Intestinal Fortitude; Home Cooking with the over-80’s.

Just spent a couple of days down with my Dad – for some reason, I always seem to visit on FA Cup weekends, so we end up watching loads of footy.  Inbetweeen we are still wrestling with the problems arising from our attempts to gain a Lasting Power of Attorney over my uncle’s affairs, but that’s another story and not one I would blog about until I am ready to unleash a completely over-the-top tirade about how bureaucracy is a nightmare but incompetent bureaucracy is ten times worse.  All I will say at this point is that any reader out there preparing to take on the Office of the Public Guardian should brace themselves for an ongoing purgatory of lost forms, workers who have turned passing the buck into an artform and so on…

No, today I want to deal with the art of anti-gastronomy, as practised by elderly people in general but my Dad in particular.  Now, I should say straight away that a lot of this is not my Dad’s fault; when she was alive, my Mother was a complete tyrant when it came to the kitchen and would not allow myself or my Dad to carry out anything but the most perfunctory or menial tasks in what she clearly saw as her domain.

Not long after she died, my Dad stood in the kitchen with a look of anxiety that betrayed his apprehensions about how to cope with this alien landscape where he had been denied any genuine access for fifty-odd years of marriage.  I tried to help by clearing out the junk that my Mother had accumulated over the years – sachets of sugar (huge bags of them!) from motorway service stations and empty microwave trays/pots/receptacles were foremost on the list as I recall.  I remember filling six black rubbish sacks full of duplicate junk like this and also with outdated food……  I also recall noticing for the first time how my Mum had orchestrated the equipment in her kitchen so that it was all placed in a ‘band’ that stretched roughly from her shoulders to her knees – anything above or below that level would be stuff she hardly ever or never used.

My Dad began well by having the old kitchen ripped out and a new one put in.  It’s pretty basic but it suffices for him.  However, some of his  adventures in this strange new world have since entered folklore.  Two examples should suffice as an illustration; Dad had a heart scare a couple of years back that ended with him being fitted with a pacemaker, but before that, we attributed his generally anaemic appearance and episodes of faintness to dietary issues.  He was sufficiently concerned to fill up his freezer and cupboards with enough frozen veg and dried pulses to keep a Welsh hippy commune afloat for a few weeks.  However, there was too much of the frozen stuff, so he left a couple of bags in the salad drawer of the refrigerator and seemed nonplussed when they slowly but surely began to ferment on him.  Opening the fridge ensured an unholy blast of cold air that was somewhere between an off-licence and a compost heap.  He just didn’t get it – frozen veg needs to be kept frozen…..

A bit later during the same period, he was actually in hospital to have his pacemaker fitted and the partner and I called to his house to pick up clean pyjamas and various other items he needed.  We were in the kitchen and were unwise enough to open a cupboard that featured a teetering ziggurat of foodstuffs – mainly soups in cans or sachets or packets. 

Having opened this cupboard rather over-enthusiastically, a carton of Covent Garden Wild Mushroom Soup described a perfect parabola as it plummeted to the kitchen floor and exploded with a smell like Essence of Latrine.  Every door and window in the vicinity was opened and we literally had to wait for 20 minutes to allow this horrendous miasma to clear away before venturing in to attack the slop on the kitchen floor.

I’m not sure how long this carton of soup had actually been there, but my Dad was quite upset when we told him of the accident; not because of the stink or the lengthy cleaning-up job we’d had to do, but at the loss of his Mushroom Soup. He seemed almost angry at the suggestion that he wouldn’t have been able to eat it anyway as it had ‘gone off’ –  he clearly sees us as ‘Health Nazis’ where this kind of thing is concerned and often guffaws at my suggestions that he is heading for a major dose of gastr0-enteritis.  To him, I think it’s all just part of the ‘Nanny State’ and it’s up there with EU restrictions on ‘bent’ cucumbers as something to be regarded with scorn.

I often think that it might be just as well if I let him go ahead and give himself food poisoning in the hope that this would teach him a lesson.  Unfortunately, given the state of his innards, it’s a lesson that would be far more serious for him than it would for most people and might even finish him off for good.  He says himself that he can’t really get too excited about food any more ( and he used to love his food), which is perhaps why my efforts to persuade him to use my Mum’s old slow cooker to produce the stews and casseroles he is so fond of  have been only partially successful.

Anyway, last time I visited him for the weekend, we ate out both nights I was there, which surprised me, but this time he was clearly intent on eating in.  On Saturday, he served up breadcrumbed haddock and a few oven chips awash in a sea of mushy peas.  It was…OK.  However, yesterday, he disappeared into the kitchen and emerged brandishing a frozen lump of pork.  “Pork steaks!” , he enthused.  “Are they frozen?” I enquired  “Yes…..” came the reply.  “Well, you have to defrost them, Dad.”  “How long will that take?”  “Hours….”  “Oh…..”

In the end, the only thing we could find in his freezer that would cook straight from frozen were fish fingers, so yesterday’s meal turned out pretty much the same as the previous night’s, only the fish was poorer quality and the whole meal seemed lukewarm.  Today, I awoke with a slight griping pain in my stomach and I thought ‘Oh no….’ but so far nothing dreadful has happened.

Of course, I spend some time wondering about what my Dad is eating, how carefully he is reading the storage instructions, likewise the cooking instructions…….and yet, and yet….

This is a guy who survived the war on sausages that were probably 50% sawdust and on Navy food including 3 course Sunday roasts  in the Molucca Straits as the outside temperature hit 110 Fahrenheit, Spotted Dick and Custard off the Philippines when you could have fried an egg on the wing of one of his aircraft….we might think that years of Madras curries, garlic and wasabi sauce have given our palates the sophistication of epicures, but when it comes to coping with grim undercooked or overcooked food – self-inflicted or otherwise – maybe our parents’ generation have an edge on us. 

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