Journalism

Food

December 10th, 2004
My parents bought their first (and last) house in 1947. That was the coldest winter of the twentieth century. Mrs Winterson said the snow was as high as her upright piano, and that before my Dad and his pals pushed it indoors, everyone on the street came out for a sing-song and a plate of rationed mince pies.

It was nearly Christmas and the war was over. My Dad, who had been in the D-day landings, was back at work at English Electric. He liked the job because they let him make Christmas tree lights when things were quiet, which was most of the time. He swapped his red and white flashing snowflakes for extra food for their first Christmas together. They shared a rabbit bred on their allotment, stuffed with apples and cooked in cider. They ate it with their own Brussel sprouts and potatoes, followed by a pudding in a rag that Mrs Winterson had made in July and kept soaked in black market whisky. For fun, they painted themselves green with phosphorus from the match factory where their neighbours worked. Nobody knew it was carcinogenic; they just liked glowing in the dark while they set fire to their pudding.

Much later, when I was a small child in the 1960’s, my parents had found Jesus and the first supermarket had opened in Accrington. The coincidence was a disaster because Mrs Winterson believed in Thrift, with a capital letter, and the supermarket was cheap. In 1968 we stopped eating our own rabbits and celebrated with a frozen turkey, which Mrs Winterson thought more Biblical because she believed that turkeys came from Palestine.

1947 was cold but 1968 was frozen; peas, beans, sprouts, pudding, and even the custard. Frozen custard is a miserable thing, a cross between cavity wall filler and pus. We still had to set fire to the brandy, but my mother longed for deep-frozen flames to hang over our pud like the Snow Queen’s fire.

She was a good cook, but an unhappy person, and like many unhappy people, the misery seeped into the food. She began to punish us at mealtimes, while calling it Progress. Christmas 1968 was the beginning of our Instant and Frozen life.

Cake mix was a real problem. My mother abandoned her lovely lard mince pies, and buns like little round breasts with glace cherry nipples, and took to stirring packets into bowls, and standing over the oven like an evil midwife, while the stuff evolved into alien life.

When our protests were finally heard, she reluctantly invented a new delicacy, made with lard and raisons, to be cooked quickly and served buttered. She called it Sad Cake, because it didn’t rise, and Sad Cake became the symbol of herself. We went on, Mum, Dad, Jesus, and me, and because of Jesus, no alcohol was allowed, so that firing the pudding became a thrilling sin, and my mother’s lone box of Christmas liqueurs, a kind of gastronomic pornography. The box of Mon Cherie was pronounced Moan Shereeee, and distributed to Dad and me in single units only, on Christmas Day.

In the 1970’s I left home abruptly, while still at school, and spent my first Christmas by myself, with a box of After Eight mints and a family pack of BabyCham. My Dad took pity on me and brought round a few supplies from Mrs Winterson’s War Cupboard – the Christmas Shelf. Always convinced that the Russians were about to invade, and knowing everything there is to know about dried egg, my mother continued to stock her wartime supplies.

Christmas At War meant pilchards and tinned lemon meringue – you guessed it, just add the dried egg, and pour on the Evap. My mother had a stash date-stamped 1952 in tins the size of oil drums. My father staggered in with one and I used it as a stool until I went to Oxford in 1978.

That bleak and malnourished Christmas I discovered that I couldn’t cook. The only cookbook I had managed to steal was my mother’s Marguerite Patten Austerity Tips, which instructed the new 1950’s housewife how to make a nutritious meal out of brown paper and elastic bands. One recipe was the exception – Christmas Mallard in gin and orange sauce. I cooked it with a duck stolen from the river and fell in love with real food again.

I do not see the point of being alive if we cannot eat real food. If food is processed, manufactured, convenience, instant, frozen or factory farmed, forget it. Life is short enough, and worth celebrating, however simply, at every meal.

At Christmas time, we could take the radical step of not pigging out on whatever we can grab from the supermarket shelf, but instead buying a little of the very best. Wild venison or mallard is in every way superior to farmed turkey, and this is a good moment not to allow American ways to dominate everything we do, from foreign policy to food.

Last Christmas I cooked a goose from the farm nearby. All summer he had a red ribbon round his neck, a bit like the aristocrats after the French revolution. I fed him by hand, and when at last he fed me, there was nothing either squeamish or sentimental in the moment. If you are not vegetarian, it is better to accept the realities of what you are eating, not least because no one of any sensibility at all could eat a factory-reared animal or even a battery egg, if we saw how the creatures live. We eat as we do because we remove ourselves from the process of food production. Getting closer to our food would be a saner way to live, and although most of us cannot do it by living in the country, we can visit small specialist shops, whether butchers or grocers, and become keenly interested in just what it is we are eating.

I have put my money where my mouth is and opened a shop in London where you can buy wonderful food and organic veg. I shall be getting all of my Christmas fare there this year, with one exception – the wild boar.

I shall spend this Christmas in a remote part of France, where hunting has not been twisted into politics, and where, in the summer, I asked the local organic farmer to find me a wild boar. He promised to send his son out to shoot one, and it will be hanging for me when I arrive.

We are going to cook it in the old wood-fired bread oven, which will mean spending a lot of time chopping wood the right length, and making sure that the fire doesn’t go out. It will be time consuming, but much more fun than watching TV, and we can entertain ourselves by panning chestnuts on the hot iron roof of the oven, and drinking our own Morello cherry spirit.

I will serve the boar with a puree of carrots and swede, chard picked on Christmas morning, and a rich sauce of dried mushrooms gathered from the fields in the summer, and kept in the apple store. We’ll drink the blackest Cahor wine I can find, and begin at eleven in the morning with a bottle of Krug. I have made a pudding wrapped in a rag – actually my godchild Cara’s pyjama bottoms, done just the way Mrs Winterson would have liked, in the days when she still liked things.

I think of her often at this time of year, obstinate and self-punishing, boiling her frozen veg into paste, serving turkey like a last meal to the condemned.

There is no reason to condemn ourselves to dreadful food. For my money, the best way to celebrate Christmas is to get the best ingredients and cook them simply. Why run up the bills on the credit card just to put on half a stone and have a horrible time?

They say it will be a cold winter, probably a white Christmas. In honour of that day in 1947, I shall be making my own mince pies, out of lard, and serving them with hot toddies, right up to Christmas Eve. A true feast is a little of the best; pleasure, and the memory of pleasure, never so much that you forget either the taste or the moment.

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