Now this sounds more dramatic than it really is, but I learnt as a teacher that children don’t know anything apart from what they pick up through experience or are taught by parents or teachers. Why should I be surprised that they had no understanding that their leather shoes were made from the skin of cows? They often have no understanding that the meat, wrapped in plastic, that you buy at a supermarket was once a living creature, or that the fish pieces were once swimming in the sea. Asked where food comes from, they will tell you the supermarket, as we have sanitised the process. People who live on farms or in the countryside are much less squeamish, but we city dwellers are uncomfortable with the truth. I have often said that I grew up thinking fish had hands, as my mother only ever served fish fingers. Even now, I don’t like to eat anything where I can see its face.
When we were young though, there was a greater understanding of where food came from, as we were more involved in the gathering and preparation. Potatoes arrived as nature intended, still covered in soil and needed washing and peeling. Peas came in pods and one of my greatest pleasures at my grandmother’s in Chapel Allerton was shelling the peas for cooking. There was something lovely in bursting the pods and pushing out the peas, tasting one or two, before we put them in the colander, until my brother and I had finished and they were then added to the boiling water. How very different from opening a packet of frozen peas, often dyed and sweetened and then microwaving them.
With the coming of modernity, the working mum, and marketing, instant everything became the word. Instant mashed potato, my mother took to it with a passion, Instant Whip for dessert, tinned custard, frozen food and ready-made pies etc. I don’t blame her in any way as she worked very hard, had three boys and a husband to feed and, honestly, she wasn’t the greatest of cooks and had a tiny kitchen. We didn’t want to wait. We wanted to just eat and go and play, and what’s more we weren’t fussy. My grandma made wonderful Yorkshire puddings, but my mum’s were never in the same league. She tried toad in the hole, but whatever she did, she learnt never to bother again. It is interesting how the world has gone a full circle and the age of cooking came back for a while, but has disappeared in the younger generation where home delivery, pre-prepared meals are now the rage. The sad thing is that we are trying to educate children into the understanding that you grow many foods out of the ground. In the mid 1960s I remember Mr Kelly, at Harehills County Primary School, getting us to grow mustard and cress from seeds. I was entranced seeing the seeds open and shoot. Within a few days, we had a veritable forest of little sprouts that could adorn a salad or sandwich. I can’t say that I liked the taste, but I liked the process.
As an aside story, I must tell you about a similar thing in my school, here in Perth. The Mushroom Marketers wanted to encourage the eating of mushrooms and they came into school, did a presentation and gave each child a box of compost, mushroom spores already waiting and the children took them home, added water and kept them in the dark. Within a short time, they produced masses of mushrooms. I was always coaxed into wearing silly hats, costumes or whatever embarrassing idea teachers had. I suppose it was the unwritten job description of being a school head. Anyway, the mushroom marketing group had a mushroom costume that they wanted me to wear. It was a fully enclosed suit, had its own inflator to ensure the mushroom kept its shape and luckily my face was hidden within it. I struggled into the very expensive costume, and the little battery powered fan inflated it. It was a full size, light brown coloured suit and I then had to walk in, whilst the whole mushroom growing process was explained. The problem was that the suit resembled something other than a mushroom, in both shape and colour. The teachers were highly amused, as were some of the older children, but luckily, my embarrassment was hidden from view. Photographs were taken, but fortunately I don’t have any copies. I am sure that the makers of the costume must have had a great laugh, the staff and parents certainly did! It is not every day that you see a giant phallic symbol in a school!
There is something altogether nice about harvesting your own food, preparing it and eating it, and one activity I always enjoyed was going collecting blackberries. At the right time, the hedgerows, waste ground and footpaths would be lined with bunches of purple berries, ripe for picking and we would turn up to collect them. Hetchell Wood was always a favourite spot and along the old railway line was a good place to find the brambles. We would be armed with bags to put the berries in and we would start to collect them. The problem was that the thorns used to catch on our hands and bare legs, as we wore shorts. The little scratches weren’t a real problem whilst we were gathering the blackberries, but were more noticeable when we got home, and the Germolene would come out. Whilst gathering them, we always looked for the deepest purple and fattest berries and they were a prize. Sometimes, they were too tempting and we would eat them and they tasted divine. Our hands would become stained with the purple, but bit by bit our bags would fill. Mum and Dad were better at collecting, as they could reach higher and further into the bushes, but eventually the mass collection was put into the back of the car boot and we would return home with our treasure.
The next stage when we got them home was sorting and washing the berries. Bits of twigs, leaves and unripe berries were removed and the remainder rinsed through a colander. Mum dealt with this, but we often watched. There were many additional creatures that appeared in this process: insects and bugs, but more likely were the little wriggling maggoty things that appeared. Mum wasn’t squeamish, not too fussy and after most, unfortunately can’t say all, were removed the remaining ‘clean’ blackberries were used to make jam, which was wonderful. Mum would also separate enough to make a blackberry pie, using the modern almost instant, pastry mix. This was even better if it was eaten warm with ice cream.
Gardens were also places to gather food. Most gardens I knew had at least one gooseberry bush hidden at the back. I loved these as they were a haven for butterflies and later, caterpillars. When the green berries with dark stripes appeared, they were fascinating and I used to enjoy collecting them. These green berries needed topping and tailing before a quick rinse and then cutting in two. They were then placed in a deep bowl, sprinkled liberally with sugar and then crumble was used to cover them over. This was baked in the oven and gooseberry crumble with custard was a fantastic mix of tart and sweet flavours. A rhubarb patch was also something you might find in most gardens. It took little looking after and could be harvested regularly. The pulling off the stems and leaves seemed to encourage regrowth. Rumour has it that a horsehair mattress buried beneath would produce outstanding results, but that is something I can’t vouch for. Wakefield is the world centre for rhubarb growing, apparently, and the countryside has lots of low barns, barely a metre tall, where it is force-grown. I believe that the green leaves are poisonous, but I can’t be sure. The red stems though are lovely. We used to dip the end in sugar and eat them raw, or Grandma or Mum would bake rhubarb crumble which is equally as delicious as the gooseberry.
Gardens were quite a source and the trend has moved back to growing food, as well as flowers. Sometimes Dad had a go with potatoes and there was something truly magical in pulling out the dying plants and revealing wonderful bright, creamy new potatoes. There was great delight in having them for lunch with lashings of melting butter. I can taste them and smell them as I write this now. We also had a go with growing strawberries and they were OK, but you needed more than we ever grew. I did enjoy going to the pick your own strawberries near where we lived in Wakefield. Not only did they taste divine, but you could also make wine with them. When I was first married we used to take our son with us to gather blackberries and apart from jam and pies, we also used them to make wine. Another rich harvest for wine was elderberries. Most people didn’t bother with them and so there were always lots at the right time, easy to pick and there were no thorns. I used them to make wine and they needed to be blended with the blackberries to make a good bottle.
At our first house in Wakefield, I bought a greenhouse and that allowed you to grow a wide range of foods. Tomatoes were easy, but I soon learnt to avoid Moneymaker as it produced lots of flavourless fruit. There are better flavoured varieties readily available and the grow-bag made it so simple. I grew capsicums, cucumbers, lettuce and other edible plants. I still retain the same joy of seeing the seed you plant germinate, shoot, grow and crop that I had when we grew mustard and cress at Harehills County Primary School. Here in Perth Western Australia, we have mandarin and lemon trees in the garden and at my school we had chickens and collected the eggs daily. The school also had vegetable gardens that the children tended and harvested and you could see the same delight in their eyes as they picked and ate the crops. When we lived in Papua New Guinea, we grew bananas, avocados, potatoes, pineapples, kale, paw paws and tomatoes and that really was special. Up to that point, I had only ever eaten pineapple from a tin. What a surprise and joy to discover what they really tasted like!
People are more conscious of the food they eat and how it is grown, in recent years, and this is a good thing, as is involving children in growing food. Allotments seem to still be thriving and hopefully will continue to do so. Maybe countries need to consider that producing enough food to feed their populations is an essential requirement. Relying on imports makes you vulnerable. In the 1960s, we wanted to reduce population growth to sustainable rates, but somehow that got lost in the ‘grow the economy’ model that has taken over developed countries. The excuse now is that we have too many old people, making too many demands on the welfare and hospital systems, but maybe the truth is that we could easily pay for it if everyone, meaning the hyper-wealthy, actually paid their share. Am I being controversial?