I had my first olive in the 1980s, while watching ‘Wanderly Wagon ’
Performer Sonya Kelly’s treasured food memory: ‘It looked like a monster’s eye’
‘I was desperate to be seen as progressive in front of my cousins. They’d been to Kuwait and had eaten hummous’
I have a very distinct memory of my first grown-up food. It was the 1980s. I was watching Wanderly Wagon Christmas special with my sister and cousins. Mum came in with a Don Carlos pimento-stuffed olive on a fork: ogre green, gleaming with brine and with a crimson red pupil. It looked like a monster’s eye.
‘Would you like to try one? They’re quite strong though.’
Back then Ireland was not a nation of strong flavours. Foreign food was frightening. Garlic was something you rubbed on the pan if you had notions of yourself after your holiday in Menorca.
However, at some stage this olive malarkey crept in as the new vogue in suburban sophistication. Adults had them with their gin and tonics while they discussed Lady Diana’s wedding and conservatory extensions.
I took the olive. What child doesn’t want to eat a monster’s eye? Brave, I was. Prepared, I was not. As it crushed between my teeth, Mr Don Carlos unleashed all the maracas of the Mediterranean in my mouth, lighting up the synapses in my brain like a fruit machine. Panic. Fear. Confusion, dancing from foot to foot as its salty, oily flesh stamped out the flamenco on my tongue.
It was like I’d eaten the actual spice trail.
I was desperate to be seen as progressive in front of my cousins. They’d been to Kuwait and had eaten hummous. Breathing through my nose to curtail the waves of flavour, I chewed. Slowly, the olive mellowed into a manageable blend of nutty, bitter, salty, moreish, inoffensive sweetness.
I’d never been abroad, but I could distinctly taste “away”. Spain and Wanderly Wagon met in my very own living room. Don Carlos and I were hooked forever.
Now, of course, in Ireland, no one is frightened of olives. Olives are everywhere. Olives are normal. And what a fitting metaphor for how much this country has changed.
Sonya Kelly appears in Savage Eye on RTÉ and her solo shows include How To Keep an Alien