Food and Drink: Memories are made of bread and dripping

IN the years I have been writing this column, since the first week of the Independent's life, my correspondence has been either a delight or an anxiety, and rarely anything in between. The pleasures come in two kinds. Of these, the pleasantest are the occasional letters I receive (and respond to) from my 'regulars'. This is like correspondence from the days when people still knew how to write letters. A second, and useful, sort are those who respond with information and scholarship. On the negative side, what I like least is lobby mail: the letters from the animal lobby, for instance, bemoaning the cruelty of this or that. I tried to engage in debate with such people, but gave up. For them one is the missionary in the pot: it is unwise to seek to convert those who are themselves in extremis mentally.

Inviting reader response on so nostalgic a subject as food in childhood was to invite a flood of delicious reminiscence, and to prove the point I sought to make - that food is often a matter of early fixation. The beautiful part of the response has been the tone of rapture, of deep satisfaction, that such early memories bring. I said in that original column that many of those fixations are for things that are 'bad' for us. The list provided by Maureen Antoniades makes the point for me, for although in her list there are sensibly good things to eat, there are also confections that would make a modern nutritionist gasp:

'Hot, thin, Monk & Glass custard, Yorkshire pudding with golden syrup, Nestle's milk, spotted dick and custard, Horlicks tablets that stuck to the tongue.' As she points out: 'The main memory is of the very first time I tried each of the above.' In Proustian fashion, she summons up the hour, the smell, the circumstance. As does Jacqueline Manlay (I think that is the correct spelling) from Wokingham: 'Pink sponge and pink custard (school dinner), Heinz tomato soup (tucked up in bed), crab (tiny tin of Princes) sandwich (as a treat when convalescing).' Ms Antoniades was eating her pleasures in the immediate post-war period - from whose food disasters many of us had to be cured by instant gluttony - and Ms Manlay was eating hers during illness. The idea of food as solace, as consolation for deprivation, is evident.

Wendy Rogers from Derby describes 'unfolding a package of waxy Mothers Pride bread wrapping paper to find four neat square sandwiches of white bread and lard crusty with salt . . . intended as my school elevenses'. But today, guilt has caught her, except for 'large crusty Yorkshire puddings so full of jam that when you bite into them great dollops ooze out all over'.

Sometimes memories are very specific, less gluttonous, less immediately sating. Christine Muckie (my reading again) writes from Belvedere, in Kent, about 'celery covered in soot . . . I would go home with my mouth black from the soot'. Like her bacon bone stew, one detects that old familiar taste component: char, soot, salt. This is surely atavism in our genetic memory. As with John Farmer, who remembers 'after the two-mile walk home from evening service' putting 'pieces of home-baked bread on the toasting fork', then spreading them with the 'beef dripping from dinner'.

Angela Waller of Cambridge, however, introduces another note, that of a specific cuisine nostalgia, in this case her mother's, who died when Angela was 11. Among her favourites was 'drip bread, dipped in the juices of the meat slow-roasting in the oven' and 'scraping the bowl' of cake-makings. She spent two years as an anorexic after her mother's death, for while 'there was plenty of food around, it was all pre-processed, different because it had not been created with care and affection'. In the close to her letter, she asks whether tastes can be inherited (her son, like his father, dislikes cherries). The answer is clearly yes: we have an inherited disposition to certain foods; therefore inherited aversions are just as likely. My sainted 95-year-old mother consumed about a pint of liquid a day; I, too, have a minimal fluid intake (and my doctor says wine is not, in that sense, a liquid).

Not surprisingly, a lot of sweets occurred in readers' lists - no cravings are more acute than those two culinary standbys: the sweet and the salt. And, as many readers remark, some of the best things (including Virol]) were stolen, illicit, forbidden fruits: viz Doreen Pearce of Twyford, who not only enjoyed bread and dripping and hugely sweet puddings, but also had a 'secret passion' for 'madeira cake spread thickly with butter' but, as she adds, 'I only achieved this by stealth'. Strong flavours, too, make their mark, as in Antony Allott's 'HP Sauce with corned beef'.

What is remarkable is the consistency of the English culinary memory. It is made of simple, often sweet, things. There should be room for such indulgences even in our guilt-ridden age. There is little we can be absolutely assured of remembering, and all of them are primordial experiences: our first sense of death, our first sexual encounter, our first foods. We mature towards our own deaths; we master the sexual urge; but to our dying day the foods of childhood govern the appetite by which we continue to survive. It does not matter that those childhood appetites were bad for our teeth or our figures; it matters that they were the essence of our mental and spiritual health.

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