Things that make me think of people: ham hocks
My mum always made minestrone soup. I didn’t like it, because it has vegetables in it and I liked to survive mostly on croutons and sulking, but I remember that as soon as she caught a whiff of winter, the pot went on. She had been using the same pot since before I was born, and I can’t remember what colour it was exactly, but it seemed enormous and I knew that if I dropped it on my foot, I would die. It wasn’t an elegant, Le Creuset iron, but a jailhouse, small order cook thing, cast from scrap from the gallows.
We would stop in at the butcher on our way home from school, and she would say, Have you got any ham hocks? and that was how we knew there would be minestrone tomorrow. The butcher was a man called David, and my uncle Ted worked in his shop as well. It was a brown shop at the end of a strip, and you could see the carcasses from the street, and when you pushed the door open a shrill bell announced you. Mum would wait for uncle Ted to cut her ham hocks, and David would slip us all a piece of fritz, and we’d peel the skin off in one go and then eat it. The skin, I mean. It was horrible when it was still attached to the fritz, but there was something magical about it if you peeled it off, like offal bubblegum. Mum would take her ham hocks in a plastic bag and we would sit in the back and chew on our fritz skin for ages. We saved the fritz itself, because it was so much better fried. Pop it in the pan, watch the edges curl over. Sometimes my brother and I would get a whole roll of fritz and fry it up for afternoon tea, with sauce.
I remember mum’s minestrone soup because it smelled like parsnip. I didn’t know it was parsnip, because as I said, not big into vegetables at the time, but as an adult I made my own soup and realised that the smell — the bitter, heavy, stock smell — was parsnip. And that parsnip doesn’t actually taste any better now than it did then, and that I had made the right decision in not eating it.
Mum cooked her soup all day. The pot clanged onto the stove in the a.m., after the cleaning was done, and it bubbled away until dinner. The lid clattered and rocked and the parsnip smell permeated everything, even if you fried fritz right next to it. Dad was always so pleased to be getting minestrone. He would go in every couple of hours and lift the lid and say, Smells good! because he’s weird that way, he’s always liked root vegetables, and brussels sprouts, and not just in the pretend way that adults do (I like brussels sprouts sauteed in butter, with bacon and almonds) but genuinely, and would eat them boiled in sock water without sauce.
If we were having minestrone, no one would cook anything else. I was the only one in my family who didn’t like it, so we’d sit at the kitchen table and the big pot would go down in the middle and dad would say Smells good! and everyone would eat their ham hock/parsnip slop and I would sit at the end by the window and look as sour as I could muster. We had a silver ladle with a wooden handle that had mostly cracked away, with little screws in it, and it would dip in and out of the enormous pot until everyone was full. Then mum would peer in and the pot would still be half-filled, and she’d pretend she might freeze it for later. But she never did, because where was the magic in it, if we hadn’t been to the butcher first?