(Contains a swear word. There might be more than one.) This is something I wrote for a food something a while ago. I had rather forgotten about it. But I am taking a little time to clear up old pieces as I wait on my second novel (novella, really) and finish my third.
Elizabeth David. My favourite food writer ever. That’s her in the picture and here is something for her. If you have read my first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, you will have met some pretty scary food at Paternal Grandmother’s House at The Hill. Tripe, slapping and boiling; pickles in a dark store cupboard that frightened me with its eyeball pickled eggs. This was a house of morbid fascinations; of desolate proportions: they talked about terrible deaths over tea, I felt I knew so much more that I should about ways to die, horribly and publicly; on the wall there was a picture of Jesus and underneath that one of kittens: in the damp hallway outside, a terrifying dead great aunt with nasty rat teeth glared from a picture on the wall. But ah yes: the food. It was hearty, but I have not revisited it. Not quite. I feel compelled to gussy up its ingredients so it isn’t so redolent of…well, of horrible deaths. In came Elizabeth David with a blast of sunshine and a tray of tomatoes and sweet peppers. Obviously, this story and partial account of my formative years is not just about the food and not purely literal.
My grandfather taught all his cats – who were called mostly after Old Testament folk – to wipe their feet on the way in. It is true. I have no idea why he did this. My grandmother seemed to loathe everyone beyond The Hill (oh whoops – the book says it’s a work of fiction; well, some of it is, then…) and was good with a gun and at arm wrestling. She had big knuckles and terrifying elbows. I imagined that she killed people she didn’t like. She was full of curses and liked to frighten small kids by telling them that Jesus was looking at them with his beady eye. And not just from the wall.
The days, I will eat tripe, but only in a hot spiced Chinese dish, or with chorizo as a friend from Buenos Aires showed me how to do. Or in ‘E.D.’s’ recipe, below. it is actually rather lovely.
Anyway, my paternal grandmother was the inspiration for this story. Tripe, yes: but a fresh start. New day; new life; new love; new recipe.
They were as strange as all fuck, weren’t they – at The Hill?
A TALE OF TRIPE
Waking in the violet early morning, bathed in sweat and troubled by a night both eerie and vivid, Catherine searched her thoughts: ‘What must I have been dreaming about?’
It didn’t take long, of course: it was the tripe – that and the matriarchs who washed it, handled it with such vigour and presented it with an expectant, nasty gleam in their eyes. Such sweet, creative fiends: mother and grandmother. In Mother’s case, just dressing the tripe would have exhausted her for the day; sent her desperate to the fainting couch. In grandmother’s case, such dressing was simply a prompt to her killing another cow with the large-knuckled hands that terrified the grandchild so much.
Catherine winced: ‘Grandmother and her man hands; downy arms – all wicked with a rolling pin and guarding the old stove with a vicious possessiveness’, thus,
‘Let no man come near my domain: I will slaughter them – smother them under the blanket of the beautiful tripe.’
That was it. That was the most disquieting image in the nightmare: Grandmother like Moloch waiting for a sacrifice over the fire; Mother’s eyes dancing approval.
‘Yes yes yes! Feed it to her! Now, now, now!’
‘I’m so ashamed. I want a normal family and not to feel like this – waking, tripe-terrified.’
Mother and Grandmother were dead, but they found that no excuse. So they visited Catherine regularly, sleeves rolled up, ready to cook.
To rid herself of the present dreamscape, there was nothing for it: go downstairs and find a better image. Tea in a favourite mug was a good start, but Catherine found that her thoughts were leaping from vivid hue – the reddest of pickled cabbage – to dull, cloudy jars in which might have been preserved the innards of an unwanted relative. In grandmother’s pantry there was a hecatomb of conserves; the fruits of the season, incongruously presented in a chamber of horrors. There were pots of umber sludge, eyeball pickled eggs in heavily sedimented jars: damp flagstones underfoot; a smell of sour, crawling mould. There were aprons hanging up, the prettiness of their floral decoration gone to hell in this place of condiments, good housekeeping and no hope. This was a room revisited on other troubled nights for Catherine; she could not let its scents and shapes leave her head and the argot of this poky grey room whispered, ‘Grandmother knows – just as we all know – and she and Mother will come for you.’
Here was a place of extinction – of annihilation, the meaning of such things terrifying in a dream but still only faintly, inchoately understood.
‘This must be the worst combination: to know that someone is coming for you, but not to understand why, when or how. Or really what that has to do with pickles. Or tripe!’
Ah: the tripe – huge winding sheets of it. It smelled like death. When Catherine’s nights were not punctuated by morbid pickles, siren-calling her to embrace their victim in death, she had nightmares of being cosseted in its velvet crushing embrace. The silky surface was puckered and hollowed. Somewhere else and in some other time, it might have been pretty; like a creamy-white mosaic you would want to touch. But in the nights, and when grandmother or mother served it up as punishment so triumphantly, the tripe blinked at her and writhed in its nasty pool of white sauce, encircled by effulgent lumps of onion. On its surface – its face or was it its back? – were sucker pads like those on the arms of an octopus or some kind of strange sea plant that would caress and then swallow you whole, whispering of a lifetime of sin to you – just to compound the unpleasantness of this particular way to go.
Matriarchs hovering, the tripe came billowing clouds of vapour; it was cooked in a milky broth, all one at first, before you realised the unpleasantness of the discrete parts and sucky stomach-feet turned your (own) stomach. Between the two women, the silent challenge between mother and grandmother, it was a point of honour to make sure that the flour was never properly cooked off; thus, it lurked congealed in tiny mounds – but you didn’t see it in the unmapped viscosity of the sauce. Didn’t see the horrid little tumescence until you began to ingest it. Powder scattered in your mouth when the lump dissected. In a way, this was the worst horror:
‘And the dust in my mouth as I sat between Scylla and Charibdys. Oh, a fine supper.’
Catherine had always blamed herself for the meals – for why they fed her so. For the spiteful sheets of tripe, served up like victory in chintz.
‘My childhood looked so tidy from the outside; mother and grandmother were pillars of the community: first for cake in the village show; outstanding for a lemon curd; doyennes of the church flower rota. They prayed hard at the altar, shark eyes squeezed shut. I always thought it was me – it had to be me.’
‘Send her out to the pantry, in the semi darkness. Those eggs will frighten her a treat – make her more obedient. The mould on her hands! Ha!’
‘Mother – that’s the way to do it.’
‘But say these homes must have been full of spite, hurt and venom to make mother and grandmother cook like that? Say it was THEM and I didn’t deserve the tripe? Say it was wrong to shut me in there when I gagged on the tripe and onions and spat out the floury lumps without meaning to and they put me in the pantry like Jane Eyre in the Red Room?’
Catherine was not usually so bold: what was happening now that was different?
Something was coming from the bookshelf.
A small, dry but nonetheless beguiling voice: ‘Come here and open me up, Catherine.’
Now, Catherine was used to having a litter of imaginary friends. When your strange landlocked, emptied-out family surrounds you; when your nearest and dearest seem to close in on you with, “Bad, bad, bad – everyone knows about you” then don’t you need to tell someone? You can’t tell real people because no-one else seems to have a family as peculiar as yours.
‘And how would I ever explain cooking as a way of throttling or suffocating an unwanted child?’
In the bad dreams, Catherine tended to see her relatives, mother and grandmother predominant, amassed, like the preserves, in a hecatomb. They tumbled out curses at her at home; aligned in neat rows and pretty as pie when out in the cold world which welcomed their jam making, their manners and determined smiles. Who would believe Catherine about Mother and Grandmother? And how would she explain the chamber of soused horrors or the tripe? But here came a friend now; you might know her. To Catherine, she was ED; to the outside world, Elizabeth David.
ED wasn’t the warmest sort, but her books smelled of spice and sunshine; of lemons and emerald parsley. Catherine took French Provincial Cooking from her shelf; it was from this that ED had been speaking to her. Catherine adored ED and all her books; could tell you about the “pale rose pinks of the langoustines” which their author enjoyed, with a fresh and sparkling appetite, alongside a bottle of Muscadet by the Seine. ED relished good butter, radishes with their leaves left on as God had made them; saw the poetry and potency of a flat plate of Arles sausage and black olives.
‘And the colour, ED: look at the colour of the things you ate and knew how to make! See the lovely creams and greys of shrimp; sunset-glow carrots. For you, even the dark things – the winkles and the cork stuck with pins; things that were muted or pebbly – those things became beautiful. Beautiful – flanking the colour; like a gentle relief. I want to eat like that and I’d like to live like that. Embracing the darkness, yet knowing of its loving, numinous companion.’
ED, not one for a hug, and not particularly fond of metaphor, said, ‘Well, do you have a sharp knife, a hot grill and a will of your own? I’m assuming you have a mandoline, some good bowls – and I will not share my kitchen with a garlic press: I must be firm about that.’
‘Of course not; I know your feelings on garlic presses. I’m not sure I have a mandoline, I do have plenty of bowls, but some of them are chipped.’ Catherine began to cry.
ED prodded her firmly in the back, coughed demonstratively and said, ‘Chipped is fine, as long as we have at least a few white-lined brown dishes.’
‘Why do we need these dishes – why must they be as you describe?’
Silence. A sigh. Then:
‘Fresh contrast. Now, it’s time you stopped thinking about tripe. We are going shopping.’
‘ED: I am dog tired.’
‘That is no excuse. Not when we are going to compose hors-d’oeuvres.’
Hurrying to dress, Catherine sighed disappointedly at the drawn face and sad clothes; shuddered at the lingering dreams. Still, ED at least knew about the tripe, so they wouldn’t be cooking that. They would grace a table with red tomatoes, yellow mayonnaise, sea salt and olive oil; a beautiful salad of grated carrot. And could it be celeriac that ED meant for the mandoline – all cut into the thinnest strips and highly seasoned with mustard, plenty of vinegar and a voluptuous thick mayonnaise?
Out they went, Catherine chatting silently to ED and now lighter of foot on their way to the wonderful market. But two shadowy figures watched her, curses dribbling from their lips with the last lappings of morning tea and vulgar gulps of toast with ochre marmalade. And inside Catherine’s house, gently, timorously now, was a faint smell of the sea, a distant grating of nutmeg and a fresh twist of black pepper.
‘Sacrilege. I smell no wash day smell! I hear no slap of tripe against the pot!’ cursed grey Grandmother and Mother.
Afloat, through thought, in Catherine’s house now was the peaceful aroma of potage bonne femme: of cream, chervil, softly cooked potatoes and leeks, bathed in sweet butter. The shadowy figures cursed more, spitting unkind crumbs.
‘Pain grillé aux anchois? Salade au chapon? Get the little bitch. Boil up the tripe, Mother. And bring out the ammunition from the pantry.’
Catherine and ED, silently communing over their purchases, bought a mandoline and the requisite dishes, great bunches of green things for the salade de saison, dimpled lemons, celery, celeriac, lumpy tomatoes – things that promised succour. And life.
But on returning to the house, dull wafts of tripe waited for her, as the shadowy figures took their joyful and vindictive hold of the kitchen. Garish red cabbage with a sweet, cloying smell sat with the cruel eggs on the worktop. Amuse-bouches of the sort you serve if you hate your guests; starters gussied up a little with hard bread, sea-foam milky tea and a cucumber cut into behemoth chunks. And the boiling tripe hissed milky sap.
‘No matter’ said ED, walking briskly right through the shadowy figures, rolling up her sleeves and assembling a work station next to the eyeball eggs.
The eggs leered as ED tasked Catherine with slicing the celeriac on the mandoline, concocting a highly seasoned dressing for its matchstick strips; Arles sausage was laid out on a large flat white plate, its fat coin slices overlapping; in the centre, a carefully built mound of black olives. Both glistened and invited. The tripe spat on, onions twisting and squirming round it, as ED and Catherine cut tomatoes and sprinkled them with gently snipped chervil – the dressing to be added “absolutely” said ED “only when the diner wants to eat.” Catherine could feel on her pulse the metallic, penny-tasting lure of a proper, fine misshapen tomato. They grated carrots almost, “Almost I said!” to a purée, seasoning them carefully; made a wobbling heap of mayonnaise with fresh eggs and olive oil from the first pressing. There was bread with a shiny, crackling crust, butter and some best quality anchovies.
‘It is no shame to leave them in their tins if they are high class brands’, barked ED. Catherine hurried to place back those she had already decanted.
The table of hors d’oeuvres, for a twelve o’ clock lunch, was almost set. Almost. ED revealed a surprise. Out from a white plastic bag, secreted in the depths of ED’s basket, came a single slithering sheet of tripe. ‘For you.’
Tears pricked Catherine’s eyes. ‘No, not you too – please not you Elizabeth. Don’t make me cook it!’
From the room and the world all around came the laughter; the delighted grey shapes of mother and grandmother.
‘Boil up the tripe, there’s a good girl! Choke choke choke on the nuggets of flour!’
So ED was one with them, then.
‘It had to be me, didn’t it? I deserved what I got: a lock up in the pantry; a stifling sheet of tripe and the unlovely curlicues of onions; gallons of white sauce and curses.’
The spectres grinned; the jarred eggs hummed, if ever a jarred egg could.
‘Now do be quiet. Our lunch à deux first, then I shall teach you something new. You will have to boil the tripe briefly, but then you will grill it to a sizzling crispness, with a coating of egg and breadcrumbs and serve it with a sauce tartare. A revelation, I think, It is called tablier de sapeur – or fireman’s apron.’
Lunch. The fierce, seductive rasp of the anchovy, crunch of good bread and the delicacy of finely cut celeriac, There were draughts of wine; ED passed knife and salad servers through the spectres of matriarchs: it was a celebration. Then lost sleep came and took her pupil. On waking, ED had gone, but Catherine obligingly boiled the slice of tripe, cutting it with a certain passion into a neater rectangle. She basted it with egg, coated it with crumbs and grilled it until it was golden and the edges had caught on the flame. She ate the robust little apron with the sauce tartare that ED must have made for her, left with an uncommonly sweet note nearby:
‘See off the spectres; try something new – tablier de sapeur: adieu; adieu.’
Hmmm. She almost liked the fireman’s apron.
‘It’s not my favourite thing, but then neither is it the stuff of nightmares, thrust back to the sound of laughter into the dark pantry. Ha! “Grill to a sizzling crispness” ED had said. A dynamic phrase; a confident one.’
Catherine threw wide the curtains, welcomed in the vestiges of the day and scattered the grey tripe boilers and pickle hoarders into pieces.
‘Try something new. Mother; Grandmother. Keep being dead now. Adieu; adieu!’
That night, Catherine dreamed only of the next chapters in her life: ‘Soups and Eggs, cheese dishes and hot hors-d’oeuvre.’