Happy Boxing Day! It’s that most wonderful time of the year when we lie around a lot, watch terrible television, eat and drink too much and hope for a better future. Actually, that’s been the case for most of 2020 which has indeed been the year of lying in one form or another, and a year I imagine we will all happily turn our backs on as soon as we can.
The Chinese Year of the Rat has been a momentous one, and one which has left its mark both on our body shapes and our psyches – on those of us luckily left alive, at least.
Every week has felt like it needs to end with an indulgent treat, and on so many nights the wine-witching hour of 6pm couldn’t come fast enough.
When a friend told me his start time to drink alcohol was 7pm I actually couldn’t imagine what he would do for the hour when the rest of us mitigated the misery of the 6 o’clock news with a vat of merlot before starting on the real hard stuff.
My sofa and bed now display very clear saggy indentations, widening and deepening evidence of just how much they’ve supported this idle frame in 2020. While I’d like to say that both pieces of furniture have seen excitingly romantic interludes, the truth is that 2020 has been all about being busy doing nothing.
While we’ve all been victims of housebound inertia, though, a different kind of lying has become the norm – one that is often done with a smirk, an old Etonian twinkle or a tickle of the hand to the knowing – 2020 was the start of the realisation that as long as Brexiteers lied fast enough we wouldn’t see the price of food creeping up and the supermarket shelves becoming bare. Pray for us all in 2021!
I don’t think Oscar Wilde was thinking about indolence or modern day political “chancelots” when he published his essay The Decay Of Lying in 1891. In it he writes that the decay of lying as an art, a science and a social pleasure is responsible for the decline of modern literature.
Sadly, lack of lying isn’t something that we currently need mourn – lying has undergone such a huge renaissance that it’s as intrinsic to 2020 as Twitter storms, thundersnow and the reality of wearing trackies for breakfast, lunch, cocktails and dinner.
So, as we sink back down into our sofas after an unusual Christmas Day, what’s to be done about 2021? Well first we have to get through New Year without getting too close to each other, singing too loudly or kissing strangers on the lips, all of which should be easy for me as I’ll be spending it back in bed after a late supper. But what to eat?
Food at Hogmanay is a diversion that has occupied me for many years, from around the time of the Moon Landing and Space Oddity in 1969, when I was 10. At that time my mum, my sister and I lived in a tiny flat in Liff Road, Lochee – although, like my old school and so much more of Lochee, our flat is long-demolished, its shared outside toilet now just a fetid whiff of a memory.
We had moved to this flat in 1965, leaving behind my dad, a nine-roomed house in Dunkeld, a lot of empty beer bottles, accompanying debts and so much of our lives.
When my mum got the keys to the two-room tenement flat we had to burn sulphur candles to kill off an infestation of distinctly untimorous beasties and I was so scared to go to the outside toilet during the night that my mum would let me pee in a potty as a treat.
It’s nothing to reminisce fondly about but we were very poor, so poor that our neighbours would give me comics when their own kids had finished with them.
Their children were all girls though so, even now, what I can’t tell you about the Cathy and Claire column in Jackie and the Four Marys in Bunty just isn’t worth remembering. (Incidentally, when I used to work with Morrissey, I once proudly told him the above fact and he told me that Courtney Love was also an expert on the Four Marys. I have no idea how the Marys crossed the Atlantic or how they affected Courtney’s music, lyrics or lifestyle but am glad to share such an arcane knowledge with such an esteemed rocker.)
Money was in such short supply, and I have distinct memories of my granny visiting us with a few slices of ham or a small pat of loose butter and I also remember my mum always buying broken biscuits because they were cheaper.
Nevertheless, I don’t remember ever having pre-cooked food in those days apart from macaroni cheese from the butcher, which I refused to eat until my mum told me it was actually called magic soufflé and was made by elves.
These elves somehow delivered their divine ambrosial creations once a week to the butcher in Lochee High Street.
New Year was always an interesting time in our house because we didn’t really know many people, and being a single parent in those days was still quite stigmatised so we could never really rely on people to come visiting.
Every year my mum would say that we would ignore New Year and just go to bed and then every year she would start cooking. As I got older I realised how the whole thing was tinged with such sadness – the apparent disinterest in celebrating a New Year coupled with the hope that someone – anyone – would come and be our first foot.
The food my mum cooked was actually adventurous and much of it chimes with the whole ethos of nose-to-tail eating which we love today. She would make tripe and I remember the revolting smell as it boiled, and the texture as it was stirred. Even now I couldn’t eat it, and I like to think I can eat most things.
She would also make pressed tongue and I have memories of this huge mass of cartilaginous flesh splayed on a white plate before a second plate was weighed down on top of it, at least hiding the unappealing mass for a few hours.
These days, of course, the pressed tongue is exactly the kind of thing I might order in many of my favourite restaurants and, just like tripe, it’s very modish and now almost caricaturedly indicative of the St John school of cooking I so love.
That this kind of food was being cooked on a tiny stove in a Lochee tenement in the mid-1960s makes me smile, especially knowing how little money we had at the time. Our days of eating out were very far in the future.
As midnight approached, our tiny flat would be a frenzy of activity. My job was to get the jar of pickled onions, the cocktail sticks and the lumps of cheese and start to thread the joyous snacks together with a surgeon’s hand. I approached my task with the utmost seriousness and would lay my finished product on the serving dish with military precision. We didn’t stick them in a pineapple, as was the fashion, but I have no idea if this betrayed a lack of sophistication on our part or a surfeit of it.
The final component was the clootie dumpling and the Swiss milk tablet, both of which our mum excelled at. The dumpling was always cooked in a ripped up old sheet and it was always great.
The steam from the cooker would engulf the whole flat with such force that I’m surprised my mum’s white plastic gogo boots didn’t melt in submission.
Often it was all to no avail. Midnight would come and we’d sing and hug each other and try not to look expectantly at the door whenever we saw a figure move across the communal landing.
Mostly, the visitors were never for us but sometimes they were and the relief was palpable. It was at this very early stage in life that I worked out how to manage expectations, a very valuable lesson to learn from a fairly traumatic childhood.
Years after her death, of course, we would so love to see our mum pressing a tongue in the kitchen and dancing around in her mini-dress.
I’d love to show her that the food she used to make now commands premium prices in top restaurants and that her cocktail snacks now have the camp value of an Abigail’s Party timepiece, even though time has added nothing to their flavour.
Instead I will make a very simple dish to herald the New Year. Cotechino lentils is my favourite dish for this time because it’s easy to cook, delicious and also symbolic.
Hailing from Modena, this hearty dish is basically lentils with pork, although the cotechino is a uniquely special Italian pork sausage, both rich and also somehow delicate. Cut into rounds, it is said to resemble coins which symbolise prosperity for the new year. Served with mustard fruits I can think of no more heavenly way to celebrate the end of 2020 and the start of a healthy, healing and hopeful new year.
There are loads of recipes for this simple dish online although I always use the one in the first River Café Cookbook Easy which is both straightforward and delicious.
Happy New Year!