Memories of Bilston
The Day Nan Blew Up The Kitchen
by Geoff Roberts
The best you could say of my Nan and her culinary art was that it was basic, never adventurous and old fashioned. I suppose that for me growing up in the 50s there was a growing ‘modern’ type of attitude in society, looking forward from the Second World War to a brighter future. For my Nan things were very different and behind her lay at least two World Wars plus, for all I knew at the time, the Boer War and every other skirmish my young mind could think of!
I can remember the end of rationing after WW 2…just! I can remember National Dried Milk and that funny concentrated orange juice that Mum said was “good for us”. It didn’t much taste like it and today, when I think of the copious quantities of fresh juice that I consume here in Sydney my opinion hasn’t changed either!
Nan’s favourite dishes were generally the ones I hated and so did my twin brother so we inwardly groaned when Nan was let loose in the kitchen. Great culinary delights such as boiled beef, tripe and onions, grey peas, ox-tail, pease pudding and other menu favourites would emanate from her (non too clean) hands. To this day I cannot eat any of the these dishes and I’ve tried them in some of the best restaurants just to see if I was wrong! I wasn’t!
One of Nan’s perennial favourites was mussels. Now I have learned by experience and by many visits to France that mussels should be cooked with care so that they remain plump and succulent. If cooked in wine, the taste of the seafood should still come through and the whole dish should be well balanced on the palate.
Did my Nan cook mussels like that…are you kidding?! Like most people of her generation, it wasn’t cooked unless it looked and smelled dead. In the case of mussels, the best offering that our fish shop could muster was boiled savagely to ensure both death and mummification. The gristly remains were then subject to more insult by immersion in a strong solution of malt vinegar…just to give them some taste! The whole sorry mess was then bottled and kept for weeks.
In later life I pondered the similarity between Nan’s mussels and the formalin surrounded objects I occasionally glimpsed in Biology classes. The sight made me shudder!
The crowning glory of my recollections
with my Nan was the day she blew up the kitchen. My Mum had gone to Birmingham
and much to my disgust had not taken me with her. My brother and I were
left in the tender hands of Nan who had no doubt been pondering on a lunch
dish for us. I’m thankful to say that there were none of her culinary masterpieces
to hand and disappointed, Nan had to admit to a “tin or something because
your Mother hasn’t left anything fresh”. She had a good root around the
larder and came out with a tin of something. I can only remember that it
was a flat, round tin and that I was to be inside in 20 minutes as lunch
would be ready. I was glad to be let out into the back garden and proceeded
to imagine the death of thousands of my enemies as I wielded an imaginary
machine gun and endless grenades in a hand to hand battle. Imagine my surprise
in the middle of the battle when a huge bang came from the kitchen. My
dream game ended abruptly and I rushed with my brother into the kitchen.
Nan was sobbing into her apron and the kitchen………..the kitchen looked as if a bomb had hit it, which indeed it had! Of the original can and lunch there was no sign but the walls and ceiling were covered with what looked like cooked meat and soggy cardboard. We spent the rest of the afternoon trying to clean up the mess before Mum returned…Nan chiding us to hurry up as if it were all our fault!
The truth came out on Mum’s return. The can had been a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie. Naturally you and I might read the instructions before cooking but Nan had foregone them and proceeded to place the can, without any holes pierced in it, on top of a naked gas flame! No saucepan, no boiling water just plain naked heat!
The result was as predictable as
it was spectacular! Nan was unhurt but never touched another can of steak
and kidney pie again. The kitchen was not so lucky and was only returned
to full health with layers of new paint. Whilst the repainting was underway,
Nan’s favourite budgie died from inhaling paint fumes…it’s an ill wind!
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