The way we were is the way we ate

RARE indeed is the food writer who is not nostalgic by nature and who, however well trained in gastronomic matters, does not regress to childhood when talking about food. It seems to be a vital part of our autobiography - more familiar than sex, more cherished than parents, easier than learning. And eating is a more shameful appetite than most, because the results of over-indulgence are as visible as our neuroses are well-concealed.

It is noticeable that contributors who talk of food in the present tense, and who write in praise of what they or others do, can't hold a candle to those who reminisce about what they shouldn't have eaten, but loved to eat, when they were young.

Joyce Carol Oates writes of the 'secret memoir that is a compilation of the foods you once ate with zest, now banished from your life, denied, or with the passage of time, simply lost'.

She is dead right. We all have such memories and secret guilts; and we continue to indulge them when we can. Ms Oates's litany - and here I quote only the less exuberant part - is probably not dissimilar to one you could concoct for yourself. (Any readers' lists would be gratefully received.)

'Tootsie Rolls and Mallow Cups . . . Hostess Cupcakes . . . pies that fit in the palm of your hand . . . sweet-glazed ham steaks baked with canned pineapple rings . . . cheese omelettes the size of automobile hubcaps . . . fish sticks dipped in catsup . . .'

She goes on and on, and it slowly dawns on us that what she is talking about has little to do with sustenance, but a lot to do with the slaking of appetite which, as we all know, is strongest when we are young. If our food memory is mainly for the sweet, that too is natural. It's a craving in us that is as close to nakedly biological need as one can get.

You will note, too, that a great number of our Most Wanteds were forbidden things, consumed outside the house, almost furtively. They were stolen pleasures. Did the ancient Egyptians put a midnight snack in the grave? No, they put in the stuff of sustenance - not peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

But among the sweets there are also, on most lists, some dishes that our parents produced and served in all their feckless ignorance of gastronomical correctness (GC): Ms Oates's ham and pineapple, a loathsome concoction that is also, in this context, wonderfully delicious and satisfying.

And there is something nice in our understanding of the foods we were served as children being, well, not quite top notch, but still offered with love. For most, I think, remember their parents as not very satisfactory cooks or cooks whom they can better. The children of gastronomes are unlikely to feel quite the same pangs of memory as the progeny of the innocent who cooked from Good Housekeeping.

In the course of childhood we tend to become fixated: naturally, on our complex and discordant relationships with our parents and theirs with each other (see Freud, Sigmund), but also on foods (see Freud, Clement).

It is at that period that we form our likes and dislikes, and so ingrained do they become that, in adulthood, we are unlikely ever to break the taboos of our childhood. The list of what we disliked then and dislike now may not be as long as that of things we love (or loved), but it is infinitely more pungent.

As for the things we liked, they are, naturally enough, improved by the patina of memory: that perfect peach, that cottage pie on a winter's night when one was cold and famished. They were never as good as we think they were, but they too play a role in our endless search for something as good, if not better.

This is, I think, because we never lose our childhood desire to be mothered, or cared for; the easy satisfaction of slaking an appetite is very seductive. We look back on ourselves and think, did I really eat that? Yes, we have to answer; and right away we want to repeat the


No matter how sophisticated and GC we have become, there are some simple things lodged in our memories that cannot be extinguished. They take us back, which is the way we often wish to travel.

In my own case, it was Communion wafers. I had been serving Mass, fasting, and the priest was slow, my hunger great.

Nothing ever tasted better than that handful of sticky, dissolving, unblessed paste. They may be part of someone else's memory too, but as a part of mine, I relish them, and direct that I be buried with a small supply.

Send your lists of childhood favourites to Lyn Russell, Weekend, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
United States President Barack Obama, right, uses actor Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele to play the part of 'Luther, President Obama's anger translator'
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions