My amazing, active, tap-dancing mother recently turned 90. We celebrated with her favourite childhood meal – ham and potatoes – and began talking about the foods of our youth. I have a hazy glow about the meals she made us in the 70s and 80s and decided to revisit them to see if the emotional culinary memory was all that remained, or if they could pass the timeless Good Food test with my own children.
Spam and cheese toasties. I pan-fried the spam until its edges were crispy, layered it into sandwiches with grated cheddar and relish, toastied them and offered them to my teenage sons. Had I called them cheese and ham toasties they’d have loved them. But I stood defiantly in the face of pork-based prejudice and proudly presented the spam for what it was. My children kindly said they didn’t want to deprive me of all the joys and left me to eat them all. Shock news – still delicious.
A can of spaghetti Bolognese on toast, a childhood favourite from the days when Heinz’s canned ravioli was the closest our house got to authentic Italian food. To me, this was glamorous. To children who have eaten non-canned pasta, it was mushy. What started as ‘Can I have it without the toast?’, ended as, ‘Can I just have the toast.’
Went better, well for me anyway. The return of the adored sandwich spread. ‘You’ll love it,’ I said to my 15-year-old, ‘it’s like a tangy mayonnaise with bits of things in it.’ He passed. So we moved on to the revered yellow and pink cake that was only brought out for special occasions – Battenburg. The children were confused. ‘It’s SO sugary’. ‘How can you say that – you eat Krispy Kremes?’ ‘But that’s new sugary, this is old-fashioned sugary.’ Apparently there’s a difference.
Oh the joy of assembling a cheese and pineapple hedgehog. I proudly presented my grapefruit studded with tiny fruity dairy skewers as a retro amuse-bouche. Verdict: ‘Weird’. ‘Then say hello to your starter – it’s Mr Brain’s Pork Fagotts. They’re like meatballs, only the meat is mixed with a packet of stuffing, a pig’s liver and it’s served in a glutinous gravy’. I could tell I had lost them. To be honest, I lost myself on that one too.
Moving on… I didn’t have my first Chinese meal until my 18th birthday and will always be grateful to Vesta chow mein – our favourite Asian supper, and 50% of my student diet. But it was like sucking on a stock cube. The deep-fried crispy noodles were fun, despite looking like toenails, but the dehydrated vegetables were drowning in what tasted like liquid MSG.
Spirits were revived by the tinned Fray Bentos pie. The pastry is still good and the soggy layer is still delicious, though the meat filling is pretty painful. And for the first time in 40 years, I mixed the white powder of Smash with boiling water, added a knob of butter and tried it. It was… spectacular. What began as a retro joke became a vow to never mash a spud again.
We went the full 1970s dessert trolley, starting with a trifle made from four satchets of Bird’s Dream Topping. I served it with the Neapolitan ice cream that had tasted so great in the days before Britain discovered luxury ice cream. In my head, they were heaven. In my mouth, they were bland. Even the legendary Vienetta wasn’t what I remembered. The crispy bits are still deliciously unexpected, but the ice cream part tastes like hoover fluff.
I’m not going to lie, by this stage I’d be pushing it to say my children were relishing the meal. But I held an ace up my sleeve – the violently coloured airy-goo of the legendary Angel Delight. Almost neon in hue, this embodies that greatest of all childhood flavours… pink. And what I realised was that our response to food is partly about what you’re eating, but partly about the emotions it inspires.
A nostalgic food memory can change something from ‘technically disgusting’ into ‘blissfully pleasing’. To my boys, Angel Delight was a lurid mixture of whey powder, emulsifiers and gelling agents. To me, it was then, and always will be, the taste of school holidays, weekends and birthday treats. I ate the bowlful to the surprise of my narrow-minded kids and revelled in the power of the imagination to rework our culinary experiences.
Transport yourself back to the 80s with Emma’s dinner party classic: meat fondue recipe.
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Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, and director of Red Nose Day.