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Open Features: Sid's Good Eats

...I was just about old enough to run errands and had been sent by my mother to fetch a pennyworth of pickles for my father's tea. On my way back from the shop, eyes glued to the saucer, nose twitching at the sharp smell, full of anticipation of being offered a little taste for myself, I fell down a hole...

Jacqueline Fines serves up a tasty plateful of gustatory memories.

If you're at all interested you can sit in front of your television these days and watch all sorts of people doing all sorts of things to food. I'm not interested so I don't watch. But sometimes pictures of food do rise sharp and clear in my mind.

In fact, I can remember the taste of food which I didn't actually get to eat. There was a certain saucerful of pickles, for instance, nearly 90 years ago.... I was just about old enough to run errands and had been sent by my mother to fetch a pennyworth of pickles for my father's tea. On my way back from the shop, eyes glued to the saucer, nose twitching at the sharp smell, full of anticipation of being offered a little taste for myself, I fell down a hole.

The hole was actually the cellar of a pub; the flap doors set in the pavement were open so that the brewer's men could roll barrels of beer down a ramp to the cellar. The pickles before my eyes prevented me noticing this. I fell down the ramp and broke my arm. I was really upset about dropping the pickles.

Then there was the time my cousin Harry and I set up a pigeon trap in our back yard. We used dried peas and a dustbin lid propped on a stick. We'd never eaten pigeon pie but we just knew that there would be enormous lumps of juicy meat in rich gravy. We sat there holding the end of the string which would tug the stick away. We held the string and thought how that pie would be all for us and we wouldn't let our older brothers have a bite. We sat holding the string and thinking about pie for what seemed like hours. Then we went off and played football.

Fate deprived me of those pickles and that pigeon pie, but it did have a treat in store. Condensed milk was a favourite of all the kids I knew. One day, unusually and for some unknown reason, my mother lost her temper. I'm sure it wasn't anything I did. She reached for something to throw. An opened tin of condensed milk was to hand. The tin hit the wall. The sticky stuff ran down the wall. I licked the wall. Condensed milk and wallpaper – a flavour to remember.

The flavour and texture of fresh vegetables are one of my sharpest food memories. When I say fresh, I mean pulled out of the ground and shoved straight in the mouth. That fresh. Like other boys, I was always hungry and took every opportunity to put something in my stomach. Across the river from where I lived in Hammersmith there were the fields of a market garden. If I happened to be passing I might nip over the fence and help myself to a turnip or a carrot. Just the one. I'd give it a bit of a wipe on my trousers and crunch away happily, spitting out the grit. But the day I was chased (or thought I was) by a man with a shotgun I laid off raw vegetables for a while.

My first experience of dining out was at Taylor’s Eel and Pie House in Hammersmith Broadway. My friends and I surveyed the artistic display of potted ferns and live eels in the window and the piles of pies and mashed potato. Inside, I ordered meat pie and 'liquor'. This 'liquor' was a kind of gravy, green and tasty, made from the eel stewing-water, cornflour and parsley.

I soon cleared my plate and watched a lad called Charlie tucking into his stewed eels. “Eels feed on dead bodies, you know,” I said, by way of polite conversation. I'd spent my childhood in and around the Thames, swimming in it, rowing on it, climbing on and off barges. Me and my friends were happy to tell anyone how the river was chock full of dead bodies. Charlie didn't seem to be well informed on the subject. I described eel feeding habits as best I could. Charlie stopped eating and I had to finish up those eels for him. Funny though - I haven't eaten eels since that day. Lost the taste for them somehow.

When I was about eight years old it was my job to collect the family's bread. This meant a walk of about four miles, there and back to the big Lyon's Bakery in Kensington. Twice a week at four o'clock in the afternoon a queue of kids would form at a side door, waiting with their sixpences or shillings, ready to buy a bag of leftover loaves and rolls. I walked home again with my cheeks bulging with a hunk of chewy, fairly-fresh bread. Being the seventh of eleven children, I didn't often get first pick of anything so I savoured that first pick off the loaf.

Army food? I had a good appetite for it. Other men might turn up their noses at boiled swede. 'I'm not eating that. That's cattle food,' they said. How did they get to be such fussy eaters? I ate mine, and theirs. However, I have to admit that, having enjoyed fresh, raw, stolen veg in my youth, I found Army veg a bit lacking in texture.

The green meat was interesting, though. For the first days of our voyage to Bombay most of us were very seasick. But I had a strong stomach (all that boyhood swimming in the Thames) and soon began to feel better. I made my way to the canteen. The weather was hot. The canteen was stifling. I sat at table and sweat ran down my arms and puddled under my elbows. When I looked down at the meat on my plate, I could swear it was green. Why would this be? Preservative?
Chlorination? Or perhaps the fact that I had been so green around the gills that everything look green. Whatever the reason, I was hungry and I ate. Didn't seem to do me any harm.

At the transit camp in India the shite hawks were waiting for us. These black hawks hovered overhead at mealtimes scrutinizing soldiers carrying their plates of food from the mess tent. When it spotted an unprotected sausage a hawk would go into a dive; it would pull out of the dive at the moment when its talons made contact with its prey. Dinner was swiped straight off the plate. New recruits learned fast and I can vouch for the fact that a sausage defended from a shite hawk is a sausage to be relished and remembered.

I had one brief but successful experience as an Army cook. After a spell in hospital I arrived at a jungle encampment and was allocated light duties. This included a day or two doing the cooking. I'd not done much in the way of cooking but I grabbed a few things from the stores, smacked them about a bit and hung them over a fire pit. The men gathered round to eat. Someone said, “Ah, Lancashire Hotpot. Grand!” I didn't know I'd made Lancashire Hotpot. And everyone was very appreciative of the pudding too. Jam Roly Poly, they called it. Well, why not? I was relieved they enjoyed the meal. But I think the reason they liked it so much was because they'd been expecting corned beef and biscuits. Nothing like a nice hotpot and a stodgy jam pud when you're in the Burmese jungle.

Over the years I suppose I've eaten a lot of good food. And the flavour of my own freshly pulled, five-pronged carrots, often calls to mind those vegetables, garnished with soil, which I got straight from someone's field all those years ago.


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