So, today, I'm having oat bran and fat-free yogurt for breakfast in preparation for a Lenten diet. Last night I read through the book and checked out recipes and the list of permitted foods. Yes, I admit, I bought a diet book without reading it. And why not? After all, I had the resolution, what did I need recipes for? In this instance, Carpe diem trumped Caveat emptor!
So this morning, I had porridge for breakfast. I sat in front of the bowl and baulked. I have no idea why, but I could not eat more than a few mouthfuls of the stuff.. what made eating my porridge yesterday such an impossible task?
As a parent, porridge has been my regular nerd-y cereal choice, leaving my kids to make their own gleeful choco-choice at breakfast-times. As a child spending summers with my paternal grandmother, there was regularly a bowl of porridge, steaming and hot, ready for me when I came down to the kitchen. We'd sit at the table and chat, while I spooned its sweet goodness into me, an exchange of love and kindness. Now I add golden syrup and share it with my husband.
My grandmother was a great cook: I remember heaped plates of bacon and white cabbage with delicious, buttered floury potatoes. I'd sit, barely able to reach the table, as the plates were passed over my head between my uncles and my grandfather.
When first I visited with her, I slept in the "servants' quarters", a broad room above and behind the kitchen. It was an adventure going to bed up there because to reach it I had to climb a narrow stone stairway, behind the broad fireplace. Later, I was moved to the main house and I slept in much grander surroundings, with a high ceiling and squared-off windows looking over the lawn.
On an episode of 'The Golden Girls', Sophia described her Italian childhood and her Mama, wiping her brow over a hot fire, stirring her tomato sauce throughout the day. Whenever I'm reminded of this stereotype, now being used here in a clever advertising campaign for Italian sauces, I remember my Granny and those floury potatoes.
My grandmother cooked all day; the kitchen was her kingdom, my uncles and myself her loyal servants. Breakfast of porridge was followed by the staple interlude of great aluminium pots of tea with brown bread and home-made butter from her own cream supplemented by jam from her own fruit.
When my grandfather and uncles left to work on the farm, my Granny and I cleaned up the remains of that meal and began the preparations for the next. I ran out to the shed and filled a basin with potatoes; I'd count out two per person and then, like making tea, I'd add 'a few more for the pot'. Then I'd struggle back to the scullery and await my next instructions.
Potatoes went into the pot without question, of course, but whether white or green cabbage, carrots and or parsnips - these were decisions that depended upon what I saw as my Granny's whim. Now I realise the organisation and resourcefulness, the arrangements of water and utensils, the husbandry of chickens and vegetables, that made her the bold captain of this enterprise.
In this mid-morning space, all was rush and urgency but never chaos.
In the kitchen, it was clear the table, wipe it down, wash the dishes and cutlery in a bowl on the table, dry them, set them back on the table, sweep the floor.
In the scullery, it was gather the vegetables, wash them, peel them, fill the pot on the fire with water and ready the vegetables beside it to add when the water had boiled.
In the stone-cold pantry, my grandmother wielded her great wooden-handled knife in careful hesitation, measuring and calculating. The bacon came from her own pigs, salted not smoked, lying white and lipidinous on the glossy wood.
In the kitchen, before the men came in, bowls of food were laid out with the condiments: Saxa salt and white pepper, brown HP sauce, red Chef ketchup, yellow Colman's mustard. On the window stood glasses and jugs for milk and water. On the mantel-piece, sliced brown bread, jam and butter; 'spotted dick' that a neighbour had brought her as tribute from their own kitchen; cups and sugar-bowls. On the hob, the full kettle was set to boil, ready to fill the after-dinner teapots.
Freud has a term: 'screen memory'. It connotes a memory that may owe as much to fantasy as to the recollection of a real lived event. This may be why I remember so vividly the blessed cool of that house and the blistering heat of the fields in those childhood summers.
These were industrious times though they evoke in me such feelings of lazy fallowness. On the farm the men were busy saving hay or making silage or bringing home the turf. These were the days of the 'meitheal', a co-operative neighbourly working group dedicated to completing the work on time. All the neighbours, all the uncles and all the cousins grappled with forks of sweeping golden hay in the fields while Granny and I forked potatoes into sweet buttered mash in the kitchen.
The heat in the kitchen smelled of salty bacon and mustard while from outside the hot smells of cut grass and tractor diesel backed up to the door. When the men came in, drawing dampened caps from pink and sweaty brows, they lined up to wash their hands in the scullery in sudden bashful quiet before entering our kitchen. The exuberance of the fields calmed in respectful courtesy; nodding deferentially to my grandmother, smiling at me in gentle approbation of my contribution.
At the table, their powerful physical invasion of our solemn kitchen was suspended by automatic Signs of the Cross as my grandfather said 'Grace'. Though we would eat after the men, Granny and I joined in, too, our heads bowed, appreciating this restorative lacuna. Then, another Sign and a chorus of loud and favourable comments:
'This is a fine spread, Ma'am!'
'Well, will you look at it, this is a grand feed altogether!'
'God, will you look at this now!'
There was always an extra plate needed, another cup to fill. Someone else had come home from Dublin, had taken the ferry over from England, had got time off work 'while the weather held'. There was always room for one more, a welcome on the mat, a seat at the table.
Goldilocks need not have feared; she would have been graciously offered her own bowl of porridge.
Those were the days...