Saturday afternoon, 2009, Nan’s living room slash dining room slash craft studio. It’s whatever we want it to be, really. Doc Martin is playing in the background, but we don’t hear it. Our laughter is louder.
“What do we have today then?” I ask, knowing fully well it’s the same as always. But not in a same-old-same-old kind of way, like a rainstorm or an economic crisis. It’s more of a I am so lucky that I get to experience this joy all over again, feeling. Like a supermoon or when Peter Andre popped by my school that one time. It’s our weekly tradition. Our seven day celebration. This is what I’ve been waiting exactly 168 hours for.
My grandma grins at me as she sets down the plate, her cheeks glowing with colour. A shade that closely matches the light pink staining my fingertips from the rampant felt pen colouring I’d been doing only moments prior. Nothing like a doodle of a pastel coloured Jack Russell to build up your appetite, right? “Not just the usual today, my love.” She sings. “I’ve got a little something extra for you, too.” I glance over at mom, who’s already halfway through her first hotdog. Wow, she must have started eating that in the past. Impressive. Then she looks back at me, crinkling around the corners of her eyes as she smiles through them (her mouth is way too full to mould into such a shape right now). Looking back at gran, I raise my eyebrows at her, intrigued. She shakes her head. “Eat this first. Then I’ll show you.”
Don’t need to tell me twice. I pick up my fork. Set it down again. Shuffle it across the table to make room for my elbows. I still don’t know why she gives them to us. She knows we are wild animals - we eat with our paws. I tear off a section of the soft white bun first. Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain it, but I’ve always liked to have a plain old bite of just the bread to begin. Perhaps it’s because each bite is more than that, you know? More than just a bite. It’s a venture back into the past, it’s a glimpse of an origin story, it's a reminder of your earlier chapters. It’s grandma, calling us up, flustered and panting, cackling down the phone.
“First time I’ve ran in decades,” she breathes heavily on the other end, “but I did it kids! I spoke to him! I caught up with him before he disappeared back into work and I told him that I thought he looked very handsome today. And every other day.” Gran always did have a thing for a butcher’s uniform. Clad head to toe in ivory, splattered with blood. Elegant yet horrifying. Her favourite theme. “Even caught sight of his soft white buns!” You can practically hear her winking.
I’ve taken a second bite before I’ve even swallowed the first, this time encompassing a little more of the whole meal. A bit of sausage joins the bread, the taste of ketchup tangy against my lips. Suddenly, I’m thrust back in time again.
“Is that raspberry lip balm?” I ask him, pulling back slightly. His face flushes. “Yeah but, well - oh man this is embarrassing - I just,” combing a hand through his dark hair, he glances at his feet, “I kind of knew I wanted to kiss you today and I, well, I wanted to be prepared you know? But my sister only has flavoured lip balm and I was panicking and you were almost here and I was getting nervous and she was laughing but handing it to me anyway so I had no other choice but to use it and-” he stops then, flustered. I smirk at him, my heart fumbling as much as he is over his own words.
“I mean, you could have chosen not to use it.” My teasing only encourages more blood to the surface of his cheeks. I press my palms, cool if not a little shaky, against them. He meets my eyes again.
“I do have one question, though,” he whispers breathlessly, “is there a reason your mom and your nan are stood watching?”
Despite myself, I laugh, glancing over my shoulder at my two favourite ladies not even pretending to be subtle. They wave frantically when they catch us looking. “They dropped me off. Guess they wanted to stick around because they knew I’d planned on kissing you, too.” Mom whistles in the distance. I can vaguely hear the sound of grandma winding the camera.
“Oh. Well,” he adds, “should have done a little more preparing yourself, then. Personally, I like the taste of ketchup. I don’t know if that’s a lip balm, but I’m sure you can improvise. You know. In case you’re wondering for next time.” But next time happens just then.
“Gran, you smashed it once again. This is unreal.” At least, that’s what I’m trying to say, though it comes out all muffled and in a spray of sausage-y chunks. Not to worry, the dog’ll clear those. He’s got a sweet tooth and I know what you’re thinking; what’s sweet about sausage?
You don’t get many sunny days like this, not in England. Sure, we know sunshine, we’ve met summer, we’ve even flirted briefly with heatwaves, but this? This is something that belongs to an Italian postcard only. It’s a four-dimensional painting, artwork that we can feel on our skin, it’s gorgeous. My cousins - three year old twin girls and their seven year older sister - are dancing about in the garden, pastel coloured dresses whirling round beneath the pastel coloured sky. For a minute I think maybe this is a preview recorded for a Netflix movie. Everything is turned up to full. Even my tastebuds are working in overdrive. It’s such an odd sensation, this overpowering sweetness drawn from perhaps the most unconventional source.
“And you’re sure you’re meant to put sugar on onions?” I glance at my grandma, who’s dabbing away at her face with a napkin. She stops to smile.
“The proof is in the pudding, love. Or, well, the caramelised onions.”
And she’s right. It works. It’s undeniable. It’s phenomenal. Even the twins - and their supposed allergies to Any and All Vegetables Ever - are obsessed. Dip anything in sugar and you’re onto a winner, so it seems. I smile at that thought. Clearly this entire afternoon has been shaken up inside a granulated bag, ready for sprinkling.
Ironically, though, the sugar dusted onions are not the most mind-blowing flavour of the meal. Mom and I both pause our chewing just long enough to watch gran top up her tiny mountain of salt on the edge of her plate. Like Everest, if Everest was souvenir-sized and entirely snow-capped, this miniaturised mass of sodium sat patiently in wait. This isn’t to say that grandma didn’t season her food as she made it, oh boy did she. She just liked to have extra. And maybe a condiment tastes better when it’s got that added kick that comes with the risk of sky-rocketing blood pressure.
There’s no explicit memory to recount now. Not when this is a staple accompaniment for every of gran’s meals. Instead, here, take this relive the recurring wince me and mom wear on our faces as we watch it spill out of the shaker and onto her food. Ready? One, two and - grimace.
I guess the meal is pretty simple, if you don’t look at it in context. Meaty hot dogs, soft fluffy buns, layered with ketchup, caramelised onions and a sprinkling of my own uncontrollable saliva. Still, I think that’s a pretty tasty dish, with or without a side serving of memories. Gran takes a swig of her favourite drink - original flavoured Lucozade - and the fizz from the bottle-cap startles her pup to the point of hysterical barking. With a gentle sigh, she sets down her plate and stands. “I’ll take this one outside for a sec, and whilst I’m at it,” she pauses, grinning at me, then at mom, then at her own feet. Whatever it is, she’s pretty happy with herself, “I’ll go get the surprise.”
Thursday evening, 2020. My kitchen slash kitchen slash kitchen. It’s always a kitchen wherever I am, because there’s always a small supermarket’s worth of snacks present. The room is quiet, not silent, but save for the hum of the fridge, there’s barely a sound. It’s deafening. I miss her laughter.
Mom had a surprise party for her fortieth birthday. I was surprised when I got a 2:1 grade for my Physics degree. The dog was surprised when the post was delivered, every bloody morning, sometime around 10am. Still, though. There was no surprise quite as spellbinding as that moment. The one when she returned from the kitchen, her grin bigger than I’d ever seen it, clutching a freshly made tray of fridge cake. Her secret recipe (secret as in; she’d lost it and couldn’t remember it off the top of her head). A no-bake, never-a-mistake, perfect example of cake. A signature dish that might possibly be the very paradox of cakes - the only one in history used to make a birthday wish in which you end up simply wishing for more of exactly that. It was sensational.
Bittersweet though, was our next surprise. Although it wasn’t really that unexpected. I suppose when something as cosmically spectacular as that dessert pops into existence, then the universe must balance itself by taking something equally as brilliant out of it. I think gran would find it quite funny, exchanging her life for a pudding.
But hey, that was a long time ago now. Me and mom have had many attempts at making that fridge cake. Each one was filled with the same bouts of laughter, the same excess of ingredients, the same irrational guesses of quantities and timings and tastes. We loved every second of it. The twins are teenagers now. I’ve kissed other boys since then. No butchers have been harassed in a while. Time moves on, but memories - they cement themselves deeper into the fabric of space. A fabric I like to think is much like a tea-towel, eighty percent cotton and one hundred percent home. Each stain is a memory set permanently. Each burn mark is a silly little anecdote. Each fraying thread is a moment to remember, to never forget, to infuse with your tongue so that you can taste it forever.
We haven’t had hot-dogs in ages. We’ve haven’t since been witness to salt served quite like that. I drink a lot of Lucozade and me and mom colour with felt-tip pens at least once a week. Grandma’s dog is up there with her now, barking frantically at the clouds I imagine.
I find myself thinking back to those meals more and more regularly. There’s something so sweet about something so simple. We must eat, what, a billion meals across the course of our lives? And yet that was never just a meal. It was an entire lifetime, crammed onto an Ikea plate. I suppose that’s what food is, really, when there’s meaning stirred in. It’s a caramelised story, sweet and nostalgic.
You see, I know we eat to survive.
But we tell stories to live.