The food that fed me – the formative years

For those expecting the latest food scene scoop, keep walking, I’ll be back with that in the next post. Instead this will be a navel gazing trip down an indulgent memory lane. This recent post on our foodie discussion group around the topic of UK breakfasts set my mind racing. A slew of early food memories came tumbling out and ended up all over the keyboard and floor.

I’m forever being asked what it was in my youth that caused me take this gluttonous course in life – a Sisyphean life long task to sample everything. Did I work in a restaurant, did we travel the world as kids, was there some specific Summer sojourn to European shores shucking oysters? Nope. Life was far simpler…

Mystery cans

Here are a few notable facts about my home town of Wigan – a former mining town in the North West of England.  Proudly on display in the center of the local museum is a photographic trove of luminaries born and bred in the Lancashire borough. The display starts promisingly with the likes of Sir Ian McKellen sagely looking down on visitors. From there it’s quickly down hill. Peggy The Dog features just a couple feet away from the famous thespian.   George Orwell famously wrote of our humble berg:

Terribly cold.  Frightful landscape of slagheaps and belching chimneys. A few rats running through the snow, very tame, presumably weak with hunger. 

The palm lined streets of L.A. this was not. Adding to the unique charm is the largest H. J. Heinz facility in the known universe.  The sprawling campus pumps out more than a billion cans a year.   Growing up, a job at Heinz was the envy of most. A reliable employer, a solid pension, plenty of perks.

If you were lucky enough to be one of those whose paychecks came signed by the infamous American name, you might also find yourself coming home with the odd case of mystery cans; random mishaps flung out from the rattling canning lines.  Equally lucky were those related to an employee, which we were. They’d often show up on the doorstep clutching a ramshackle box of three or four dozen unlabelled silver cans.

A couple of times a year we’d be the recipient of one of these enigmatic collections. We’d reach for one when feeling like the day needed a little extra adventure. A quick shake, a judicious palm weigh, a jiggle next to ear. Peas? Peaches? Pudding? Once the can opener tore its teeth into the can, there was no going back, no do-over. You think parachuting is a thrill – go peel the labels from every can in your pantry and lets talk. My favorite, the baked beans intermingled with chunks of “sausage”, salty reformed emulsified mush amongst the sugar-laden beans.

I’d like to think that same devil may care nature still courses through my veins. When dining out these days, it’s why I’m always compelled to pick a random dish over a favorite, try a new restaurant than an old standby. The number one question I am forever asked – what’s your favorite restaurant? Frankly, I rarely go to the same spot more than once or twice, I’ve always got to see what might be lurking in the next can.

The Chinese takeaway

Chinese takeout from Sasa Kitchen
Chinese takeout from Sasa Kitchen

One of  my earliest culinary memories would always begin with either of my parents holding aloft a paper menu. It was a statement of intent, tonight someone else would do the cooking. Sometimes one of my parents would also produce a new menu. They’d received a tip from their sources, this would put all other takeaways to shame. Pre-Internet days, five star rumor was the Yelp of the day. Much like Yelp, it was usually incorrect.

To be clear this was a treat of the highest order.  Money was often tight, and my parents were both proud of the fact they cooked from scratch practically every night of the year. Ordering take out food was a radical departure from the norm in our household, neither a weekly nor every other type of event.  Eating at a restaurant? Aside from a few brief dalliances, it wouldn’t be until my early twenties that I’d start visiting restaurants proper.

Each time a menu was pulled from the recesses of the drawer, we’d pore through the various dishes on the inscrutable pamphlet, puzzling and pondering.  What exactly was Szechuan? It didn’t matter, we certainly weren’t brave enough to risk a dish with a z in it – but the tantalizing prospect was alluring – maybe next time eh? Scanning the seemingly never ending list there would be bold proclamations and advice doled out about various dishes. In truth each of us where as clueless as the next.

We’d arrive home with a plastic bag stuffed to its tensile limits with rectangular foil cartons; each firmly capped with white cardboard paper, clasped at the edges by the grip of the foil. After prying each open there’d be a pass the parcel style round, carton going from taste tester to next. Once a favorite dish was declared winner (and promptly immediately forgotten for next order), a free for all would commence.

In hindsight the dishes were watered down Cantonese style stuff; albeit in the UK MSG isn’t the pearl-clutching ingredient it is here, and as we know, MSG and the rose colored tint of memory makes everything taste better. There would always be an order of teeth stripping sweet and sour chicken. Fried rice, not boiled rice, because what sane person chooses anything boiled over fried. And, chips, always chips. French fries that is. Many Chinese takeaways in smaller provincial towns served (and still do) a double function as both chippy (fish and chip shop) and Chinese food carry out. These are strictly counter service setups, no dine in to speak of. Until you’ve tried black bean chicken on chips, or Singapore style noodles with a fried piece of cod, you haven’t lived. Culinary fusion at its finest.

Hopefully these days, my horizons have broadened when it comes to the diversity and complexity of Chinese cuisine. My favorites here in SLC are Chinese Taste, Mom’s Kitchen, New Golden Dragon, Boba World, Sasa Kitchen, Cafe Anh Hong as well as SOMI. Takeout still feels like the treat it always was too, over ordering is a must, as is stealing someone else’s dish and claiming it as your own.

Actually while, we’re talking about the chippy.

Bab’s yed

Babs yed - steak and kidney pudding
Bab’s yed – steak and kidney pudding

Which is a colloquial way of saying, baby’s head. Which probably doesn’t actually shine any further light on this most British of dishes.  The ‘yed in question here is actually a savory suet pudding, a pastry made supple with beef fat, that’s steamed rather than baked.  The result is a slightly unsettling quivering beige dome.  Crack this delicacy open and you’ll unleash a thick slurry of chopped kidney and steak, bathed in a thick brown gravy.    It’s the kind of dish where the coroner pronounces you at the same time as placing the porcelain down in front of you. Pray to whatever god you believe in, you’ll be seeing them soon enough.

You can find steak and kidney puddings at proper fish and chip shops in the North half of the country.  Don’t bother with the South, they don’t even have mushy peas down there. A good bab’s yed is one of my fondest food memories. There is no American equivalent as far as I know. This is the quintessential English dish, parochial in all the best ways. It’s the stuff American tourists sample on their English vacation and then promptly declare the U.K. as an inhospitable food wasteland.

It’s at this point you might want to read this article on the fabulous nonsense that is the British use of the word pudding.   You’ll never understand it, don’t worry, but at least you can feel calmer knowing there is little rhyme nor reason.

Maccie Ds

McDonald's hamburger
McDonald’s hamburger

I will take my life long affection for fast food to the grave.  You can extoll the virtues of slow food, local and organic all you like.  I am secretly only half listening to you. Half of me is wondering if McDonald’s will release a McRib with a double patty. I’ve had many people proudly tell me they don’t eat fast food over the years, I consider them outright liars or at best, targets for an impending diatribe. Who doesn’t love salt, fat and sugar.

I still remember the day the first McDonald’s opened in the heart of our town center.  A multi story sensory overload sandwiched between a budget pharmacy and drably grey department store.    The blinding light from the menu boards, the kinetics of the open kitchen and rushing workers, the cool self serve straw system – hook, line and sinker.

McDonald’s was essentially the reward for the trudging misery of a wet Saturday afternoon shop. My order always the same, a basic hamburger, small fries and a coke. The industrially-composed patty, perfectly circular and replicable each visit, no doubt spoke to my OCD-addled brain.    The foreign smack of the briny pickle and diced onions is imprinted on my brain at this point like a lab rat.

And as a kicker at the age of 44, I still cannot fathom the magical all you can eat experience birthday party I attended as a seven or eight year old on the second floor.   While these days I could happily afford to buy hundreds of burgers (if I so wished to destroy the morale of my local golden arches) nothing will ever live up to the magic of that seemingly endless world of possibility. Another burger sir? Why yes I will.

As I say, fast food is still written into the fabric of my ribonucleic acid. Joking aside there are of course health considerations, ethical, moral, social and what have you. For me it’s now the very occasional treat like the Chinese takeaway before it. I do however follow along with the national chain scene on menuandprice.com, another website I run. I think many small restaurateurs can take a *lot* of insight from how these mega-corps run their businesses; in recent years advances in customer targeting, delivery, menu specials, store design – they’re all elements independents can crib from in some small way.

Butchered

Philip Grubisa manning the counter at Beltex Meats
Philip Grubisa manning the counter at Beltex Meats

Lest I make it I sound like we grew up in some sort of soviet-era wasteland, canned food, gruel, and potatoes – we lived like kings when it came to meat. My dad, a life long butcher, routinely brought home various cuts and creations. I’d wager we chowed down on more brisket and fillet of beef that most families. Once a week, we’d rifle through the vacuum packed collection of animal parts and see what treat we’d be in for over the coming days. Amongst the more mundane steaks and chops and chicken there’d be liver, oxtail, tongue, shin, regional deli meats like haslet. Slabs of meat and viscera. 

To this day, walking into any real butchers shop – the smell of raw meat and bloody knives – it’s an instantaneous time machine back to my youth. Here in Salt Lake City, there’s only one option when it comes to butchery – Beltex Meats. I won’t sugar coat it, Beltex is pricey, but there’s a reason. Owner Philip Grubisa only sources the best in terms of either locally ranched meats, or the best from farther afield. That means absolutely impeccable product that is simply unmatched. Their seasonal turkeys are sublime, the brined pork chops better than most steak houses, the pate wins smack downs in snobby San Fran against the big boys. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe their work.

I still recall the first tray of chicken I bought in the United States (probably from Walmart, probably Tyson). I recoiled in horror as the chicken shriveled away releasing god knows what liquid. Straight to the garbage can after a single taste. This wasn’t the chicken I grew up with. I could go onto a separate rant about chlorinated chicken and industrial beef, but you know this story. Myself, I’ve actually become a part time vegan these days for a variety or reasons, but not any one in particular. That means when I do splurge on meat, I make it worthwhile. Beltex Meats folks.

Home cooking, toasties and risotto

Grilled sandwich
Grilled sandwich

As I mentioned earlier, virtually every meal we ate was home cooking. Eating out or ordering in was a rarity. Frozen foods rarer still. Both my parents could whip up a meal, but mum was the main baker and cook. Baking, both savory and sweet would dominate many a long weekend.

Again, without sounding like we lived in some post nuclear apocalypse, an early childhood home actually had a coal fire place. The back yard would be home to a concrete coal bunker that looked suspiciously like a WW2 defensive emplacement. We would receive weekly deliveries of coal, we would light the fire by arranging kindling under carefully constructed mounds of carbon. No this was not 1935, this was somewhat perplexingly 1995. I mention this because until you’ve baked your own bread (from live yeast, not that dried crap) in front of the anger of burning coal, you’ve still not tried real bread.

We’d also experiment with the avant garde in our own impeccable way. For a while mum took a job working the kitchen at the local DIY store, think Home Depot with a little cafe tucked in the back.  One day she’d come back with The Dish Of The Future. We watched with critical eyes as she buttered the outside of the bread, surely a moment of madness. She had of course brought home the knowledge of the grilled tuna sandwich, Or as the Brits would call it a tuna toastie. Sounds cuter huh. The inside out sandwich was a completely alien concept to us until that moment. We would eat them for weeks and months on end, until we could finally stand them no more.

A similar tale befell “risotto”, another unfamiliar dish which washed up on the shores of our kitchen. Why the quotes? Well, this wasn’t the classical creamy Italian dish you know. This was actually one rendered through the prism of seeing something, without really knowing something. Really this was a rice casserole, ingredient after ingredient tossed earnestly into a pan of water laden rice. A piece de resistance was usually a can of chunk tuna toward the end. Bon appetit. Years later I’d cook this for my wife, who had to sit me down and explain, this was not risotto by any definition. This was a crime against humanity.

Yorkshire puddings from the air fryer
Yorkshire puddings from the air fryer

And then roast dinners. So many roast dinners. Oh how my eyes would roll when news broke that we would be having a roast dinner this Sunday.   As typical as any teen railing against the norms, I took out my personal frustrations on the triumvirate that was the meat and vegetable and carbohydrate. I’d pick through the hours long efforts with contempt.  

As I am sure as most of us do, I look back now and see the terrible error of my ways. A Sunday roast is now one of my favorite ways to while away a long afternoon. The myriad prep and timing requirements, the ritual of it all – zen in action. No matter how talented you are, you will never master the Yorkshire pudding with 100% accuracy each and every time. Yeah, there’s another pudding for you.

I still prefer to cook at home most nights, rather than dine out, which confuses the heck out of people given this website. Covid of course changed everything, but global pandemics aside, dining out once a week seems utterly extravagant to me. Actually using more than one slice of deli meat on a sandwich still feels decadent. Hold on there Rockefeller, you gotta make that last.

The full English breakfast

And then, the aforementioned inspiration for this post. For those unsure, a full English should comprise the following:

  • Good quality pork sausages
  • Danish back bacon (smoked or cured)
  • Eggs, fried is preferable (sunny side up to you)
  • Baked beans
  • Mushrooms and tomatoes, optional

And in my opinion, black pudding is completely non negotiable. Yep, there’s another unfathomable pudding for you. Honestly this post should just be called, Puddings Of My Past. This one is a fat sausage cylinder of sorts, mainly comprising pig blood studded with blobs of pork fat. Also in the mix a variety of spices and usually some sort of cereal like oatmeal for binding. For the squeamish, consider the fact that most culinary traditions have a corollary to it, France’s boudin noir, Spain’s morcilla – it’s damned tasty stuff if you can leap the mental hurdle of enjoying cooked blood. I can.

A full English will typically be fried in a solitary pan. You will of course win extra points for using lard. That means fried bacon, fried sausage, fried black pudding. All soaking up, and releasing to the grease with their own flavors. And, if you were lucky enough to be alive in 1980s England – a time before such irrelevant concerns like heart health – you’d also be served a slice of fried bread. Two if you felt up to the task. Yep, that’s what it says on the tin. To make authentic fried bread, take a slice of plain white bread (don’t reach for the seedy bread, just commit to the complete arterial shut down). Place the sliced bread down carefully in the leftover fry-up grease and cook on both sides until browned.

The sensation of that soaked bread, a crisp first bite followed by the release of a slick and rich ooze is indelibly seared onto my brain. Equally memorable – the time my mum declared fried bread was no longer a thing. It was now probably the 1990s, and we’d decided a 20 a day habit coupled with routine infusions of grease were in fact poor life choices. Believe it or not, the full English was a DAILY meal for many. The mind, and cardiovascular system, boggles.

Just a few years ago my mum asked me what I’d miss most about her when she was gone. My immediate, perhaps too quick knee jerk reply was, “your fried breakfasts, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to reproduce that quite the same”. Momentarily taken aback, a creased brow quickly gave way to a smile, she knew sh’d raised me right. We lost her last year to covid, along with those perfect starts to the day.

Thank you for attending my Ted talk

These are just a few moments that spring to mind and fingertip – there are endless others. Again, there’s no real point to this article. It’s more a vehicle for me to wang on nostalgically like the increasingly confused old man I’m rapidly turning into.

As I clatter through the fifteen year mark writing about food, I continue to fall deeper and deeper down the culinary rabbit hole . The more I learn, the less I realize I know, the more I want to eat.

What about you, if you got this far, let me know the foods and experiences that where part of your nascent food journey in the comments below…

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12 thoughts on “The food that fed me – the formative years”

  1. Laughing, snorting and chortling out loud as I sit in a cafe in Prague on a work trip

    Thanks for a wonderful and hilarious article. And I’m sorry about your mum.

  2. Ah, growing up! Red beans & rice once a week…how lucky you were to get piece of that singular, heavenly ham hock. Brothers will fight.

    Or leftover cornbread chunked and dropped into a tall glass of milk–eaten with long spoon. I never–and still don’t–understood why it would not simply be eaten in a bowl with a short spoon…like cereal. Would it taste the same? I’ll never know.

    Loved the piece! Love black pudding! Here’s to your mum!

  3. Thanks for this. Very funny.

    When we stayed in London several years ago at a generic BnB, the owner’s daughter made the breakfast. We just couldn’t believe it was the same thing morning after morning, and after a couple days of this had to turn it down and escape. No real bacon, pale potatoes and watery tomatoes. We did, however, once have an excellent full English breakfast at an upscale BnB in Fort William in Scotland so know it can be good.

  4. Thanks for the kind words Linda!

    If you can find it you might like the UK TV show Four In A Bed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_in_a_Bed). Essentially four BnB owners take it in turns to stay at each others business, and then rate each other. It can get pretty snarky – and the quality of the breakfast is always scrutinized 🙂

  5. What an entertaining piece. Your experiences remind me of so many Masterpiece Theater programs over the years. We can’t wait to tour Great Britain for ourselves, blood pudding and all.

  6. Such a fun read!
    For me (as for a lot of Latin Americans) the most perfect of staple food combinations was fried egg and rice, either on their own or with a variety of additions (avocado, onions and tomatoes, sweet/salty fried plantains, hot sauce or sometimes even ketchup!). Cheap and simple but versatile and delicious at the same time.

  7. Thanks Mark! Here’s hoping we can get past the current state of world affairs together, I’d love to get back to traveling too!

  8. Thanks for the kind words 🙂 I will admit to being a rice and egg lover too, certainly I only picked that up later in life, as for a big portion of my early life, rice was some strange exotic grain. Potatoes all the way hehe.

  9. Interesting! I always find it funny how some foods are incorporated into certain cultures while others remain forever at the margins. Potatoes (originally from the Andes) as an integral part of US/UK diets for example, or rice (originally Asian) as essential to every other Latin American national dish (bandeja paisa, pabellón criollo, arroz con pollo, lomo saltado… and a long etc).

  10. Yeah I love learning the history and trajectory of foods. How lobster was once seen as vile and disgusting and given only to prisoners, and today…. Also the popular growth of Turkeys for T-day and Christmas, only a 75-100 years ago in the UK, it was all goose (terrible stuff).

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