Josna Rege

41. Eating for Four

In Britain, Food, Stories on April 30, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I lived on my own for the first time over a period of nearly five months when I was nineteen and studying in London. It was also the first time I had cooked for myself alone, and so I naturally cooked for four, as I had seen my mother doing all my life. The trouble was, it didn’t occur to me that I could keep the leftovers for another meal, so I simply ate seconds, and thirds, and fourths, until all the food was finished. My father had a horror of our leaving anything on our plates, and he had trained me well. During those few short months I gained more than a stone—sixteen pounds over my regular weight of 100 pounds.

Before I left for London, Mum had written down some essential recipes for me: chicken, prawn (shrimp), potato, and cauliflower curry. I still have them somewhere, on a tattered sheet of lined paper, streaked and stained with grease and spices, singed from the time it caught fire on the gas burner. These recipes became my standbys, and soon I was moderately famous for my prawn curry. Whenever I returned to England my cousin Sue would invite friends over with the promise that her cousin Jo was going to make a better Indian meal than they could get at any restaurant. So I had a reputation to uphold. As a college student I hadn’t yet had much cooking experience, but I could make a good late-night snack of spicy curried potatoes and piping-hot poories, or thin English pancakes—crepes—filled with curried potatoes and peas, rather like a dosa. (The high carbohydrate content is no doubt evident to the contemporary reader, but in the seventies we had not developed any such sensitivities.)

Before I found my own flat in London I stayed with Auntie Bette and Uncle Bill for a month. That laid the foundation for what was to follow after. I soon settled comfortably—much too comfortably—into their seductive English lifestyle: tea and biscuits in the morning, three square meals a day—followed by pudding, of course—and tea, biscuits, and sweeties while watching telly in the evening. Then, just around the News at Ten and before bedtime, Uncle Bill would say that he felt a bit peckish, and he or Auntie Bette would make a thick cheese-and-piccalilli sandwich, which went down well with another round of tea.

But the pounds really started to accumulate once I was living alone. How on earth did I gain so much in such a short time?

The first cause, no doubt, was Digestive Biscuits. I would buy a large packet of them, sit down with a book and a pot of tea, and go through them all one by one, dipping each one absent-mindedly into my tea as I read (and, as often as not, leaving it in just a second too long and having to retrieve it soggily out of the cup with a teaspoon).  There is nothing like a good book accompanied by a nice cup of tea and a Digestive—or ten.

Bread was the second culprit. The hot, squashy brown loaves that one could buy  at the baker’s on the Camden High Street were to die for. No sooner had I got them home than I would cut a hefty slice, spread it liberally with butter and sparingly with Marmite (as they warned on the label), and sometimes, top it off with a few slices of cucumber, tomato, or radish. I loved that bread and worked my way through my daily loaf at an impressive pace. (I’ll never forget the time I went to cut into a new loaf only to find that Rosie, my landlady’s two-year old, had got there first, burrowing in from one end and hollowing it out completely!)

Paean to Marmite! Although I liked marmalade well enough, nothing sweet could ever replace the taste of well-being produced by a thick slice of buttered bread-and-Marmite.

In America, Marmite is universally misunderstood and Marmite-lovers mocked. Americans love sweet foods, and for them, the color of Marmite suggests only chocolate spread. What a rude shock it was for Andrew when, anticipating chocolate spread, he spread a generous dollop of Marmite onto his bread and took a large bite. He isn’t generally a man who holds a grudge, but I don’t think he’s ever quite gotten over it. Axle grease is his name for it, and most of our friends agree with him.

While I’m waxing poetic over Marmite, I can’t resist posting this letter, published a few years ago in The New York Times Magazine, which demonstrates the degree to which this substance is maligned in America and the depth of feeling it stirs up among believers:

“I am distressed by the blatant anti-Marmitism displayed by, of all things, an Englishman, referring to Marmite as “the odious brown sauce made out of vegetable extract.” This stuff is nectar! It is the very taste of home! When, in these days of political correctness, can we Brits expect to see an end to this cultural abuse?” (NYT Magazine, March 14, 1999)

What this properly indignant but rather nationalist letter-writer neglects to mention is that the stuff is loved not only by idiosyncratic Brits, but by people  throughout the former British Empire and Commonwealth, where it goes by other trade names, including Vitamite and Vegemite.

The other top contributors to my English stone were cream slices and jam doughnuts. I could rarely resist picking up one of these divinely calorific confections while at the baker’s buying my daily loaf. Mum had always spoken longingly of cream slices, so it was practically my duty to eat them, on her behalf, as it were. They were little apple turnovers made of flaky pastry and filled with freshly whipped English cream. Nothing more can be said—they have to be tasted. Equally tempting were the jam doughnuts. In order to appreciate these, one has to put firmly out of one’s mind all ideas about doughnuts based on the Dunkin’ Donuts variety. Believe me, DD’s have their place, but the missing “ugh” in “donuts” perhaps best suggests what is missing—the supreme doughiness of English doughnuts, fried and coated liberally with a coarser grade of granulated sugar than is generally found in America, endowing them with a texture on top that perfectly complements the jamminess and doughiness on the inside. In America, donuts tend to have a hole in them rather than being filled, and even the filled ones tend to use jelly, not jam, further impoverishing the final product. (The glorious exceptions are the raspberry-jam-filled doughnuts to be found at Henion’s bakery in Amherst, every bit as good as—no, better than—any I have eaten in England. I credit Henion’s doughnuts with keeping me (more-or-less) sane during the long ordeal of writing my doctoral dissertation.)

When I got back to America I made up my mind to shed that extra stone, and lost the weight as quickly as I had gained it. It was easy: there were no more Digestives, no more cream slices or jam doughnuts, no more late-night snacks of cheese and piccalilli or bread and Marmite. I was living at home again, and Mum still cooked for four, but all I had to do was to eat my share.

I still cook for four today—old habits die hard—but now the problem is, what to do with the leftovers? Come and visit!

 

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  1. Hi Cussin, my mouth is watering – for prawn curry, fresh bread and doughnuts!! And of course marmite – Mum will enjoy reading this tomorrow. Keep writing,xx

    • Dear Cussin, I was going to include a Sunday at your Mum and Dad’s, but it would have turned the entry into a book! I decided that it needed an entry all its own! x Jo

  2. I have also enjoyed the gusto you have had for food and the wondrous amounts you have always been able to eat without gaining an ounce. With that perspective this delectable description conjures impressive mountains of those tasty treats.
    Do you remember our long vigil over the ras malai at Washington Terrace?

    • Or was it the carrot halwah? I’ve never lived that one down! And, sadly, I now gain, almost instantly. Still, I try not to let it hold me back.

  3. What a post to read on an empty stomach! I learned to love Digestive biscuits when living in Leicester. Gawdawful name, but great cookies, not too sweet but sweet enough. My worst downfall came in Budapest: all those Hungarian pastries, oy! Some were more beautiful than tasty, but the good ones were a dream. My favorites were something called a kremes (the first -e pronounced as long -a, final -s as -sh), which I think may be like calling it a creamie. It looked a lot like a napoleon, but with bottom and top pastry layers separated by three inches of custard. Unbelievable. The other was meggyes retes (medgesh raytesh), cherry strudel made with sour cherries and not sweetened too much. In good weather, I’d buy one or the other (never quite degenerated into two at a time) and a cup of strong coffee to drink at an outside table. I read Karen Armstrong’s book on Christianity that way. However, coming home did not have the weight-loss effect you experienced. I’ve never gotten rid of what I gained.

    By the way, in addition to the Henion, in Greenfield we have Adams’ Bakery, which makes divine doughnuts (although they misspell, too). The best is called apple pie, full of spiced apples and something white and creamy, like melted ice cream on the pie. I avoid the place like the plague, but every once in a while break down.

    And I haven’t even gotten to talk about Indian food yet, but my pallid dinner calls.

    • Dear Sarah, I expect your dinner was healthier than most of the stuff I’ve described above. Napoleons are my mother’s favorite–though she’s fussy, and rarely finds one that passes muster. Have you been to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side in New York? It is Nikhil’s favorite haunt when he’s in that part of the City. I wonder if it has any of those amazing pastries you mention.
      Must try Adams’ Bakery next time I’m in Greenfield. xxo J

  4. Oh my God. I still remember the first time you gave me a bite of bread, spread with your favorite marmite. I’m afraid that my reaction was the same as Andrew’s.

    I loved going to your parents’ house for dinner when in college. I was fascinated by the spaciousness of the semi-detached house in the middle of a city, and could always rely on a delicious meal of curry (or Sally curry, if I preferred), Moussaka, or a traditional roast with Yorkshire pudding. It was all exotic to me in those days. The first time I watched you and your mother make pooris is still imprinted in my memory. POOF! Like magic and they were delicious. Whenever I order them, I remember that first time I saw that magic.

    • Gail! You have a terrific memory. I had forgotten about Sally curries. Not too long ago we found some old Polaroid photos of one of your visits home; I should dig them up and try to scan them (though I have no skills in that department). My family loved it when you came over. Mum learned to make moussaka in Greece and it became one of her specialties. Not everyone likes the texture and consistency of the eggplant in it; I remember her serving it to some non-Greek friends of ours, and the little girl saying fearfully, “I don’t like eating snakes.” It’s true, poories are always magic when they puff up perfectly. They make the simplest of meals into a special treat. x J

  5. Oh what a hungry making post to read before bed… Love stories such as these.
    I, too, gained weight while a student in England in the 1990s. And that weight gain was entirely about the digestive biscuits. As you said, it was SO comforting to do one’s reading with a cup of tea and a biscuit or ten.

    • I didn’t know that you studied in England, too. We’ll have to compare notes someday. One can get a few different brands of Digestives here, too; but perhaps you’d rather not know. I always used to have a tin of them on hand. Recently, though, I’ve been on a roll with Trader Joe’s maple cream cookies. If you ever had a custard cream in England, these are similar, but the cream (or creme, I suppose) filling is maple-flavored. They melt in your mouth. And they have no transfats, so one can feel somewhat righteous while consuming them.

  6. I was at the University of Sussex in ’92-93. Good tip on the cookies/biscuits!

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