Sitting on my windowsill is an empty Sainsbury’s ground white pepper pot. On the side is a best before date of July 1996, I have no idea when it was bought, maybe a year before, maybe in 1995 in the year that my dad died? We temporarily move into his house when we left the north and moved to the west country in 2001; we had been coming down every other weekend since he died so we had stayed in his house often enough, and every Christmas and most holidays were spent there. This pepper might have been one of the things on his last shopping trips before he became ill, so in a weird way it has sentimental value.
So why is it on my family story object list? I think I have included things to do with food and cooking already on the list, but this condiment has a special place… more than salt? More than black pepper? Well, yes.
My dad told a story about when he was courting my mum. He lived with his family in the Portland Arms in Cambridge, she lived with her family in Harston, a small village to the south, in a rented house called Newton View. They had seen each other at the Rex dance-hall, he had gone with his friends, she with hers. They each would have gone there on their bikes, less than a mile for dad, about seven miles for mum.
They started seeing each other and he cycled her home and was invited in to meet the family. My grandpa, a very formal man was just sitting down to his supper and had a cup of black tea. As my dad made small talk, to his surprise, grandpa picked up the pepper pot and shook it vigorously over his drink. How unusual and eccentric, my dad thought… afterwards my mum told him that the contents of the cup was not tea but Bovril (a meat extract) The point of this is not my grandpa’s love of spicy food but the fact it was a funny story – my family nearly always sees the funny side of things.
When we were children dad would usually have a fried egg for breakfast, and like his father-in-law he liked well-seasoned food, and I remember sitting at the table eating my breakfast and seeing dad shaking the pepper pot over his egg. We usually had cereal and toast or porridge, only dad would have a cooked breakfast, but as he neared the end he would cut off two little squares of eggy toast and my sister and I would each have ‘a bite’ of peppery breakfast.
One of my mum’s favourite lunch time meals was mulligatawny soup which is spicy and hot… on would go the pepper but it would always mum’s eyes water and she would be enjoying her soup and mopping her eyes. As I have mentioned many times, she was a great cook; one of her pies was chicken and ham, and again there would a be a jolly good shake of pepper. We often had white sauce on vegetables – which seems odd to me now; broad beans, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, all with a smooth, creamy peppery sauce. It was only latterly that ground black pepper appeared; it might be ground onto food on the plate but white pepper was still used for sauces.
This pepper pot, the empty best before 1996 pepper pot was in our cupboard until late last year… the pepper had long since lost its heat and flavour, but every time I used it I thought of all these things, grandpa putting pepper on his tea, dad sharing ‘a bite’ mum beating white sauce until it was shiny and smooth, mulligatawny soup…