[EXCLUSIVE] “Food and Memory” by David Clarke

TH: All photographs in this essay are by the author. Header image: Altar with ancestral tablets, Tang Clan ancestral hall, Ping Shan, 31 December 1996. The son of cartoonist Ma Lung is seen in this image.


Guests at a New Year’s Eve party in the Tang Ancestral Hall, Ping Shan, New Territories, Hong Kong, 1 January 1997. The party’s host, fashion designer and Tang clan member William Tang, is seen on the left of the image.

When I try to remember the special meals I’ve had, I find it difficult to recall exactly what food I was eating. That part of the image is always the bit that is out of focus—it is the people, the mood and the ambience that come to mind, not the dishes consumed (no matter how good they were). Even if I took photos of a meal (a not uncommon occurrence since I am active as a photographer, and for at least ten years of my life—1995 to 2000 and 2015 to 2020—I photographed on a daily basis), I find that they are rarely much help in bringing the food to mind. At the New Year’s Eve Poon Choi banquet in the Tang Ancestral Hall at Ping Shan, in Hong Kong’s New Territories, held at the beginning of 1997 (the year in which sovereignty over Hong Kong shifted from Britain to the People’s Republic of China), my photos were only of the people and the performances that took place after the food had been consumed. 

This culinary amnesia is also present in the case of another meal that I want to describe here, which took place in the summer of 1989 in the Italian town of Fiano Romano, about 25 miles north of Rome. I was staying with an old friend whom I hadn’t had a chance to see for quite a while, and at the time she was living in that curious place which could almost have been a left over set for some Italian movie. The town had its own countess, a neo-realist film director (Giuseppe De Santis), a convent, a fruit shop that stored its produce overnight in the church’s crypt to preserve it, and a doctor who had placed a sculptural bust of his father—the town’s first medical practitioner—over the entrance to his surgery. When I arrived with my suitcase looking for my friend’s house, her next-door neighbour came out to question me, betraying the suspicion of outsiders often found in small communities relatively cut off from metropolitan life. Within about two or three days, however, that same neighbour was incapable of telling me apart from my friend’s husband, someone she had been living next door to for an extended period of time.  Because I walked out of the door carrying the baby, she addressed me in Italian as if I were him. It seemed like you could only be a complete outsider or a complete insider, and no other possible roles existed.

Towards the end of my stay my friend took me to a “Festa de l’Unità”, a celebration of solidarity being held by the local branch of the Italian Communist party. The town was politically marginal, and as a result all the political parties—including the fascists—had offices there. The leftists held the town, however, and as a result there were socialistic murals to be found in the town square. The “Festa” was held in the evening, when the intense summer heat of the day had eased a little, in a tent on a piece of grass a little way outside the main part of the town. All I can remember of the food now is the boiled prawns (hardly a local delicacy for this inland town), but the main feature of the evening (as at Ping Shan) came after the consumption of food—but not of alcohol—had finished.  There was a custom to conduct political debates in the form of a kind of singing or chanting. One person would sing an improvised political statement, then one by one other people would join in the dialogue, perhaps presenting differing viewpoints. Apparently it wasn’t only the Communists who did this, and I was told that this was one of only two parts of Italy where it happened (the other I believe was Sicily).  

It was a great evening, but what I ate apart from the prawns I can’t begin to recall, and if truth be told I don’t remember the taste of the prawns either, just the piles of shells on the table after we had finished eating. I remember walking home when it was all over, or rather I remember the welcome cool of the clear late evening air on leaving the tent.  

If I try to reach back in time to find my earliest food memory I discover it concerns a  chocolate bar. I know I must have been less than four at the time from the location of the memory—we moved from that place before I reached that age. This memory is not exactly a positive one however since it is of me feeling sick after eating the whole bar in one go. 

I grew up in a simple working class family in the South West of England, and my diet as a child reflected our location and social status. Some of the vegetables we used to eat were grown in our own back garden. Runner beans and peas were amongst those we planted, and I know there was also brassica of some kind since I can remember the Cabbage White butterflies whose caterpillars would be found on them. I also particularly remember a row of raspberry bushes which at one time stood at the bottom of the garden. Whereas most other things from the garden would need cooking before they could be consumed I would of course be tempted to pick these delicious berries to eat directly from the bush. Some neighbours also rented “allotments” from the local council—small patches of land on which they could grow produce. Although my own family didn’t do this we would sometimes be gifted vegetables from those who did, when harvest time resulted in too great a quantity of a particular item for their own domestic use.

While we probably grew some potatoes in our garden, we would also buy this staple food by the sack from a farmer at the edge of town. Living just down the road from him was the “egg lady” who supplied us with that other basic food item, but although I remember going to her house on occasion I believe she also did deliveries. Milk in bottles was brought to the doorstep on a daily basis, and other food items such as bread were also carried round the streets in a van. Such a system worked at that time since many women with young children (such as my mother) were “housewives”, and thus at home in the day to deal with such door-to-door tradesmen. There were no “supermarkets” in the time and place I was growing up, but I do remember going to the main shop of the “Co-operative Society” (usually referred to as just “the Co-op”). It is not so much the food we purchased there that I remember though, but rather the “cash carrier” system of pneumatic tubes by which the shop assistants sent the customer’s money to the cashier, receiving back change and a receipt. As well as its main shop the Coop also had a fishmonger nearby; we rarely bought anything there, though. Much food retailing in that time and place was done in specialist shops: a baker for bread, a butcher for meat, and a greengrocer for fruit and vegetables. In the next town there was a specialist store that sold expensive food items that we couldn’t afford, but I loved walking past it when they were roasting their coffee beans—the smell permeated the surrounding area. I could recognise the aroma of roasting coffee beans long before I knew what the drink itself tasted like.

In addition to purchased food and what you might grow yourself, there were occasional opportunities for gathering things in the wild. I have one memory of accompanying family members in search of mushrooms, which was not a regular occurrence, and I’ve only once done that in adult life. I was staying on a farm in Wiltshire and one morning a Giant Puffball was there in the field. We knew it was fresh since it hadn’t been there the day before, and because this massive football-sized fungi is so distinctive in appearance it cannot be confused with some other poisonous variety. We cut it into slices and cooked it for breakfast as if it were a steak. 

Gathering nuts and wild blackberries was a much more familiar part of childhood than collecting mushrooms. Some blackberries grew just at the top of our road (which at one time, before further development, gave onto fields). It was possible to walk to places where blackberries were growing (and one still can today from that location) but it would require an outing by car to reach a spot where we would be able to gather wild strawberries from hedgerows. Whereas mushrooms could also be bought in a shop, those tiny wild strawberries were only available directly from nature. I have seen them (much more recently) on sale in a market in Venice, but in the England of my childhood that would never have occurred.   

Most of the food I remember from early childhood was home cooked. There were a few store-bought items such as fish fingers, and soup would come in tins, but mostly I remember oven-cooked dishes prepared by my mother such as Cottage Pie (minced meat topped with mashed potato) or Lancashire Hotpot (a lamb-based dish topped with sliced potatoes). A meat stew was also one of her regular items, and something my brother and I would often receive when we visited her as adults too. Another quick meal when our arrival time could not be predicted with accuracy due to traffic conditions was salmon from a tin served with chips. Another thing that came in tins when I was little was mandarin orange segments—something of a luxury item for us. Home-prepared desserts were a prominent feature of my childhood, including bread and butter pudding, rice pudding and apple crumble, as well as tarts with various fillings such as gooseberry. Custard or sometimes cream would accompany these items. Clotted cream was a local delicacy. Items such as sirloin steak were never part of our diet due to being beyond our budget, and in that time and place even chicken was a relatively expensive item and thus not too regularly seen. Since moving to Hong Kong, I have been deeply exposed to the Cantonese love of seafood, but I don’t remember eating any prawns or crab meat when I was growing up. One could see local fishermen bringing crabs ashore, but these didn’t seem to be destined for consumption anywhere nearby. Right there in the harbour itself they would be loaded—still alive—into large containers for onward transportation. 

The most expensive meal of the week was the Sunday roast. Various meats featured but roast beef was the most common choice, served with roast potatoes and assorted vegetables, and usually Yorkshire Pudding too. Saturday morning was generally the occasion for the main shopping trip of the week—there were no food shops open on Sundays back then and on the weekdays my father would be at work so there would be no car available to transport the purchases home. There wouldn’t be time for my mother to cook us lunch after arriving home from this weekly trip, so we would often have something like newly purchased ham in freshly-baked bread rolls instead. As well as the regular weekly pattern of food there were seasonal specialties, such as “Pancake Day” (more formally Shrove Tuesday), and of course one might have a cake baked for one’s birthday as well as a chocolate Easter Egg at the appropriate time of year. At Christmas there would also be foods that we didn’t normally see at other times of year such as dates or a coconut. Walnuts and other nuts that needed the attention of a nutcracker also featured in that season, and a Christmas pudding was a more or less obligatory part of Christmas dining. 

Although some of the food items we consumed during my childhood undoubtedly came from far away (such as butter from New Zealand), there was almost no food that seemed to be from another culture. One of the tinned soups we ate was “Mulligatawny”, but I don’t remember knowing that it was originally a dish of Indian origin. We ate spaghetti (served with grated cheese and tomato sauce from a bottle), but neither it nor macaroni (the only other kind of pasta available to us) felt particularly Italian. Perhaps the absence of Italian influences on our home cooking is actually a little surprising since around the period of the Second World War my mother worked for a while in an Italian restaurant. This was in Porthcawl, on the South Wales coast, and the Fulgoni family who owned it were famous for their ice cream, which in those days would have been made in a traditional way. Our mother’s Welsh origins did lead to a slight diversity in our diet, however, in that she would make “Welsh cakes” for us, a kind of scone-like item containing dried fruit which was prepared on a griddle and dusted with caster sugar. 

Because money was pretty tight during much of my childhood, there was hardly any dining out. We couldn’t afford restaurant meals and even visits to a café were rather rare, usually only occurring when relatives visited on holiday (a not uncommon occurrence in the summer since we lived by the seaside). It was on one of those occasions that I was able to try 7 Up for the first time—and was somewhat disappointed to discover that it was basically just a sort of lemonade. Because the town was full of tourists in the summer, there were several ice cream parlours, including one run by an Italian family, Pelosi. The most expensive item on Pelosi’s ice cream menu was the “Knickerbocker Glory”, a sort of sundae served in a tall glass. Certainly we wouldn’t ever be able to taste that unless a relative flush with holiday spending money were to treat us to it. There was also a place in town referred to as a “Milk Bar”. I remember it as a place that served milk shakes, an exotic item which I did spend my pocket money on once when a Milk Marketing Board tent arrived in town. 

I presume the Milk Bar also had an expresso machine but it was only rather later as a teenager that I would sometimes meet up with friends on a Saturday morning in town, and go to a café for a coffee. That particular place served what I (and I believe they) referred to as “milky coffee” and “frothy coffee”, but which today would be understood as “latte” and “cappuccino” respectively. Although these drinks were prepared with an expresso machine, I don’t remember seeing anyone consuming an expresso as such till after I had left home. The one takeaway food item we did indulge in regularly as a family was that great British staple: fish and chips. With Saturdays being a break from the weekday routine due to our food shopping trip, and with Sunday morning requiring a big effort from our mother in preparing the regular roast dinner, we would often not have home-cooked food on Saturday evening. One of us would go down the hill to the nearby fish and chip shop to collect our dinner. 

While I was at primary school, I always came home for lunch (which we called “dinner”, our evening meal being referred to as “tea”). I suppose that was partly enabled by the fact of the school being close enough for me to walk home from but I’m sure it was also a parental preference. Although I did have “school dinners” for part of the time I was at secondary school, mostly I took in a packed lunch of sandwiches and snacks. Those of us eating such items needed to sit separately at a special table, and we were not always treated sympathetically by the school “dinner ladies” whose cooking we were perhaps seen as rejecting. Before her marriage, when she was still living in Wales, my mother had worked as a school cook, and that was where she had developed a lot of her cooking skills. In addition to school lunches, which needed to be paid for, there was in that era free milk provided during the mid-morning break time. Each pupil received a small bottle of milk, self-collected from one of the crates placed near a school entrance. That provision was ended in 1971 by Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary in the government of Edward Heath, earning her the playground taunt of “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher”.

My earliest memory concerning food at school was a discussion in the first class beyond that for infants, when I must have been about six years of age. The teacher asked us what our parents grew in their gardens. By the time it got to me most of the common answers had already been given so I decided to mention that my grandfather grew bananas. This earned me a telling off for lying, since—as I was told—bananas don’t grow in England, they are imported from hot countries. Being very young I was unable to explain to the teacher that I had not been untruthful. My grandfather worked as a gardener on the estate of a rich family and in the main heated greenhouse there was indeed a banana plant which I had seen on our visits to him. For the first three years of my life we had lived with my grandfather, so visiting him was quite a special event. I remember the storage shed in the big walled garden where the crop of apples from the orchard area were kept, and quite nearby was the plot where the rhubarb grew. On the opposite side of the garden from the greenhouse various berries were grown. My favourite amongst them (which I admit to stealing as a young child directly from the bush) were the loganberries. This is a fruit I don’t remember encountering fresh in adult life, although I have occasionally seen loganberry jam. 

Since that long-ago time my diet has altered immensely. The discovery of other food cultures was a major part of that transformation. An exposure to Indian cuisine, for instance, came partly from sharing a flat after graduation with a friend who had been born in Bombay, and of course travel also opened my horizons to a wide variety of food traditions. A massive exposure to the extraordinary richness of Chinese food culture came after my move to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s, which also enabled a much deeper engagement with other Asian food worlds such as those of Japan and Thailand. 

The kind of food I was fed as a child is rarely a part of my diet now. I don’t have an oven in my flat so even if I had the requisite culinary skills I couldn’t prepare many of the dishes my mother made, and I also follow a much more plant-centred diet than I grew up with. When I was back in England helping to look after my mother towards the end of her life, I remember having to explain to her what some of the ingredients I was using were, such as chickpeas. Occasionally I will buy microwave-ready meals at Marks & Spencer, and although these are likely to be based on Indian or Italian cuisine I have on occasion bought “British” dishes, such as a vegetarian equivalent of the Cottage Pie I enjoyed as a child. Once a week or so I might eat breakfast in a local café (cha chaan teng), and I suppose much of the food served there can also be seen as a translated variant of that which I consumed in childhood. “Western” food, but in a local Hong Kong style. 

Reaching back into the past in search of food memories is not an easy task. Even remembering the taste of something one consumed a few days ago is pretty much impossible. Indeed, memory in general is very fragmentary. All that we have is just a scattering of tiny islands in a vast and empty sea of nothingness. Neither the past nor the future exist in any real sense—there is only the present moment in all its fullness.   

Author’s note: This piece of writing began in February 2003, but was much revised and extended in 2022 and 2023 after it was rediscovered amongst old documents in a computer folder during a search for something else. A free-to-access online archive containing more than 42,000 of my photographs of Hong Kong taken between 1995 and 2020 can be found here. Photos of the ancestral hall of the Tang clan can be found in that archive by a search using the keyword “Tang Ancestral Hall (Ping Shan)”. Some images of a Poon Choi banquet at that same venue during the 2005 Lunar New Year can be found by using the keyword “Poon Choi”. On living in the present moment, see, for instance, James Donaldson’s The Oneness Book (2018, 33-6 and 106-7). Fiano Romano has apparently undergone extensive redevelopment since the time of my visit, and there is now a “Piazza Giuseppe De Santis” in the town, perhaps a renaming of the former “Piazza Del Commercio”—in which he lived—following his death in 1997. 

Guests watching a performance at a New Year’s Eve party in the Tang Ancestral Hall, Ping Shan, New Territories, Hong Kong, 31 December 1996.

How to cite: Clarke, David. “Food and Memory.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 21 May 2023, chajournal.blog/2023/05/21/food.

David Clarke is a writer and visual artist. He is Honorary Professor in the Department of Art History of the University of Hong Kong.  Much of his writing takes the form of academic books and articles, but his fictional writing was included in the anthology Fifty-Fifty: New Hong Kong Writing (ed. Xu Xi, Haven Books, 2008) and a poem was set to music in Hong Kong Odyssey, presented in the 2017 Hong Kong Arts Festival. A free-to-access website, Hong Kong in Transition, which features more than 40,000 of his photographs of Hong Kong taken between 1995 and 2020 is now available. [See all contributions by David Clarke.]

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