Today I have decided to post my Food Memory piece that I wrote for my UCC course. It has been written with a little artistic licence, but not much. Family is very important to me, and both my Gran’s really influenced me in their relationship with food.
Tuesday for me, growing up, was always associated with semolina.
Due to family circumstances my grandmother raised me pretty much from when I was 5. I use to finish primary school and walk down from Killiney to Dun Laoghaire every day to where she was one of the cooks/ housekeeper in a Children’s home.
I always knew what was for dessert on a Tuesday, any other day it could be anything from apple pudding to yogurt. But on a Tuesday it was semolina with tinned peaches.
But in my memory it is all grey. The stainless steel countertops in the kitchen, the lino floor, the playground outside, the hair of my gran and her work colleagues. All grey except for the peaches, glistening in their false full sweetness, almost teasing me with their bright attitude as they lay in bowls in the pantry, like princesses waiting to debutante.
On each and every Tuesday from before I can remember, once I stepped through the backdoor into the kitchen, I was put in an apron. From when I was around 5, I was placed on a stool at the 8 ring gas cooker. My task to watch the milk as it was heated on the gas. From when I was old enough to handle a wooden spoon with enough dexterity to please my gran I was put stirring the cavernous pots of creamy starch that would become the sweet treat at the end of the day
I am sure, looking back, that the kitchen must have been quite noisy as the three women worked away on the remainder of the meal, but I was oblivious. As I struggle to remember these surroundings that were SO familiar for so very long, I can only hear the gentle roar of the gas, and the noise of the boys kicking their football around outside.
I am quite sure I was never left alone to look after such large pans of milk, but after so many years of watching I knew the signs of boiling; small bubbles around the edge. Successfully relaying that message to my gran meant I had a whole half peach in my semolina that night. Then the sandy mountain of semolina was stirred in continuously with wooden spoons as long as my arm. Even now I am unsure of how many portions of semolina we use to make. We cooked three pots of it, each of which took 2 women to lift off the stove.
The day I was allowed stir the pudding was another milestone for me, I skipped around the yard with a smile that would have softened the hardest of hearts, I had been waiting for this Tuesday for what felt like an eternity. That night my gran was distant in our conversation. I had crossed a line of maturity, perhaps she was lamenting my childhood passing too, spent with her while she was working. Two peaches was my rite of passage.
I stirred those pots for over ten years, every Tuesday. I have no idea how many decades those women were stirring those pots before I arrived. I know my mother did it before me.
For a period in my life I hated semolina. It invoked memories of greyness and frugality that I wanted to escape. It meant hard work and sore fingers, not just from the stirring, but from the folding sheets and making beds that was also par for the course. And the finality of my day. Sitting on the back step of the pantry eating my semolina out of an enamel bowl, with either the one, or two peach halves on top.
But now looking back, I remember and appreciate the sense of routine that my gran had created for us. The inevitability that no matter what had happened during the day, be it helping one of the smallies off a wall or peeling a mountain of potatoes, we always had the time to share a bowl of semolina. We never ate any other pudding together. I remember her discussing how she both loved and hated the peaches. That it was wrong to use something out of a tin that seemed never to go off. But that it was supposedly modern. And that for my sake it was best to move with the times.
I think my gran would have got on well with the American Food Writer Jane Grigson who dislikes the lack of taste that occurs due to the modern methods of food processing. “When one thinks of the civilization implied in the development of peaches from the wild fruit, or of apricots, grapes, pears, plums, when one thinks of those millions of gardeners from ancient China right across Asia and the Middle East to Rome then across the Alps north to France, Holland and England of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, how can we so crassly, so brutishly, reduce the exquisite results of their labour to cans full of syrup and cardboard-wrapped blocks of ice?”