The way we were is the way we ate
Saturday 12 September 1992
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.
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