Boil in the bag beef, Salt and Shake, Spam, Angel Delight, fish fingers fried in a pan – the food of my childhood was cheap and easy to prepare.
I remember my mum frying those fish fingers, cigarette in one hand, pan in the other, shouting “this kitchen is too small!” whenever I would wander in looking for a chat or a snack. We didn’t really go in for snacks in my house. You could have margarine on white or wait for your tea.
There was food scarcity in my childhood. Although nothing like what some endure, I do remember sparse cupboards, empty fridges and pennies counted at tills. My brother and I: the underweight kids at doctors’ offices. My mum: tacitly accused of neglect as we were ushered towards the scales.
“When I return from the shops with slightly more food than I can comfortably carry or when I spend money on something as frivolous as a peach I feel a complex emotion that skirts around astonishment at my good fortune and lingers towards disgust.”
Free school meals were dispensed in a way that produced the maximum amount of shame at my secondary school. You would leave class ten minutes before lunch so you could line up, joining the other girls in too-large, second-hand uniforms, by reception. As you shuffled towards the desk you hoped it would be the kind woman handing over your token that day, not the one who looked you up and down and made you bellow your name as she crossed you off the ‘poor list’.
My terror of numbers began in the school canteen – those quick calculations you made against the amount your silver token was worth as you moved closer to the till. If you got the numbers wrong you would have to negotiate in front of a restless queue of teenage girls what you would put back.
“I wonder how many adults that grew up in poor households now open their well-stocked cupboards and feel a shame they cannot name.”
There is a shame, as well as an incredulity, that I no longer need to count my pennies quite so closely when buying food. Now, when I return from the shops with slightly more food than I can comfortably carry or when I spend money on something as frivolous as a peach I feel a complex emotion that skirts around astonishment at my good fortune and lingers towards disgust at my avarice. Am I deserving? I wonder how many adults that grew up in poor households now open their well-stocked cupboards and feel a shame they cannot name.
“Are you going to eat that?” was a phrase spoken in our house. Eager eyes looked over your food, forks poised to whip a sausage, a potato off your plate and on to theirs. My mum served mine and my brother’s meals with a defeated sigh as anything more complicated than freezer food invariably turned out lumpy or flavourless or dripping in fat.
My mum was not a natural cook, but she loved to eat. It must have been disheartening for her to spend an hour doing something she hated so she could feed her children, only to watch them ungratefully choke it down with a grimace or push it around their plate. When it came down to it, it was the monotony of our food rather than the general lack of it that got to me. There was no excitement and no experimentation, we couldn’t afford that. Faced with another dish of under-seasoned meat or overcooked carrots, I was only too eager to let food be pilfered from my plate. Eating was a chore and never a pleasure.
“Food was fuel or sometimes a bribe but never an experience, never something we discussed the finer points of.”
When I was 12, food officially became the enemy. I started to feel unwell at school and my best friend, who insisted paracetamol solved everything, gave me two for my stomach pains. When I was sick in the school sink, I spat up the alarming red dye of the pill capsule first, and my breakfast followed. And then I continued to be sick until the school nurse sent me home with a cardboard kidney-shaped dish. I was sick until I felt light and transcendent.
I spent ten years chasing that feeling of emptiness – refusing food, hiding it, developing increasingly inventive ways to disguise weight loss. Isn’t it perverse to never have quite enough to eat and then decide to limit yourself even further? I can remember the full meals I ate as a teenager as they were such rare occurrences.
I recall cooking with new friends at university when I was 19. When they talked about the food they had during their gap year or on their family holiday to the south of France I remained silent, terrified they would find me out. I sat and listened as they gushed, “Have you tried moules marinière? Oh my god, you must” or “they say the best pizza is in Naples but I came across this amazing little place in…”
At home with my mum, food was fuel or sometimes a bribe but never an experience, never something we discussed the finer points of. When my brother and I were teenagers we rarely ate as a family, there was no camaraderie or ceremony to our meals – we would often cobble together what we could from the kitchen and retreat to another corner of the house, like hulking, solitary carnivores. Of course, this arrangement worked well for me and my eating disorder.
I am six and I can smell the roast beef burning. It is Sunday, my least favourite day of the week as it’s the day I visit my dad at his parents’ flat. My dad should be home by now, he left in the early afternoon to get white spirit so he could degrease his motorbike. I can sense that something isn’t right as my grandparents channel hop and chain smoke, looking at the clock. I play with my toys in a way that isn’t really playing, I am giving my hands something to do. My dad’s return is announced with a crash in the hallway. The smell of alcohol now mingles with the burning meat and I crawl behind the sofa, trying to plug my ears from the sound of raised voices, and my nose from the terrible smell. I watch from behind the sofa as my dad thrusts his face too close to my grandad’s. There is a wild-eyed hatred in my dad’s eyes as his spit flies. I remember work-worn hands on soft cotton. I remember the thud of my grandad’s back against the wall. I remember my dad shouting, fist balled up in my grandad’s shirt as he held him there, my grandad’s naked toes just grazing the carpet.
When it was over, I could smell the cooking fat that clung to my grandma before I felt her lift me out of my hiding spot. My grandma was a tiny south London lass with a permanent face of makeup and a cigarette-cracked voice, and she was the softest person I knew. She carried me to the kitchen and said: “Sod the dinner pet, let’s make lemon tarts.” I squeezed the lemons whilst she made the pastry. My granddad double-locked the front door and read the paper at the kitchen table while we worked. We opened the back door to shoo out the smell of burnt roast beef and alcohol, and the air filled up instead with lemon and butter.
For me now, cooking is a way of making up for lost time and trying to fill the gaps in my education. I cook diligently, with curiosity. I take tips from anyone who will give them. I remember how my grandma did not shy away from adding another curl of butter to any dish and I make peace with jeans that no longer fit. When there is conflict or unrest, in my heart or in my life, I make food. I don’t always eat it – my relationship with food is still complicated, but I try.
“The food you consume is such a deep signifier of who you are and who you belong to. At every turn, from childhood frozen food staples to secretive googling of ‘moules marinière?’ and the like, it all signals that I am common. I vow to tell myself that I deserve riotous flavour.”
I crave the food I didn’t experience growing up – more spice, more flavour, more vegetables. But despite what I learn in the kitchen, no matter how many beautifully photographed recipe books I consume, the most significant part of my education happens when I slice through my layers of shame. The food you consume is such a deep signifier of who you are and who you belong to. At every turn, from childhood frozen food staples to secretive googling of ‘moules marinière?’ and the like, it all signals that I am common.
When I count my pennies at the till (because old habits die hard) I vow to tell myself that I deserve riotous flavour, I deserve butter not margarine. And frozen potato waffles too, if I fancy them.
Ali is a long-term Londoner and works in communications for a non profit. She is a staff writer for Aurelia.