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 mélange 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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.