My grandpa, Arthur, was raised on a pickled palette. Born in Poplar in the 20s, his diet was smothered in vinegar and numbed by the salty air of the nearby docklands. Like my grandpa, I was born and raised in the city too, but I find it difficult to imagine us sharing the same streets. I haven’t ever been given many details of this time to hold onto, just a handful of family anecdotes about badly paid jobs on Fleet Street and liver and kidney dinners.
The fullest part of his story, the one that we spoke about the most, was far removed from the city, and one that started with a fresh blank page in Dunstable. Arthur’s family evacuated themselves there after war was declared in 1939 and he enlisted in the RAF, returning to the sleepy market town when his time was over. Here, as well as a new life, he took on a new name. In my family, and to so many of the people who knew him, Arthur was Alan, a soft-spoken, self-trained home cook whose voice bore no trace of the cockney accent that he once allegedly had.
The switch from Arthur to Alan happened because of a job. A tiling company took advantage of the newly unemployed airmen, sailors and soldiers who washed back up in villages and towns all around the country once the war was over. They sent out a call for roofing representatives, men who wouldn’t mind travelling door to door to impose on people’s privacy. Arthur responded, and when he arrived at his local branch on his first day, he was asked his name.
“Arthur”, Arthur replied.
The manager shook his head.
“We’ve already got an Arthur. We’ll call you Alan”.
His willingness to change names seems strange to me. But there was a time when my grandpa was neither Arthur nor Alan. He was just another number in the masses of young men who joined the armed forces in World War II. It’s here, in this in-between, where the London boy that he was disappeared. Like many others of his generation he feigned maturity to enlist. He was seventeen when he signed up and nineteen when he was stationed in North Africa as part of the Desert Air Forces.
Gone was the oily, vinegary flavour of home; here, you didn’t just taste the food, but felt it.
The desert was as far away from the city as he could get. Its climate, with screeching hot days that plummeted into freezing nights, was a shock to the boy who had survived on the salty river air. His palette had to adapt fast. Gone was the oily, vinegary flavour of home; here, you didn’t just taste the food, but felt it. The military meals were rough and gritty, interchangeable with the texture of the sand that surrounded them. Vats of porridge and grainy mixes were churned out for the masses, scraping and scratching where they had once slipped and smoothed. He couldn’t bear it, refusing to go to breakfast and see everyone else gulping down the lumpy bowls.
This dislike of texture was the only thing that ever got between my grandpa and his food. Anything that bore a resemblance to his wartime grub was turned down, the encouraging cook suddenly turning into a stubborn customer. When on holiday with the family in their cottage in Brittany, his daughter took it upon herself to make dinner. It was one of her first forays into her father’s territory, and she chose to make risotto. When served up, Alan’s stomach shuddered, its chalky surface too familiar. He didn’t eat it. Unwittingly, his daughter had reminded him of a past that he was adamant to forget.
It wasn’t just about food. His memories of the military had a gritty coarseness to them that rubbed until all that was left was the feel of it upon his skin.
In 1941, the North African Campaign was redeployed to Greece, where the occupying German forces were retreating from the Allies and their surging promises of peace. They spilled into the abandoned bases, claiming them as their own. The RAF Division was given an old hotel to set up in. Its stately grandeur was something that they hadn’t seen since Britain, reminding them of its country manors and castles. Vertigo windows towered over the Mediterranean Sea, with the stunning blue refracting sunlight back and forth between glass and water. Its empty rooms were soon creaking under the weight of the military, with makeshift stations and dorms ramming themselves between the walls.
The hotel’s conservatory was quickly revamped into a mess hall, with the light from the windows catching the endless rows of scuffed silverware and chipped plates. But guilt kept the men’s necks heavy. The beautiful sea view was always blocked by lines of children, who pressed against the glass, staring hungrily at them. They made noises that were similar to the whine of the wild dogs that many of the men kept as pets, willing somebody to raise their eyes to look at them.
the mothers who boiled grass that they had gathered for the family’s dinner, cooking a meal with the few edible grains that they had managed to save
Hunger was uncomfortably close to the military. The Germans had scorched the earth and poisoned the wells of the Greek villages as they left, leaving the locals no choice but to scavenge and beg. Many of the recruits stayed with families in the village, and were given a daily parcel of air force rations to eat. It would sit in the kitchen, untouched by the mothers who boiled grass that they had gathered for the family’s dinner, cooking a meal with the few edible grains that they had managed to save from those that were blown off of the food trucks, delivering the military provisions. The humid winds would rock the bags gently, and the mothers would wait until the trucks pulled away to bend down, knees in the dust, and carefully separate the grains from the sand.
My grandpa’s repertoire had no place for porridge. No rice pudding, couscous, wheat grain - it is a group that is notably absent from his cooking. The most textured thing that he could ever stomach was light flaky batter for his fish. We all thought that his dislike for texture in his food was just another one of his grandfatherly quirks. But he was not just a grandfather. He survived the war, lived through a cloud of grit, a nineteen year old boy stuck in the sand.
Food was our link to a man who kept everything so close to his chest.
He never spoke about his time in the air force. My gran commented that she felt he never gave himself the chance to “talk it out”, to pull forward the memories that hid in the dusty corners of his mind. If he had, maybe then he would have been able to eat the food that felt like his past, even if it was just a spoonful of risotto that his daughter had made for him.
Alan died in 2008, but he is still one of the strongest presences at our family’s tables. He was the best kind of cook and teacher, hovering close by, his soft huskiness kindly hinting that maybe we shouldn’t stir that so vigorously, and do we really need that much sugar? He cleaned up around us whilst we would gather in front of the oven, shoving for space to stare through the tiny amber window at our creation. We’d pass the mixing bowl between us, dipping our fingers in whilst trying, and failing, to hide it from our gran. When the egg timer finally rang we’d split, clearing a path for him to lean down and pull out the finished masterpiece. Whether it was jam tarts, mince pies, cakes or pastry we always felt giddy at the fact that we had managed to make something that looked vaguely similar to our grandpa’s original.
Food was our link to a man who kept everything so close to his chest. It was also what let us know when he was beginning to fade. Alan was hardly ever ill, that military toughness having installed a strength and immunity that had lasted him his 87 years. Then, suddenly, almost overnight, he changed. Alan wasn’t eating properly. The news passed quickly through the family. It seemed impossible that he had finally lost his appetite.
My stepmother and father had an idea. To get him to eat, they would have to remind my grandpa of why he loved food so much in the first place.
The following week, Alan got a delivery. It was an enormous cardboard box, that, when opened, overspilled with pickles, vinegar, fish - the smells and flavours of his childhood had been bundled and wrapped up together in this lavish, expensive food parcel. In the middle of the package was a gigantic, handmade pork pie. When we visited, my family and I were floored. The pie took up a whole plate, a massive golden brown version of the ones that we were used to seeing in plastic packaging in supermarkets.
Someone took a photograph of this moment. In it, you can see a glint in my grandpa’s eye. A glimpse at the young Arthur from the east end, the boy he had been.