321 – The Meat Feast

We all have our foodie quirks. No two palates work the same, so no two people like exactly the same food. My wife’s a fan of vanilla, not chocolate, and while I like vanilla that anyone would ever choose vanilla cake when they could have densely moist chocolate numiness is beyond my comprehension. That some people might eat brussells sprouts–green winnets prised from the Devil’s own sphincter–entirely of their own volition is a choice so mind-bogglingly absurd it makes the diets of pregnant woman look positively mundane in comparison.

Likewise, we were all brought up differently on diets resulting from many generations of divergent tastes. Many of the kids I went to primary school were fed school dinners–which, judging from the way kids picked things from their teeth to crack between their back molars for an hour after lunchtime, always had unsettingly hard lumps in them, and smelled like an accident in an elephant’s y-fronts–but gorged on snacks at break, downing crisps bought from the tuck shop with gay abandon, spilling crumbs in a salty Niagara down their jumpers and ties. Not a Piglet was safe with these kids about, not a Burton’s Puff nor a Fish ‘n Chip. Chocolate biscuits, too–Wagon Wheels the diameter of the sun–were endangered species near them. “Doesn’t your mother feed you?” was an off heard cry from the mouths of teachers disgusted at these tiny human vacuums–but they had their own diets, too. Mrs. Dowdell, she of the eternally slipped disc and the barely competent piano skills lived on salad, which she ate in the school hall along the last dregs of school children eating packed lunches, before they were shooed to the playground so she might eat her lettuce in peace.

I was a packed lunch kid. I went to school with a hearty feast of sandwiches and cake, squashed up next to the flask in a large blue Transformers lunchbox. Coming in after the school dinner kids had eaten, the lunch hall was a minefield of spilled foods and unidentifiable liquids; dinner ladies would point us to a table four at a time and there’d be a musical chairs shuffle–sometimes resulting in a scrap–as we fought for the chairs that didn’t look like the previous occupant had soiled themselves.

If the components of my packed lunch were unchanging–and they were bar the odd appearance of a flaskfull of soup in mid-winter and one upsetting occasion when my dad bought me a pasty from the local pasty factory filled with slivers of uncooked onion reminiscent of debris left by Hurricane Katrina–then they were always gratefully received. Sandwiches contained one of of a pallette of fillings that varied as our food budget went up and down: meat paste, Marmite, Primula spread and cheese were indicative of bad times, while meat or–saints be praised!–not a sandwich but a pork pie showed we were on the up and up. For the first day or two following the weekend I’d have a particularly special treat: the cold leftover meat from that Sunday’s roast.

For afters, a cake, perhaps a chocolate biscuit if mum hadn’t had the time, if the last fruit cake, Victoria sponge or yoghurt loaf she’d baked had been reduced to crumbs. The odd slice of something seasonal would appear depending on the time of year: birthday cake in October, Christmas cake in spring (keeping the Christmas cake back until Easter is a tradition peculiar to our family. Should we ever break into it before them–and preserved with a very large dram of booze, so long as its royal icing crust isn’t broken it might well be good until the end of time itself, long outliving the family who made it) perhaps a slice of parkin come Bonfire Night. Though cakes topped with buttercream like my mum’s famous Broken Glass Cake were usually my favourites, they weren’t practical for lunchboxes and I tended to prefer something hardier, like a slice of McVities Jamaican Ginger or Golden Syrup cake; they might end up in crumbs after I battered some other kid for his seat in the school hall, but at least I didn’t have to lick the buttercream from every corner of the sandwich bag they were packaged in.

Other confectionaries occasionally made it to the lunchbox–chocolate cornflake clusters, flapjacks, brandy snaps–but for the most part lunch was cake, a sandwich and a thermos of squash.

In the PR move of the century, where my sister and I might otherwise have mewled about how unfair it was we had such a monotonous lunchtime diet, our mum made us believe that the other kids bringing more sugar and fat to school–or heaven forbid, eating school dinners–just weren’t as loved as we were. Did the other kids bring homemade cakes to school? Did they even have mothers who cared to know how to bake? Hell, did they even have families to come home to at night? Ignoring that their parents might be working hard to keep them in money–this was the eighties after all; outside the glitzy world of Dallas cash were hard to come by–kids who came home to an empty house might as well have been neglected, as far as my mum was concerned. She’d suffered the hardships of–as she called them–being a latchkey kid herself, and was determined her children would always come home to a warm house redolent with baking smells.

Only on special occasions would days slip past without a homemade meal on the cooker top or in the oven ready to be eaten an hour or two later. Though some of our childhoods slipped by the wayside over the years, many of them are still in her repertoire today: the ‘exotic’ cheese and bacon pasta, homemade pasties, cottage pie so scalding hot we had to eat our way around the circumference before daring to sample the middle.

Another quirk: every cooked tea we ever had contained meat. We were a family of carnivores: if a meal didn’t contain meat, it didn’t count. Meat was the axle around which our diets rotated, and the more meat we had in a day, the better it was.

This flesh frenzy reached its apex in mid-summer and deep mid-winter. On August days when the skies were clear of both clouds and flying ants, when my dad could wash the car without a summer storm smearing his good work, instead he bought home enough meat to feed the village and set about cooking a barbecue.

During the rest of the year our meat intake consisted of a thousand and one things done with minced beef. When dad fired up the barbecue, all bets were off. This was the kind of budgetary extravegance that kept abatoirs across the country in the green. Without our summer feasts, the world’s meat industry would go down the drain like so much hosed away blood.

Pork chops and sausages, black pudding and burgers, hogs pudding and chicken quarters, lamb cutlets and–when we were particularly flush–steak. Everything he could find, whether it was mechanically recovered, marinaded in powder, came with a kid-friendly smiley face on the package or was dripping in blood and still bleating–everything was game.

Only dad knew how to work the barbecue and only he would stand outside grilling meats and–with a perfunctory nod towatrd dietary concerns–corn on the cob. He’d disappear outside while at a loss for what to do, her culinary skills not needed for the evening, my mum would slice and butter hunks of bread. The meat came in piled on a metal plate dripping fat and juices–gravy for whichever of us had presence of mind to mop it up with our bread heel–and was served in equal, monstrous quanties onto each of our plates. After, sitting as a family, perhaps saying grace (a strange habit we grew of, which I haven’t thought about again until writing this sentence) first, we tore into a meat with such vulpine zeal if PETA had been within earshot of our rending and gnashing they’d have set up a protest in our back garden: no living being should enjoy eating the flesh of another to the extent we did on those balm summer nights.

Again, at Christmas our feast was judged a success based on how many souls had gone to animal heaven in order to make it. The turkey was the star of the show, but other meats–boiled ham, chicken, duck, one year even goose–accompanied it on the plate, where tiny sausages wrapped in bacon fussed around it like courtiers, mounding piles of sausagemeat stuffing soaked up the rich sherry-spiked gravy, and one final treat–bacon rashers once laid over the turkey to keep it moist while cooking–may or may not have been in attendance also, depending on whether one of us had nabbed them earlier in the day.

In recent years, as I’ve put my own touches to the Christmas dinner, my mum’s discovered the joys of roasting potatoes in goosefat. On a meal that already contains a ridiculous amount of calories it’s overkill perhaps, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make them taste fantastic.

My sister and I were well into our teens before we realised this level of canivorous excess wasn’t the norm. We’d had run-ins with vegetarians before, but simply assumed that if you weren’t one of them you were one of us: a meatitarian for whom tofu just wouldn’t do.

Two vegetarian partners in a row quelled my sister’s bloodlust. She’s a vegetarian now, and as she hit thirty this year it seems unlikely she’ll ever go back. Having said that, with every other vegetarian my wife and I know recanting their leaf-loving ways, maybe it’s not too late: maybe she’l rejoin the fold at some point, lured by crisp, sizzling bacon.

Now I’m married and living with someone for whom meat isn’t the bright centre of the universe, perhaps I should be reconsidering my views, too. Meat is a luxury after all; would it really hurt to eat main not cooked upon the pyre of their sacrifice?

Yes, actually, it would. Now if you excuse me, these breakfast chicken wings won’t eat themselves.

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