Grub Street Views
I am not a foodie. This is not a boast so much as a regret: got the stomach for it, but not the palate. No, really: I speak as a man who once asked a French waiter if he could ask the French chef to hurry it up a touch as we had a ferry to catch. Well. Within moments the French chef was at our table, the contrast between the colour of his face and his fiercely starched chapeau suggesting a particularly vivid creme anglaise aux framboises. Speaking French very loudly and very slowly, he explained that our meal would take the time it took, and could not be hurried. Gallic heads nodded sagely at the surrounding tables; I nodded, too, and held up my hands in apology, but, really, deep down in my tragically undiscerning soul, I didn’t – and still don’t – see what the fuss was about.
It is, as I say, the palate. Perhaps it would help if I tell you that one of my very favourite dishes is baked beans, eaten cold, without fuss, from the tin. I use a spoon for this, but also favour food requiring only a fork (too little attention, in my view, has been paid by the finest culinary minds to the ease with which the stuff can be eaten). I must stress, though, that I do not frequent hamburger houses: it’s not the people, it’s the gherkins.
Please don’t misunderstand me; I am interested in food, but in its social aspects rather than what it tastes like. I’m from Lancashire, which currently kneels to nowhere in the quality of its chefs, restaurants and produce. This is in marked contrast to former times, where the harshnesses of industrial life promoted quantity – and scarcity – well above quality. Lancashire, after all, gave the world its first fast food, fish and chips, introduced because women working in the mills didn’t always have the time or the inclination to continue labouring, this time over a hot stove.
Hard times present simple choices, and Lancastrians have always preferred laughing, mostly at themselves. This is why tripe is a joke, and why we still have – to the recorded outrage of at least one French haut-gourmet – the World Black Pudding Throwing Championship in Ramsbottom, not to mention the World Gravy Wrestling Championship in Rossendale.
Our other top traditional fast food is the pie, most notably the meat and potato variety, which commands legendary devotion, particularly among Wiganers, known to the rest of the county as the Pie Eaters. As one not from Wigan once memorably had it, “there is nothing a Wiganer won’t put in pastry and eat at a bus stop”. And they can see the joke themselves: not so long ago I saw a sticker in the back window of a Wigan car which read: “No pies left in this vehicle overnight”.
But the epitome of this, with a healthy helping of north-south and posh-prole chips, comes in an old George Formby – who else? – film, where our hero is dining at the Ritz. “Might I suggest the salmon, Sir?” says the deeply condescending head waiter. “Go on then,” replies George, with his trademark cheery artlessness, “If you’re opening a tin”.
I have always relished such things and so am not entirely surprised by the large portion of food in my newly published collection of (mostly and hopefully) humorous stories, Lost In The Wash With Other Things. The title story is a monologue from King John after he makes the fatal mistake of not only losing his treasure in the aforesaid Wash but trying the peaches at Swineshead Abbey. The old rogue gives a fetchingly partial account of his life; in the end, much turns on the sauce perfected by his French chef, Walter, which has made England almost palatable for the Francophile monarch.
In Looks Like Carelessness, Mark Percival, author and creator of Saul Hollywood, the troubled baker and detective, gets himself into much more trouble acting out a plot; Way Out South West stars Monthi Vaz, a Bolton sub-postmaster who has relocated to Somerset after his wife ran off with the confectionery delivery driver; there he encounters several strange happenings, including the disappearance of the local pub landlord’s wife, a whizz of a Thai cook. Near Angels has its climax in the Bath teashop where Clive has arranged to meet his latest online date. The Quiet Carriage involves a contretemps over the catering arrangements – those dreaded muffin things! – during a train journey.
I could go on, and do in the book, believe me, but I shall contain myself and go off for some more beans, leaving you with the ill-intentioned monk offering the peaches to bad bad John at Swineshead: “Just dessert, Sire?”
Lost In The Wash With Other Things, by Charles Nevin: http://amzn.to/29dgCkO
Lancashire, Where Women Die of Love, by Charles Nevin: http://amzn.to/299zhu2