Valerie O’Connor has a Proustian moment when a simple question prompts a trip to the land of dinner in the middle of the day and a time when tea was had at teatime.
Who’s making the tea? Are you making the tea? On a drive from Dublin to Limerick the other day, my youngest son asked me about tea time:
“How can teatime be called teatime when you don’t actually have any tea?”
A mighty question that sparked one of those great conversations you can only have on a long car journey.
“Well”, says I, “In the old days we had dinner at lunch time and lunch didn’t exist.”
This is true and anyone over 35 will probably remember that you always came home from school in the middle of the day, either primary or secondary if you lived close enough, ate your dinner and then walked back again for the afternoon.
Having an actual full dinner at 1 o’clock meant constant catering pressure for Mammies as whizzing up a shepherd’s pie or spag bol would mean hitting the kitchen pretty early.
On top of that my Grandad came for dinner twice a week so that meant desert on those days too.
Sunday was another matter entirely with pots bubbling and delicious things baking for the whole morning.
When the older siblings went to college and work things had to be moved around as everybody was at different places at different times, then dinner was moved to tea time around six o’clock.
So, with that in our pasts, many people still call dinner, tea.
Tea mostly consisted of things served with tea, easy small meals like beans on toast, scrambled eggs or spaghetti hoops — how I loved them.
Things like crispy pancakes which I lusted after but never had, still to this day, were for tea, along with things like super noodles and sausages.
Now and again when I stayed at friends’ houses, I would get a meal like this, I inhaled it like I’d never seen a plate of food.
My folks weren’t into packet food, I thought it was manna from heaven.
The creme de la creme had to be the Vesta curry, which my pal’s Dad used to make for himself when he was home alone.
This genius bit of food engineering was a dehyrated, powdered curry in a sachet that was brought back to life in a pot (this was pre-microwave days), some boil in the bag rice and a popadom and a sachet of mango chutney, genius and tasty.
Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie was another level entirely.
The things you ate for tea were usually accompanied by tea and bread and butter — sausage sandwiches go especially well with tea.
The problem with tea was that because it was a small meal, you’d be hungry again by 10pm so then we invented supper, which was more tea with mountains of toast and maybe cheese on toast.
Supper was a waiting game.
By around 9.30, after watching the news you could feel the tension in the room begin to grow and it was a case of holding out until someone said they were making tea.
It was almost always my brother who cracked first, cycling miles to and from college every day made him extra ravenous.
If you made tea you had to make it for everyone and then you had to ask who wanted toast, which then turned into a lot of cheese on toast and a very long time in the kitchen at the grill, filling the orders of lazy younger sisters like me.
Heaving trays of cups and toast meant we ploughed through butter like it was, well, butter.
Mother always promised she would get a cow out the back — years later and still no cow.
As we re-enter the routine months of school and college, I’m now a Mum of a college-going boy and I’m proud as punch (and he’s going where I wanted to go so I’m also feeling a bit jealous, I admit), we are now back into those days of everyone coming home at different times.
Over summer we had few meals when we sat down together so that will change as winter sneaks back in and the slow cooker gets pulled out of the press and proper cooking begins again.
Meanwhile, having some recipes up your sleeve for tea is always a good idea, if only for the most important person in your life; you.
My Mum sometimes made the best cheese on toast known to humanity, Welsh Rarebit, with some good cheddar and fancy sourdough, this is food of the gods, you can use white spelt instead of regular flour if flour doesn’t suit you.
Must be had with tea, at tea time.
In a heavy based saucepan melt the butter over a medium heat and add in the flour, stir this and cook for at least 2 minutes.
Slowly pour in the milk while stirring the sauce constantly, don’t worry if it appears lumpy, the lumps will cook out.
Throw in the cheese and let in melt slowly, stirring gently and add in the mustard and maybe a grind of black pepper.
Preheat your grill and toast some good bread, preferably sourdough (you can toast it in the toaster too but you’ll need the grill anyway).
Get a large plate and put each slice of toast onto it, butter if you want, and pour over the cheese sauce, drizzle with a little Worchestershire sauce.
Place the plate under the hot grill and let it cook until black bubbles appear on the surface.
Then devour while hot — with lots of tea.
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