Thursday, 16 December 2010

Of Mince and Men..........

Hullo ma wee blog,

I had a dream last night. It was one of those oddities where, while not being a nightmare, you're not sure if you're exactly comfortable. Oh, I know exactly what triggered it alright. That's right Mornings Minion, it's all your fault!

The other day she posted a story from her 'family history' I suppose you'd have to call it. An innocuous wee tale of a young lad illicitly dipping into some of his Mums home-made mincemeat which had been stored away for Christmas and, having taken too much not to be noticed, he then had to stand and own up to it rather than watch it all thrown away as having been 'got at' by mice and therefore possibly be unfit for eating. Rather than lose that delicious stuff, he 'fessed' up like a man and ultimately all was well.

As I read that story yesterday I remembered clearly the impact of being a young lad with - shall we say - 'intimate knowledge' of some nefarious deed and standing in line with my brother and cousins in front of a Granny who was trying to puzzle out what had happened and who should be held responsible........

Don't get the wrong impression of me by the way. I wasn't a bad kid - just....... well....... unfortunate!  {That means I usually got caught.}

Never a particularly good liar - even now I almost cave in at the merest security question at an airline check in; Did you pack this yourself?  'Yes' I say looking at the ground. { in reality my lovely G does the packing and I generally just throw in a book or two. What can I say - she's a control freak! - or if you're reading this sweetheart - an amazingly talented and organised suitcase packer.} Could anyone have tampered with your luggage? - No! {Actually almost anyone in the queue could have tampered with it because I've been bored out of my face for the last half hour standing in your bloomin queue, but probably not as many people as could tamper with it after YOU'VE got your mitts on it Mrs bloomin airline!} I know I know! I'm the only one in class who would have failed my  'Ordinary grade' basic terrorism exam caving in at questions like that!!!

My childhood tactic of trying to look cool and collected and as innocent as a baby in those rare {ha} situations would be given away by an over reactive blushing mechanism when under pressure and the unfortunate tell-tale sign of a perspiring forehead and upper lip even before I had the chance to let the story excuse explanation lie trip pure and sweet from my childish mouth. In any case I usually had forgotten to get rid of any offending article, wash my hands clean or empty my pockets/hands/mouth of all incriminating evidence or even to make the most basic preparation such as get the story straight in my head before the grilling began.  Granny Robertson had undoubtedly one of the most penetrating looks I had ever come across in situations like that. Her eyebrows would gather together and her nose would wrinkle, she would lower her head and stare at you over the top of her glasses with eyes that could look into the soul of an angel and find dark secrets there, or make that angel feel there was darkness to be found. She would match her inquisitorial look with folded arms and a soft and beguiling tone of voice that almost hypnotised you into believing that if you only told the truth all would be well. {and that was a lie if ever there was one}  I'm sure at one time or other she trained the secret service in interrogation techniques, and she probably taught old Obi-Wan Kenobi that "This is not the droid you're looking for" trick.  Sometimes I would find myself standing there sweating, face on fire, ready to blurt out an admission to stuff I hadn't done, just to get it over with.  The effect was increased when there were multiple potential miscreants as she would line us up and scrutinise each one in turn until the criminal broke down and gave himself up. Grown men would have thrown themselves howling at her slippered feet and begged for mercy rather than endure more than a minute or two of Granny Robertson's patented torture treatment for misbehaving young persons.

 Mere children had no chance.

But no matter how bad it was, it was never so bad that after a certain length of time, you didn't think that next time you would do much better and after all it wasn't really that bad anyway. Yes, next time you would be able to stand there and fool the lie detector on legs that was my dear old Granny. No question about it at all!!!

But believe it or not, that's not what this story is all about. I merely pass on this wee glimmer of the woman that was my Granny by way of hinting at the kind of impact she had on my formative years.

And my backside.

This could be my early life -
right down to the poem beneath....
It's not a mile off my Granny that's for sure

Granny Robertson was one of those women who would rightly be called a Matriarch. She was, for my entire childhood, the glue which held my family and indeed my universe firmly together. She was babysitter, confidante, refuge, hospital, historian, maker of sense for all things perplexing, storyteller, fount of all knowledge, knitter of multitudes of embarrassing jumpers,socks and, most cringe-worthy of all, 'Balaclava's, as well as being the family's chief-cook-and-bottle-washer and as described above, 'Witchfinder General'. She would also sometimes be consulted by village folk outside the family on local or more delicate private issues - always accompanied by a pot of tea and - infuriatingly for inquisitive wee boys - behind closed doors. She was the scourge of any authority figure or family member she felt was performing beneath reasonable expectation. As a result she was well known, probably with some of the same trepidation I felt, by our local councillors. I remember standing beside my Father at her funeral and the local councillor saying to him " Nell would be pleased. This is the biggest turnout for any woman's funeral that I've ever seen." {He was probably there mostly to check that she had actually gone!}  Sure, she could be intimidating for a small boy or a local politician, but to think of her as just that would be selling her way, way short. Although her decisions were like edicts pronounced from on high and the merest hint that Granny was looking for you meant that you better run as fast as you could either towards the house or away, depending on your recent activities, most of the time she was a benign power, a happy, beaming and forgiving, Buddha like figure.

 As my Grandfather was bedridden due to injuries from WWI  and she needed help with some aspects of his physical care, we spent a lot of time as a family or as individuals, at her house.  Hers was the place where any far flung family would come to visit and hers was the place where we would all congregate for special - or even ordinary - occasions. She had the main care of my brother and I during school holidays as both my parents worked - something I remember as being somewhat of a minor bone of contention between her and my equally strong willed mother - and we would all eat at her house once, twice or more often each week through the summer and at least once a week during the rest of the year.

She was the most fantastic, and I mean  just fantastic, cook and baker. This could become the longest post in history if I began to wax lyrical about all the incredible stuff that could be produced en masse from her wee kitchen and primitive stove, but I still yearn - really yearn - for her sublime potato and leek soup, her roast chicken or her Irish stew, or those amazing potatoes boiled then rolled in oats and fried until nutty and crispy and her supreme gift to a hungry child - her clootie dumpling. Just writing this, more than 40 years later, I can almost physically smell the soft yet dense aroma of fruit and spice that rose as steam as it lay on the hearth by the fire still wrapped in the cloth that gave it its name and held it together as it cooked. I can feel the cloth in my hand as I would turn it every few minutes, supervised by a satisfied Granny, to help dry the cloth and form its skin. What an exquisite torture for a hungry wee boy that was!  I can still feel the wonder of trying to imagine where the hidden thruppeny pieces, or that one shiny silver sixpence that she always included in the mix, would be.

But the clue to this post is in the header. Granny Robertson's mince was - to use a Scots parlance - MINCE. It was a dish that now, as an adult, I can see was formed in her own upbringing in rural poverty and perhaps honed in the times of the great depression after the first war, when food had to be eked out to go as far as possible,  waste was unforgivable and every morsel had to be used to provide sustenance. None of that occurred or mattered to me in the sixties and early seventies when faced with a steaming mound of Grannies indigestible mince. I was always a fussy eater in my childhood. My parents and grandparents all worried that my physical development would be affected by my lack of appetite and limited range of foods that were acceptable. {By the way SNB, I can hear you say " That must have changed!" and I will get you for that. lol} It was, as I'm sure you will understand from all I've written about Granny Robertson above, a major cause of antagonism between us and an ongoing battle that we were both equally determined to win. But, dear reader, I digress.

Grannies mince was appalling. It had a secret ingredient - added no doubt for all the right reasons and as I said above - for all the deep seated traditions and conditioning of my Grandmother's upbringing. It had beaten egg stirred through it. Now maybe it's just my imagination, but I can hear you go "Is that all?" but please, this was disgusting. It came to the table in huge quantities and to me it looked yellow, a horrible greeny yellow flecked with mince and studded with diced onion, carrot and turnip. It was without question the foulest concoction known to man and the worst thing anyone has ever EVER put in front of me. The mere sight of it would be enough to reduce me to a quivering tearful wreck in acknowledgement that this would be yet another interminable battle of wills between me and Granny. I would cry, I would winge, I would howl and I would beg my brother and sometimes my cousins quietly to take some off my plate to no avail as they all felt the same. I would try and attract our dog across to my feet where I would try and get her to scoff some, but even that gluttonous canine, faithful friend and defender balked at Grannies mince, leaving me with soggy dog-sniffed handfuls of the stuff. It was very much a case of "You're on your own pal".

But I tried. Really I tried.......

For each closely scrutinised scrap that I put in my mouth I would need a huge gulp of lemonade or milk and then I would manfully gag it down before sobbing my way to the next tiny, tiny smear on my spoon. I quickly would run out of lemonade and would ask for more which sometimes I would get, sometimes not. I would mix it with the veg on the plate or with the mashed potatoes in the hope of masking the flavour, but all I succeeded in doing was making the mash and veg taste like the mince and the plate appear more full of the noxious stuff than when I had started. Granny was a great believer in no one leaving the table until every scrap had been polished off and plates were gleaming clean; for which purpose bread and butter were generously provided. It was hell on earth and for many years cancelled out all the good memories of the amazing things that she could produce. One particularly bad day I found that every time when Granny wasn't looking or had gone to the kitchen or through to Grandpa as she often did, and I bent down to try and force the dog to eat some, my brother and my cousin who was with us that day, would each spoon some of theirs onto my plate while I wasn't looking. For ages I couldn't understand what was going on. I was eating the stuff, even the dog seemed to be more obliging than usual and yet the pile on my plate wasn't getting any smaller. {Gordon had a different strategy to cope with this meal than I did. He would scoff the dreadful stuff as fast as possible and then wash it all down at the end with a whole glass of lemonade. It worked for him but the only time I tried it I threw up!}  As I screamed my dismay at finding out what was really going on that day long ago I attracted an annoyed Granny back into the room and made sure her determination to see me finish the plate was burning brightly. No amount of accusation or explanation could make her see that I was the victim of an enormous injustice. Who would have believed that two such innocent souls such as my conniving brother and swine of a cousin could do such a thing. No, it was terrible that I was prepared to accuse them of such things when they at least had finished their plates like the good boys they were. Absolutely smug, grinning little B's more like. { Even now my teeth are clenched at the memory. GRRRRR}

And so manfully I struggled on, weighed down as much as by the injustice of it all as the heavy weight of at least a pound of Grannies incredible inedible mince in my stomach. The plate was eventually finished without the assistance of any more lemonade and tearfully I was allowed to leave the table but only after having to face the further indignity of seeing my brother and cousin get my dessert which was forbidden me as further punishment for my bad behaviour. What a pair of absolute gits! They even managed to get out of the washing up and escaped my retribution by zooming off on their bikes before I managed to get away from the house to barf up my lunch and go hunt them down.

Even all these years later I hate mince unless its done as bolognese or chili. I am still occasionally haunted by memories of Grannies mince and egg hence the dream that wasn't quite a nightmare at the top of the page. A couple of years ago I had my cousin Elspeth and her husband come to stay with us here for a holiday and as we hadn't seen each other for many years, spent time reminiscing as you do about past times and things fondly remembered. Despite all the great memories of Granny and the fabulous times we had growing up there was one over-riding negative memory we shared.

Guess what that was boys and girls?.............

see you later.

Listening to The Waterboys, 'All the things she gave me'


Unknown said...

I know I have said this before, but you really should really write a book, your style is so engaging. Another great post Al!

Alistair said...

Ha, thanks Jono. Glad you enjoyed my tale of

Morning's Minion said...

I'm not sure I should be pleased at having provoked such an uncomfortable remembrance, but you surely produced an entertaining piece of writing here!
I'm aware that what is called "mince" in the UK is likely the same as "hamburger" or ground beef in US parlance. The abominable dish you so eloquently describe sounds like the thrifty lumping of leftovers which a childhood neighbor referred to as "stodge."
My cousins still living in up-state New York are perhaps the final generation to pass on tales of my great-grandmother. When family roots continue deep in the same area for many generations, one can harbor few illusions about those who have contributed for good or ill to who we are.
Thank you for an amusing read, a humorous view of an experience that had to be very trying for a young lad.

Alistair said...

Hullo MM.I must gace just missed you. Please don't worry. If there was any discomfort it was mild and nothing compared to the warmth of remembering. Such things recalled over distant years from the childhood occurence are a pleasure not a disturbance.
I enjoyed writing this. It was fun, so thank you for triggering the memory

Morning's Minion said...

Thinking more about your story during the day I see that your Granny Robertson and my G-Grandmother Lewis had in common the worry of feeding a family when the bread-winner was disabled. My g-grandfather, like a whole generation of his peers in the area, suffered from the effects of having worked in the open pit graphite mines--they called it "black lung."
I grant you, both these good women probably had some domineering tendancies early on, but I'm thinking the responsibilities thrust upon them must have made them even more thrifty and stern.
It is a lovely thing that with the advantage of maturity we can write about childhood memories with a sense of humor incorporated.

Alistair said...

You're right. strong women who had to control things or else the consequences would have been dire. It must have been impossible to ignore those instincts after a while. My over-riding memory of her - and there are many - is of an easy smile and a sense of powerful inner strength. While she was tough she wasn't scary, except when roused and there was never any doubt that you were completely loved and protected. That's an incredibly positive message for a child to have. On the other side of the family I was also lucky to have another strong woman in my maternal Grandmother too. Interestingly there was always a tension between them but that might be another post sometime.

Thanks again. It's lovely how you obviously ponder on my postings at times. It's so good to know that people get what you're saying.


Bovey Belle said...

Oh this did make me chuckle! A brilliant piece of writing and I will agree, you should be writing a book - you have a brilliant writing style. Your grannie sounded a real force to be reckoned with - I bet she had a good aim with a slipper too! My grannies both died long before I was born, which was a real shame as I should loved to have met them, but my dad's dad married again and Delilah lives on in my memories. She was a softee-grannie though (I think I will be too!)

P.S. You have just reminded me of the first mince dish I ever cooked - "Mince with Herbs" - and that was it, exactly, mince, grey and greasy with a few green flecks and NO gravy browning or stock cube. Fortunately I improved with practice and the help of Margeurite Patten's recipes . . .

Alistair said...

Glad you liked it BB. It made me chuckle as I wrote and remembered too...

Rebecca S. said...

Great stuff, Al! Really! Oh, how many of us have similar memories. For me it was my mother's liver supper and/or powdered milk porridge. Yuck! That being said, your Granny was a good one, and there should be more like her, no doubt!

Alistair said...

Hullo Rebecca, Cheers for the nice comment.

Powdered milk porage?


Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

Great post Alistair, took me straight back to my Gran's wee hoose in Airdrie.
She was not as commanding a figure as yours, but she still loved her mince.
She was of the "old school" of Scottish cooking, which demanded that all vegetables be boild hard for at least an hour before serving.
I was 10 before I realised that cabbage was green. I thought it was white, because that was the colour when it was served to us. The mice was also boiled, with carrots and onions. It ended up an odd grey colour, with the consistency of minature ball-bearings. But the gravy was great.
She never added a whole egg to the mix, but sometimes she would add a poached egg to individual servings. Odd but not that unpleasant.
The best part of my Gran's food was at the end, when we all got a piece of "Plain Bread" (it always had an odd but pleasing, slightly sour taste) spread with butter, and covered in the gravy from the mince.
We also got the "cabbage water" served in a cup, with plenty of salt and pepper. Braw, but I'm surprised we weren't all ill from vitamin deficiencies. Maybe we were but didn't know it.
My Mum was a much better cook, and her mince was really good. Usually served with mashed spuds and dumplings (suet based, with parsley and herbs)
I've tried, but I can never make my mince as good as my Mum's.

Alistair said...

Hullo TSB, Glad you enjoyed it. I was conscious as I wrote it that it would possibly resonate most strongly with any Scots readers due to the prevalence of mince in our childhoods, even though there would be something in the memories of childhood food for almost everyone. I tend not to plan what I'm posting beforehand, just respond to what I've been thinking at the time. It works best for me that way. It's a similarity we share I think, from how I read your stuff.

Thanks for the visit.

Hope your enjoying the hols!!!

lom said...

popped by to wishes you all a merry christmas.

It's a shame there are not more grannys like your around

Alistair said...

Merry Christmas to you too lom. I just missed you as I was over at the kettle getting a coffee.....

Scottish Nature Boy said...

Hi Al - meant to reply to this at the time but weather, work and worry aboot freezing pipes (they didn't) distracted me (been a bit quiet on my own blog too). I realy enjoyed that wonderful, solid, honest piece of writing. I was lucky enough to have the love of both of my grannies into adulthood. Only one of them regularly cooked fr us and, unlike your exerience, I have to say, my gran's mince and tatties was the stuff of legends. Mind you, she cooked the tastiest of al sorts of things - I kno where my mum learned it from! Gran used to make the BEST chips too - only later did I learn that this was because they were cooked in the best of DRIPPING! probably the only time inmy life I ever ate that, but god, those chops were tasty and then some! Funny how your memries of something unattractive to eat have brought back vey pleasant memories for me - thanks for that. And a safe, warm and Merry Christmas to you and the lovely G - thanks for filling my blog reading time with so many splendid pieces in my first year of following - and writing - blogs! For the record, I'm with jono - a book is needed!!!

The Sunday Posts 2017/Mince and Tatties.

Mince and Tatties I dinna like hail tatties Pit on my plate o mince For when I tak my denner I eat them baith at yince. Sae mash ...