I grew up during the mid fifties, sixties and seventies in an Irish family of six people on the outskirts of Dublin where the weekly menu followed a regularity which didn’t dull. Meals – breakfast, lunch and tea – were simple, quick, filling and always eaten!
Breakfast was invariable – bread, butter and Chivers orange marmalade, Kelloggs Cornflakes and lashings of tea, strong enough so that the spoon could stand up in it, as my father used to say. No tea bags for him – the sweepings off the factory floor, he used to refer to them disparagingly – but rich, dark Lyon’s breakfast tea. Sunday broke the monotony because that was when my father would cook breakfast for my mother, my brother and two sisters. That in itself was another invariable ritual. Good Galtee back rashers, Hafner’s homemade pork sausages, two eggs fried in the sizzling bacon fat, sliced black and white puddings and half a fried tomato, each plate kept hot in the oven while the final touch was prepared – a thick “doorstep” a slice of high loaf, fried in the remaining fat in the pan and liberally sprinkled with Lea and Perrin’s Worceshestshire Sauce. Not too healthy a breakfast, perhaps but it was only once a week.
Lunch was the big meal of my day. I’d come home from school by 12:50 to always find my mother in her tiny, cramped scullery (she always referred to it as the “kitchenette”) cooking our midday meal which I would wolf down before rushing out the back door to catch the 1:40 bus back to school.
Monday lunch was another fry, supplemented with baked beans but without the fried bread. Looking back now, I suppose it was just to use up whatever my father hadn’t cooked for Sunday breakfast. Tuesday was par-boiled sausages rolled up in mashed potato with butter and milk, lightly dusted with flour and then baked in a hot oven and served with fresh green peas from the garden, seasons permitting. Wednesday was steak and kidney pie, with a sopping crust of baked pastry supported in the middle of the casserole dish with a curious little Pyrex glass dome, which I have never seen since.
Thursday was lightly boiled eggs, chopped up and stirred into creamy mashed potatoes, garnished with parsley and served with a thick slab of calves liver, fried onions with baked beans on the side. Friday was always the same because that was when Granny came for lunch and tea. Friday also meant fish and chips, but certainly not take-away ones. I’d peel the spuds on a Thursday night and leave them soaking in a large pot of cold water and then sometime on Friday morning, my mother would labouriously chip them by hand and cook them in hot lard, while at the same time the fish fillets would be dunked in home-made batter and then deep fried in the same chip lard, the whole lot served with the ubiquitous green peas from the garden.
Saturday was the only day my father was home for lunch and he’d insist on a real stew because, he claimed, he couldn’t get anything like that from the canteen in the maternity hospital where he worked. A real stew was one with a thick, dark gravy that could be sopped up with thick hunks of buttered home-made soda-bread. Sunday was different in that, because we had had a late breakfast before tramping off as a family to 11:30 mass in the local town, we had no lunch. Back home at about 1:00 PM, my mother would sit at the kitchen table, a Silk Cut cigarette in the corner of her mouth, smoke wisping up into her eyes as she read the Sunday paper, a cup of instant coffee at her elbow. We’d all join her at the kitchen table and share a packet of Cadbury’s Half-covered chocolate goldgrain biscuits. I remember there were thirteen in a pack and five of us so we were all guaranteed getting at least two biscuits each. My mother might forgo her third biscuit which always presented the awkward situation of having three biscuits left over to share among four children, of whom I was the youngest.
The “cut” was usually the solution, as it was for the impartial divvying up of most tasks in our household. A book would be produced and each person would take turns, holding the book spine away from them and opening a page at random. The first letter on the top left hand corner block of print, headings and titles not included, was the key. The three “cutters” getting a letter nearest to A would then get the extra biscuit while, obviously, the unfortunate getting the letter furthest from A would not. This system, introduced by my father, was used for deciding who would wash the dishes, peel the nightly potatoes for the following day and for all the other mundane tasks that made up my Irish childhood.
Our evening meal, or tea, was just that. Identical to breakfast, only this time we had red jam, home-made loganberry, or gooseberry jam from the garden, more homemade soda bread, or as a change, crusty “Vienna Roll” from the shop up the road. Rarely did we have shop cakes, my mother turning out hot, buttered scones, jazzed up sometimes with the addition of raisins or some candied fruit and on Fridays, because granny was there, we always had homemade apple pie with a few cloves sprinkled through the chunky slices of green cooking apples, the shortcut pastry glazed with coarse brown sugar. Granny would always bring a Bewley’s Barn Brack with her, a rich, dark fruity cake on which the currants on top had always been burnt, giving a bitter, acrid undertaste to the brack’s sweetness.
Occasionally, perhaps for some adult celebratory reason, which I never though to ask about, my father would come home with a cake box, again from Bewleys’ Oriental Cafe in Westmoreland Street in Dublin, with individual Mary cakes. The mere thought of these delicious, gooey, chocolaty cakes on a hard biscuity base, capped with a shell of green marzipan with a drizzled chocolate M on the top is enough to bring back urgent memories of having to wolf down at least two slices of boring bread and butter and jam (in comparison to the anticipated sweetness) and gulp down hot, sweet tea before being allowed to have one’s reward.
Later, my father’s horizons expanded and he developed a taste for liver pate which he would bring home in a transparent tube as thick as my forearm, and which he would spread a inch thick layer of on top of his quarter inch of butter. Similarly, jellied eels were introduced, oily herring rollmops, stinky blue cheese that my mother insisted that he keep in the tool shed out in the garden. Summer time might produce smoked mackerel or punnets of strawberries, always accompanied by thick cream, but in the main, tea was just that – bread and butter, jam and hot tea with milk and sugar.
Sunday tea of course was different. We always had it around 5:30 or so in the evening and it was the most sumptuous meal of the week. Roast chicken, stuffed with chopped apples, walnuts, raisins, and bread crumbs, roast potatoes, giblet gravy, firm Brussel sprouts and sliced carrots, or perhaps Roast shoulder of pork, my mother’s favourite, homemade apple sauce, roast potatoes again, long green french beans with blanched, slivered almonds, carrots cooked in honey, butter and brown sugar. There was always a dessert to follow – stewed rhubarb with custard, sweet gooseberry fool with cream, semolina with a spoonful of loganberry jam swirled through it or sweet rice pudding with nuts and raisins stirred thought it.
Looking back, I never missed – nor even knew enough to notice their absence -such things as pasta or rice or the commonplaces that now abound worldwide. I was 18 and in Italy before I tasted my first ever pizza in the Trastevere in Rome and 22 in New York before I had a cheeseburger. I never knew of the delights of capsicum – indeed had never seen one until that eventful summer of 1971 when I first went to Europe – nor the bite of chilli or the freshness of ginger, the essentialness of garlic, the texture of beans and pulses, the succulence of seafood, the satisfaction of rice and noodles, the richness of aubergines, the meatiness of field mushrooms, the complexities of sauces and spices and fresh herbs…. Oh I could go on forever in a glorification of all the foods I have tasted and savoured and look forward to so much.
Looking back now, I wonder if my father’s eclectic and sporadic palate led me in search of new tastes or if necessity – that great mother – set me on the culinary path I have enjoyed so much all my life. Whatever it was, the career I chose brought me into contact with people and cultures, their food and tastes that was more than a quantum leap from the simple fare that I had grown up with and been accustomed to.