Butter

The wonderful Fire & Knives (www.fireandknives.com) has just published another piece by me. It’s reproduced here but you should really get subscribing. F&K uses food as a jumping off point for memory, wit and great writing dressed in exquisite ‘I want to pick that up and read every page’ design. Oh, and there are absolutely no recipes. Bon appetit.

Spread The Love

It’s a breezy summer’s day. Bright. Bubbly waves. Cool when the wind blows. Searing when it stops.

I’m wearing a bathing costume in red and blue with an anchor motif and a little white pleated skirt.

The huge pebbles beneath my bare feet and stretching hands are massive eggs, warming.

My skin is tingling, lightly burned flesh under a layer of too-little-too-late sun cream mixed with sand.

There is a hat somewhere, which I will leave on the beach. The backs of my scorched legs will be smacked. I’ll cry hot tears over hot cheeks, and feel that the day is ruined.

But none of that matters just now. Because we are about to have lunch.

Tin foil packages are emerging from their souvenir tea towel wraps. They take two different shapes. Long and fat, and flat and square. My sister and I grin at each other. We know what is coming. Our trips to Penarth beach with our grandparents are summer Christmasses in their predictability.

I hold out my hand to take my paper plate, on which rests the most perfect, the most delicious meal I will ever taste.

Still slightly warm, dark toffee brown and just as sticky – two pork sausages that first thing this morning were sitting in a butcher’s tray in Cardiff. And next to them, nestling close, protected by genuine, molar-engaging crust, four thickly perfect bread and butter sandwiches.

The sausages are wonderful. But given that I will become vegetarian – with special music festival amnesties of the I’ve-drunk-too-much-cider-to-care variety – it is the bread and butter I remember most. White, wide and giving, reassuring, filling, seemingly never-ending… bread and butter was and is complete and utter safety.

Everyone can have some. It’s never very far away. Access to bread and butter is what proves you are not at war, or in mortal danger, or grown-up. And between the slices, churned into the butter as invisibly as the salt, live the memories of all your life’s most comforting moments.

In the 1970s, schools in South Wales still had religious assemblies where we asked to be given Our Daily Bread and expected it to be delivered quite literally, back home at 6pm, on the weekday china with a tablecloth.

And jam. At our house it was presented in self-important Tiptree jars with fancy labels from oh-so-exotic-sounding… Essex. At my grandparents’ it was homemade, in odd-shaped containers with handwritten id. My favourite was the damson, its fruit melting away from stones like smooth teardrops.

I was lucky, I realise now. I don’t ever remember being forced to choose between bread and butter or bread and jam like poor Phyllis in The Railway Children. There was always another slice till you were full. And after tea we watched Our House (pronounced Ower Owse) and laughed as Ryan Davies, all dragged up as Mam in a flowery pinafore, buttered the loaf perpetually wedged under one arm then carved off slice after slice – an inviolable symbol of working class mother as starch warrior.

Now when I go out to eat, the smart people don’t butter. They take the bread as it is, either because their gourmet taste buds want to relish every morsel of unadulterated sourdough, or because they are paranoid about body fat and/or cholesterol and haven’t consciously consumed dairy products since 1986.

May I suggest that, next time, you do reach for the butter. Enjoy making those tiny running lanes as the teeth of your knife run along its golden softness, spreading and patting and smoothing till you have imprinted all your childhood picnics and school trip sandwiches and the crunch of invisible sand and the smell of paddling waves.

When Sylvia Plath carefully and precisely planned the evening she would die, she shut her sleeping children safely in their room and left a meal in case they woke up hungry. To drink there was milk. To eat there was bread. One of her last actions was to butter it.

Just bread would have done the job. But maybe she knew, beyond her illness and abandonment of hope for herself, that – more than words – butter catches love.

Now go spread.

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6 thoughts on “Butter

  1. This is so evocative of time and place, and I enjoyed it with recognition and a watering mouth! It’s both amazing and not amazing to me that you are so talented. Long may you write, and happy may it make you!

  2. It’s all I’ve wanted to do since I was the little girl in the red and blue bathing costume with the anchor motif and the white pleated skirt. And remembering to do what you wanted to do at that age tends to make you happy, I’ve found…

    • Aunty Mary in the house next-door-but-one used to wedge the bread under her arm, butter the top then saw off a slice. An east London custom as much as a Welsh one. But it wasn’t butter, it was Tomor Kosher marge, which I think you can still buy. And in my house Aunty Mary was looked down on as not being quite the thing, though she looked after me as much as my Mother and Nana did. She wore a scarf tied around her rollers and knotted at the front and would stand at her front door or lean on the gate with a fag in her mouth, in slippers with her stockings rolled down to her ankles. Bread and butter for me is pillowy white, sweet plaited cholla bread with unsalted Dutch Wheelbarrow butter. Did my Nana cut the bread the underarm way? I can’t remember. The image of Aunty Mary is large and indelible.

      • So brilliant to see you here, Ilona! Thanks so much for joining in the chat. I love the sound of Aunty Mary. Those thick brown stockings are incredibly evocative. I knew my grandmother had little time left when she was too tired to take off her own stockings in the evening, and let me do it for her. A very intimate sharing. My other grandmother was all Stork SB which I seem to remember tasted like – I imagine – axle grease. Dread to think how it lined the innards…

  3. This is enchanting! I love those egglike pebbles and the too-little-too-late suncream. But, most of all, the idea that butter catches love. What a powerful scene that was of Sylvia Plath’s last movements. So sad.
    For me it’s the combination of melted butter and honey that can’t be beaten!

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