Food Families

 (Published in Fire & Knives No.11 Summer 2012  The Guild of Food Writers’ Magazine of the Year

My mother is a cup cake.

Her mother was ham off the bone, yellow butter, crusty bread. A jelly in the fridge if the grand-children were coming. In the concrete patch outside her back door she grew crazy flowers from seed and stared at the sky. When I want comfort it is from the softness of her pinafores, blue florals faded from work and hot evening ironing.

My sister is double helpings. She is generosity itself. Out of the late 1980s, taught that ‘stuff is good’ and therefore more stuff is better. Why offer one plateful when you can offer two? Three? There’s safety in volume, in abundance. There’s love.

My Dad is eat-it-all-up-without-complaining. Ignore the pain. More than that, praise! Show appreciation to the point of awe. Born in 1935. National Service and all the better for it. Yes sir, thank you sir, for filling me with white carbs. And for dessert, perhaps a lick of your boots?

In 1968, just two years before the publication of The Female Eunoch, my aunt wanted to come home early from honeymoon in Yugoslavia to play with her wedding present saucepans. Today she’s pressure-cooking to save energy and her husband does at least load the dishwasher.

My father’s father was a boiled egg. When my sister and I went to stay we had eggs for breakfast in painted wooden eggcups from south coast seaside resorts. And the most fun was to be had turning the empty shells upside down, telling Grampy we hadn’t eaten them then smashing them to bits, to his never-ending mock-surprise.

After my father’s mother died – the woman who fed my grandfather for 65 years, missing only the days when the RAF fed him instead – I phoned one evening. ‘Oh hello,’ he said, pleased to hear me. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to call back in an hour or so.’ ‘Something up, Gramp?’ ‘I’m boiling an egg for my tea.’

I firmly believe all men should be ready, willing and able to boil their own eggs. But there was something about that solitary act, and the solitariness of a single egg. An egg needs a chum, I decided. So you can draw faces on each one, so they can stick their tongues out at each other. So you can laugh before you smash each other’s shells to bits.

My first boyfriend was a cream cake. There was something frothy about his gothic crimps and his freckly, still plump cheeks beneath all that fringe. Plus that’s what he offered me from his mum’s Bristol fridge while he told me how his relationship with the previous girl had been intimate. It was to be my only visit.

The great love of my twenties is a dropped plate of penne melanzane, lovingly cooked a la the old Pollo Bar in Soho, just for me. It made him cry, way before I did.

Many of my friends are vats of wine. I’ve never quite worked out where we’re going, what we believe is on the other side.

My children are Christmas biscuits. Stolen icing, sugar vermicelli, sticky, both magic and earthly. More miraculous than God or Santa. I wish I could give them the security blanket of belief. The older I get, the less I care for scientific explanation. It’s like choosing the logic of Nescafe over the spiritual awakening of Union Hand Roasted.

Actually, my mother isn’t a cup cake. She’s the sugar flower on top. Careful, elegant, co-ordinated, aiming always for perfection. Catapulted in the early 1960s from the rented Cardiff terrace with the concrete back yard to a detached house with a Parkinson Cowan cooker and a garden with standard roses – via grammar school and a-man-with-a-good-job – her carefully smoothed sugar skin never quite hid the sense of fraudulence. The feeling that it was all pretend, that she might be found out at any moment. That the sophisticated sweetness couldn’t last.

Last time I went home I found her in the garden. The herbaceous border was looking splendid. She was sitting in a deckchair, a plate of crust-less bread and butter to hand, gazing up at the sky.



I came back to London from Swansea First Class on Sunday.

It was a nightmare.

Not because there was anything wrong with the train service – we were on time, the train manager was courteous with a sense of humour (nice combination) and handled things well when we paused at Severn Junction, neatly persuading anyone who might have fancied jumping out at the back of beyond into the driving drizzle to stay in their seats… No. The extra money I had spent to indulge myself in a comfortable seat, a table and a window large enough to see out of (remember the good old days when this was a description of any train carriage? Before the sardine and blindfold treatment?) danced before my eyes as I listened, from before Bristol till after Reading, to a man talking loudly into his mobile phone.

And I don’t really mean just talking.

I mean ranting. Effing a lot.

I eff quite a lot. But not into a phone in a reasonably full carriage on a train for more than an hour.

At first I thought I could handle it. Especially as within twenty minutes of leaving Swansea I had asked a man in his early 60s if he would mind turning down the mobile phone on which he was loudly playing a game – you know, the blip beep whistle clang, blip beep whistle clang bang! variety that my six year old son enjoys. The ‘man’ pretended not to hear my ‘excuse me’ four times before eventually turning it off and muttering loudly ‘You are NOT welcome’. I didn’t check, but it’s more than possible he stamped his foot and stuck out his tongue as I went back to my seat.

After this episode I didn’t want to be seen as the carriage kill-joy. So when Motor Eff Mouth began, three seats behind, I ignored him. I ignored the stuff about the woman at home spending all her money on fags and how she won’t effing be told. The stuff about his bonuses, how he’s scammed extra, what the tricks are.

While he berated the person – man, surely – at the other end of the line for their appalling choice of car, I doggedly amended my novel synopsis. I plugged in my headphones and tried to listen to Gil Scott Heron as Mr Effing Eff discussed how big someone had grown – Child? Dog? – and how effing MASSIVE he was going to get, this being a good, exciting thing. I turned up my music, tried to read the Sunday paper.

Still he effed on.

A hammer wrapped in cling film is still a hammer.

I know this situation lasted over an hour because I remember thinking hurrah, Severn Tunnel, he’ll get cut off. And he did. For five minutes. Before he started again. Without a pause. Till we got to Reading.

At which point, all sentimental thoughts of an old-school train journey full of space, sunsets and inspiration effed into a pulp, I stood up. I looked round the carriage. The man I’d asked to turn down his mobile had coughed irritably a couple of times. But that was the only protest from a compartment of at least a dozen people, 11 out of 12 of them men. I looked round again, trying to catch the eye of an ally. Nothing.

Of course this should have been my Nora Ephron moment. This should have been the instant I cleared my throat, shook out my hair and hollered, ‘Hey, could you say that again? A little louder please? I didn’t quite get the really important effing bit about how small your effing penis is?’ to resounding laughter and applause, and a shamefaced nod from the culprit.

But it wasn’t. Instead I stroppily put my computer away, thinking desperately how best to salvage the last half hour of my shattered idyll. I had it. I would – wait for it – walk into the next carriage. But not repeat NOT without making my point.

I dragged my bags together, picked up my jacket and as I passed his table – taking in the can of Stella and the fact that he was still wearing his coat – slapped down my paper and said loudly but not too loudly – wouldn’t want to disturb anyone ‘– d’you want a newspaper… bit of peace and quiet… terrific!’ in what was intended to be a tone bathed in sarcasm. I kept on walking. There was definitely no applause.

I then spent the final half hour of the journey shaking in The Quiet Carriage –  which though in no way silent was like a nunnery compared to the Bedlam I’d just endured – waiting for him to rampage through the automatic doors and knife me.

People. Fellow passengers! Why? Why!

Why do we put up with this? It HAS to be fear, surely? You can’t be human and not have felt irritation, mounting, sweating, scratching, exploding irritation. Or were all your first class tickets paid for? Do you do it all the time? Is it always this way? Don’t you want quiet, a comfy seat that doesn’t cut off your circulation, and a view? Were you secretly craving a dose of something akin to five vodkas, four expressos and an enjoyable journey spent scraping out your own eyeballs with a pointy cheese grater?

I only buy First Class if it’s no more than £10 above the Second Class ticket price. It’s a naughty treat in a life that’s been a bit lacking recently. I don’t want free refreshments, newspapers, obsequiousness, classical music, whatever. I just want a bit of peace, a view and space to breathe.

How I craved the yodeling baby, the good humoured, unfeasibly be-rucksacked Duke of Edinburgh’s students and the disturbed Labrador I traveled to Swansea with in Second on Saturday morning. I can handle my always quietly lurking and occasionally terrifying claustrophobia better than I could handle this man and the silently pathetic shower who put up with him.

Lost for words in the face of an effing torrent?

I’m sorry, Nora.