16 December 2014

Sweet life

I'm trying to remember where my school tuck shop was. The sprawling Sandfields Comprehensive School was divided into Lower, Middle and Upper sections of red brick buildings, each with their own assembly halls. I'm pretty sure it occupied a small room at the end of an L-shaped covered walkway behind the Lower School Hall, at the edge a kind of no-man's land yard that joined all three parts but didn't seem to belong to any particular one. Ah, the democracy of the comprehensive system! A system that still marshalled their identified high achievers into an unspoken grammar stream of 3 forms labelled X, Y and L and placed the kids at the other end of the academic spectrum into Form A!

But I can't see beyond the Tuck Shop's split door, or was it a slide-open window? I can suggest a list of chocolate bars and packets of crisps from the late 1960s and early 1970s that might have nudged up against each other on the shelves but I have no memory of handing over money for a Milky Way (1935), or a Wagon Wheel (1948), or a packet of the still excitingly novel, (well, as novel as reconstituted potato gets), Cheese Quavers (1968). 

The (sometimes surprising) dates above are courtesy of Steve Berry's and Phil Norman's The Great British Tuck Shop, an encyclopaedic and entertaining memory-stirring read through all things sweet and savoury from a time when we didn't even know how to spell obesity and diabetes (type 2).

Maybe I did buy one or two things at the school tuck shop but my strongest memory of sweet buying is closer to home, from a little flat-roofed shop at the end of Aberafan Beach's promenade, a street away from our house. Recite with me now: Black Jacks, Fruit Salads, Rainbow Drops, White Mice, Pink Shrimp, Flying Saucers, Bazooka Joes. Sweets we chose in straight and mixed pairs, triplets and quartets, according to the amount of solidly reliable brass pennies in our pockets that we could spread them across. Pennies that betrayed us after 1971 with the decimalisation of the UK's currency when, overnight, 2.4 old pennies was now only worth 1 new one and the Black Jack count fell simultaneously. 

Reading The Great British Tuck Shop on a beach in South Florida has probably been a cause for consternation amongst adjacent non-British holidaymakers. 'Aztec!' I've yelped. Or, 'Caramac!' And, 'Curly Wurly!' Or, perhaps even more worryingly, 'Oh, Raspberry Ruffles,' with a long and satisfying sigh. Because when I say, 'Raspberry Ruffles', a whole other world rushes back to me: the worn, red velvet seats of an old cinema, the scent of perfume and cigarette smoke from the usherette as she saunters back up the aisle with her tray of ice-creams, and the light from a suddenly curtain free screen that makes my eyes ache. 

And then there are the people who embody my chocolate memories. My husband, Tony, is Fry's Turkish Delight (1908). My mother goes with Bournville Chocolate (1908). For my older sister there's Cadbury's Fruit and Nut (1926). My younger brother, the aforementioned laces of stiff toffee dipped in chocolate, a Curly Wurly (1970). 

Me? I'm a packet of Munchies (1957). Or maybe, Rolos (1937). But what about my father? There's nothing that comes to mind. Did he like the Toffee Pennies in a Christmas tin of Quality Street (1936)? Or a sophisticated After Eight (1962)? Did Mam put a Jacob's Club (1932) - If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit join our club! - in his box, along with his sandwiches, when he went to work? It suddenly feels important to find out. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about someone who reminds you of chocolate.

10 December 2014

Small things we love and Blue Mind Science

Everyone has a favourite kitchen utensil, right? Something quite ordinary, maybe, not necessarily a shiny and mind-boggling piece of culinary technology.

I have one. But Tony, my husband, hates it. My mother finds it awkward when she visits. But I discovered, by accident, that a friend shares my passion for it. When I told him I'd written a poem in its praise, he asked for a copy to put up in his kitchen. How deep is our love!

In Praise of Things

Today I want to say something wonderful
about my potato peeler –
the way the ergonomically designed handle
fits snugly in the curve of my palm as if
it was made for the valley of my right hand.

I want to tell you how it is soul-mate
to thick-skinned vegetables –
cloudy tangerine columns of carrot
knobbly orbs of King Edwards.
How it slides over them as if it might be
wrapping them not unwrapping them
as if it might be whispering
while secretly stealing their skin.

I love the way the steel head swivels
gently rocking from side to side
accommodating each ridge, bump, lesion.
Under the skin

everything glistens
our true colours rising.

OXO Good Grips
Swivel Potato Peeler
I'm thinking about my lovely potato peeler because here, on holiday in South Florida, the one in the kitchen drawer in the rental villa seems designed for other chores, and not one of them involving any degree of sharpness. I could have gnawed the skin off one Idaho potato and two sweet potatoes more effectively with my teeth. I didn't. I used a knife, that was only slightly sharper. 

I was making mashed potatoes to go with Tony's peppered chicken cooked with red wine and cream. As lovely as it is to eat out on holiday, and particularly here in a place that has enough bars and restaurants to entertain the inhabitants of a small country for a year, it is also good to stay in our little villa next to the Atlantic ocean and prepare our own dinner. 

A bottle of Kendall Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon flavoured the chicken and our palates. Afterwards we wandered out into a dark too dark to see the water but we listened to the waves, felt the salt start to speckle on our skin. 

Hillsboro Beach, South Florida
'What is it about the ocean that people feel drawn to it?' Tony asked me.
'Perhaps, at a primitive level, because it's the place we all come from,' I suggested. 

Dr Wallace J Nichols, scientist and best-selling author, is far more insightful in his book Blue Mind, The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connect, in which he combines science and neuroscience to show us how our brains are hard-wired to react positively to water. 

Being British I can't help but think of David Attenborough's series, The Blue Planet. He might not be making the links between human consciousness and the oceans that Nichols identifies but he still delivers us up to the grandeur and astonishing beauty of our watery world, our home. 

At night we switch off the A/C, sleep with the window open, let the sea's voice lull us to sleep, imagine its breath billowing through our dreams. Each day we walk the shore, watch sandpipers scuttle away from waves, the southern flights of pelicans. We breathe.

          never so big
          as when I am breathing
          in the sea

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a shoreline, the boundary between a body of land and a body of water.

4 December 2014

Does anything eat jellyfish?

The mornings begin here, on Hillsboro Beach in South Florida, pretty much as they do at home: one of us makes tea and brings it back to bed. But we do not look up at the fickle English sky through the Velux windows or catch the faint drone of the motorway in the distance. Instead we gaze out at the Atlantic, the horizon brightening with the rising sun, the sound of the wind ruffling, or sometimes bullying, the water into white and whiter peaks.

Hillsboro Beach, South Florida
Then our mornings' paths diverge a while for fresh papaya squeezed with the zing of lime, meet again an hour later for coffee made with milk and sweet with brown sugar, then strike off more determinedly for a walk along the beach towards Lighthouse Point, our feet in the shallows, keeping an eye out for shells and coral. And jellyfish. Quite a lot of jellyfish trundled out of a bolshy sea over the last couple of days.

Some are glassy and pinkly luminous in their freshness, up to nine inches in diameter, still pulsing faintly on the wet sand. Others have dried into bulbous clumps of aspic after their hours ashore. The blue and pink gas-filled sacks of Portuguese Men of War waver like sails on nests of weed washed up by the tide, their long inky tentacles as fine as cotton thread: colours that make you think of children's party balloons.

Sometimes ignorance really is preferred: after checking Wikipedia I now know that the tentacles from a Portuguese Man of War can sting long after the host is dead. That they can sting for hours, or even days, after being detached. 

I shout to the gulls, the sandpipers, the terns, even the osprey that career above the shore: 'Eat the jellyfish!' I don't think they're listening. I don't think they want to.

I don't want to either, although the gummy looking ones are served as a delicacy in some Aisan countries. If you're searching for that unique and attention grabbing job then 'Jellyfish Master' could be the one for you!

Late yesterday afternoon I walked back along the shoreline, trying to to snap a couple of photos of those glutinous ones... but all I could find were some scattered fragments of their former selves, sparkling like sea glass. 

The pull of the ocean, its power and danger, its terrible beauty.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about something that sparkles.

27 November 2014

More and less: food banks

In true 'Brit-abroad' fashion I'm putting together some 'essential' items for my month long trip to Florida this Saturday. So far: a couple of mini Christmas puddings, a small slab of iced Christmas cake, bags of my Natco Indian spicy tea and a packet of sage and onion stuffing mix for my 'easy-peasy' stuffing. This involves the very basic skills of making up the mix according to the instructions on the box, letting it cool slightly, then mixing it with the meat from a few skinned pork sausages and a knob of butter. Bake that for 35 minutes until it has a nice crispy topping. Food snobs desist. No sweated over, hand-made stuffing can beat this. I've tried drifts, litters and sounders of home-made pork stuffing recipes and always go back to 'easy-peasy'. And everyone I've ever cooked it for loves it too. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about food packed for a long journey.

I am grateful for my life that allows me to make a trip like this. A gratitude that deepens when I read about, and witness, the conditions and circumstances that some people are struggling with. Can you imagine not having enough money to feed your kids properly? I try, but feel sure I get nowhere near to the levels of distress and fear. 

I'm thinking particularly about food because of the number of food banks opening in the country and some of the disturbing media coverage, like Brendan O'Neill's comments in 'What's fuelling the food-bank frenzy?' in The Telegraph last month: "Today’s food banks are not fuelled by the needs of the poor so much as by the needs of charities and campaigners." Then there are the inflammatory, and unfortunately sometimes accurate, reports of misuse - scroungers and con-men - and the politicisation of the subject by Left and Right which can obscure the facts and genuine need.

Yes, some people do charity work for their own glory. Yes, some people are gutter-rats who will abuse any system for their own greedy benefit. And yes, so many politicians use social issues to blow their own trumpets and attack their opponents. But let's bypass all that and and step into these people's lives.

You're out of work following a bad car accident. You've lost your wife. Money's tight but you've always managed to pay your bills. But your child is going to a new school. You have to buy a uniform, a gym-kit. You do it, cover your monthly expenses too, but you now have £7 left to feed yourself and your child for the next three weeks.

Or, you've been made redundant. Your debts are growing. There's the threat of bailiffs. You watch your child eating toast, again, because a couple of loaves of bread is all you've been able to buy with the change in your purse.

You're elderly, you've been living alone in your two bedroom flat for years but the bedroom tax has cut your benefits. When you meet the woman from the food bank you confess you've been sharing cereal with your dog for a couple of months. 

I haven't invented these stories. I wish I had. 

Food = life. It's that simple. And do you know what's even more simple for those of us who have 'more'? Let's make do with less and give to people who really do need more. And at this time of the year when, let's be honest, so many of us spend more money than we need to, buy more than we can really eat, we could easily put aside some things and donate them to our local food bank, or even give the money we would have spent on them to a food bank so they can use it in the best possible way for the people in need that they are really helping. 

Food = life. It's that simple. I can't say more. 


19 November 2014

Triggers: scents and textures of memory

The lingering crisp aroma of home-made chips (cooked in the Actifry pan with just a tablespoon of sunflower oil) combined with the scent of the log fire as I walk from the kitchen into the lounge triggers the memory of my grandparents' house in Dafen, Llanelli. Although the scent of memory lies: those chips would have been cooked in lard, the fire made of coal, the heat localised around the grate in the kitchen rather than filling the ground and first floor of the house as our log burning stove does. 

They moved into that house around the mid 1960s although my first memory of it is from 1966, the date fixed by a family holiday at Butlins in Pwllheli, North Wales and how we called in to see them on the journey home from north to south. I remember the outfit I am wearing standing on their narrow, brick and concrete garden path for a photo, an outfit that repeats itself in the Butlins' snaps. Different shades of green in a photo that is only preserved in shades of grey.

Food and drink, clothes. My memory triggers.

I remember what I was wearing on my first (blind) date with Tony in February 1985: a black and purple, above-the-knee, knitted tunic dress with a wide shawl collar. I remember he wore a dark grey flecked suit and a bow tie. 

I remember the 'tent' dresses my mother made for me and my sister Shan in the 'psychedelic' years of the late 1960s: pink and yellow swirls with front zips. We wore them with love beads, (of course we did!), those thin long strands of tiny beads strung together with silver-coloured wire. 

What are your triggers? Music? Books? Cities? The sound of a train? The smell of old leather handbags? What carries you back to the past? What awaits you there? 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write a list of memory triggers.