I have just spent some time in Edinburgh. I like spending time in bookshops and I like reading books set in places that I know well. The Sewing Machine is a book set in this wonderful city, a city that I have a strong connection to and have spent a lot of time in. A perfect book to read while in Edinburgh for a few days.
Set in different years spanning from the early 1900s to the present. It describes an Edinburgh of my Grandma’s youth, of the 1950s when my parents were growing up, the 1980s when I would be coming to Edinburgh to visit my grandparents every Hogmanay and summer, to 2016, an Edinburgh that my children now see as I bring them to connect with family and the city that I love. It was a good read, a clever story about families connected through an old sewing machine brought alive by the descriptions of the city that I could picture clearly.
I loved the familiarity of the book recognising the streets and areas of Edinburgh, I could picture the places and the tenements that the story takes place in. Not just the Edinburgh of my memory but the different eras through the stories of my family – their telling me how something had changed from when they were young and what things looked like but how some things haven’t changed.
For me there was another thing that jumped out for me. It was that food often helped to paint the pictures, to evoke the time and place. Connie and Alf, broadly the same generation as my own grandparents, having cooked breakfast of square sausage and fried eggs, using the fat from the cooked sausage to pour over the eggs to set the white over the yolk. My gran did it that way in this old frying pan that sits in my memory. The mopping up the yolk with the morning rolls. The description of the very particular shade of pink that is Square or Lorne sausage. The morning rolls that I remember walking to get from the local baker (every local baker’s rolls were a bit different) and carry back to Grandma’s still warm in the paper bag. So delicious buttered and filled with bacon or sausage or fried egg (always risky as the yolk had to be soft). The book transported me back to Grandma’s kitchen and the smell of sausage cooking.
It was the talk of mince and potatoes – mince and tatties. I was never the biggest fan until I worked out that it is best served in a bowl. Put the mince on a plate it gets cold too quick. In a bowl with the mince and gravy drizzling down through the mash, with carrots and peas cooked in the gravy with the mince.
It was pudding of canned fruit and custard. There was always pudding at Grandma’s even it was just banana chopped in custard or a slice of Neopolitan ice cream. Stew and dumplings, my mum calls them doughballs, and soaking up the gravy with the dumplings. It was the mention of fish suppers with salt n sauce – chippie sauce is a thing particular to Scotland. No mention of white pudding supper though which was a favourite of mine. And the mention of ham ribs from the butchers – my Gran used them to make her famous soup, no one makes soup like my Gran did. My Dad gets close. I have never heard of ham ribs outside of Scotland.
It was Alf bringing in produce that he grew on his allotment that reminded me of my Grandad growing things in his garden – the smell of tomatoes just picked and ripening on the sash windows, shelling peas but not many peas ending up in the pot, fresh berries that I would eat so many of it would upset my tummy.
It was Fred, the adult from 2016 reminiscing to his 80s childhood and wanting Monster Munch, thinking of cauliflower cheese as comfort food and remembering bad school dinners. He never mentioned Spam fritters – the stuff of nightmares. Talking of the local convenience store that had been run by the same lady since his childhood, choosing sweeties like I remember.
We say we are what we eat. We are connected to our past, to our memories, to our heritage and culture through food. Food can transport us to a happy place. Or a sad place – the smell of overcooked cabbage from hospital kitchens described in the book is an example of that. I loved the way references to food made the book more alive for me. Made me think of people and places from my childhood. We create food memories throughout our life.
Food is more than just the sum of its nutrients, it is the stuff of life and I don’t just mean keeping us alive. I think in this crazy world, food has become fuel, a source of guilt, a chore, a pressure. It’s about organic or not, free from or not, this trend or that superfood, processed or unprocessed. Sometimes we need to remember that food can be a thing that brings us together, that connects us with people and places. A thing of joy, a thing that can make memories. And sometimes it doesn’t really matter what that food brings to the table nutritionally – which is more important to me, the peas podded and eaten instead of going in the pot to cook or sweeties from Grandad’s sweetie box? Neither. In memory terms they are equal.
I have shared a few of my food memories, what are yours? What foods do you think will evoke happy memories for your own children? Is there a dish or a smell that takes you back somewhere or reminds you of a person. Is there a food that is a comfort food because it transports you to a happy place? We talk about balance often in nutrition, I think just as we need balance between different types of food for our health, we also need balance between the emotional and physical aspects of eating and food. Happy eating!