A parsnip. A leek. Three sweet potatoes the size of a child’s fist. A sweetheart cabbage that was far too small to serve at Saturday's Easter family dinner for eight. Leftover chicken. I’m thinking soup. Grab the chicken stock, garlic, salt and pepper.
The trifling plate of cooked chicken was the only thing left over from lunch. Roast potatoes, roast parsnips, honeyed carrots, peas and leeks sauteed in butter, sausage-meat stuffing and gravy all disappeared within a crumb and a splash. I reckon that a video of the table, played back at high speed, might easily draw similarities to a shoal of pirhanas stripping the flesh from a cow pushed into a Brazilian river.
My 1912 doorstep size Ward Lock edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management expounds on soup – broth, clear and thick – for over 50 pages. It’s one of a handful of collectable books that I kept after I sold Foxed & Bound, the second-hand and antiquarian bookshop I ran for 10 years until the end of 1999. The recipes that catch my eye are Solferino Soup (with choux pastry), Prince’s Soup (with turnips) and Turtle Soup (barricade the terrapin tank).
When the delights of Mrs Beeton – Sweet potatoes deserve to receive more intelligent attention in the kitchen – completely distract me from writing this blog post I come across some other people’s leftovers flattened between the pages: a dried fern, the disintegrating flakes of azure blue silver paper that I imagine once sealed a cigarette packet although not a trace of dry tobacco scent remains, a fragment of old newspaper with a quote urging people to return any books they borrow, and one of Julian Barnes’ ‘Pedant in the Kitchen’ columns cut from The Guardian in 2003. By me. The paper’s name and date, 5.4.03, are scribbled in my handwriting on the yellowing newsprint. But I can’t remember doing it.
I don’t even remember reading the column. But I feel as if I should. I recently bought Barnes’ book, The Pedant in the Kitchen, and this particular article, ‘Mrs Beeton to the rescue’, in which he talks about his mother’s hulking 1915 edition of Mrs Beeton, appears in it verbatim, albeit with the alternative title, ‘The Cactus and the Slipper’. But when I read it again I had no memory of the original article, or of ever having read the Guardian column, or of even having seen the phrase, The Pedant in the Kitchen, before.
How much of my life has been so easily forgotten? My guess would be: more than I’m comfortable with. Does it matter? Probably not. Memories associated with heightened emotional experiences tend to be the ones that persist. Perhaps what matters more is that I pay attention in the moment. On this day in 2003 I bothered to cut out the article because I recognised and relished the link to something in my life. I acted to mark that connection without the slightest inkling that seven years later I’d be writing about food and writing and life myself. Perhaps that’s all any of us can do: make some effort to mark our places in the world.
Hungry Writing Prompts
Write a list of ingredients - practical, imaginary or fantastic - for Leftover Soup.
Write about a river.
Write about an old newspaper cutting.
Write a list of things you have forgotten.
Write about what connects you to the world.