(Post by George Cheyne, of Glasgow – February 2021)
Back in the day if anyone mentioned my palate, I assumed they were talking about the little tin tray that came with my paint-by-numbers set. Haute cuisine? Well, that was when you burned your mouth off after grabbing a chip straight out the basket of the chip pan before it had cooled properly.
Safe to say, I knew what I liked and I liked what I knew when it came to dinner time in our household and I look back fondly on those salad days of no-fuss meals. Maybe describing them as salad days is a bit of a stretch right enough, it’s probably more accurate to say they were deep-fried days.
Not that we had chips with everything, mind you. There was always beans on toast, spaghetti hoops on toast, ravioli on toast or even Heinz beans with pork sausages on toast to break up the monotony.
Now, my mum was a brilliant cook but even she had to succumb to straight-forward midweek menus. They were something of a necessity for me and my three brothers because there was always somebody in a rush to go somewhere.
Football training, down the park, swimming, pal’s house or Cub Scouts, no matter where we were going, we’d always need sustenance before heading out. And we lapped it up. Not literally, of course – we left that to the family dog in the unlikely event there were any leftovers.
I think it was TV chef Heston Blumenthal who described the 1970s as the decade that good food forgot, but maybe he had higher expectations than we did.
We were brought up on a diet of sausages, Spam fritters, cold meat, fish fingers, cauliflower and cheese, fish cakes, crispy pancakes and eggs, lots of eggs.
I certainly don’t remember too many complaints when we all sat down together – and, yes, that was a given back then – for a family dinner.
The accompaniments were sometimes a bit tricky given the West of Scotland’s aversion to vegetables, but baked beans and peas usually made it past the teenage food censors.
And when there wasn’t chips there was always Cadbury’s Smash, the instant mashed potato which owed its success to a brilliant of-its-time TV advert. You know the one…where aliens mocked mankind for being primitive because they peeled potatoes, boiled them for 20 minutes and then mashed them into small bits. “For mash get Smash”. Genius.
Then there were the puddings. And they were always called puddings in our house, never desserts, sweets or afters.
They could be seasonal, too. In the winter we’d have tinned Heinz treacle sponge pudding or home-made apple pie with custard. Spring and summer meant Angel Delight, Arctic Roll or ice cream.
If I remember correctly, Angel Delight came in two flavours – strawberry and butterscotch – and, as there was a 50/50 split between the four of us, we had to do it week about. My favourite was strawberry and a lot of wheeling and dealing went on that week with my butterscotch brothers to persuade them to hand over some of their portion in return for a similar deal the following week.
There were some mighty rows about that, as I recall. Some, if not all, of us seemed to suffer a sudden memory loss by the time it came around to returning the favour and claim and counter-claim regularly flew across the table. We could certainly have done with VAR back then to sort out who’d promised what to whom!
We also used to enjoy a cheeky wee soup ’n pudding combo which broke a lot of the meal-time traditions of the day. Critics would splutter: “What, no main course?” into their meat and two veg and I kind of get what they were saying.
But it was a win-win for our family. My mum’s home-made soup was chocca with vegetables and goodness and would have easily covered the complete set of any “five-a-day” mantra on its own. The puddings, on the other hand, easily covered a week’s worth of recommended sugar consumption for any kid. What’s not to like?
As we grew older, my mum cranked up the oven temperature on our eating habits. Following an ill-fated experimental dalliance with stuffed peppers, she boldly went where she hadn’t gone before with some enterprising choices for dinner time.
First up was a Fray Bentos steak pie. Not just any steak pie, you understand, because this one came out a tin. Yep, you read that correctly – a tin. Despite this, the pie was voted a winner and it encouraged my mum to take us to the next level.
And what a game changer that turned out to be.
You have to remember we were living in a world before McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Indian and Chinese takeaways, Uber Eats…anything, really, that made eating in an accessible, enjoyable experience.
But we went all in with a Vesta Curry. This was the vanguard of ready-made meals, a taste of the exotic served up in bags you placed in boiling water. Now, I’m the first to admit that doesn’t sound particularly exotic but, when you’d lived through the stuffed peppers era, this was foodie heaven
Vesta cast a wide net when it came to your choice of cuisine. There was Indian beef curry, Chinese chow mein, Spanish paella, Italian risotto and French chicken supreme.
They may not have been up to Michelin star standard, but they did enough to tickle our taste buds and set us all off on a gastronomic journey which has lasted the best part of 50 years and is still going on to this day.