Before there were foodies, there was coddle and cheek

In my childhood days, couscous was a whispered song, uttered to entice stray cats into a sack

Coddle: 'Even if you didn’t like it, there was no such thing as saying no - it was your dinner and you ate it.”

Coddle: 'Even if you didn’t like it, there was no such thing as saying no - it was your dinner and you ate it.”


The cat was looking at the leftover shredded duck in her metallic feeding bowl this morning, with the kind of affronted incredulity she usually reserves for when I politely suggest she remove her furry ass from the middle of my bed and find somewhere else to curl up and sleep.

“Duck? In bean sprouts? Since when do I eat duck in bean sprouts? Do I look like the kind of cat who eats leftover Chinese takeaway? I want minced samurai liver in camel jelly, in the little silver sachets with the word “succulent” printed all over them, like the pussycat on the telly.”

We had a takeaway last night; I’m writing this swathed in sackcloth. Takeaways induce the kind of guilt and self-loathing in me that the nuns tried to instil for sitting on a boy’s knee without a telephone book underneath one’s booty.

The money! The monosodium glutamate! The calories! Holy cow, the calories! Why, I ask myself, knees burning on smouldering coals, do you bother slogging it out on wet pavements when you’re just going to limp home and whack a brace of chicken balls into your maw?

I’m exhausted trying to keep track of all the things I should/shouldn’t/can/can’t/must/mustn’t put into my own and my family’s mouths. What did we eat before the current obsession with diet and food and lifestyle, before the media took up residence in our cupboards and gut?

Fish fingers

Our grandmothers certainly weren’t beating themselves up over a Cantonese special, or pondering the vicissitudes of a hastily ordered lamb sag, and, sure as eggs are eggs, they weren’t shoving themselves into tubes of Lycra to burn off portions of chicken chow mein.

What did we fill our plates with in childhood days, when couscous was a whispered song, uttered to entice stray cats into a sack?

As a child I lived on pickled beetroot and fish fingers (exotic, if a little repetitive). I had a milk allergy: couldn’t hack dairy, still can’t. My eldest sister had the same intolerance, and when I displayed similar tendencies my mother capitulated at the first projectile vomit. Her unorthodox solution to the problem of a baby who wouldn’t drink milk was to spoon instant coffee into the bottle and shake (which might go some way towards explaining my insomnia).

Recently I was invited to a charity coffee morning. All along the gleaming surfaces of the hostess’s kitchen were plates of cakes and buns, which she and her daughter had baked. We got talking, the other women and I, about the food we ate when we were children.

Coddle! Surprisingly, in my unscientific sampling of a group of women, most of whom would remember Showaddywaddy, and Temple Bar when it was a bus depot, and who probably, at some stage in their lives, had a perm they deeply regretted, all remembered eating coddle. Yep, the stand-out food memory among this group of Dublin women was sausages and bacon boiled up with onions and potatoes and the odd flaccid carrot.

“Even if you didn’t like it, there was no such thing as saying no,” one of the women remarked. “It was your dinner and you ate it.”

Memories were shared over the butterfly buns: Monday was leftovers, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were pretty much stew or coddle, rolled tongue was mentioned, and pig’s cheek, and potatoes served with everything, and barley, plenty of barley when meat was scarce. And milk, pails of milk, endless frothy variations on a theme of milk, especially rice puddings and “goodie” (bread baked in milk with caramelised sugar on top).

On Friday, everyone in the country had to eat fish (or else the pope would turn up on the doorstep with a great big bata), and Saturday was usually a fry-up, maybe with a trip to the chipper if you were flash. On the sabbath day, you sat up at the table in your clean knee-socks and polished shoes, ate your Sunday dinner and started the whole cycle rolling again.

Boiled sausage

“My mother used to cook spaghetti,” I told them, “with chopped-up tomatoes and ham and boiled eggs through it.”

Chocolate cakes were suspended in midair. “Weird,” the women concluded.

“I still like a boiled sausage,” one of them added, with a kind of quiet reverence. There was murmured consent.

Our hostess’s daughter, born in the booming pesto days when we were rolling around in fields of coriander and lemon grass, when we roasted our baby vegetables rather than boiling them to a pulp, when we sipped skinny lattes while gaily negotiating crippling mortgages, had fallen a little quiet.

“What do you think, Jane?” asked her mother.

“I’m just really glad I wasn’t born when you were,” she answered, politely dissecting a red velvet muffin.

Personally, I couldn’t agree more.

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