I remember the taste to this day of the forbidden fruit from that evening in my youth.
I grew up in rural Northern Ireland in the 1950s and 60s where the diet was plain and the food simple. The food like the culture was far from exotic. I know from my wife who grew up in Scotland that many more foods were available beyond our shores. For example I didn’t taste yogurt until I was an adult or many other foods such as broccoli, sweetcorn, courgette’ peppers and aubergine; even the lowly beef burger was only heard of on American TV programmes. But my wife dined on all these items regularly. Perhaps yogurt and all these other foods were in some way suspect. For all I know these foods could have been mentioned in the writings by Oscar Wilde or DH Lawrence and hence forward were banned by all right-thinking merchants along with the authors’ books.
It was not the taste of exotic foods that I remember so much as the taste of forbidden foods. My mother was an early pioneer of healthy eating which restricted our simple diet even further: items of dubious nutrition or morality were either banned or only on offer as very special treats.
Tomato ketchup and white bread for example would send my mother into a flurry of strong condemnation. As a child this only served to convince me that I must have these foods and that they were the nicest foods a boy could hope to eat. In this I was to be proved to be entirely correct.
It was on a dark Saturday night when I was 8 that I found myself staying with a friend who lived in the centre of town. We were sent out to get our tea. I had never been sent out to get my tea before so had to be guided by my friend. I got chips: a borderline food that my mother would lecture you about but would tolerate like a teacher tolerated the use of a biro pen. It was what happened to those chips when I got back to my friend’s house that set the world on fire.
My friend’s mother placed white bread, butter and tomato ketchup on the table to accompany the chips. All at once I knew what had to be done: to have a devil may care attitude to important matters, to enjoy forbidden fruits in defiance of all sound advice; in other words to get stuck in.
I carefully followed my friend’s example. I watched what he did with the ingredients before us. First the bread was liberally buttered. Then you laid hot chips in careful rows on the buttered bread, followed by a generous coating of the red stuff, the blood of kings, tomato ketchup. Finally you rolled the bread up into a manageable handful, raised it to your drolling gub and bit. Nothing, nothing has surpassed that mouthful since.
To start you had the soft white bread to bite through teasing your mouth with its simplicity and comfort before you got to the real stuff. The melting butter mingled with hot chips and then the red ketchup floated out to drench you in bliss. It was deeply satisfying and somehow reassuring. But it was also exotic and thrilling. The textures and colours of this simple food were deep and luxurious. Bizarrely it was not unlike the reassurance and luxury of a warm bed. In fact I was sure you would get a good night’s sleep in a bed made of a huge white slice, hot chips & ketchup.
Nothing has surpassed this meal since. Not clams, langoustine, pheasant, strawberry flan by the sea shore or even organic raspberry yogurt. Perhaps because none of these contained that early delight of breaking the rules and just indulging your hidden desires like a boy who had finally broken through to a world of pleasure, excitement & indulgence.