandmothers. They regarded the fat as the most nourishing part of the meat. Tongue was vile. There is no other way to describe the end product of buying a large animal’s tongue, boiling, pressing and slicing it. I know the exact method because I watched Gran (my mother’s mother) do just that. The process smelt truly terrible but nowhere near as dreadful as my other grandmother’s favourite dish. Nana loved boiled tripe and onions. Even before I found out that tripe came from the lining of a cow’s stomach I could never have eaten anything that smelt so awful. I suspect that a lot of Nana’s diet was determined by her lack of teeth. For breakfast she would eat a slice of fruit cake with butter or cheese and at lunchtime she would often join me in a bowl of Heinz vegetable soup with bread and butter. I never saw her eat toast or apples or anything remotely crunchy and Rich Tea or ginger biscuits were always softened by dunking in a cup of tea.
When I was little I was convinced that I really didn’t like cheese. I had no idea that cheese came in different varieties; that some were mild and creamy and that there were others which would be lovely toasted. The only cheese we ever bought was what my dad called ‘mousetrap cheese’ and nowadays it would be described as extra strong mature cheddar. It was brutal. It was years before I discovered Brie or knew that cheddar came in milder varieties. I didn’t much care for cream either except as a filling for meringues, which I loved, but they were a rare treat. Evaporated milk was the usual topping for desserts like the tinned fruit we enjoyed with Sunday tea when relatives visited.
A lot of my other favourite childhood foods came in tins: Heinz spaghetti (available in two flavours - red and brown, both of which were delicious on toast), Heinz vegetable soup eaten with bread and butter (dipped in slowly so that the butter melted), sliced cling peaches (in syrup), garden peas, when the fresh peas weren’t available (more lovely sugar) Almost best of all, Tate and Lyle’s golden syrup (I swear, the design on that tin is the same now as when I was five). Top favourite – Nestles condensed milk – preferably eaten from the tin with a spoon.
The most requested treat when my friends came to our flat after school was fish fingers. Lack of a freezer meant these had to be eaten on the day they were bought. They came in a pack of six - just enough for two small children. With tinned garden peas, home-made chips and lots of ketchup this was bliss. It might all be followed up by some honeybun from Dickens, the bakers just down the road. Honeybun was a circle of sweet dough marked into quarters with honey poured into the centre whilst it was still warm from the oven. Dickens bakery offered the best cakes and pastries. Like Giddings, everything was handmade and baked in the ovens at the back of the shop. In my teenage years I was such a good customer that the Dickens ladies would sell me a bag of broken cakes and pastries from the day’s stock for next to nothing.
The best discovery my mother and I made during our walks when we first arrived in the village was Giddings Bakery. My father declared the bread we brought home the finest he had tasted and said that henceforth we would buy only from Giddings. He and I would call there every Saturday morning. Opening their shop door released the glorious smell of real fresh baked bread. We would take home several large loaves, cut one while it was still warm and top the slices with butter which melted slightly as it was spread. It was pure heaven. My father said he would sooner eat a three-day-old stale Giddings loaf than anything fresh that had been factory made.
Eating out was very rare in my family. One afternoon we met up with Gran, in the UCP café in St. Helens after visits to the bank and the Co-op. (The St. Helens Co-op was the only place where we could buy delicious tomato sausages.) If I explain that UCP stood for United Cow Products you should get a good idea of what the café was like. I can remember carefully eating only the suet crust of a steak and kidney pudding which left a small repellent heap of something that looked as if it had already been chewed. It was a double disappointment. Seeing Gran usually meant delicious treats to eat. I would sit in the room by her kitchen, plait the bobbled fringe on her red tablecloth and rearrange her table mats with their Victorian hunting scenes whilst I waited for something she called ‘specials’; slices of potato part cooked, fried with butter, which she could somehow produce almost instantly on request. I suppose it was because she was the head cook in charge of a works canteen. Gran’s other speciality was homemade soup – my supreme comfort food.
Sometimes, for a treat, we would have fish and chips. The nearest chip shop to our home was a bus journey away in Cheadle so we weren’t regular customers. It was always easy to tell a really good chip shop by the length of the queue outside. The best of them, like the one we would sometimes visit on our trips to family in Yorkshire, fried everything in lard. Different types of fish, mushy peas and meat pies (plus gravy) were on offer. Whatever their choice from the menu, customers were offered seasonings of salt and vinegar before the food was neatly wrapped in sheets of newspaper. I could never watch any of this process. The counters in all chip shops were bright and shiny but far too high for me to do anything other than loll against them or against the nearest adult. But I could see the cash register through the little serving area. For some reason chip shops cash registers were always enormous. They had huge keys; long metal stalks with a cash value like 1s (one shilling) or 6d (sixpence) embossed in large print on the flattened top. The cost was totalled as rapidly as in all the other shops. Cash was the only form of payment and the correct change was expected.
Ice cream was definitely a treat. The easiest way to buy ice cream, as no freezer was available, was from the loud music box on wheels which worked its way round the neighbourhood on a Sunday afternoon – handy when family was visiting for tea. The ice cream man would use a metal scoop to load each purchase from the huge tub in his freezer on to the top of a fragile wafer cone. Raspberry vinegar (sharply sweet, runny red topping) was free of charge but the addition of a small chocolate flake turned a cone into a ‘ninety-nine’ which cost more. The ice-cream man sold Ice lollies too and these became a special treat with the arrival of the Mivvi. It was the dazzling combination of a strawberry flavoured ice lolly with ice-cream in the middle! Could life get any better?