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.


One thought on “Food Families

  1. Every word matters, I love this Alison, complete eye (and sense) candy. It’s just the kind of thing that would make me buy an expensive foodish magazine…

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