Our current challenge in the Food Writing course is tackling food memoir. I’m sure, like me, you’ve all got a vast reservoir of childhood memories related to food sloshing around in the dark reaches of your hippocampus. But dredging up something from the depths can be confronting. If it’s one of those glowing, rose coloured images of grandma teaching you to bake muffins, just thinking about that could save you a visit to the shrink. Then again, if it’s some ugly, algae globuled nightmare of your mother’s soggy vegetables, do we really want to go there?
Ever noticed how uncannily a cabbage cross-section resembles a brain? This may explain why my mother’s boiled cabbage relentlessly haunts the recesses of my hippocampus, prodding me with visions of its soggy, soap textured ghastliness. This dish sadly wasn’t an anomaly. For I was brought up in an era when chops and three veg were the staple offerings at the family dinner table. Varied only by the Saturday roast which carried over into a couple of cold meat and salad offerings, and now and again by stew (we definitely don’t want to go there), this, essentially was it.
Energy must have been cheap in those days because everything was overcooked. Vegetables got put on to boil around an hour in advance of the meal. Meat had every last bit of flavour and juice blasted out of it to the extent you needed the jaws of a crocodile to eat it. No wonder they all ended up with false teeth at 30. Food, other than to keep us alive, wasn’t exactly big on the agenda. And it definitely wasn’t memorable.
Distance, they say, lends enchantment to the view, but when the view’s too horrible, amnesia could be the best course. That obviously isn’t going to work if you need to write memoir. So if all your memories are awful, what to do? Our textbook* gives the following advice:
- Insights are crucial (for example, can you connect your childhood abomination of cabbage with a fear of unusual sexual practices in later life?)
- Story evokes emotion from the reader (for example, reader smacks his hand to his forehead, jumps to his feet and shouts “Why, that’s exactly what happened to me!” or better yet, reader is a publisher who smacks his hand to his forehead, jumps to his feet and shouts “This is the next “Eat Pray Love” – where’s this woman’s email address?”)
- Strong characterisation (you discover what fun it is to depict your mother/father/brother/sister or all of them as Attila the Hun. Hint: only try this if they’ve passed away or not likely to read it.)
- Dialogue needs to ring true (you can record your father saying “What the crap is this?” with complete impunity)
- Tell the truth (again only try this if the family members depicted are dead or not likely to read it)
- Use plot devices from fiction (“It was a dark and stormy Irish stew”)
- Conclusion shows how your life and impressions have changed, and the consequences of that change upon you (for example, “since my deprived childhood I’ve had to over-compensate and am now the world’s second fattest person … thanks Mum for ensuring I have to book two airline seats whenever I fly … it’s costing me a mint ….not that I’m bitter or ungrateful or anything … but if you’d done a decent job and cooked proper meals for us instead of going down the pub every night … then maybe Dad wouldn’t have buggered off … and then Judy wouldn’t have had to go on the game … and then Harry wouldn’t have absconded with the greengrocer’s life savings… I know it’s not your fault … but actually it is ….I hate you …and the world)
During our lecture, we were asked to do the following:
“Write about a much loved or much hated dish from your childhood. Describe it in detail, your reaction to it and how it made you feel. What is your reaction to the dish today?”
If anyone’s game to have a go, I’d love to hear your memories – good or bad!
by Anne Green