The Magic Cooking Pot – How To Make Happy Memories With Lots Of Time But Very Little Money
When I was a kid, around about this time of year, there was one little treat I used to look forward to more than anything else. I always knew this treat was coming because my mum would wash out The Big Black Cooking Pot. It looked a bit like the one in that picture, but a lot less fancy and a hell of a lot more battered. It must have held a good couple of gallons and you had to put it across two gas rings to use it. And The Big Black Cooking Pot being washed out could mean only one thing. Home-made soup.
My mum would pull all sorts of stuff out of the larder: pearl barley and split peas and the like. And we did actually have a proper stone larder, the house we lived in having been built in the 1950s. Then my dad would come home from work and walk in through the front door carrying a ham hock.
After a bit of a wash and brush up, my dad would head out to the back garden and pull up some carrots and onions and stuff as my mum was boiling the ham hock. Everything was chopped up and put in The Big Black Cooking Pot. Then we’d watch a bit of telly and have a late supper of home-made soup and crusty bread. Quite delicious it was too. It was better on the second day, of course. And by the third day it was the food of the fucking gods. I loved that soup and I loved that Big Black Cooking Pot.
What I didn’t know when I was a kid was why we were eating home-made soup for tea three nights in a row. All I knew was that it was really good soup. The reason we were eating soup three nights in a row, as you’ve probably already guessed, is that we were skint.
We always had split peas and barley in the larder, so they were already in the bank. The vegetables cost nothing but the price of a few packets of seeds and a lot of my dad’s time. And my dad knew a lot of farmers, so he could pick up a ham hock on the way home for pennies. Quite a lot of pennies, admittedly, but a lot less than you’d pay in a butcher’s or a supermarket.
My dad’s farmer connections were useful, but they did backfire one Christmas. He came home after his last shift at work carrying a 27 pound turkey. I have no idea why he got a 27 pound turkey. There was only going to be him and my mum and me eating it. Maybe he did it to impress my mum. If that’s the case, it didn’t work. It was too big to fit in the oven and she had to saw it in half to cook it.
The financial reasons for us eating soup, rather than enormous turkeys, were many and varied. Sometimes it was an unexpected bill. Sometimes it was because my parents had spent a bit too much time drinking in The Musketeer at the weekend. But more often than not, it was because I wanted something specific for Christmas that wasn’t in “Santa’s Magic Present Book”. Or “The Freeman’s Catalogue” as it was otherwise known.
There were all sorts of labyrinthine rules as to what you could and couldn’t have from “Santa’s Magic Present Book” and I was always a bit suspicious as to why the book also contained lawnmowers and duvets and ladies’ lingerie. Though the ladies’ lingerie section did come in handy later along the line. But I eventually became very dubious about the whole “Father Christmas” thing anyway, but I went along with it for a couple of years before I eventually had to break it to my parents that Santa didn’t exist.
The Big Black Cooking Pot wasn’t the only symptom of us not having very much money as a family. The only family holidays we ever went on were trips to see our in-laws in Glasgow. Not exactly the sunniest destination. But I’ve never really liked the sunshine very much anyway. Not since I got horribly sunburnt on a Sunday daytrip to Druridge Bay in 1976 and had to spend a very uncomfortable hour attending Mass later on that day. My parents didn’t make me go to Mass, but I’d just had my First Holy Communion and the novelty hadn’t worn off yet. And the trips to Glasgow were great. I got treated and fussed over like nobody’s business and anywhere new or different seems exotic when you’re eight years old.
So there were little day trips too, like the one to Druridge Bay that’s partially responsible for me not liking Summer very much. Most of the time, we went to Holy Island. We would wander around its rocky shoreline and pick winkles. Or “willucks” as they are called where I’m from. There’s nothing better when you’re a nipper than paddling in rockpools, grimly determined to murder the local wildlife.
You have to be careful with willucks though. We used to put them in a big metal bucket to transport them home. One day my dad didn’t put the lid on the bucket properly and by time we got back they had escaped and were all stuck to the inside panels in the back of his little van. We had to pick them all off and put them back in the bucket again. I thought this was fucking hilarious.
After a trip to Holy Island, the Big Black Cooking Pot would come out again and we’d boil up the willucks and that’s what we had for tea. Guess the free meal partly paid for the petrol used to drive up the Nothumberland coast and back. There was also the added advantage for my mum and dad that willucks are extremely fiddly to eat. So I would sit in total silence for an hour or so, concentrating on pulling the little buggers out of their shells with a blunt pin. My mum sometimes played the same trick with a slightly sharper pin and a pomegranate on days when I was being particularly annoying. She’d set me the challenge of picking out all the little seeds just using the pin. It could take me up to two hours to eat a pomegranate like that. Complete absorption on my part and, most importantly of all, complete quiet for my mum.
Funny how happy childhood memories usually have very little to do with the things that parents worry about providing for their children. I’m sharing a couple of my happiest childhood memories with you here, but I doubt my parents laid awake at night thinking “I wonder if we’re giving Michael enough home-made soup? Is he having enough experience of renegade molluscs?”
No, your children don’t need your money or your presents. Just your time and attention. Like I’ve said, we didn’t have a lot of money as a family. There must have been any number of presents I wanted but didn’t get. Can’t remember for the life of me what any of them were.
Mind you, there was one present I did get and the memory of which fills me with joy. It was a toy machine gun. It looked like a miniature Vickers .303 machine gun. It had double handles at the back and a circular, translucent plastic ammunition cartridge on the top with coloured lights that spun around when you fired it. It made real machine gun noises and its twin barrels moved alternately in and out when you were pressing the trigger and killing imaginary Nazis. A lot of imaginary Nazis bit the dust that Christmas morning, I can tell you.
The strange thing is that my new machine gun mysteriously broke just before Christmas Dinner. Odd that, because I didn’t break it. It didn’t really matter though. I’d already started playing with the box it came in anyway.
Copyright Michael Grimes 2016