Living in sunless reaches under rain,
how do the exiles from enchanted isles
tend and sustain their rich nostalgic blaze
Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1908-1986)
The role of food in our lives is complex. Survival, obviously, pleasure, certainly. If you have enough to eat, and a safe place to live, food becomes an expression of love, a demonstration of skill, sometimes a display of wealth. I have always been interested in the role of food in memory which has to do with pleasure, but the pleasure of happy memories rather than the immediate taste of the food. For me the taste of a Lyons lemon cupcake, industrial icing clagging my jaws together and, with drone-like efficiency, finding every minor cavity, takes me back instantly to Sunday teatime, the smell of wax polish on the old mahogany table, the whiff of the dog under the chairs and the sheer achievement of having eaten enough tinned salmon sandwiches with a side salad of pickled beetroot and defeated lettuce to be allowed one. Tunnocks teacakes have a similar role, though I note it’s less and less acceptable for a grown up to attack them from the top and eat down to the base which, as aficionados know, is the only way.
But the journey over a few decades of my own culture’s history is tiny compared to the enormous distance, culturally and climatically covered by immigrants to the UK. The terrible stories of the Windrush passengers, filled with hope of a bright future and dumped, in summer clothes and sandals in a country which they had thought of as their own, quickly apprised by the natives that that was not the case at all. No sun, no light, no heat, no comfort in the vast damp greyness of the place. Food takes on a role far greater than nourishment, it is a link to all that was good and all that was left behind. In the 1960s and 70s nobody who was not from the Caribbean was interested in eating the food (unlike immigrants from India and Pakistan who had come specifically to open restaurants where, politely transfixed, they observed the British order “the hottest thing on the menu” which bore no resemblance at all to anything you would find in India.) But now, in Caribbean food, just as in other cuisines in London, quality will out, and while the tumbleweed whistles round the flocked halls of the Khyber Pass, Jamaican food is out and proud.
A revelation, certainly as it is done chez Earl who, with his wife Diane run a stall opposite the Old Vic in London. It is reputedly the best jerk chicken in London. By 11 in the morning a queue of about 30 is snaking round the park demonstrating a dedication to lunch that I’ve not seen outside France. Smoke is billowing enthusiastically from the two wheel hubs which he uses as a base. His customers are certainly the grandchildren of the Windrush generation, but they are also from mainland Europe, Africa and Britain. Chicken, of course, but also jerk lamb, red bream stewed with onions, oxtail, rastaman coleslaw (no mayo), yams, sweet potato, callaloo and, of course, rice and peas, the “peas” being dried kidney beans which are boiled for about five hours in stock, before the rice is added. And, to top it all, “dangerous” pickle. The reason for this adjective is best left hanging in the imagination.
The glory that is London eating at the moment is much trumpeted, and it is true that we are currently blessed with some wonderful restaurants, at every price level, but for me, one of the great joys of this city is the endless cultural mix, and, to sit in the sun, opposite Lilian Baylis’s theatre, chatting with a group of Polish builders and eating jerk chicken is about as good as it gets.
this article first appeared in In Search of Taste (www.insearchoftaste.com)