Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Tinned pineapple and glace cherries

It is an absurdity, but this paragraph in Trev Broughton's piece at the TLS on the novelist Elizabeth Taylor's relentless Englishness made my mouth water in nostalgic sympathy:

Food, in Taylor's fictions, becomes a battleground as well as an index of character. When, in A View of the Harbour, the successful novelist and chaotic housewife Beth accuses her husband of belittling her work ('an irritating and rather shameful habit'), she clinches the argument, and confounds her spouse, by adding triumphantly that there is nothing else to eat: 'The junket has not set and there is no cheese'. In a Summer Season's housekeeper, Mrs Meacock, has learnt her culinary skills from an American family: 'it was rare for a dish of meat to go to the dining-room without its rings of tinned pineapples'; she embellishes her glamorous whips, souffles and mousses with ostentatious glace cherries. Her spare time is devoted to compiling an anthology of 'Five Thousand and One Witty and Humorous Sayings': 'such a contented woman', thinks her self-absorbed employer, 'dividing her enthusiasm between puddings and literary work'. Despite the consoling omnipresence of cigarettes, fish and chips, and the 'desultory' biscuits served up to unwanted guests, to read Taylor's fiction is to encounter a vivid cultural history of the post-war English pudding. Julia feeds her sickly son arrowroot mould, but likes to get her recipes from good literature. She accommodates to wartime austerities by serving up baked apples from Villette. A Masonic ladies' night in the 1960s, in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, features a dessert named for the hostess: 'Peches Denise' turns out to be 'half a tinned peach sitting on sherry-soaked sponge cake'. The 1970s see the rise of petits fours and foreign cheese, of cheesecake smuggled in from the delicatessen, of ice cream in the freezer.

I am still fond of making luridly iced cupcakes, and when I was little my very favorite job at my English grandmother's house was decorating the sherry trifle: you blobbed on spoonfuls of whipped cream, then dotted each little mound with a slice of green angelica, a quarter of a glace cherry and two slivers of blanched almond (this was the ritual, sometimes disrupted if one of the ingredients had run short but otherwise impervious to alteration--also kept in the same tin were sugared violets and various other bits and bobs, some of which later ended up at my mother's house, things like the little cardinals and toadstools and so on that you prodded down into the icing-and-marzipan layer on top of a Christmas cake). The idea of these English sweets has me in their thrall, it is not that I actually want to eat them (I really don't like sherry trifle, I don't like custard or sherry and I only like cake insofar as it is an icing delivery system) but that things like iced gems were a once-every-two-years-when-we-went-to-England treat and accordingly quite irresistible though intrinsically rather cardboard/food-coloringy....