I have just finished reading Hungry by food critic Grace Dent. Dent was brought up in a working-class family in Carlisle and, in her excellent memoir, she talks with fondness and nostalgia about the food her family shared. Although the food wasn’t sophisticated or even that healthy, she obviously still appreciates this simple fare.
The reason I love this book so much is because her life resembles so much of my own characters in my latest novel, Before Now: Memoir of a Toerag. In my novel, Lily Smart (Maw), is a single mum struggling to feed her family on a pittance. Food is an obvious measure of wealth, so it features large in this story.
The first mention of food comes early in a chapter called The Shed. Gavin, the narrator, comes down to breakfast to find Maw has already left for a hill walk. She’s left him only ‘Hamemade broon bried’ which he later describes as ‘…boufin. That brick hard ye could stoat it aff the pavement’. Gavin is not impressed with his mother’s attempts at a healthy diet.
A few pages later finds Gavin and his brother Sam, making chips in The Chip Pan chapter. Chip pans were ubiquitous in the late 1980s – these disgusting pans with their baskets sunken in decades old beef dripping were normally of indistinguishable colour, scorched with welded on grease marks running down the outside. They were a source of many house fires. Gavin describes how his brother makes him chips and promises to make their usual, no-money Wednesday tea, fritters and egg. If you Google potato fritter now you will be tempted with recipes of finely grated potato coated in a concoction of gram flour, cumin and coriander. I used to make fritters for my kids, my mum made them for hers. Our fritters were slices of raw potato dipped in a batter of flour, salt and water, then deep fried. I can still recall the roasting potato burning the roof of my mouth. They sound disgusting now in our health-conscious age, but they were delicious, and I remember fritter and egg night being one of my favourites.
At one stage in the story Maw tries to change Gavin’s diet because she believes she can control his hyperactivity through food. She makes him packed lunches which included home-made biscuits that are a hit in the school, especially with Gavin’s teacher who asks for the recipe. Of course Maw’s plan fails because Gavin swaps his healthy fare with his pal for sausage rolls and Tunnocks Caramel Wafers.
As Gavin grows, he’s able to earn his own money through tattie and berry picking. This allows him to buy his own food, Pot Noodles and the newest craze to hit the village, Azid’s Pakora.
The Pot Noodle theme continues when Gavin and Maw travel to a concert in Germany by bus and despite her hatred of the dreaded noodle, Maw caves in because it’s all she can afford on the return journey.
There are many other food references in the book; grannies hame-made meat loaf, cheese toasties made on a toastie maker, and when Gavin has to fend for himself, he progresses to crispy pancakes and waffles.
I had great fun remembering all the food we used to eat when my kids were growing up, food they wouldn’t look at now. I’m sure that is why books like Hungry are so endearing. They remind us of the days before we had heard of things like smashed avocado and extra virgin olive oil. I certainly tried hard to make the food references in Before Now as authentic as possible.