Thursday, 12 August 2021

Gherkins or pickled onions? Reminiscences of our family 'Friday night dinners'

 When I was a wee nipper, I grew up in a strict Roman Catholic household in the 1960's and 70's. This had it's good things and it had its bad things. I somehow managed to survive the bad bits (such as being told at school that we'd go to hell if we used more than one sheet of loo roll, which was of the hard Izal variety, when we wiped our bums, amongst other things), there were some massively good things. The best thing of all in my  view, was that Friday was fish and chips day. We didn't see too much of Dad during the week. He'd work until 7 or 8pm on many days (although I suspect often he was playing cards and drinking tea with the guys who worked for him). On a Friday though, he'd turn up at 6.30 with arms full of fish and chips. He'd drive around to the King Neptune at the Green Man and pick up a huge order of fish, chips and varous accompanyments.  For those who weren't of our heritage, Catholics were not allowed meat on a Friday. It was meant to be a fast, but as we all loved fish and chips, it was a treat. 

We'd place our order with Mum in the morning, she'd write it on a piece of paper and put it in his work coat pocket. Mum was the gatekeeper. Dad would just buy us whatever, Mum would insist that we were 'sensible'. For me, it was plaice and chips. Mum was not one for extravagance. The only reason she tolerated Dad buying a fish and chips dinner was because it meant a night off. Occasionally, she'd decide to cook fish. This was always something we dreaded. The house would pong and it would be disgusting, We'd all have to pretend to enjoy it, especially my father. He'd be fixed with a beady eye. He let slip that often when Mum decided to 'do the fish', he'd say "Celia, you've worked so hard all week, you deserve a night off cooking", which was his way of trying to ensure we had something edible. I'm not actually sure if my mum had working tastebuds, as flavour wasn't part of the equation of food when we were growing up. Some of her dishes were delicious, such as toad in the hole and Irish Stew, but we were also subjected to 'tripe and onions' and 'sour milk and potato'.  I hated tripe. It made me feel physically sick. All of my siblings meekly acquiesced and pretended to like it. One day, I decided I'd had enough. I told her there was no way I was eating it. She informed me I was lucky to have such a treat. I told her I'd rather starve. Her response was that was what was going to happen. I was sent to bed without dinner. I stormed off, announcing that I didn't care. By about 7,30pm I was starving, but resolute. My mum informed me it was my last chance. I said I'd rather starve. The dinner went in the dustbin. My Dad told my mum that he was nipping out to pick up some cigarettes. When he returned, he snuck upstairs and gave me a meat pie he'd picked up, telling me that we'd both be done for if Mum found out. It was one of the best moments of my life. Dad told me that my mum's only real fault was her love of tripe. He thought it was a price worth paying, but completely understood where I was coming from. But I digress. 

Mum would allow us the choice of either a pickled onion or a gherkin. Dad would have allowed both, but that never went on the list. For me, it was always a pickled onion. I loved them. I would squeeze the juice out over the chips. Mum would always write "Small cod" or "Small plaice". Dad would always buy the largest possible, announcing that the small portions were big this week. I am sure my mother knew, but it wasn't worth a row.  Occasionally Dad would take me with him to buy the fish and chips, usually in the summer. This was always fun. Dad would put the order in, then say "we'll be back in  half an  hour". We'd nip over to the garden of the Railway Tavern, he'd buy me a lemonade and he'd have a pint. He'd tell me that I had to back up his story that there was a massive queue. On occasion, he'd get chatting and have a couple of pints and be even later, with cold, soggy fish and chips. Mum would then insist he go to another chipshop. He'd tell her he was going to Mill Hill East, but keep his routine. When he got 'held up' again and bring soggy chips, he'd say "we should give the Neptune another go".  This ritual happened every week for years, until the Pope relaxed the ban on Friday meat. I was gutted. Friday fish and chips and Sunday roasts were the best thing in my life back then. 

What got me thinking about this was the large jar of gherkins in my kitchen. 

I never entertained gherkins at all. I thought they were strange and rather disgusting as a child. They didn't have the tang of the pickled onion and the juice made chips taste funny. I am not quite sure when, but some time in the last 20 years, I changed my allegiance. I suspect it may be because the pickled onions caused a bit of reflux and indigestion. I've not got a sweet tooth, I actually eat gherkins as some people eat biscuits. My missus caught me having a crafty gherkin last night, just before bedtime. She berated me for being greedy, but I pointed out that they are low in calories and far healthier than pastries, biscuits, etc. I told her it was part of my weight loss programme. She was not impressed. 

It got me to wondering, is there anyone else out there who see's the choice as an either/or. Did your family, let you have both. Did you used to prefer one and then defect to another. What was the food your mum would serve that was just beyond the pale. I've got to say, I've tried most things I disliked as a kid, some such as smoked salmon, I now love, but tripe, I'm afraid even the smell still makes me gag. 

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