When I was a boy… [Surely one of the benefits of becoming an old codger is that you can get away with reminiscences beginning with “When I was a boy”.] So. When I was a boy, life was simpler for children than it is now.
For one thing, the food was simpler. In the 1940s and ‘50s, shops didn’t carry pre-cooked meals, at least in Queensland. McDonald’s and KFC hadn’t come to us yet.
Prepared food in general? Heck, even sandwich-shops created their goodies while we watched. Nothing was prepared ahead of time. We office-workers lined up at midday and gave our orders one by one to sweaty-handed lads living dangerously with razor-sharp knives. There was no air-conditioning, and the fans couldn’t really cope with the heat.
Hygienic gloves hadn’t come into fashion, then, but we hardly ever discovered any blood in our fillings. The sandwich-makers were skilled at their job.
We didn’t have allergies, because allergies are immune-deficiencies caused by the excessive avoidance of germs. Frankie Gardiner was the only kid with asthma that anybody ever knew, out at Hannaford; and he was from Melbourne, a thousand miles or more to the south. Maybe he had led too sheltered a life; he was a delicate boy, who tended to hang back when the rest of us were messing around in the dirt.
Kitchen-cleansers that remove 99% of all household germs are bad for young children. It’s the 99% of household germs that build up kids’ immunities. What doesn’t kill children makes them stronger – just like our Grandmas said.
When I was a boy, not only was food simpler than it is now: so were menus. Our mothers’ menus at every mealtime were quintessentially simple – namely, what was on the plate. The choice was Hobson’s choice: eat it or don’t eat it. Actually: eat it all or don’t bother turning up for the next meal.
My Mum would bend the rules a bit, in a good cause; but she never broke them. I hated pumpkin, so she kindly served me only a token amount; and in the spirit of fair play I ate all of that. It was easier at boarding school. There I could give my pumpkin away, and fill up with the stale bread that usually went begging.
In the bush, most of our food was mutton, home-raised at a marginal cost that was close to zero. In town, too, our only meat was mutton, out of residual loyalty to the sheep-farming industry. During my working years in Brisbane my landladies often served up roast beef on Sundays, but it was many years before I could eat it without feeling guilty.
I was left with a lifelong aversion to choice, with regard to foods. Even today I never feel completely comfortable in restaurants, for that reason. I love eating at friends’ houses, because they don’t give me a choice. Occasionally a hostess will say, “I hope you like this”, but she doesn’t really care. There’s never an alternative on offer. “Sorry, Wendy, I’m a vegetarian.” “Oh dear, George; let me scrape the meat off your plate and give you a few more potatoes. There you go.”
When courtesy requires, I will eat anything at all. In Tehran, I was once offered a sheep’s eye. As it happens – and fortunately – our host had lived in the West. As I steeled myself, the eye glaring at me defiantly, he took pity. (The host, not the eye. The eye was pitiless.) “I know it’s not a western thing”, he said, “and I won’t be offended if you’d rather not choke it down. But for us it’s a delicacy. Why not let me eat it?” I settled for the tender eyelid-meat that surrounded the organ. That saved me a little bit of “face”. Linda wouldn’t even eat that.
Somebody once told me of a British couple who discovered a restaurant in Madrid whose specialty was bulls’ testicles. Animals killed in the bull-fights are sold at the markets, and no part of the beast is wasted. One night the serving was meagre – tasty, but much smaller than usual – and the couple asked why. The waiter shrugged. “Senor, Senora… You know, the bull doesn't always lose. Very occasionally, he wins, and it is the matador who dies.” Shrug.
It – uhhh – it may not be a true story, but it’s worth the telling.