Just because you grow up on bad food, it does not follow that you lack nostalgia for it. My own gastronomic youth was firmly bounded by everything that was least inspiring in traditional English cuisine, alleviated with hints of Continental cosmopolitanism occasionally introduced by my father’s fading memories of a Belgian youth, and interspersed with weekly reminders of another heritage altogether: Sabbath evening dinners at the home of my East European Jewish grandparents. This curious melange did little to sharpen my taste buds—it was not until I lived in France as a graduate student that I encountered good food on a regular basis—but it added further to the confusions of my youthful identity.
My mother was born in the least Jewish part of the old London East End: at the intersection of Burdett Road and the Commercial Road, a few blocks north of the London Docks. This topographical misfortune—she always felt a little tangential to her surroundings, lacking the intensely Jewish milieu of Stepney Green a few hundred yards to the north—played into many otherwise curious aspects of her personality. Unlike my father, for example, my mother had great respect for the King and the Queen, and was always half-tempted to stand up during the Queen’s speech on television in later years. She was discreet to the point of embarrassment about her Jewishness, in contrast to the overtly foreign and Yiddish quality of most of the rest of our extended family. And in an inverted tribute to her own mother’s indifference to Jewish traditions beyond those ordained by annual rituals (and the decidedly Cockney ambiance of the streets where she grew up), she had almost no knowledge of Jewish cuisine.
As a result, I was brought up on English food. But not fish and chips, spotted dick, toad in the hole, Yorkshire pud, or other delicacies of British home cooking. These my mother scorned as somehow unhealthy; she may have grown up surrounded by non-Jews, but for just that reason she and her family kept to themselves and knew little of the domestic world of their neighbors, which they looked upon with fear and suspicion. In any case, she had no idea how to prepare “English delicacies.” Her occasional encounters, via my father’s friends in the Socialist Party of Great Britain, with vegetarians and vegans had taught her the virtues of brown bread, brown rice, green beans, and other “healthy” staples of an Edwardian left-wing diet. But she could no more cook brown rice than she could have prepared “chop suey.” And so she did what every other cook in England in those days did: she boiled everything to death.
It was thus that I came to associate English food not so much with the absence of subtlety as with the absence of any flavor whatsoever. We had Hovis brown bread, which always seemed to me even more boring in its worthy way than the rubberized white toast served for tea at my friends’ houses. We ate boiled meat, boiled greens, and, very occasionally, fried versions of same (to be fair, fish my mother could indeed fry with some style—though whether this was an English or a Jewish attribute I never could tell). Cheese, when it appeared, was usually Dutch—for reasons that I never understood. Tea was ubiquitous. My parents disapproved of fizzy drinks—another unfortunate heritage of their political dalliances—so we drank fruitified, uncarbonated soft drinks, or Nescafe in later years. Thanks to my father, Camembert, salad, real coffee, and other treats occasionally surfaced. But my mother regarded these with much the same suspicion she harbored toward other Continental imports, gastronomic and human alike.
The contrast with the food that my paternal grandmother prepared for us every Friday night at her house in North London could thus not have been greater. My grandfather was Polish-Jewish, my grandmother born in a Lithuanian shtetl. Their taste in food ran to Northeast European Jewish. It was not until decades later that I was to taste the flavors, variety, and texture of the Jewish cuisine of South-Central Europe (Hungary, in particular), nor did I have the slightest familiarity with the Mediterranean cooking of the Sephardic tradition. My grandmother, who had made her way from Pilvistok to London via Antwerp, knew nothing of salad and she had never met a green vegetable she could not torture to death in a saucepan. But with sauces, chickens, fish, beef, root vegetables, and fruit she was—to my understimulated palate—a magician.
The characteristic quality of a Friday night dinner in those days was the repeated contrast between soft and crunchy, sweet and savory. Potatoes, swedes, turnips were always brown and soft and appeared to have been drenched in sugar. Cucumbers, onions, and other small, harmless vegetables came crunchy and pickled. Meat fell off the fork, having long since fallen off the bone. It too was brown and soft. Fish—gefilted, boiled, pickled, fried, or smoked—was omnipresent and the house seemed to me always to smell of spiced and preserved sea creatures. Interestingly and perhaps revealingly, I have no recollection of the texture of the fish or of its provenance (probably carp). It was its wrapping that one noticed.
Along with the fish and the vegetables there came dessert. Or, more precisely, “compote.” All manner of stewed and squeezed fruits, prominent among them plums and pears, would appear faithfully after the main course. Occasionally they had been compressed inside a thick pastry of the kind traditionally employed in Purim hamantaschen, but more commonly the compote was freestanding. Liquid refreshment consisted always and uniquely of a horrible sweet wine for the adults and lemon tea for everyone. Together with bulk in the form of black bread, challah, matzoh balls in soup, and dumplings in all shapes and varieties (but only one texture—soft), this meal would have been recognizable to anyone born between Germany and Russia, Latvia and Romania in the course of the past half-millennium. For me, transported weekly from Putney to Pilvistok, it represented Family, Familiarity, Flavor, and Roots. I never even attempted to explain to my English schoolboy friends what we ate on Friday nights or what it meant to me. I don’t think I knew and they would never have understood.
As I grew older, I discovered other ways to add taste to a hopelessly, helplessly bland domestic regimen. In England in those days there were just three paths to interesting food if your grandparents did not happen to come from exotic foreign parts. There was Italian food, still confined to Soho and the bohemian fringes of the aspirant talking classes. This was beyond my teenage or student budget. Then there was Chinese food, not particularly interesting or widely available in those years and in any case commercially adapted to British taste. The only serious Chinese restaurants in London before the mid-Sixties were in the East End and patronized by Chinese sailors and a handful of East Asian immigrants. The menus were frequently untranslated and the dishes unknown to locals.
The real escape route lay to the Indies. I don’t believe my parents ever went to an Indian restaurant—my mother was under the curious illusion that whereas Chinese food (about which she knew nothing) was somehow “clean,” Indian food was suspiciously camouflaged in flavor and probably cooked on the floor. I never shared this prejudice and spent most of my student years and disposable income in Indian restaurants in London and Cambridge. At the time I just thought it delectable, but on reflection it is likely that I made an unconscious association with my grandparents’ table.
Indian food too consisted of overcooked protein drenched in flavorful sauces. Its bread was soft, its condiments spicy, its vegetables sweet. In place of dessert came fruit-flavored ices or exotic fruit compotes. And it was best accompanied by beer, a beverage hardly known in our home. My father never vouchsafed the thought, but I’m sure that somewhere deep inside him resided a prejudice against pub-crawling, beer-swilling ethnic Englishmen. He was European enough to drink decent wine, but otherwise shared the older Jewish prejudice against excess alcohol consumption.
Indian food made me more English. Like most Englishmen of my generation I now think of takeout or delivered Indian food as a native dish imported centuries before. I am English enough to think of Indian food in particular as an aspect of England that I miss here in the US where Chinese is the ethnic dish of local preference. But my Englishness also leads me to miss East European Jewish cuisine in its very slightly adapted British form (a little more boiling, a little less spice than Jewish cooking here in the US). I can work up a nostalgia for fish and chips, but in truth it is nothing more than a self-generated gastronomic Heritage Exercise. We hardly ever ate the stuff when I was a child. Were I ever truly to set out in Search of Past Taste I would begin with braised beef and baked turnip, followed by chicken tikka masala and pickled wollies swabbed in challah, Kingfisher beer and sweet lemon tea. As for the madeleine that would trigger the memory? Naan dunked in matzoh ball soup, served by a Yiddish-speaking waiter from Madras. We are what we ate. And I am very English.
November 25, 2009, 12:15 p.m.