by Vicki Woods
(An edited version of this article was published in Observer Food Monthly, 18 April 2004.)
My mother was a domestic goddess in every household art except culinary. She cleaned, polished, DIYed, decorated, painted, gardened, sewed, knitted and embroidered to Chatsworth-type standards. (We lived in a pre-fab in Lancaster.) She had my baby brother and me turned out like Shirley Temple and Little Lord Fauntleroy but she had no interest in cooking anything but fairy cakes. I never blamed her. She’d been a waitress before she married; cooking was what Chef did. Also, she’d been in Mr Churchill’s citizens’ army for five years, eating snoek (whale meat), Woolton Pie (turnip/swede) and the National Loaf (which was grey. That’s why Mother’s Pride, white as laundered flannel, was so prized by the war generation). Anyway, as a Fifties bride, dressed in home-made homage to Monsieur Dior’s tight-waisted New Look, she was forever on a highly effective diet of 40 Senior Service a day and black Camp coffee. Apart from fried Spam, bread and jam and HP Sauce, the only thing I remember putting in my mouth before I was five was in my Aunty Betty’s back-kitchen. My Uncle George fetched in a great slab of pale, floppy stuff, laid it out on the table and started cutting it into strips. Dipping one strip into a bowl of vinegar, he said: “Right, monkeh, that’ll make thy hair curl.” Tripe. It was like gnawing on your baby brother’s forearm and (like a grand cru Burgundy) took a long time in the mouth.
Almost as soon as I’d swallowed it, my mother packed up everything we owned in wooden boxes marked WD (for War Department) and took us to join my father in a hot place called Tripoli, where he was garrisoned. All I recall being fed for the next four years is oranges, with their green leaves attached, and hard orange dates. Also, broken slabs of Army chocolate, which came out of big gold tins (also marked WD). My father griddled toast over the spirit-stove occasionally, on an upturned biscuit-tin lid. I admired his technique. There was no fridge. The ice man staggered upstairs with a dripping block every morning for the zinc ice-box where we kept the butter, and the “milkman” was a goat-herder. You took a jug downstairs, he stuck it under the nearest nanny-goat and milked you a pint for 20 piastres. My mother couldn’t be doing with goats, she said, and gave us Carnation Evaporated instead.
Our first flat was above the camel market, and my brother and I spent all day on the balcony. When the camels were poked with sticks and made to kneel (front legs first, very ungainly) they groaned viciously. The flat was an Army “hiring”, leased from Signora, an old Italian lady who lived downstairs. She liked me (“Bellissima bimba”) but she thought I was too skinny, and often beckoned me into her flat to give me plates of curious, aromatic food: coils of glossy white worms, or a soft heap of glistening shells. I liked the worms best. Signora showed me how to separate the coils and twist them up on my fork. They were scattered with tiny white curls of some salty stuff that tasted like belly-button detritus: I loved the sweaty tang. Years later, back in England, my mother would open small tins of Heinz Alphabetti when we got home from school. They smelled of copper and damp dishcloth and slid horribly in the mouth. “You ate nothing but spaghetti when we lived in Tripoli,” she would remind me crossly. But I couldn’t connect her tinny slop from Heinz with the signora’s coiled worms.
We were only back in Blighty for a couple of years before being posted to the next hot place, which was Singapore. All I remember being fed there is lychees (called rambatans by the amahs) and monkey-bananas, and cool slices of paw-paw. By now, the Army had cottoned on to electric refrigeration, even in the sergeants’ quarters. Alas, they didn’t run to domestic air-conditioning, though. Sometimes we went to a posh ice-cream shop near the House of Wang — the only shop in Singapore where the air blew cold — and ate a Hungry Lady’s Special (four kinds of ice-cream). But mostly, all I put in my mouth was iced water. I stayed very skinny.
My mother, who had ideas above her station, sent me home from Singapore to a very Sloaney, very expensive girls’ boarding school in Middlesex. She had a vague, My Fair Lady-ish idea that it would teach me how to talk proper, eat nicely and end up marrying a brigadier. I arrived there at teatime, three days after term started, and asked the girl next to me: “Can you pass me a tea-cake, please?” My short Lancastrian A cracked out like a walnut, and everybody fell into fits of giggles, only hushed by the house mistress, who said: “Gels! Do pa-ass Victoria the Ba-ath buns and the batter.” I shut my mouth tight for a week until I’d learned to mimic both the long A and the short U and mastered the vocabulary (“lunch” not dinner, “supper” not high tea, “napkin” not serviette, “silver” not cutlery, etc. etc.). I was there two years (until the money ran out) and had got really good at the Sloaney drawl. Also — fatter.
It wasn’t until I was seventeen, and working the A-level summer as a commis waitress in the Ristorante Portofino in Morecambe, that I learned about food. The Portofino was the only place in town where “dinner” was (a) eaten in the evening, and (b) didn’t involve batter. I was sick of working in the seafront caffs, where the menus ran to only six items: pie and chips, pasty and chips, cod and chips, hake and chips, plaice and chips and “Best Plaice” and chips. (Customer: What’s the difference between plaice and best plaice, love? Me: One and sixpence. Customer: Aye, very funny, but what’s t’difference? Me: Well, best plaice is plaice, but plaice is fluke. It’s just like plaice, only smaller. Customer: I’ll have the pasty.)
The Portofino was dead posh. Popular with tough, well-dressed guys who ran the north-west’s fruit-machine syndicates and drove Jags, it was all candlelight and entrecote Diane and veal Marsala, with pancakes flambées for afters, and a coupla them Irish coffees to follow, Mario. He was the head waiter. He wouldn’t let me speak English to the flasher customers: I had to say Encora caffe, signori? to give them a bit of a Continental-type thrill. I was doing just that one night (Customer, ogling: “You from Italy, pet?” Me: Si, signor — di Napoli) when there was an argy-bargy at the door — Mario refused entry to a bunch of “gypsies” who weren’t wearing ties and they shouted up the stairs at him. Tino the sommelier told me later: “they were very angry, those Rolling Stones” and I bent damn nigh double with chagrin.
At midnight, when we’d cleared the tables, the wait-staff would get their meal. Leftover veal, if there was any, but better when there wasn’t, or when Chef (a heroin addict, I now realise) had passed out in the kitchen, because then one of the staff would have to cook for us, in a huge pan that took up all four of the still room gas-rings. The first time Emilio slapped down a plateful of glossy white worms crusted with the tiny salty curls of childhood memory, I nearly passed out. What was it called, this stuff? “Pasta povarina,” he said. He shrugged; there was nothing else; Ivo had locked himself in the kitchen again; he couldn’t get hold of so much as a shrimp for the salsa. “E tutto, bella. Mangia.” Pasta con alio e olio — still my favourite food ever, and I still can’t cook it like Emilio.
When I ran away to London, I took my kitchen-Italian and impressive silver-service waiting skills with me. “You’ll always find work with that behind you,” my mother said. She packed my best “afternoon apron” (fine lawn, double frills) in wads of tissue in the faint hope I’d fetch up somewhere seriously classy like the Savoy. Alas, I failed her ambitions (and not for the last time), by ending up on a magazine I’d never heard of, sub-editing for peanuts. I told her it was quite posh, though. It was Harpers & Queen and the puny salary covered a) bus-fares, b) Biba sales and c) rent. It never quite stretched to d) food, but the (Italian) editor sometimes took me to lunch and fed me amazing stuff — prosciutto, mozzarella, spaghetti alla vongole. Also, there were press launches almost every night where you got canapes. The best launches were for new restaurants, obviously. The worst were for pop-groups, because they had to give you the LP (expensive), so canapes were thin on the ground. I have a picture of me glazed with hunger at the launch of Dark Side of the Moon; it was at the London Planetarium; it was stiff with music people dressed up in stars and spangles; there were no Rolling Stones; the only person I recognized was H, a somewhat worrisome heroin dealer who lived at the end of my road. A photographer shouted, “Nice and close — that’s great, lovely!” as an arm snaked round my back. When the picture came into the office, somebody said: “Ooh, look at you and Freddie Mercury.” For months, I thought he was in Pink Floyd.