Saturday, 17 September 2011

Tales from Elsewhere - The Culinary Disappointments of Frank Ebden

Frank Ebden was an unusual man simply because he had led a quiet and unremarkable life.  He was too young to have participated fully in World War II, and had never actually left British shores, being based at a training camp in Aldershot for the last few months of the war. 

After receiving his demob papers he went on to earn his living as a civil servant.  He married happily some years later and had a daughter.  He would watch the local cricket when he could, and the national test matches on television when they were on at a reasonable hour.  He enjoyed his garden and went to church every Sunday, the walk to which, along with his daily collection of a newspaper, was his sole form of exercise.  He never had to worry about gaining weight, which he ascribed to his excellent Ebden genes.

Sadly these were the very same genes which eventually let him down – or gave him an easy exit, and he died in his sleep at 75, a little earlier than he would have liked.  At the do after his funeral, Frank Ebden’s relatives remembered him fondly as a kind and devoted husband and father.  His children had seen to it that there was a magnificent spread, of which he would have thoroughly approved – he had liked his food. 

The congratulatory comments led naturally to various relatives telling culinary anecdotes about Frank, and in the end it was his eldest brother Tom, aged 85 and very spry, his curiosity piqued, who suggested that it would be a nice way to remember Frank if they could settle down in a circle and tell stories about him so they could all smile together on what would otherwise be a sad day.

What emerged is that Frank Ebden had had a passionate attachment to food, which had been thwarted on a regular basis.  The memories were not collective; the individual anecdotes contributed by various relatives and friends were news to all but the storyteller, and gradually the other visitors fell quiet, entertained by this string of stories which revealed a person previously known for his quiet common sense, now plainly a man yearning for the far shores of culinary expertise – his own and everybody else’s.

The earliest story came from Tom himself, who remembered a luscious bowl of plums on the sideboard, and Frank asking his mother if they were red or yellow inside (he preferred the red ones).  “I don’t know” she replied, “your Dad bought them.  You can have one after lunch”.  But the little boy wasn’t waiting that long.  He thought he'd just take a teeny weeny bite out of one to see what colour it was.

When lunch had concluded the bowl was placed on the table and all gazed at it with consternation.  Every plum had a small bite taken out of it, through which the golden pulp could be seen. Frank was nowhere to be found, and the rest of the children had turned away from them in disgust.

Their cousin Sybil described two serious miscalculations made by Frank when he was about ten.  At tea-time one hot afternoon he sneaked in before tea had been put on the table by their mother and grabbed a scone.  In the dim, unlit dining-room he cut it open, spread it with butter and looked around for jam or his mother’s famous bramble jelly.  Seeing none he made for the cupboard where these items were kept, saw a likely pot with a spoon and hurriedly, lest he be discovered, applied the jelly liberally to his scone.  He stuffed it in his mouth and ran out into the garden.  Sybil saw him as he exited the back door clearly with something to hide, then saw the look of surprise cross his face, deepening to horror as he spat out the remains of the scone, which he had spread with a large quantity of savoury mint jelly.  The fact that he saw it coming out of his mouth a bilious green, which he had not known when it was on its way in, horrified him still further.

The second instance came about as a result of his inexplicable fondness for raw vegetables, and pumpkin in particular.  Wild horses could not have induced the others to eat pumpkin unless under duress, and even then only when cooked, but where food was concerned, Frank could be a law unto himself.  He once saw what he thought was a slab of pumpkin lying on the kitchen worktop, and it had been a long time since breakfast.  He couldn’t resist, and as nobody was around picked it up and took as large a bite as he dared out of it. 

However, it wasn’t pumpkin, nor any other vegetable nor anything else edible – it was a piece of orange coloured Sunlight soap which had been left to dry after his mother had finished scrubbing some clothes.  Sybil reported that he frothed at the mouth for quite a while, having worsened the situation by drinking water instead of rinsing his mouth out with it.  One can’t help but question the judgment of a lad of ten who could not tell the difference, but at that stage he had not yet been bought his first pair of glasses.

He managed to stay out of harm’s way for a while, and in any case, when the war came along there was little choice of anything, and no opportunities to indulge.  Eddie, an old army buddy who had travelled a long way to come to the funeral, took up the story and told the now attentive audience that when Frank found himself in the army at Aldershot, his thoughts revolved around girls and food, and how to place himself in the position to come across both as often as possible. 

Activity for the former was confined to weekends, but for the latter the possibilities presented themselves several times a day.  He was usually first in the queue for lunch to see what cookie, a man in his sixties, had been preparing that morning, smacking his lips in anticipation.  He was finding  to his surprise that he was eating better than he had for years. 

He particularly loved the apple pie they got once a week, and when making chatty conversation with him on one occasion (you can never be too friendly to the person who feeds you) Frank asked him how he achieved the crimped design round the edges.  He was puzzled when cookie was evasive, and muttered something about not having time to stand around talking to the likes of him.  At first Frank was slightly offended because he thought it was a bit of a brush off, but as time went by he noticed that cookie was otherwise a very friendly man – it was just that he wasn’t forthcoming on the matter of the apple pie. 

His curiosity aroused, Frank determined to try and watch him make the famous pies.  He had noticed that there was a window  through which he would be able to watch proceedings if he was careful climbing the wall outside and kept out of the way of the brambles, and after a few false tries – cookie was either washing utensils or chopping kidneys for the steak and kidney pie – he finally struck lucky and saw him rolling out the pastry for the apple pies.  When the moment came to roll the pastry on the pie dish over the luscious fruit and brown sugar (a secret ingredient Frank hadn’t known about – he wondered where he had managed to obtain it in wartime), he finally got his answer.

With a deft movement, Cookie removed his false teeth and proceeded to use them to crimp all the pies before him, working quickly and with obvious experience, then popped them back in and moved them around to swallow the traces of raw pastry in this mouth.

Eddie said Bob lost interest in the apple pie after that.

When the ripple of laughter had died down, Frank’s widow clearly felt a little better.  Her eyes very bright, she explained that shortly after they had returned from their honeymoon he made it known that he was keen to help with the cooking.  One day she was away for the day and he had promised a surprise dinner which he would cook himself.  She was a bit doubtful because he had never tackled anything more ambitious than toast, but didn’t like to say anything.

When she returned that evening she smelled chicken cooking as soon as she walked through the door.  Frank emerged from the kitchen with a furrowed brow, an apron round his middle and a tea towel over his shoulder. 

“I’m a bit worried” he said “I’m not sure it’s looking the way it should.  I think the surprise element is going to have to be shelved because I may need your advice…” 

She followed him into the kitchen and became instantly aware of two unusual things – the room was steamed up, and on the gas stove was her largest stockpot – so big that it nearly took up two rings - with steam pouring out of it in copious quantities.  The contents were unrecognisable and remarkably similar to viewing the window of a washing machine in progress, as they were on a rolling boil.  She asked tentatively -

“Is that chicken in there?”

“The whole dinner actually.  I remembered my mother boiling most things so I put the chicken in and all the vegetables so that it would all be ready at the same time.  You said last week that when you cook a chicken it takes two hours, so in half an hour it should be done.  What I don’t understand is why it doesn’t look like a chicken any more.  I suppose it’ll taste alright…”

“Of course dear” she said soothingly, turning down the gas and opening a window. 

She was uncritical at this early stage of their marriage, and never remarked that their plates looked like bombsites even before they started eating.  They dined for days on the resultant soup.

“I wasn’t too keen on his improvisations after that”, she admitted, “particularly when it came to marmalade…”.

Eddie chipped in “Well that would explain why he delayed attemptin’ to make toffee caramel till he came to stay with me for a few days some years ago.  I live on my own and he was good company.  He had tasted banoffee pie at a restaurant and was so taken with the caramel filling that he was determined to try and make it himself.  The waiter at the restaurant had given him a quick easy recipe, but I don’t know, it had been a while, and I think he must forgotten part of the instructions.”

“And then there was a Test Match on the box and he certainly wasn’t going to miss that.  Anyhow, he puts my only decent saucepan on to boil with plenty of water in it, and then he drops a tin of condensed milk in it – unopened.  I asked him if he was sure he knew what he was doing and he assured me that that’s exactly what the waiter at the restaurant had told him to do.  ‘That’s it’ says Frank ‘you leave it for a couple of hours just like that.’  And off he goes to watch the cricket.”
How it should have looked...
He continued – “some time later I’m in the shed potterin’ and I hear this God-awful bang.  I go running into the kitchen, and you’ve never seen such a mess.  There’s condensed milk as far as the eye can see, a sticky, dripping cream-coloured goo in every nook and cranny of the kitchen.  Frank was dead worried I’d be cross ‘cos he had been so busy watching the cricket that he’d forgotten to keep adding water to the pan, so it exploded.  But me I laughed
till I cried – and anyway he had to clear up the mess himself.  Took him most of the day.  Mind you I didn’t laugh at the state of my favourite saucepan.  It had turned oval, the paper from the label on the tin had stuck fast to it, and I had to chuck it.”

Frank’s widow wiped her eyes and added “it was something like that with the marmalade he insisted on making a couple of times.  He said it was his mother’s recipe but it looked very complicated to me and the results looked more like a dipping sauce.  I tried to tell him that shop-bought marmalade was just as good but he wasn’t having any.  I couldn’t bear to be anywhere near the kitchen when it was on the final boil, because very hot sticky jam would spill on the cooker (and turn black), the floor, his clothes, and the carpet because his shoes were full of it too.  A nightmare.”

Some of his friends had tried to introduce him to Indian cuisine, but he became disenchanted after ordering Bombay Duck and finding it was fish, then being recommended a curry not realising it was in jest and as a total novice discovering how it felt when he put a forkful of Fal in his mouth, the hottest curry the restaurant could provide.  As perspiration and mucus poured out of him and he gasped like a fish, everybody laughed except Frank.

His daughter and grandson provided the last story.  She and her husband had him to stay for a week while her mother visited some old school friends in Scotland.  He seemed to enjoy the change from the cosy but rather monotonous existence he led in the little backwater where they lived.  They had a smart house in town, and he enjoyed going for walks and seeing people and shops. 

His daughter was a good cook too, and he thought she could rustle up something out of nothing.  She would tell him what it was and add an expression to give it her own little twist, which amused him.  Her “Chickending” with rice was delicious, and sometimes they had “Lambding” – but she would never tell him what the specific ingredients were.  His wife was a superb cook, and he was proud that his daughter obviously took after her.

Recently, a month before he died,  Frank and his wife were visited by their grandson, who was just back from university for the summer, and as they prepared to tuck into cheese on toast, he told them how he admired the boy’s mother’s cooking and her “Ding” recipes. 

The lad’s fork stopped half way to his mouth –

“Grandad, what are you on about?  That chicken of Mum’s is one of those ready made meals from the supermarket.”

“So what’s the ‘ding’ in the name then?”

“The sound the microwave makes when it’s cooked…”

This time it was Frank’s fork which stopped half way to his mouth.  “Aaah” he said thoughtfully.

The gentle laughter died down and in the ensuing brief silence the assembled funeral guests smiled fondly at the picture the stories had created.  Slowly and reluctantly they got to their feet and prepared to depart.  For a short while they had been united in the warm bath of remembrance of a person who had been unremarkable yet unique.


Photo Finish
from Lonicera's non-digital archive




St Ives

Artists' ateliers, Bath



OneStonedCrow said...

Hehe ... it seems that Frank's secret appetite got him into a fair bit of trouble ...

... the scone and mint jelly story reminded me of a time in my childhood when we visited our cousins who were a bunch of terrors ...

... at lunch, us kids were seated at a table in a room apart from the adults - we closed our eyes to say grace and when we opened them the meat had disappeared from our plates ... :)

Lonicera said...

!!!!!!! That made me laugh out loud, as they say. How on earth could they have carried it off without your being aware of it? I can imagine the look of fury and disappointment on your faces when you realised you'd been had.... Lovely.

Joyful said...

What a cute and funny story. Seems that Frank was very fascinated by food. I've gotta hand it to him for trying to cook, lol.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Penny! So glad you enjoyed it.

Coral Wild said...

What a lovely story Caroline.
It has just brightened up my day.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Coral! So do your lovely pictures of Kruger...

Vagabonde said...

Am back from Ohio and behind in reading blogs as I usually am when I go on a trip. I liked the story of “helpless” Arabella – that woman is made of steel. I liked all the stories – you are a born story teller. I also would like to have my blog on the whole page but am afraid to do anything to it. Actually I would not know what to do. My daughter in California got it together for me and I would be afraid to do something wrong and make it disappear, but having it larger would be nice. Yours looks good already.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Vagabonde - it's lovely to get feedback. The person who's doing my blog saved it first before choosing a wide format, just in case. I don't understand much on that side of it, but there are loads of people around who do. Worth asking around where you live. It'll probably be a spotty teenager who's a real tecchie!

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