It’s spring time and we’re all in Coronavirus lockdown. March will always be remembered as the month that sent everyone inside. I’ve been coping by consulting my cookbooks, learning to bake better bread, and trying to ration our resources so we can still enjoy our meals and not give way to junk food. I wonder what Mum and Dad would have made of this period of forced isolation, either separated from us up in Suffolk, or holed up altogether back in the halcyon days of Woodstock Avenue when we were kids…
There are news stories of panic buying toilet roll and pasta – Mum and Dad would be relaxing safe in the knowledge that their fortifications against famine, drought, Covid-19, what have you, meant they could rustle up a curry, roast dinner or Fray Bentos pie and mash without a flicker of concern that they might run out. I can imagine Dad’s smug anecdotes about empty shelves in Asda when his cupboards are piled high with bargain bumper packs of cereal, tinned tomatoes, cheese, and crumpets. Mum wouldn’t gloat but she would modestly nod towards her tupperware containers and ancient recycled ice cream tubs full of dried (and ancient) spices, lentils, rice, and Bombay Mix. They were the type of parents who only used the garage to store their chest freezer, a double coffin sized beast which was stuffed with bulk bought chops, chicken thighs, braising steaks, faggots, sausages, marinated mystery meat, and dozens of containers of old cottage cheese or yogurt pots filled with surplus kebab meat, bolognaise sauce, or red wine. There might be some ice cream but that never lasted in our house. If you were lucky, you might find a frostbitten choc ice. Dad’s fridge-freezer after Mum died was stocked predominantly with these sweetmeats and many, many ready-meals (unheard of in Mum’s time). Actually, there was a time in the 80s when we would go to the furthest flung Iceland (frozen food shop, not the country) in Borehamwood and buy lots of seafood, prawn curries, Findus crispy pancakes, and fish fingers that were destined for the mysterious, arctic corners of the storage freezer. Mum and Dad would never have run out of food. They also didn’t care a tuppence for use by dates.
Yes, I think if they did find themselves in lockdown, they would be okay, if a bit bored with each other. It would be better if we were all together at Woodstock; I’m thinking back to a happy time when I was around 15, Kris and I were still at school and Jeff was working at Guinness. Dad spent his days taking Ben for his romp, helping out at a fruit and veg stall in Greenford, and generally being of good cheer. Mum was still childminding but had started to work behind the bar at Taywood Sports and Social Club a few evenings a week. There was a purposeful rhythm to the week punctuated with regular meals and busy schedules but everyone sort of fended for themselves and kept to their own spheres. It was the weekends when the family often found themselves thrown together, either watching football or sunbathing with the patio doors flung open and perhaps a barbecue on the go. Mum might be making salads and skewering meat and there might be a mix tape of golden oldies playing. If this Saturday ended up taking us to Paulo’s, Mum and Dad’s favourite Italian restaurant in Park Royal (for Dad’s standard ‘double snails and duck’), we might all end up drinking beer and smoking our heads off in the living room, sorting through the collection of karaoke cds and taking it in turns to belt out the family favourites – Mum’s ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’ and Dad’s ‘Fernando’. The crescendo of Elvis’ American Trilogy would have us putting our arms around each other ready to belt out the climax, ‘Glory, glory halleluja! His truth is marching on!’ If it was an evening centred around a dinner party, we’d congregate in the kitchen in between songs dipping spoons (and sometimes not) into thick potatoey curry juices meant for leftovers the next day – perfect midnight feasting.
Yes, if we were back in Woodstock, we would be balling out requests for our favourite dinners – Jeff’s jalfrezi, Kris’ vindaloo, Dad’s meat stew and dumplings and my beloved biriani. Mum loved making Indian fried tidbits like fishcakes and pakoras and she absolutely lived for ball curry and rice. The kitchen would be fragrant with mouthwatering Anglo Indian tangs of lemons, home ground masala spices and fried onions. There would be plenty to go round. Despite the lockdown, I’m sure our Uncle Mark, who lived across the road, would be a regular visitor. We wouldn’t need to insist on the two metre distance as we could hear his voice from several miles away. Another neighbour, Laboo, would also find a way of sending round her surplus family curries that were always too spicy but gratefully received.
Of course the best days at Woodstock were much further back in the 80s when we children used to run around with all the other kids in the street. I think my parents would have found it tricky keeping us all safe though. Having said that, I bet they would be in each other’s houses breaking all the rules having their infamous house parties and ‘committee meetings’ with our best neighbours, Aunty Pat and Uncle Roy (which were essentially plans for booze cruises to France: “Agenda item 1: are we all in? Yes! Meeting adjourned. Let’s get pissed!”) These visits to Bologne were legendary – they would return with boot-fulls of stubbies, wine, fags, French bread, cheese, and salami. What larks they had on the way out there – Mum would pack her tandoori chicken and kebab picnic and they would stop at their favourite pub in Faversham for a game of darts and a beer. Those were the days my friend. I’ll write another time about the FavLon darts cup…
Eventually Woodstock Avenue emptied of friends and then Uncle Mark died. Us kids moved out and life in West London got Dad down. The dream of moving to Suffolk was the retirement fantasy – hunkering down in winter and taking the caravan around the country as soon as spring arrived. They took theirs out once but the bungalow became their refuge from the world. Family weekends tried to resurrect the Woodstock boozy vibes kicked off with an Anglo feast but the experience was never quite the same. Maybe it was because of having children or because Mum’s health was deteriorating; Dad certainly eased off the drinking in the latter years.
The thing that always stayed the same was that instant hit of fried onions and tangy curry as you walked through the door. Mum greeting us with her weird half-apron on, hands floury or beladled. Dad pointing out how expertly he’d hoovered the carpet and how spick and span everything was. We’d want to dive straight into the food of course but we’d wait patiently for everyone to arrive. When it was time to eat, we never served from the table but we’d go and help ourselves from all the pots and pans in the kitchen and then find a seat. Mum would have been cooking all day or, better yet, the day before as her curries tasted even better when left to mature. Kris would always eat at a different time of course, perhaps to ensure he got the lion’s share of leftovers? The classic feast for six or more would include a large daitchkey of ball curry or vindaloo (maybe for bigger groups there would also be a chicken curry), coconut cabbage, fried rice, balti potatoes, often a prawn curry as well and lots of tomato, cucumber, chili, onion and raita. Mum didn’t really go in for rotis with curry. She would make parathas as a separate meal or when she made kebabs. Besides, rice and potatoes in one meal is probably enough! Not forgetting plenty of poppadoms – Mum used to make these painstakingly in a pan before someone told her the secret that they take seconds in the microwave.
Even in her hospital bed she’d look forward to lunch or dinner. The nursery favourite cod in parsley sauce was her last meal, not quite the comfort food of her youth but delicious all the same. Dad’s last Tesco receipt had on it bread, apple turnovers and a litre tub of vanilla ice cream. None of these things were in the house when we arrived. This lockdown does make me wonder what food I could not live without, or, morbidly, what I would want as my last meal. Normally I would say an all-you-can-eat party buffet but now I think it would have to be one of Mum’s family feasts. With all the family.
Today, in homage to Mothers day (which was a couple of weeks ago) and memories of our family, I found that I had the ingredients for Kofta Curry (or ball curry as it’s known). We had been trying to be veggie but, with the current crisis and not having any food deliveries apart from Abel and Cole, I’ve added meat and fish to the menu again. As there are only three of us, I thought it was not necessary to make all the other dishes but I did add ‘one small aubergine’ to eke out Mum’s recipe (like a good Southall girl/fan of Goodness Gracious Me). Like Mum’s trouble, the cooking of it has ruined my appetite for lunch so I will be digging into it later tonight – maybe even heated up but possibly straight from the pot. Perhaps I’ll even start the evening with a French beer and a cheeky fag.
Jeff told me recently that he had been reading and enjoying Cookanana so this one’s for him. Even though you are hundreds of miles away in the Polish forest – do what Mum would do, fry some onions, spatchcock a chicken, open a jar of Patak’s and fry some rice. Your neighbours will be beating down your door.
May all your freezers be well stocked and your tummies full of curry.
And just in case of apocalyptic lockdown: