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Distant memories - cousins and food

“Ponder well on this point: the pleasant hours of our life are all connected by a more or less tangible link, with some memory of the table.”

Charles Pierre Monselet (1825-1888)

I have a family of cousins who live in Yorkshire. They are the children of my mother's middle sister (she had two others - and a brother). This was my Aunty Kathleen - curiously she is the only member of the family to be given the title of Aunty. My other two aunts and my uncle were simply known by their Christian names. A curiosity for which I have no answer. I have a memory of seeing my cousins frequently when we were young - and indeed here we all are, in my grandmother's back yard. You can see half of my face in the centre. Aunty Kathleen and her husband Uncle Jim are on the right, my mother is the left-hand lady and just behind her is one of her other sisters - Freda - who lived with us for virtually all of our childhood.

This second photograph is a better one of the children - From left to right - my younger sister Jennifer (Jenny), my cousin Stephen, my brother David, me, my cousin Marian and my cousin Valerie. The cousin nearest to me in age - Anne - is missing. Maybe she was taking the photograph, for she was certainly there. And seeing this photograph with the chopped off heads, reminds me how many photographs in those days ended up with heads or feet missing. Why I wonder? Did one not see what one was photographing when one looked into the lens?

But here is Anne in our own back garden in East Ham. She and I were close in age - she is a little older, Valerie is a little older than Jenny, Marian comes next and then I think David with Stephen the last. Well actually many years later came the surprise baby Andrew, whom I never knew.

They are Yorkshire people still - Yorkshire because Uncle Jim was a Yorkshireman with the wonderfully Yorkshire surname Beck - which I think means a brook or stream.

Looking at those two photographs of us all in Grandma's back yard I wonder where we all fitted in the house - it was very small. I think it will remain a mystery all my life.

But why am I jumping way back in time?

Well I very occasionally still keep in touch with Anne - we have mutual family history interests - and because we recently were in touch I began thinking about a week - or was it two - that I spent up there on the outskirts of Leeds - Seacroft I seem to remember was the name of the suburb - and indeed it was, and here is a photograph of what could have been their house - a semi-detached council house, on the edge of a green area. I was there on my own because my mother and father had gone away together to the continent on one of my father's short voyages in between the long ones. I think my sister and brother were farmed out to Grandma, and I was sent to Yorkshire on my own.

It was quite an adventure. I don't know how old I was - still in primary school anyway, so not very old - maybe eight? Young enough for my mother to spend money on a ticket on a Pullman train, where I was looked after by the carriage attendant. This is a restored carriage from that era and it feels about right. I had a single seat and I think the attendant passed by every now and then to make sure I was alright, and there might have even been a meal. I don't remember. No food memories there. This was before the era of fast trains so it would have been a longish journey I think. And the thing I remember most about it is that the upholstery was prickly. It must have cost my mother a fortune - for her, but she was obviously concerned about her little girl travelling all that way on her own. I'm not sure what you could do nowadays. On an aeroplane there are methods in place for children travelling on their own, but trains?

The thing about that distan,t long ago holiday is that almost all of the memories that I have about it are related to food. Memories from that far in the past - we are talking the 1950s, maybe even the late 1940s - are few and far between but always the same ones, so that they probably also get embroidered over time. The only two non-food associated memories I have are of a game of Monopoly that we played over two or three days which I almost won and about which I was most disagreeable about losing. I think I had a real tantrum about it, and vaguely remember being mildly rebuked by Uncle Jim, who was a mild-mannered lovely man. He was the driver of a fire engine, which fact really impressed me. Jobs like that were so exciting to a small child, which is probably why I was always very proud of the fact that my father was a sailor. Anyway the fire men of the town had a day when they did some major demonstrations of what they did when fighting fires - and I remember going to that. Mock fires and lots of water and all that.

But finally - food. I have five distinct and pretty clear food memories associated with that time.

Number one - the ice-cream van. I don't think it came around every day, but quite often and sometimes we were allowed to go and buy an ice-cream It came in the late part of the afternoon and you could hear it coming from the chiming kind of tune that it played as it drove up. It would stop and all the kids would pour out of the houses and buy a cornet of ice-cream. I vaguely remember something of a jammy texture and red that I chose mine to be topped with. Maybe it was jam? It was such a treat. I do not remember these at my own home, but surely they existed there? Maybe my mother was not as generous when it came to such things.

For my Aunty Kathleen was a kind and warm lady. Here she is in later years - on the right - with my other two aunts. Nora (the baby of the family in the middle) - is still alive and living in France lucky lady. She must be nearly 100, as was my other aunt - Freda when she died. Aunty Kathleen worked I think as the housekeeper at the local vicarage - well maybe she was the cook, or the cleaner. I do not really know. Anyway I remember going there one day with Anne at lunchtime and being served a meal that included potatoes and peas - processed peas from a tin I think. I don't remember what the meat was - sausages maybe.

I used to love tinned processed peas. They had a very distinctive taste at which I would probably recoil in horror today. At the time I was going through a phase of mashing everything on my plate together before eating it. It was definitely a phase. Whatever it was I just mashed it all together so the whole meal would have had just the one taste. Sort of yuk, but I'm guessing that it's maybe something that many young children do. I vaguely remember Aunty Kathleen commenting on it. But I can still see her standing there with her apron on and handing me the plate of food whilst Anne and I sat at the table - was it round? - in the vicar's kitchen.

Memory number three - Yorkshire pudding. This was Yorkshire after all. Of course there was Yorkshire pudding, and we had Yorkshire pudding at home too. But Aunty Kathleen's Yorkshire pudding was different. For one thing it was served as separate course, all on it's own, but I think with gravy. And secondly it was flatter - more like a pancake. Still delicious but different to what we all know as Yorkshire pudding. And I am now wondering whether this is a false memory because I have just been looking for a picture in Google and can find nothing that looks like what Aunty Kathleen served. The closest I have found are these three - the first is Mrs. Beeton's and the second is an 18th century style dripping pudding - the third is a modern flattish one, which might be it - just ignore the butter and replace with gravy.

So I am now wondering whether this is some kind of false memory, although I can still see Aunty Kathleen's smiling face as she proffered the puddings. Or maybe it was one big one that was shared out. Memory is a very inventive thing.

Number four is a mildly gruesome one. Back then when one bought a whole chicken one sometimes had to defeather and gut the bird, and there was one occasion when Aunty Kathleen had to do this. Not the feathers I think. But she hadn't done it before because she wasn't really sure what to do and kept referring to instructions in a book. We children watched in fascinated horror as she drew out not one but several eggs in various stages of completion as shown here:

How can all of that fit into one chicken? We couldn't see inside, just what came out. I don't remember being over horrified, more fascinated I think. Aunty Kathleen too.

The last memory is much more pleasant - of her garden in which were growing strawberries and raspberries and so this must have been midsummer I think. The garden was small and sloping and the raspberries were at the top of the garden - along the back fence. We grew strawberries in our house, so they were not a surprise, but the raspberries were. And we were allowed to pick some. Alas it is too hot here in Melbourne. Well probably not but definitely for a terrible gardener like me.

And those are all the memories I have of that week or two in Yorkshire with my lovely cousins other than an overall memory of a good time. I must have travelled back on a Pullman train too, but by then it was a less novel experience, and so it does not figure as largely in my memory. And I returned with a Yorkshire accent which lingered for a week or two.

All of this is possibly not of much interest to you all but what it makes me realise is how distant memories from childhood are so intermittent - just a few random moments from here and there, and why are they the particular things you remember anyway? Obviously a whole lot of other things were going on at the same time. And why, why, are so many of them related to food? Is this just me because I am interested in food? Would others have remembered different things? Or is food so central to our lives that this is what we recall. Food is warmth and comfort and so we remember?

Alas Aunty Kathleen and Uncle Jim are long dead, and cousin Stephen too - in fact the two small boys in the top picture - the other being my brother. But the three girl cousins and the baby brother live on - still up there in Leeds. Leeds is one of those large northern towns, once industrial and glum, now, I believe somewhat revived. But Seacroft at least and a small council house there remains in my memory as a small golden period in my life.

Vale Aunty Kathleen.


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