I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED FOOD. Just ask my belt. (You will have to shout because it can’t hear much under all that belly hanging over it.) It is my mother’s fault – she was too good a cook. I have never tasted an apple pie as good as my mum’s. The sad thing is, science says I never will. Like most of our senses, taste (which is mostly smell) loses its sensitivity as we age. I will never again experience the food of my childhood like I did in my childhood, because I no longer possess the Hi-Fi taste buds I had back then.
Time has brought compensations, though: as much as I enjoyed the mild, mid-century Kiwi cuisine my mother cooked so well, my jaded palate has been delighted by the hundreds of new foods and flavours in our modern restaurants and cookbooks.
I love spicy Asian food. From my neck up, anyway. My actual digestive system was designed in Scotland for processing porridge, and punishes me terribly for exotic experiments. Another guy and I regularly go to Indian restaurants for lunch, and we order the fiercest, fieriest curries to prove our fearless manliness – but midnight finds me doing some very unmanly whimpering … “It wasn’t worth it!” But I still go back. Which is why we have industrial strength antacid in the cupboard and rolls of toilet paper in the deep freeze.
What is the pleasure of searing spices that burn your mouth, anyway? One theory is that the appeal of chilli, pepper, wasabi, etc., is the pain they cause. Spicy heat is not a flavour (though there are yummy flavours in there as well), it’s a sensation – and the sensation is pain. Our body responds to the pain by releasing endorphins, our natural pain killers, and they make us feel good. I don’t know if I’m very happy about the fact that my curry and coke is actually just a masochistic drug fix, but there you are.
Until they died, my parents’ menu was firmly based on ‘meat-and-three-veg’. (One of the veges was, of course, always potatoes.) Mum was a great cook, but cultural diversity never made it into her kitchen. Mum and Dad probably never had a curry. Not a real one, anyway. Mum would make what she called a curry, but it was actually just mince with some sugar, raisins and a teaspoon of very mild curry powder. Quite lovely, now that I recall it, but you wouldn’t find anything like it on the entire Indian sub-continent, I’m sure.
Perhaps the most exotic food she made was pizza. Dad called it ‘pizzer pie’ (and he’d spent years in Italy during the war, for Pete’s sake!). At least that name is perhaps slightly better than ‘Italian Welsh Rarebit’ as pizza was advertised in an English restaurant. Speaking of English, Mum’s pizza was made using canned spaghetti, just like Bill English’s election-losing kitchen disaster. Her pizza was as authentically Italian as the black-faced Black-and-White Minstrel Show was authentically Afro-American. (My parents’ favourite TV show, by the way.)
Changes in food culture were not embraced readily. A school friend came on holiday with us and brought muesli with him. My mother was astounded: “It’s uncooked porridge!” Yoghurt was greeted with screwed up faces. At my American sister-in-law’s place, Mum opened the teapot and nearly vomited – she thought there was dead mouse floating in the pot. It was the first time she’d ever seen a teabag. I am certain Mum and Dad never ate sushi, Thai food or Mexican, and I can only recall them ever eating Chinese once. Once, apparently, was enough.
Modern food may have seemed odd to them, but I’m pretty sure if I could take my kids back for a meal with my parents (*sigh* don’t I wish I could do that!) they would find their 1960s world really weird too. I doubt if they could have handled my father sitting at the table picking away at a snapper head and rolling the eyes around in his mouth. (Admittedly, I was a bit grossed out by that myself.) Fortunately, Dad reserved the head as a treat for himself and left us to make do with just the plain old fillets. And what if my kids were offered tripe? Kidneys? Lambs fry? Tongue? Brawn …? I’m figuring that would have been five “nopes” in a row. My kids would never have seen dark, greasy roast mutton, a weekly staple I really liked. I think they would’ve been a wee bit tentative about junket or instant pudding, but they would have loved my Mum’s apple pie.
All in all, I prefer modern food. I love Thai, kebabs and pasta. I’m getting to like tofu. I enjoy the new flavours and the variety. We must have 30 cookbooks in our kitchen to spark ideas. (Mum had just the Edmonds Cookbook.) I like the convenience, diversity and quality of supermarket food. And I love the fun of eating out. Thanks, yesterday, but hooray for today.
Okay … I was lying about tofu.
JOHN COWAN IS A REFUGEE FROM THE PAST TAKING A LOOK AT THE MODERN WORLD AND HE LIKES IT.