The joy of additives

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Instant food seemed a big thing when I was a kid.

Partly because it was the seventies and manufacturers were riding the wave of the sixties processed food revolution and partly because my mum worked two jobs and no sooner had she come home from the first did she have to leave for the second. Instant food that freed people from the ‘drudgery’ of the stove was thought miraculous back then, no matter how much goodness was stripped from it or additives pushed in.

I have fond memories of some instant foodstuffs.

There’s the first time I ate a Vesta chow mein and watched hard strips resembling cut offs from laminate flooring transformed via the deep fat fryer into crispy noodles.

There was butterscotch flavoured Angel Delight which was like something from a sci-fi movie. You began with a pale powder that could easily be the earthy remains of someone’s Nan, add milk and whip until your wrist threatens to detach and you end up with a thick, creamy pudding that tastes how a robot would imagine caramel mousse- mainly sugary with an undercurrent of ash and plastic chairs.

Pot Noodles came later, but still ticked a box in my head- the ‘salt’ box mainly. I loved the weird, shrivelled peas, the paper-thin slices of dried carrot, and the square of desiccated noodles all reconstituted with half a pint of boiled water and a sachet of tomato ketchup- delicious.

Despite the waves of plasticised food that hit the shelves then, it seemed most people in the UK still had a roast dinner for Sunday lunch. The scent of boiling brassicas and gravy that filled our house and emanated from every neighbour’s kitchen once a week seemed permanent, timeless. Then the Sunday trading laws were changed and we all decided we didn’t want to stay at home peeling spuds and hovering over a slab of meat the size of a walrus’s buttock. We wanted to leave our homes, drive out of town and go to aeroplane hangar sized ‘outlets’ so we could row over furniture or shoes or DIY equipment we didn’t really need. Ah, progress.

Anyway, before the Sunday lunch was swapped for retail parks, there was another instant foodstuff, an occasional Sunday treat that delighted us all.

Our first peak of excitement was on seeing the finger biscuits. Pale, crispy little sausage shapes, each coated on one side with enough sugar to down a rhino, my mum called them boudoir biscuits, which made them sound terrifically sophisticated, surely made in Parisian garrets by chefs wearing tall white hats and sporting waxed moustaches.They actually came out of little plastic packets, but they signalled something wonderful- the appearance of a Bird’s Trifle. I remember trifle being served at Christmas, Easter, maybe a Bank Holiday weekend, though they felt rare as hen’s teeth to me.

After the boudoir biscuits came the ripping of the jelly cubes, a weirdly primal activity, which involved pulling apart the segments of a square of rubbery, fleshy jelly ready for it to be dissolved in boiling water. Because it was always raspberry flavoured it was red and being the weird little soul I was, I always imagined I was a zombie, tearing the limbs from an unfortunate victim. Yeah, I know, but I’m over that sort of thing now.

After the jelly was made and set, the custard was next, though I don’t think I can have been trusted to do this, as the preparation of it passed me by. Next was Dream Topping- like cream but not as nice.

Finally, the best bit, and the sign of true sophistication- hundreds-and-thousands. Yet more sugar and coloured like shredded rainbow, these sugar strands had to be sprinkled just before serving because the colour bled.

That was it, the ceremony of the Bird’s Trifle. It was all sugar, very little nutrition and about the most exciting pudding conceivable in the seventies. I remember the remains being left in the fridge for the next day and the colours from the hundreds-and-thousands had always run Pollock-esque on the top and the jelly took on the flavour of beef or dripping, or whatever else was in the fridge.

But it was still a joy.


This was written for the Writing 101 course, Day Ten.

Today’s Prompt: Tell us something about your favourite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory.

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