At my birthday dinner in a glitzy restaurant, my family take their time over a menu of sophisticated stuff such as pollock with romesco sauce and roast rhubarb crème brûlée. My choices, as always, are instant and infantile – pea soup, cottage pie, cheesecake. “That’s your whole childhood in a meal,” my daughter Jessica rightly observes.
When my parents divorced in the mid-1950s, I was sent to a small private boarding school on the Isle of Wight. Like many such places in that era, it believed that keeping little boys hungry, cold and terrified was character-building. The food was dreadful: overcooked cabbage, grey and gristly meat with bits of white windpipe in it, shrivelled prunes, “frogspawn” tapioca. The one nice thing that the school gave us, presumably by mistake, was cottage pie.
As a junior, I was often on serving duty, and so ahead of the crowd in the dining room when the wooden food trolley with its grey linoleum top trundled in. One large enamel dish held a single cottage pie to feed 44 boarders. It was plated up by a tiny woman named Mrs Eadie, whose husband was a steward on the liners sailing from Southampton nearby. We could see the Solent through the window and as a huge-funnelled shape glided past, she’d often say, “My Barry’s on that ship.”
Watching her spoon bite through the golden-brown potato crust to deposit an undersized wedge on each plate, I knew I could have eaten all 44 portions by myself. If you couldn’t stomach your food, you handed it over to somebody else; at breakfast, a famously flatulent boy named G A Fisher routinely consumed four or five plates of a grey porridge that was like wallpaper paste. But no one ever gave away their cottage pie. On the rare occasions when there were seconds, the prefects always called the big boys up first. Being among the smallest, I seldom got a look-in. I’ve been hungering for those seconds ever since.
My lifelong devotion to pea soup is rooted in the same memories. At school, I used to comfort myself by reading C S Forester’s Hornblower novels. The savage conditions in the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic era seemed not so far removed from those under which I lived. But at least I didn’t suffer floggings with a cat-o’-nine-tails (we only got beaten with a gym shoe) or have to turn out at midnight in a howling gale to reef tops’ls.
In the ghastly shipboard diet that Forester described – rancid salt pork and biscuits catacombed by weevils – the only delicacy was pea soup, made from split peas that could be preserved for years at sea. My favourite Hornblower book was The Commodore, about our chronically self-doubting hero’s command of a squadron in the Baltic. When the tsar of Russia came to lunch incognito on his ship, Hornblower served pea soup in a “battered pewter tureen”, which somehow made it sound even more delicious.
I discovered cheesecake by a more roundabout route. In the early 1950s, my maternal grandfather, Frank Augustus Bassill, retired after 40 years as a Pathé newsreel cameraman. He had been a star with Pathé and the company was good to him in return: on top of his pension, he received a hamper of groceries every Christmas and two pairs of free tickets per week to any ABC cinema. Soon after retiring, however, Grandad had to have both legs amputated and remained housebound for the rest of his life, so the free cinema tickets would often be used by my little cockney grandma and me. And one afternoon in 1955, at the palatial Streatham ABC, we saw Guys and Dolls.
I hadn’t yet read the Damon Runyon stories on which it was based, so I couldn’t appreciate how perfectly Frank Loesser’s songs caught their atmosphere. What most impressed me was the scene in which Frank Sinatra, as the Broadway hustler Nathan Detroit, needs to raise $1,000 to organise his “floating crap game”. He tries to bet the gambler Sky Masterson, who is well known for betting on anything, that Mindy’s restaurant serves more daily portions of strudel than cheesecake, having already checked with the kitchen that he is right.
I couldn’t begin to guess what “strudel” might be but “cheesecake” was two familiar words in a seeming oxymoron: surely, something was either cheese or it was cake. (Actually, British recipes for cheesecake dated back centuries but had been lost amid the culinary exigencies of two world wars.)
I later read how much Sinatra hated having to eat cheesecake in the scene, especially as Brando the Method actor (whom he derisively nicknamed “Mumbles”) demanded retake after retake. But I didn’t taste the stuff until my first journalistic assignment in America. It was in 1967, the Summer of Love, at a restaurant called the Aware Inn on Sunset Boulevard in LA, to which I had been driven in an open-top Ford Mustang by a beautiful, blonde TV weather forecaster named (truly) Dawn O’Day.
As the oxymoron melted in my mouth, I thought back to those shivering, famished, hopeless days at a British boarding school and realised just how much better life was capable of getting.
Philip Norman’s latest book, “Paul McCartney: the Biography”, is newly published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
This article appears in the 04 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred