People too young to remember the days before smoking went completely out of style may think (if they think of it at all) that British homes of yesteryear stank of cigarettes. I suppose they did; but for me the scent that conjures up most vividly the working-class back-kitchens of times gone by isn’t stale tobacco – it’s vinegar.
Malt vinegar and its evil cognates – ketchup, piccalilli, salad cream, ‘sauce’ – were the dumb hosts of the mealtimes of my youth. Along with organising the cutlery, ‘laying the table’ meant smoothing the cloth and ceremonially placing at its centre the condiments, on their pride-of-place mat. So pervasive was their influence that they didn’t even go away once the meal was ended; they hung in the air, reminding us with every breath we took that the standard of British home cookery was so abysmally low, that those of us who were forced to eat it on daily basis had no choice – if we wanted to make it taste at least of something – but to bury it beneath bucketfuls of acetic acid.
My ninety-one year-old father still eats like this. He will steam vegetables now, rather than default-boiling them, but it’s got nothing to do with avoiding wateriness and retaining crunch – it’s just a money-saving exercise: stacking up multiple steamers requires him to light only one ring of gas. When I cook for him, I have to boil/steam everything for twice as long as I would if I were doing it for myself, and then a bit longer for good measure – by which time it’s practically soup. My reward, when I put it in front of him? A wounded ‘this inna cooked’. He reaches for the vinegar to drown his disappointment.
There is good news though: he likes eating out. The bad news is he only likes traditional pub food. Shrewsbury, the town where he and I were both born, and where he still lives, is something of a foodie paradise these days, boasting numerous destination venues like the Peach Tree on Abbey Foregate and the Lion + Pheasant on Wyle Cop. Speaking for myself, I’d love to try them, but if I went with my dad, all he’d do is moan about portion size (thanks to their hungry childhoods, people of his generation believe the primary duty of food is to be ‘filling’ – I feel very spoilt in comparison) and pester the waiter for brown sauce. So to avoid upset, we go with what suits him.
Which is how we ended up in the Peacock on Wenlock Road. Inside, it’s a blandly inoffensive environment – wooden furniture, twee photos of local landmarks. I knew things wouldn’t end well when I surveyed the overcrowded menu and realised that I would probably end up ordering vegetable lasagne. We were still in 1983 then.
To adapt a trope perfected by Jay Rayner, the lasagne, when it arrived, looked and tasted exactly like a ready-meal, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that they must have made it themselves. I can explain it only by assuming that ready meals have now become such an ingrained part of British gastronomic culture that people have started demanding them when they eat out. The vegetables were mushy, the cheese sauce was un-cheesy and the whole thing was thin, over-salted and burnt around the edges. The salad – please, no! – arrived helpfully ready-garnished with some sort of salad cream.
To add insult to injury, the waiter then asked if we wanted ‘sauces’. I already had far more sauce than I had wanted in the first place. My dad meanwhile, plainly frustrated that the combined efforts of the bowl of tartar sauce, bottle of vinegar and slice of lemon already at his disposal had failed to inject quite enough acidity for his liking into his cod and chips, scented salvation, and requested ketchup.
Whenever I eat out with my him, I’m quite used to the smell of added condiments from my dad’s meal completely overwhelming whatever appetising aromas might be arising from mine. Normally I find it irritating. On this occasion, I was quite glad of it. The fewer memories I have of what I ate here, the better.
The Peacock Inn, Wenlock Road, Shrewsbury SY2 6JS. Vegetarian Lasagne, £5.60