My debut novel The Incomers, is set in 1966 and tells the story of mission raised Ellie Amadi, who leaves her home in West Africa to join her husband James, the factor of the Hollyburn Estate, on the outskirts of a small Fife mining village.
Before I began writing the novel, I knew that one way I could make it authentic was to incorporate food into the story and there were many ways I could do this.
First, I wanted to show how Ellie compared Fife food with that of her homeland. Because of the Estate’s Big Hoose connection, I wanted to demonstrate how the ‘toffs’ lived and what extra ingredients they had access to. I wanted to explore the food of ordinary folk and, because the title of the novel is The Incomers, the foreign influences towards food – just about everything we eat has been introduced by incomers.
To begin my research, I thought back to my own childhood and the food my mum made for the family. You can read more of that in my last blog Nom-moir #1.
I interviewed a retired miner who had an allotment. Before being a miner, he had served in the Merchant Navy and he told me stories of strange food he had brought back from abroad – soy sauce being one that mystified his family. He told me, when he was a child, the big food influences were brought to his village by Italian families. Ice cream and of course pasta.
For the Big Hoose influences I was lucky to stumble upon The Murdostoun Cookbook in an antique shop. Murdostoun Castle is a country house in Lanarkshire and the cookbook was published in 1969 as a way of preserving the Castle’s old traditional recipes. Although I didn’t use any of the recipes in my story, just reading the foreward to the cookbook gave me a great grounding as to the running of a country house. Also, the food they grew in their gardens.
For Ellie’s homeland food I had to rely on library books although I did travel to The Gambia before The Incomers was published. I visited a local market and had access to some of the produce mentioned.
Ellie’s first taste of Scottish food occurs when she is still in Africa. One of the early scenes has Ellie at a Presidential banquet in her homeland hosted by James and catered for by the Scottish housekeeper of the Hollyburn estate, Mrs Watson. Canapés are handed round, and Ellie tentatively takes a taste of ‘The rough biscuit made from grain and topped with some kind of paste.’ This is oatcakes and venison paté.
When she arrives in Scotland poor Ellie has her first awkward encounter at the village shop. She is disappointed with the poor choice of vegetables – potatoes, onion, carrot, turnip, a skinny leek – ‘No cooking herbs, no plantain, no decent fruit.’ The shop keeper offers Ellie a sliver of the processed meat she is slicing. This is haslet and Ellie finds it disgusting.
When James presents her with a slab of grey fish and a bag of orange crumbs, Ellie doesn’t have a clue how to cook it. She fries the fish in butter and sprinkles the uncooked orange crumbs over the top. James is horrified, but the episode is followed by a tender scene where James teaches Ellie how to make chips. The fish van visits the village every week and the reader discovers that the local women prefer cod roe and something called Finnan Haddie, which is smoked haddock.
Ellie soon makes friends with Mrs Watson at the Hollyburn Estate’s big hoose and has access to the exotic vegetables growing in the walled garden. Ellie also learns how to grow her own food. Because the Estate owners have interests in the far east, Mrs Watson has a range of herbs and spices to share. She also gifts Ellie a book on native plants which allows Ellie to go foraging in the local woods. She makes cold remedies from raspberry leaves and a soothing poultice from thyme which she uses to treat a local girl, Mary. But these strange concoctions soon raise suspicions and Ellie is accused of witchcraft.
An impromptu visit to Glasgow with James introduces Ellie to a more cosmopolitan Scotland. She spies a shop displaying vegetables she recognises from home. They stop and Ellie enjoys viewing what is so familiar to her. The idea for this scene came to me from a childhood memory. My brother went to University in Glasgow and on a Sunday night I would accompany my parents as they took him back to his flat in Glasgow’s West End. I remember being fascinated by all the colours and strange shops on Great Western Road. Women in saris and men in what I thought were white pyjamas. Solly’s, the shop I used as my Glasgow shop would not have been around in the 1960s, but I am sure there would have been something similar hidden away in this eclectic thoroughfare.
Ellie soon becomes accustomed to her new way of life and the strange food but when she misses the fish van on Ash Wednesday, a day when Catholics cannot eat meat, Ellies finds she has a problem. This is solved when young Mary gives her a box of macaroni and the Macaroni Cookbook. Ellie embraces this new food in the same way the Scots embraced it when it was introduced to us.
The copy of the Marshalls Macaroni Recipes I own was my mum’s copy. A book made up of contributions from the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute, an organisation my mum was a long-standing member of. I feel honoured to have this copy.
For a novel that is not about food, there are many more examples of food references in The Incomers. I think my desire to use food references has helped to make the novel authentic. If you read the book, see for yourself and try and spot all the food references.
Copies of The Incomers can be purchased here,
Or direct from my publisher, Fledgling Press and from all good book sellers.
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