Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Grandma's Chip

Not all that long ago - but long enough for many people not to remember some of these things. Growing up in the 1950s.

I remember the face my mother pulled when she told one of her friends about the pan in Grandma’s cupboard. Chin lifted, a line of distaste from mouth to jawline, she exclaimed, “Two pounds of solid lard. With a chip sticking out of it like a sinking ship. Ugh!”

Grandma and Grandad, my father’s parents, lived next door. Once a week when my mother made the 90-minute trip to visit our Nanna my brother and I were shunted through the gate in the fence, from the garden of number 20 to number 22.

Grandma suffered from severe arthritis and really preferred us to stay outdoors, so on fine days we romped on rough grass under Grandad’s relaxed eye while he earthed up potatoes, rubbed blackfly off the broad bean shoots, or used a brass push-action spray gun to treat the Dorothy Perkins rose for mildew.

We played Cowboys and Indians with “cap guns.” Wikipedia tells me I lived through “the Golden Age of the cap gun” and whatever the mixture inside the caps was, it made a realistic crack and flash and a sharp smell. Sold as singles like miniature paper ravioli, or as rolls of individual charges, they came in a round penny-sized pressed-cardboard case. In contrast with the singles that had to be placed one by one between shots, rolls were satisfying because you could fire a fast sequence and get a really rich sniff of the smoke. Single caps very much curtailed both our gunsmoke and the amount of noise we made. I can guess, these days, which variety my mother preferred.

In between forays into the Indian country of the black-currant bushes, my brother and I practised the art of starting fires. We had read about the bow-drill method, but invariably the string broke before we had done more than wear the skin off our fingers. We discarded that technique for a magnifying glass and paper. Behold – a blinding point of light that scorched a trail and eventually produced a flame. Sometimes, if we’d gathered enough dry grass and prickly rose prunings, we managed to feed that flame and create a blaze. The smell of a garden bonfire still reminds me of those crouched and intensely focused afternoons. We fastened string round the neck of a jam jar and held it over the hot embers in the hope of stewing rose hips and water into something like jam. Inevitably the bottom cracked and we lost the lot.

On wet days, however, we had to play indoors. We were limited to the dining room, where a coal fire was rigidly confined by a wooden fender, a smoke-shield, and a dense black wire fire-guard. Out of our reach on the mantelpiece my Grandad kept his tobacco and a couple of straight, dark wooden pipes. "Foursquare" tobacco came as flat slices in round tins and had to be rubbed to be ready for the pipe. "St Bruno" came in oblong tins that my Dad used to store nails in his shed. 

The tin and the pipes kept company with a box of Swan Vestas, a jar of white woolly, wire-cored worms for cleaning inside the stem of his pipe, a metal reamer to scrape out the ashes from its bowl, and a patterned, cylindrical “spill box”. Spills were thin slips of wood, about six inches long, and they had two uses. In a morning Grandad arranged knotted paper, wood and coal in the fireplace and lit a spill from a match to kindle the fire. He would then blow out the spill to re-use in the afternoon, when he lit his pipe. Both fire-lighting and pipe-lighting could be lengthy operations , so the spill gave him a greater window of opportunity than a match. The mantel piece also sported a Bakelite spill holder, bright red and smoothly volcano shaped, that housed a coiled length of twisted paper which poked out of the top like a thread of smoke. Of the two, Grandad seemed to prefer the wooden variety, perhaps because the paper refills were no longer available.

Grandma’s idea of giving us children something to play with was limited to bringing out a gloss-white, slightly battered cardboard box of sewing threads and beads. The threads were remnants of real silk in Victorian dark green, rusty black, purple and maroon. Some were wound on cardboard, others around wooden reels that varied from tall and imposing to short and dumpy as Victoria herself. Most of the threads were so old that they snapped if you put tension on them, but one or two held enough sound length to thread beads - round, square, oval, diamond-cut, blue and green and black glass bugle beads. Necklace beads, dress beads, sequins. We spiked the bigger ones on spent match-sticks and if we forced them they broke. The tiniest green glass tubes were hardly bigger than the sugar crystals in Grandma’s bowl and when we tipped the box they made the same sort of crunchy noise. They had a bore so fine that none of her needles would pass through. Black glossy chips of jet must have been stitched onto the corsage of a dress. Sequins, small flat shiny discs with a hole in the middle, shimmered purple and green like dragon scales and slithered over each other with a faintly sinister hiss.

Sometimes Grandma would send us into the chilly front room to bang on the upright piano, supervised by an aspidistra that sulked on a home-made table. The piano was a walnut-cased overstrung, much better quality than my Dad’s, but in Grandma’s front room it suffered from the cold. Its keys were sticky to the touch and it was never quite in tune. However, a friend of mine bought it when Grandma died, and despite its 80-plus years it now lives a very happy life in Shap in a former coaching inn, where it’s used every day to teach music.

After half an hour at the piano, butchering “Chop-Sticks” and “Oh Will You Wash Your Father’s Shirt”, we would be summoned into the kitchen to wash our hands, and then told to sit up to the table in the dining room. Grandma spread a hand-crocheted tablecloth over the green plush bobble-edged cover. She would brush it afterwards with a semicircular "crumb brush" and tray.

At tea time we had bread with butter, Grandma's home made and semi-crystallised jam, and “shop cake” bought off the travelling Co-op van. It was either a fine textured sponge with a skinny layer of white mock cream and a trace of something that could have been raspberry jam, or pink-and-yellow chequered Battenberg wrapped in yellow, granular marzipan. In summer, we sometimes got broad beans with white pepper and butter. More usually it was eggs, fresh peas, and Grandad’s home-grown potatoes cut into big chunky chips and fried in that brown-spattered pan of boiling fat.

Nowadays I suppose most people would share my mother’s horror of their cholesterol load, but I just remember the taste. They were delicious.


Another Grumpy Granny appears in The Forthright Saga -

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