I first started writing a novel but struggled to hold it together in any cohesive way. Characters, plots and subplots refused to be pinned down – most especially when I took extended breaks from writing to have my first and then subsequent children. When my brain returned to me several months post-partum, so did the desire to get back writing but I knew, overwhelmed as I was with night feeds, nappies and pureed foods, I was incapable of following the train of my own creative thoughts. I needed a project that I could manage more easily. So I went back to basics. What do I know and what are my passions? Food, family and the way I was reared were the obvious answers.
I bought a fresh notepad, like the ones I used in college, and wrote down lists and lists of the many foods I could recall from my 1970’s childhood. Once I remembered meatloaf I remembered the vile topping my mother spread on it and the mushy peas she served with it. Once I thought of my school lunch box not only could I recall the waft of its unique damp smell but I remembered soggy egg sandwiches, Telex bars, wagon wheels, Time bars, uneven pieces of Garibaldi biscuits; childhood memories flooded my mind. Like music and smells, food awakened parts of my brain that were dormant for years. I got excited when a reluctant memory sprang forward and revealed itself to me; another gem with the power to bring me back in time.
When I reflected on one item of food, such as Tayto crisps, I thought of when I would have had the pleasure of an entire packet to myself; a house party over the Christmas period or in my grandma’s house. Suddenly I saw myself standing in our old kitchen, shaking malt vinegar into a packet of Cheese & Onion crisps to create my own unique flavour and devouring the soggy snacks in minutes. I had not thought of this delicacy of mine in three decades and there it was, titillating me from afar. This in turn reminded me of how, during the winter months over an open fire, we used to hold the empty crisp packets in the coal tongs over the flames of the fire and watch the packet shrivel in seconds into a miniature version of itself – Mr Tayto only millimetres high. So much pleasure and so many memories were gleaned from one item of food.
Then I pondered how we ate our food and I recalled our kitchen table pulled into the centre of the floor and with my mind’s eye I saw all six of us around it, some of us still in school uniforms, some burgeoning into adulthood. If I looked closely I saw the bowl of potatoes in the centre of the table; the fat glistening on the chops on each of our plates and I noticed the condensation trickling down the inside of the kitchen window. This was a movie I could watch anytime I wanted to when I closed my eyes.
But I also picked the brains of my parents and siblings. In many cases our memories blended into one, in others the gaps were filled. I asked my friends and was stunned to discover that they too had similar memories; a freezer full of meat, scallion instead of onion sandwiches, and a Tea-Time Express cake turning any gathering into a special occasion, stews and milk puddings, picnics by the side of busy roads – the commonality of our childhood experiences surprised me.
Before I took my project too far I did however ask permission of my family members. While I was excited and passionate about writing down not only the foods we ate but the squabbles we had over the dinner table, they may not have been too pleased. Thankfully each one of them was generous in spirit and trusted that I would be truthful with our shared past.
As a child I found pleasure, excitement and solace in food. I spent much of my childhood eating and thinking about food. Mentally I walked away from arguments and anticipated instead the merits of the rice pudding cooling off with a serving spoon ready beside it. Unless I was in the centre of a row, or was going to be affected by the outcome, I tuned out and thought of dessert instead. Similar to the child that endlessly listens to music, strums on guitar strings or plays with a space-invaders game for hours on end, food was my ‘get out of jail’ card back then and, as it turns out, it was my key back into my memory many years later.