As I head towards fifty, I see myself as quite modern and up-to-date. When I discuss food with the Teen, however, it is a stark reminder of how different our worlds really are.
She thinks I am mad when I describe how fruit and vegetables were seasonal – if they weren’t in season, they were simply unavailable. She looks at the array of fruit and vegetables in the supermarket and cannot understand this seasonal thing at all. Root vegetables were available in the colder months and salad ingredients only available in the summer. I even remember a sliced pan called ‘Salad Days’ appearing only in the Summer months which was thinly sliced especially for cucumber sandwiches. I remember looking forward to new potatoes when we could eat the delicious spuds with their skins on. A special treat was when Dad would pick up a punnet of strawberries in June when he drove home from work. The teen thinks I am making this all up but it seems perfectly natural to me!
The teen thinks it odd that certain days often meant certain foods. In our home, there was a roast on Sunday, a stew on Monday, fish on Friday and boiled ham, bacon or corned beef on Saturday. Tuesday and Thursday were not set but would never have veered far from this general theme.
When I tell the teen about the food my parents ate as a child, I could be describing someone from the 1800s so far is her experience from theirs. My parents were teens during the Second World War and being in Ireland, food could be scarce rather than rationed. Dad was born and bred in Dublin but Mum was a country girl. From a farm, one might suspect that food was more plentiful but this was not so. She spent these years boarding in a Teachers’ Preparatory College, within sight of her own home and her tales of rancid butter and watered down milk were common.
Given what they ate as children, it is a miracle they grew up with any taste buds at all. Both my parents developed quite discerning palates and a love of fine food but the comfort food they often yearned for left me cold! My father, in particular, loved offal. While I had no problem preparing the dishes, my sense of adventure did not extend to eating them too. Stuffed lambs hearts, fried liver and onions and tripe cooked in milk and onions were among the favourites. ‘Crubeens’ (pig’s feet) were also on the list but he liked these served on newspaper, not plates. The stickiness from the meat and fat used to stick to the newspaper and my fingers would be grey with print but they were delicious.
When Mum was out, Dad would cook. He was a good cook when he stuck to things we liked but there were occasions when he couldn’t resist showing his penchant for boiling. He would boil mutton in water with a carrot, an onion, cabbage and season with salt and pepper. Eating this with boiled potatoes and big lumps of butter, he would savour the moment while we would look aghast at this tasteless plate of watery food with a lump of grey meat in the middle before we would push it away – far, far, away – from us. While he ate, he would tell us yet again how the greens should be nettles not cabbage. He would lament his inability to find good nettles since most were now sprayed with weed killer. We were thankful! We learned quickly and we learnt young that, if Mum was not making dinner, to convince Dad to take us out rather than risk a ‘boiled’ dinner.
Mum liked Ling. Returning from her home town in West Kerry, she would have a stash of locally grown Golden Wonder potatoes, meat from Patty Atty’s Butchers and a piece of salted, dry, Ling. As a member of the codling group, the piece of Ling was white but resembled shoe leather than fish. She would soak, cook and flake it – serving it with white sauce, boiled potatoes and cauliflower – her favourite ‘white dinner’. It was palatable but like Dad’s boiled dinners, we preferred to pass on this one too.
It was not all bland and boiled. Dad imparted a love of food and a respect for quality ingredients. In particular, he believed that food was part of the travelling experience and introduced us to delicacies in all countries we visited. He never told us what it was until we had tasted it – we did not have to like it but we did have to taste it. With this approach, we came to love many of the foods he enjoyed – albeit not all. Eggs made bright orange by frying them in the oil of chorizo was one that I passed on plus his love for fresh oysters (I did come to love the cooked variety though).
And from my mother, I inherited her passion for cooking and recipes shared from her sister and mother. My grandmother’s recipe for Irish Stew is one of the tastiest, simplest and purest dishes I have ever made and due to its low cost, has become a favourite with many pals at home and abroad. Her recipe for Pot Roast is top of my ‘Comfort Food’ list. The aroma and taste of stews and roasts bring with them memories of my childhood and people now passed. Teaching me the skills she learnt or inherited gave me a firm basis to move onto making foods from other cultures. Due the availability of more ingredients and more fluidity of seasons, my repertoire of dishes is wider but not better. In amongst the Goulashes and Thai Curries are Shepard’s Pie and roast chicken dinners. I have passed on these to my daughter. I simply cannot imagine cooking for the week without one of Mum’s dishes popping up. Alas, Dad’s favourites are not expected to make an appearance any time soon…