This Prisoner’s Final Meal

It’s no secret I’m my grandpappy’s child. We’re cut from the same cloth him and I. Dreamy and contemplative, often lost to our thoughts. And with a mom working the occasional evening shift, I was often fobbed off on her folks. Without fail, it was my Papa who tucked me into bed at night and read to me. If I was lucky, a sleepover would fall on a Friday and the next morning, after a flapjack or two, off my Papa and I would go on our obligatory saunter down to the main town library. There he’d find a chair and wait patiently while I perused my options. Finally, happy with the five books I’d cherry-picked, we’d make our way to the librarian’s desk and be home in time for lunch.

But if it was Papa who read to me before the sandman came, it was my Nana who’d made sure that the sheets were crisp and the bed warmed by a hot water bottle. You see, that’s her. The matriarchal glue of our family, never skipping a beat when it comes to what we need. She’s simply not one for dilly-dallying. And who could blame her? My great grandmother passed away when my Nana was only 11 years old, leaving little room for the frivolity of childhood. And as were the times, she married and settled into life with my Papa as a good woman in the prime of her youth should do. Suddenly the wife of a Catholic, she took to her new role with gusto and popped out five babies before you could sneeze. So if you want a woman who gets things done, she’s your girl! While Papa and I have often pondered the meaning of life, it’s my Nana who taught me some invaluable lessons on the subject. And when it comes to food, ‘Waste not, want not’ would have to be one that has stood the test of time.

My Nana is steadfast when it comes to frugality. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not cheap. It’s just that extravagance errs too close on the side of wasteful in her world. Lunches at my grandparents’ means just enough for everybody. Stretch a pack of pork bangers as far as you can. No more than a couple per plate, with a smattering of peas and mash, and hopefully there’ll be some to spare for cold sausage sarmies at dinnertime later.

Then there’s the matter of her freezer, truly a site to behold, packed to the hilt as it is with labelled tupperwares. Even a spoonful of gravy after a Sunday roast chicken won’t see its way down the drain. Into the smallest of tupperwares it goes, ready for the dog’s dinner the next day. I have to confess, this has left me in my later years with the compulsive habit of freezing all the left over egg whites after an evening of spaghetti carbonara. Tragically, I can’t face the prospect of an egg white omelette and lack the willpower to whip up a batch of meringues. So there the egg whites sit, unloved and unused in the freezer, while I find myself unable to send them to a more forgiving fate in the kitchen sink.

As for expiration dates, they’re superfluous in that woman’s pantry. I once hauled out a jar of anchovies so old they’d magically transformed into an oily paste as if by some strange mix of time and alchemy. If I may have had any misgivings, they proved to be the most delicious anchovies I’d ever tasted. I can tell you they made for one mean Caesar salad. And in this, my Nana rubbed off on me in a way that I’m almost reluctant to admit. In my own home, I have grown inherently uneasy when it comes to giving up on the food in my kitchen. Mould encroaching on the cream cheese? Who cares? I’ll simply scrape it away with a butter knife and tuck in.

Of course, it all makes perfect sense in the end. Raising five children meant putting food on the table, and my Nana was destined to become the queen of rationing. To this day, our family teases my grandmother for her, let’s say, ‘restraint’ in the kitchen. Unappetising cottage pie that would’ve been better if only my Nana was not so stringent on the butter…Tasteless vegetables cooked simply in the microwave until mushy… (And truly, there are few things worse than mushy, watery gem squashes!) But be that as it may, my Nana used to make me one thing for dinner as a child that to this day remains my favourite meal. Of all things, to my mind, and getting well into my dirty thirties, nothing beats a soft boiled egg with buttery toast ‘soldiers’ for dunking. Give me death row, and a final meal, that’s it. No doubt about it.

On the most gruelling or emotional of days, when I do not have anyone else to feed except my cat and myself, this is what comforts me when I don my fleecy pyjamas and put the telly on. I even use the exact same egg cup from all those years ago. My Nana gifted it to me. It has a picture of a cat (how fitting for a self-professed crazy cat lady!) about to indulge as a little chick has hatched from the egg and escaped the spoon. It is chipped. A flaw that I love it all the more for, because it tells a story, the story of a little girl who became a woman but is still so very much a child at heart when it comes to retreating from the tediousness of adulthood.

Of course, I buy nothing but the best eggs, golden yolked, and revel in the liquid centre as it oozes out and over on the egg shell dunk after dunk. This is messy eating for me (as most of my eating is!), my fingers wiping the sides clean and licking each and every morsel of the meal. As for the bread, it can be seed loaf or plain white. What matters next really is the butter. Margarine simply will not do in my home. Quality salted butter, it has to be. To this day, this love of the soft-boiled egg has even left me with the most peculiar habit of collecting egg cups when I find myself in curio shops. There is an innocence, a sweetness to them, these old egg cups, that delights me. And so it is, that I love a meal so very simple so very, very much. And of all things, believe me when I tell you, this would be my last if I knew when that big ol’ blue sky was about to fall on my head.

Featured Image: Egg & Soldiers by Brett Humphries (Acrylic on Board)

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