I think the moment he really knew was when I accidently dropped a mussel into my Orangina, fished it out and scoffed it anyway.
We were on holiday in France. I was, maybe, eight. I’d always eaten anything put in front of me (glutton from the get go) and it had become a sort of smug party piece for Dad to gloat about with other parents:
DAD: “look, watch, she’ll eat anything” (hands small toddler lemon)
But I think the mussel incident was the moment when Dad really definitely knew that he’d created a kindred spirit: someone who loved food. All of it. Any of it. And wasn’t going to waste it. It’s not that he’d made me a dustbin/daughter into which you can feed any old crap. It’s that he’d shown me how all food has a purpose and an opinion and a currency. He taught me not to care whether it was Angel Delight or soft-shelled crab at Nobu. It all had a place, a taste, something to say, a way of making you feel, a way of making a memory. And it made me adore food as much for the taste as for what it meant to us.
Almost all my Dad-Daughter memories are about food. From huddling over tinned tomato soup after a disastrously rain-soaked game of Captain Pugwash in the rowing boat on the Norfolk saltings. To just last week, in the same Norfolk village as it happens, happily pottering together in the kitchen making supper.
Most of the memories stick because they are examples of Dad doing something lovely. Which of course involves food in some way. Has to, doesn’t it? How else do you be lovely to someone besides cooking for them? I remember fat wedges of bread and jam delivered, sleepy and be-dressing-gowned, likely before dawn, to the sofa on a Saturday morning whilst I watched Star Wars reciting every line flawlessly. Or Dad only sighing with resignation when I plonked the supper he’d lovingly prepared onto a tray and teenage-flounced to my room for some “privacy from you lot” and promptly tripped, sending Dad’s beautiful supper flying across the carpet. Or, best of all, Dad and I dumbstruck (at least I was anyway) at the wonder of the newly arrived microwave with which he had occupied a grizzly child on a rainy Sunday afternoon by making pineapple upside down cake. It’s all my Dad being brilliant and it’s always with food. (Hey, I never said this wouldn’t be schmaltzy).
Other memories are rooted in family folklore and traditions which, inevitably in our family, are all about food. And, I should say, are also quite odd. For example: tinned celery hearts are a must on any Christmas lunch table because they were “exotic” and therefore special when Dad was young. Or, yellow soup must be consumed when belts must be tightened. (For more on this, and for the full gloriously 70s recipe see here.) Finally, and most annoyingly, fish and chips must be ordered whenever they appear on a menu.
But the best food memories aren’t only about tradition and care-giving. They are unforgettably delicious. Taste is after all, I think, the most evocative sense. The pinnacle of this in my family is Commander Slack’s Chicken Curry. It’s just a mild (“not too stingy”) chicken curry with potatoes. Dad makes it without a recipe. And it changes very subtly with each incarnation. When asked how it’s done he’ll shrug and reply, “I dunno, just onions, spices, chicken, stock and grobble it about a bit”. Yes, “grobble” is as much as you’ll get out of him. (And don’t ask me where the Commander thing came from, I’m at a loss – he’s about as far away for military as it’s possible to be: an academic).
Anyway, the point here is not to get all sentimental with reminiscing (though it’s been quite nice, hasn’t it). My point is this: taste, eating together, the act of cooking for your family or being cooked for, even if it’s just bread and jam, are deeply emotive and incredibly important. Food is, I don’t think it’s too sweeping to say, basically the foundation of my relationship with my Dad and it’s all the stronger for it.
So thanks Dad, for teaching how to be a good glutton (even in the face of an Orangina-soaked mussel). Let’s go for fish and chips on Father’s day.