Oh goody, Mummy – It’s Soup Again!

My Mother was fond of medicines. There wasn’t a lot of food to go round in our modest Norfolk home, but we had good basic fare, even if the cooking was a little prolonged. Most things were over-cooked for fear of ‘nasty germs’, which seemed to lurk in everything, especially things that I had just licked or forced my small brother to eat. Various vitamins and medicines reported to be good for children were provided and we both liked the chewy Vitamin C tablets and we could easily have eaten the whole bottle if I could have reached the top shelf or had found a chair to stand on. Inexplicably I enjoyed the caster oil. This was produced once a week or so and if we seemed to require an extra dose, we got two spoonfuls. Stunned visitors would ask to see the famous girl, who liked caster oil and I got a lot of extra spoonfuls by giving this performance.

My Father worked for the Campbell’s Soup Company and as a top up to some pretty mean wages, the workers could buy the dented cans and unused produce that had reached its death date. I loved the perfectly shaped, slightly sweaty button mushrooms that were fried up for Sunday breakfast. My Mother failed hopelessly at anything other than boiling or frying. Roast beef was just possible, but sad sunken Yorkshire puddings always appeared hidden under the Brussels sprouts and there were lots of those. Anything more complicated had something to do with Grandma or came from the shop. Spaghetti came in tins and was hooped-shaped. It was an awful diet, supplemented by gallons of free milk from an Aunt’s dairy.

One Christmas, Campbell’s presented their workers with a Campbell’s Cookery Book, in which tins of soup where presented as a desirable ingredient for all meals. Big colour photographs displayed on every page made up for the sad lack of recipes, as there was very little you could make with a can of soup, except something soupy. Soups were shown in beautiful bowls garnished with exotic things like ‘croutons’ or chopped chives. My mother pounced on this book like it was an answer to her prayers. She was getting tired of her limited skills, especially when just around the corner were Aunts who could produce fairy cakes in many colours. She studied the photos and then produced a packet of croutons from the supermarket. These were now added to every bowl of soup and tasted like soggy cardboard. She added soup to gravy, to stock, to sauces and if it could have been added to cakes, it would have been. The trouble with tinned soup is that it all tastes the same, a sort of flavoured liquid with salt, which often has things floating in it. She served impressive soup courses garnished with huge quantities of green leaves. To this day I cannot eat soup, but we survived and somehow grew to adults with a suspicion of anything in a tin.

Childhood illnesses called for some very special treats. In our small rural town, it was common for children to die of diseases like diphtheria, and immunisation, although available, was basic. In most cases we were just sick from the cold, the damp, unheated houses and the outside toilets. Colds were treated with the most delicious hot milky drinks, wonderful cough mixture, and lots of soft-boiled eggs and toasted fingers of bread. Lunch would be soup and dinner would be fried chicken, and sometimes chips and peas.

Best of all was the Lucozade. Now reinvented as sport’s drink, this delicious fizzy stuff came in a big glass bottle with lovely orange cellophane paper around it, which you got to keep and stick to the windows. In a childhood with not so much as a taste of Coke and Pepsi, true heaven was a glass of Lucozade, that was so expensive for a poor family that it became a magic potion that made a sick child well.