ricotta

by Sabine 

A very hot July in Rome. We had arrived a week earlier, the entire tenth year chaperoned by our trendy young art teacher (who brought along his flamboyant wife) and the much older but immensely shy physics instructor. We messed up from day one, making fun of the sweating tour guide, playing hide and seek behind the ancient columns of the forum, sharing a smoke with the Swiss guard before dashing his hopes of a date, sneaking out of the hotel after midnight and getting into barroom fights. The year was 1975, we were 17 years young. 

I had persuaded my parents to let me stay for a few days longer with a tall tale about being with friends, meeting someone’s parents, while instead, I chatted up the most exciting looking hippies on Piazza Navona and together we walked the narrow streets of Trastevere, hitchhiked to Fregene, slept behind the bushes of the Villa Massimo.

On the morning of my departure, I strolled onto a small market square. I was down to my very last Lira, just enough to buy a small muslin bag of this strange white curd-like stuff, soft and dripping, and a handful of odd shaped tomatoes. The seller took pity on me scraping together my last coins and gave me a large chunk of warm bread and a bag of garlicky olives for free. 

I remember eating this slowly, a treasure, licking my fingers all the way on the night train crossing the Alps into Munich

Croatian supermarket treats

by Lydia

I had come to Croatia alone and, due to a bus mix up, had been on the move for almost 48 hours. I’d found my hostel in Split and almost teasingly kept myself away from the beach, returning to the hostel at least three times to pick up things I had forgotten, a hairbrush, more coins, another book. I went to a chain supermarket marvelling at the cheap deli prices. I purchased a tub of sardines, some cherry tomatoes, fresh bread and after deliberating – a couple of cans of beer. I had just turned twenty five and for some reason drinking by myself still felt like the utmost of luxuries. I sat down on the beach and piled the oily whitebait onto the bread and tipped it into my mouth, then bit into the tomato, the ripe flesh bursting on my face. The saltiness of the fish, the wheat of the bread and the sharp tang of the tomato set against the hot sand and crash of the sea. I’ll never forget it.

Schmaltz

by Matt Mahon

An incomplete list of fats.

The fat that rises to the top of chicken stock, after you’ve skimmed the scum. If no one’s watching, leave it there and drop all the vegetables through it so they bob around coated to a high gloss. If someone objects, the fat is removed from the stock but is snuck back into the soup in the kneidl mixture.

The connective tissue and fat in a shoulder of lamb, rendered to the point that the meat can be pulled from the bone with tongs. My father always says, “The meat can be pulled from the bone with tongs!”

That same lamb fat in the bottom of the tray the next day. If the lamb was rubbed with spices, the congealed fat is grainy and fluorescent yellow, and the gravy is bitter. The hard sheets of fat can be lifted out nearly whole to be thrown away, but there’s always a remainder. Mix in washing up liquid and emulsify it so it doesn’t clog the drain.

The grainy fat in cold lamb sliced the next day, a fat which coats the roof of your mouth like a cheap pastry.

Jellified chicken fat, schmaltz, revealed as you lift the cold chicken carcass out of the pot the next day. Best if still studded with the roast carrots and fennel. Put it in a sandwich with the chicken, roast vegetables and with mayonnaise. The first foie gras was a by-product of the schmaltz industry, as Ashkenazi Jews who didn’t have access to vegetable oils began force-feeding geese to produce more cooking fat.

Other jellified fats: pork pies with enough jelly (hard to find) and piccalilli, beef tongue sliced with gherkins.

Rendered fat, and fat mixed with meat. I’ve inherited a preference for streaky bacon over back. The fat in belly pork. Çöp shish. Crispy fat down the length of tandoori rib chops and pirzola.

Lardo, sliced thin on thin toast and grilled clear, with creamy goat’s cheese added afterwards. I can’t cut it finely enough by hand, and Continental Stores has closed down.

The fat on pork chops. These were not often enjoyed in our house. We didn’t keep kosher, but unadulterated pork was sometimes a step too far. Pork chops were out, but in a nod to the Irish side, boiled bacon ribs were fine (most of the fat to be left behind on the bone), and always eaten with floury potatoes and greens covered in butter.

Butter. Butter in everything. Every recipe begins: fry onions in butter with a bay leaf and salt.

Paris, parsley and pasta

by Sophie

I was in Paris when I received a text from my mum saying my dad was in hospital, again. As an alcoholic these hospital trips were no rarity for my father but the frequency and unsurprising nature of them did not reduce my anxiety. Repeatedly having seizures (in a Tescos car park, in the newsagents around the corner from my house, at home alone and falling down the stairs, breaking his leg and cracking his head open) were the cause but nothing would stop him drinking. When it was announced he might have pneumonia I had a quick google and found myself in a state of panic. 

Distance added to my worry. I normally live about 2 hours away but i wasn’t going home for a few more days and couldn’t afford another flight. I lay in bed waiting for my friend next to me to wake up and once she did spent my day thinking about what we would have for dinner. I find that food is the only remedy when I feel low, I spend hours watching ‘River Cottage,’ and browsing recipe books, but here I had none of my  usual comforts. 

The aim of the trip to Paris was to eat well so when I requested to make dinner my friend eyed me suspiciously. She is normally in charge of the cooking and is very good at it, she’d made steak with garlic greens the night before and it was a tough act to follow. We visited the local Monoprix and after walking around and eyeing up the fish counter, smelling the herbs in the vegetable section and thinking ‘carbs will help me here’ I decided what to make. Tagliatelli with prawns, chorizo, garlic and parsley. Quite a simple dish but it was the best meal I’ve ever made, my friend even quipped ‘I didn’t know you could cook’. I don’t think I will ever be able to make or eat the meal again but I always keep it in mind. 

That’s quite a kick

by Anonymous

A family holiday in Slovenia when I was about 16 was my first time trying something wasabi flavoured, it was a large bag of wasabi flavoured crisps which I ate entirely on my own, revelling in the spicy kick they had. That night at dinner I thought the soup we were having tasted a bit strange, it didn’t seem to have any flavour. It tasted cold even though I knew it was hot. It took me another course to realise that I’d managed to damage my tastebuds and couldn’t taste a thing. It was 2 days before I was able to taste anything again. Since then I’ve not stopped picking anything wasabi whenever I’m given the chance.

Ming at Mermaid Ave

by Bre Audrey Graham

Sunscreen may be the first thing you smell, but sea salt is the first thing you taste. Standing on the top my balcony, overlooking the ocean you take one big breath in and you’ll taste the sea on the tip of your tongue.

I’ve lived away from my house for most of my life. Our family home sits at the top of a cliff on Mermaid Avenue in a seaside suburb in Sydney. The only way to describe it is that it’s paradise. When I land back home in Australia, I always have the same ritual. After the 24 hour flight from London and after the unfurling of limbs, my Mum takes me home via the slower scenic route.

It’s all about the first look. The glimpses of the ocean that I can catch from the car windows. They start slowly like little flickers of blue between the houses and then just before we turn onto my street, there she is. The ocean, the bay and rock pools I grew up on and all that salty sea air that is waiting to push itself into my polluted London lungs.

Last time I went home, the house was all but empty. With my parents living overseas, half the contents of our home was sitting in a house by the Rhine in Germany. With no drivers license and an aversion to getting on any form of Sydney public transport once it’s over 30 degrees outside, I walked 25 minutes uphill to the fish shop.

The walk was worth it for the brown paper wrapped huge prawns I left with inside a plastic bag filled with ice. Big green tiger prawns, prawns that you don’t see outside the southern hemisphere. As I walked home the ice dripped in the sun, soaking my leather sandals with every step as the heat beat down on me.

This wasn’t just going to be a meal for me. I was cooking for my Ming, my cat. Ming is my mirror in life, my little cat from Singapore that I miss every time I hear a bell ring or a cat purr. Ming has been my baby since I was ten. I was first handed her when she was a three-week-old kitten my mother had found left for dead in a plastic bag at the wet markets in Singapore during the SARS outbreak. I dripped water into her mouth and fed her the best things I could find.

Her fur constantly damp with my teenage tears, she knew about all the bullies and all the boys. And still, now, things feel real again when I can whisper them to her and tell her how I’ve changed in our years apart since I left for London at 18. She’s been there for it all and knows things that no one else has ever heard. The things she has given me, I give back to her in food. A slight cat, her appetite knows no bounds.

A strange cat, my Ming eats anything. From a long line of market dwelling street cats, she happily gnaws her way through plastic bags to get to a roast chicken inside and shreds paper bags to chew the corners of fresh baguettes. At 12 when we left Singapore and moved her to Sydney, I knew how much she missed the humid rain and sleeping under our mango tree and chasing the tropical butterflies that filled the air. So I as a bored and curious child left her out bowls of coconut milk to sip thinking it might remind her of the tropics she was from.

I’ve seen her lick at the lid of a jar of curry paste and we share pancakes and bacon and every Christmas Ming has her own plate of ham, turkey, and stuffing to suffice her dealing with a house full of children for one day. A tiny cat, she eats with curiosity, and a ferocious fear like it’s all about to be taken away. But after watching her lick her paws in the sun, she’s the perfect vision of contentment. I love watching her belly swell before she curls up like a little Russian hat and falls asleep.

So, after not coming home back to Sydney for a year, I knew I had to make Ming something special to make up for it. Chilli and garlic barbecued prawns to be shared with the love of my childhood in the garden of my family home. She sat on top of the kitchen bench watching me while I tossed the prawns in chopped red chili, garlic, lemon zest and olive oil. I heated up the charcoal on the barbecue outside and grilled them till they were charred and blackened.

The chili was strong and hot, and the olive oil dripped through onto the charcoal and hissed. Once done, I squeezed over more lemon and put them on a plate that balanced on my chest while my legs were stretched out on the table in the Sydney sunshine. With Ming sitting next to me, I peeled off each shrimps shell and made her up her own plate of prawn heads, legs, and tails.

My hands looked like I had been digging for diamonds. Ming didn’t care about the shambles of this scene. I ate each prawn one by one, with a sip of very cold white wine between each bite as Ming crunched her way through the plate of shells. Breaking through their brains, licking her lips after eating their little black eyes. She loved the chili, she loved the garlic. At the end when all our prawns were gone, I washed up and Ming and I lay out on the hot tiles and napped in the sun.

All that was left of the scene was an empty wine glass and two ladies sleeping. Both not as young or as foolish as when they first came into each other’s lives, but still the same under the Sydney sun very full with a lifetime of love.

Tinned Pilchards

by Dawn Foster
My mother came home one night from the evening class she attended at the local college with a man we’d never met. The Jobcentre, or Department for Social Security as it was known back then, had suggested she go to increase employability. She didn’t find a job, but she did find a new boyfriend: that night he encouraged us to jump on him, my sister and I were between the ages of four and six, and he threw us in the air as we all howled with laughter. Shortly afterwards, he moved in and never moved out. I wasn’t fazed by having a de facto stepfather, my memories of my parents’ short marriage were dim: I was a bump in the wedding photos, and they broke up for good shortly after my sister’s conception when I was two-and-a-half years old. She was lonely and often unhappy, as single mothers often are.

For all of us, the honeymoon period didn’t last long. My stepfather had a horrendous temper and was incredibly easy to anger. Quickly, many more siblings were conceived and born, and the house was full of children and the attendant trail of destruction, laundry and mess each baby and toddler brings. All of us had complex and extensive tables tacked to walls detailing the chores we must complete in the morning and evening on a rota basis. There was never enough time to complete the cleaning and laundry and since every minor failure on our part resulted in being sent to be early, it became impossible to do anything right. 

Anything that reminded my stepfather of his predecessor tipped him into a rage. It’s easy to hide or destroy photographs, but children are harder to discard. Perhaps it was because I looked more like my father than my mother, but I became the target for a lot of this anger, and as such was punished endlessly. But you can become acclimatised to suffering, and eventually even children can become used to physical pain, feeling it less as unendurable beatings and more as a physical form of background music, or a permanent buzzing in your ear. So the attacks had to alter, take many forms, not just being smacked, but hit with belts, different parts of your body beaten, cold showers for hours, solitary confinement in the dark, and finally, one particular battleground: food.

There was much to be done with food to inflict suffering: withdrawal of food for days was easy and effective, especially at the weekends or during school holidays, when the free school meals or snacks teachers slipped me because they knew what was happening were out of reach. But once we must have been given tinned pilchards on toast because my stepfather liked the meal. None of us did when we tried it, so from then on, any minor infraction resulted in a red tin of pilchards appearing from a cupboard and the offender being forced to eat one, two, three tins cold. The skin felt both slimy and rough in your mouth; the flesh oily and contrasting with the metallic tang of the coagulated tomato sauce; swallowing without chewing wasn’t an option because of the bones. Twenty years later I still can’t walk past a tin in the supermarket without shuddering at the memory of pilchards vertebrae disintegrating to wet dust between my teeth each time.

Food became a symbol of control and resistance. Everything that passed my lips was controlled by this man. We were poor, and essentially prisoners in the home, so never had any choice over meals. The children ate separately to the adults in terms of menus and space: we were in the kitchen, stood at the table (no chairs allowed, lack of comfort is another punishment) eating whatever we were given, and never allowed to leave the table until everyone had eaten. One sister, a very slow eater would often end up completely full but forced to stand at the table for hours with us all, once overnight, until she had finished. 

Hungry, nearing puberty and furious at the treatment, I became adept at shoplifting. Stealing from supermarkets, I could eat when I had been deliberately starved and had absolute choice over the food I ate. It was a revelation, and an utter joy, one I couldn’t explain to friends at school. I ran away from home endlessly, though was always caught, bundled into a police car and returned miserably to the house, with social services and the police showing no interest in why I kept fleeing. The days when I slept rough, in empty houses, barns, or woods were the happiest days I’d had in years. I was freezing cold, could barely sleep due to fear of being raped or murdered if someone found me, but could eat whatever I chose to and move freely. 

Eventually, I escaped: one day in a rage, my stepfather gave my mother an ultimatum – either “she goes, or I go” and my mother chose him. I was told to go to the police station and tell them I wasn’t wanted any more. The police officer on duty, didn’t believe me, rang my mother and couldn’t even think of a response when she confirmed it. I was free. I could see my friends after school, read what I wanted (my stepfather found me reading a psychology textbook from school and ripped it up, explaining prisoners read psychology in jail to outwit prison officers), but most importantly, eat what I liked.

For a girl in her early teens, having such a complex history with food and control was completely disastrous. Already at high risk of developing eating disorders, the “punishments” meant I viewed food as both an enemy and a symbol of my freedom. I oscillated between compulsive over-eating and anorexia, continued to shoplift because the idea of even being constrained economically when it came to food gave me panic attacks. I settled a little around the age of 16, getting a job that meant I stopped shoplifting, and my vegetarianism meant I was able to cook meals for myself and choose my own food at the supermarket, as “no one knows what vegetarians eat”. 

But my relationship with food was still dreadful. I overate, then skipped meals, and also had no real portion control. An ex-boyfriend told me he’d leave me if I didn’t quit vegetarianism, so I started eating meat again, and didn’t realise for years that most omnivores don’t eat meat with every meal. I still ate when I was unhappy and celebrated with food too. The pilchards remained stuck in my memory, causing at least four panic attacks when I saw the familiar can in aisles. At black tie dinners, I’d often find myself facing a plate of fish, and anything filleted gave me flashbacks to being forced to eat whole tins of the oily things. Anchovies appearing on pizzas when I hadn’t read menus correctly ruined an evening: even picking them off did nothing, and seeing the bones move and the flesh flake as I attempted to remove them killed my appetite entirely.

I assumed this was permanent: I would forever struggle with my appetite, weight and with explaining to friends and partners that food was often a minefield for me. To explain why, I’d have to explain my childhood, and even thinking about it tightens my chest, and no one knows what to say in response. You end up pitied but also considered “too much” and likely to be “a complicated person”. 

Then I fell ill: an illness that baffled the doctors for month, as I constantly vomited in bouts, resistant to every anti-emetic they gave me, with nurses staring with confusion as I projectile vomited with a drip in my arm giving me higher doses of drugs than cancer patients are prescribed. For three months I ate almost nothing but soup and toast. Eventually, a doctor diagnosed Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome, a disease usually seen in childhood but occasionally in adults, that causes clusters of extreme nausea, albeit with no cure. 

Once the worst of the vomiting died down, I had to think about food again. But rather than simply throwing together a quick meal or following a recipe, I had to walk around the supermarket for sometimes up to an hour, choosing food. I had no appetite so scrutinised everything, to find something that I might like to eat, because eating something mindlessly would invariably make me vomit. For every meal, I had to choose something I desperately wanted to eat, chew slowly and psychologically invest in keeping it down. Mostly, it worked: I’d eat, I’d feel sick shortly afterwards, and with a huge amount of mental energy managed to stymie the gag reflex. Patterns helped too – toast and coffee, followed by soup for dinner meant my body and mind became primed to expect those meals, after barely eating for months. For my evening meal, I’d research, experiment, and have something interesting, even if it was only what looked like a snack to others. 

For the first time in memory, I was listening to my body’s cues on food. I knew very well what small physiological signs meant I was in danger of vomiting. But I also started understanding when I was hungry, different levels of hunger, when to stop eating and when I wasn’t hungry, but bored. My palate too, changed: barely eating from November to March meant I’d essentially hit reset on my tastebuds. Suddenly I liked apples and taramasalata, but could no longer eat pasta or cheddar with any enjoyment. And I thought, if I can listen to both my psychological and physical reaction to food so well now, I can confront my fish phobia and consign it to the past. I started small.

At a restaurant with a friend recently, two dishes were brought out from a tasting menu: bream and sardines. In the past, I’d have felt dizzy and short of breath at the sight of a sardine. Instead, I served myself a small portion of the bream, tried a forkful and didn’t like it, but didn’t feel as if I’d failed or been defeated by it. I didn’t try the sardine; I considered it, looked at it and decided that today was not the day. But I will, in the future, buy a tin of pilchards. After I have slowly worked my way up to trying a sardine in a restaurant, putting an anchovy in a pasta sauce and enjoying it, I will try a pilchard, though perhaps not a cold one. Doing so will feel like a victory, and the laying to rest of the past. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about adulthood and ageing is how much there is to learn about human behaviour and decision-making. I had assumed my relationship to food was irreparably broken, when in actuality I had misunderstood precisely how my mind and body worked together. I’d also failed to grasp how much I was capable of controlling my mind, a fact which only came to light when I properly listened to psychological and physiological cues. But I can see an endpoint in my personal struggle and know that it is possible to reach this in my own time. I just hadn’t envisaged an improvement in the state of my mental health would manifest as a jolly red tin of oily fish.

Caravan marshmallows

by Stevie Mackenzie-Smith

Between the ages of 7 and 14, I lived half the week with my Dad in his caravan in the corner of a field he rented on a fruit farm. The farm produced apples, like coxes and russets which were small and funny looking and much too sharp to eat. But there were raspberries too, lining our corner of the field so I’d pick them straight from the bushes, and Malcolm the farmer who didn’t mind late payments, also didn’t seem to mind about the raspberries.

Our caravan was big and long with three bedrooms, and my Dad gutted the whole thing of it’s fitted plastic and sawed away at planks to lay wooden floors and make shelves instead. He pulled out the toilet – because having a waste tank just sitting there stagnant is disgusting, he said – and replaced it with a bath, which felt quite luxurious. Instead of a door, we pinned a fabric curtain and sometimes twisted it back so we could hold forth with each other, one in the kitchen and the other supine in hot water. With no toilet, we’d pee outside on the grass, or walk to the cold, spider-infested toilet at the top of the field for anything else.

My favourite thing about living at the caravan was the bonfire where we’d burn these great bits of chopped up tree and enter that hot-cheeked primal trance that takes hold when you gaze at flames. My Dad taught me to build a fire, and approach it with confidence, to get my face in close and blow a licking flame into action. “If you respect the fire,” my Dad said, “the fire will respect you.”

In the summer months, my Dad made a makeshift shower by the fire, so we could take these wonderfully smokey washes standing under a ladder with a water tank on top, with the owl up in the big tree cooing occasionally.

A fire meant one thing: marshmallows. Bought from the Spar down the road, there always seemed to be a packet on the go. Either folded, saved for later on top of the microwave, or in my lap by the fire. Of course I’d honed my marshmallow-toasting very precisely.

There was a lot riding on the stick – you had to choose one long enough so as not to burn the hairs on your hand, but up to the task of carrying valuable molten cargo without snapping.

You thread two marshmallows onto the stick. The white ones are best – slightly less sickly than the pink ones, and then you aim them just beside a glowing ember. No flames! That risks the marshmallows igniting dramatically. No, just wait it out by an ember, turning the stick like a spit, watching the sweet lumps start to bronze and bubble.

The bronzing is what you’re waiting for. That means the inside is melting and it’s ready. Take it from the fire, studiously blow the edges (marshmallow burns are awful) and then nibble the top layer of mallow. I hope you know what that tastes like, because it is bliss. Smoked, puffed up gelatinous sugary bliss! Savour that, but briefly because there’s more work to be done – each marshmallow has two or three layers worth of toasting, and there’s only so long before bed.

I’d sit there, silently turning, blowing, testing, biting, in a contented trance. My Dad would drink a can of beer or play his guitar or potter about, shifting wood. It’s good to know how to make something, exactly as you want it.