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July 12 2011

Cornish cafe sells celebrities' leftovers

Uneaten morsels left by Prince Charles, David Bailey and Michael Winner at a cafe in Kingsand are to be sold for charity

Celebrity memorabilia is huge business in the auction rooms of London, New York and Los Angeles. But a Cornish cafe is getting in on the act by selling off leftovers that remained on the plates of famous visitors.

Among the goodies being sold by the Old Boatstore in Kingsand are:

• A small lump of bread pudding left over by Prince Charles, valued at £300.

• A crust from a cheese and tomato sandwich left by photographer David Bailey, for £100.

• A shell fragment from egg in a sandwich eaten by comedian Hugh Dennis, for £100.

• A small uneaten piece of lemon drizzle cake left by film director and restaurant critic Michael Winner, for £100.

• A single blackcurrant from a bowl of ice cream left by swimmer Sharron Davies, for £100.

The so-called Museum of Celebrity Leftovers was created by Michael and Francesca Bennett, who say the collection began in 2004 when David Bailey dropped in and left a crust.

They now have more than 20 exhibits stored in airtight jars and want whoever buys the cafe to take them on, too. The money made from selling off the leftovers is to go to charity.

Francesca Bennett said: "We were so chuffed that David Bailey came in we kept part of his sandwich as a joke. It just grew from that.

"It's so quiet here, it's really surprising that so many famous people should turn up in such a small village."

The exhibits are not preserved but are not showing signs of going mouldy, she said. "They just seem to be drying out, really."


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July 08 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Great Uncle Willie, abroad for ever

We found the grave just after 11am. It was easy enough. Ian looked up the register, held in a steel compartment recessed into the cemetery wall, and it directed us to his great uncle Willie. Among the perfect rows of identical white headstones disappearing into the mist on that cold October morning was the one erected to Lance Corporal W Johnston of the Highland Light Infantry, died 1 November 1916. Age 21.

I knew Willie only from an old photograph that Ian had shown us – an Edwardian family group Willie aged about eight with his parents and younger siblings, including Ian's grandmother. He died nearly four decades before any of us were born. Before volunteering, he had never travelled more than a handful of miles beyond the Glasgow boundary. I thought of my own children at home, still kids to me but as old as many of those lying in this or one of the hundreds of war cemeteries around the Somme battlefield.

Ian, a history enthusiast, had long wanted to tour the first world war sites in this area and in particular to visit Great Uncle Willie's grave. No one from his family had yet done so. His masterstroke was to persuade his drinking pals, including myself, that the Somme would be a suitable destination for our annual overseas trip. Somewhat surprisingly, most were up for it.

Ian booked a hotel for the eight of us in Amiens and rented a minibus for the weekend. The plan was to do the historic touring stuff in the mornings, then after parking the minibus at the hotel, tour the bars and restaurants in the town. But that morning, in the Guards' cemetery at Lesboeufs, none of us were talking about food or drink or fun. No one spoke at all. Each thinking their own thoughts, we wandered around individually, pausing here and there to read the inscriptions on the stones. The mist began to recede as the watery sunlight struggled through, revealing the gently rolling farmland stretching to the horizon, utterly silent as though still embarrassed by the outrages perpetrated there all those years ago.

There were 3,000 dead in that cemetery. We were eight tourists on a leisure break, alive in the present. To us, going abroad meant a holiday, enjoyment, a chance to explore, to learn. It was something we did because we wanted to and because we could.

I thought about Willie Johnston and his one and only experience of "abroad". He presumably valued his life as much as I value mine but voluntarily put it at risk in a war that was not of his making, the causes of which must have seemed incomprehensible. I wondered if I would have done the same but soon realised the futility of such thought. A different time, different mindset, different world view. A different world.

After a while, we gathered at the gate, wrote something brief in the visitors' book and drove back to Amiens for some lunch. John Davidson

Playlist: Striking a chord is as easy as ABC

Lord of the Dance by the Dubliners

"Dance, then, wherever you may be / I am the Lord of the Dance, said he"

My dad is a genuine, as well as a self-confessed, guitar hero. Self-taught, he plays "everything in C" with surprising panache. One day, long ago, Dad was warming up his C-chord while my brother and I were in the dining room of our first family home. It was a grand room back then; kept strictly for "best" with Waterford crystal port and sherry decanters that tinkled when you walked past. It was my favourite room as it took on a slightly Vegas feel for the occasions my parents held dinner parties; a time when perfumes, smokiness and laughter would swirl out from behind the frosted glass door.

Ushered to bed early, we would listen to the sound of adult voices playing Trivial Pursuit downstairs and giggle about Dad convincing everyone he was right, even – or especially – when he was wrong. On one such evening, while Mum prepared the feast and before our baths, Dad started playing Lord of the Dance by the Dubliners. An Irishman and born showman, his enthusiastic strumming and Gaelic lilt soon drew my brother and me to him, and we spontaneously began to gallop like horses around the heavy mahogany dining table.

Filled with lightness and joy, jostling with my little brother and hearing the deliciously nerve-racking sounds of the Waterford leaping up and down to the rhythm of our hooves, I felt truly happy. My wonderful family.

Twenty years later, we don't gallop quite so much, but still gather around my precious father whenever he starts strumming that familiar C – "And I lead you all wherever you may be / And I lead you all in the dance said he." Stephanie Thompson

We love to eat: Dad's meat pie with gravy

Ingredients

1 meat pie per person

1 Oxo cube

Boiling water

When I was growing up in the 50s and early 60s, my family had very little money. There was even less when my mother (unusually for that time, the main breadwinner) was killed in a road accident when I was 13.

Around this time, my dad began to show the first symptoms of the cruel disease that forced him to give up his factory job, and would kill him only four years after my mum died. Despite these hardships, he usually managed to have some sort of hot meal for my two brothers and me when we came home from school.

Dad's repertoire was limited – I can remember mince and chips, beef stew (which my brothers called "Dad's gruel") enlivened with a packet of pot herbs from the greengrocer's, but best of all was hot meat pie with gravy.

Dad never mastered the art of thick gravy, it was just an Oxo cube dissolved in boiling water. The meat pie was a from the chip shop or grocer.

A pie on the plate in front of you, fork at the ready, you made a hole in the top crust of the pie. The gravy was poured in and left for a short while until it seeped out on to the plate, then you tasted the lovely, hot, salty savouriness of it. Best of meals on a bitter winter's day.

It's nearly 50 years since I last ate this, but just thinking about it brings back memories of my lovely dad who always tried his best for us. I miss him so much. Sheila Lovelady

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July 01 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Fun on the sandhills at Ainsdale

Almost every summer during the 1950s my parents would take myself, my brother and sister on regular day trips to Ainsdale beach in Lancashire. My father would drive the family there in his car, an old Railton, which frequently broke down but was very roomy inside. Before the journey, he would insert a bench in the ample space between the front and back seats, and our young friends were invited to join us.

We all lived in Douglas Grove, a small terraced street in one of the poorer areas of Manchester. Very few families had cars, and there was little money for holidays. Parents were simply happy to see their children have an enjoyable day at the seaside, and did not overly worry about risks. So our friends Christopher, Ann, Christine, Michael, Jacky and Peter were happy, frequent participants on our excursions. On weekends when the weather was good, we would assemble early in the morning, climb into the Railton and with a great cheer begin our journey. We would sing songs, tell jokes and play games such as I Spy. Time passed very quickly.

As an extra treat, we would make a half-way stop at Carmel cafe on the East Lancs Road. Here my parents would buy lemonade and crisps for all the children.

There was always a growing sense of excitement when we reached the level crossing at Ainsdale, for then we knew we were only minutes away from the beach. On arrival, my father would drive along the shore and park in a quiet spot while we decanted to the sandhills. We would remove our shoes and socks to savour the warm sand beneath our feet and chase up the sandhills to much laughter. Our spirits would be soaring.

My parents insisted on one or two basic rules, but we were given a lot of freedom. The day was spent climbing sandhills, playing hide and seek, rounders and other games and, of course, paddling in the sea. As the day drew to a close, we would reluctantly prepare for home, tired but happy.

Today, I think of the generous spirit shown by my parents in giving the children of Douglas Grove those wonderful times at the beach. Jean Hill

Playlist: A sadly prescient track

I Don't Want to Lose You Yet by Steve Earle

"Baby throw your arms around my neck / Lay your pretty head against my chest"

Steve Earle's music has featured in our lives since the late 80s. My late wife, Mary, always loved this track and it was to become sadly prescient. This song (from 2000) was her favourite Steve Earle track and we saw him in concert in Birmingham and Cambridge. Mary wasn't a huge music fan, but Steve Earle's music and songwriting seemed to strike a particular chord with her.

Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer in the autumn of 2002 and bore her illness with a stoicism that was typical of her. In January 2009, the cancer returned with a vengeance and Mary died in June of that year. She spent the last three weeks of her life in our local hospice, and in that time we had the opportunity (along with our two daughters) to discuss her final wishes. As you can imagine, some of these conversations were heartbreaking, but somehow we managed. Mary had decided that the music she wanted was Janis Ian, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and, of course, Steve Earle. It seemed apposite that the funeral directors had decided to print the lyrics (with no influence from us whatsoever) of I Don't Want to Lose You Yet in full on the funeral-service booklet. Ian Jesson

We love to eat: Mum's green fig preserve

Ingredients

1kg green unripe figs

1kg white sugar

Two or three pieces of freshly peeled ginger root

I grew up in the 50s in a mining community outside Heidelberg, in the former Transvaal. It's a dire town on the Reef, from which South Africa's gold is extracted. More felicitously, its fruit is splendid. My mother bottled, jammed and dried a great variety, and to that sweet store, my dad added comb honey extracted from the hives lodged under the stand of blue-gum (eucalyptus) trees. We were not well-off, but what an idyllic childhood my two sisters and I had (before the realities of others' lives dawned).

When we picked the figs, the sap, milky and astringent, stung our hands. The abrading surface of the grater, my dad warned, could hurt finger tips that slipped as they grasped the hard green fruits. The next job around the deal table was my sister's, to cut a cross on the underside of each fig.

The slaked lime in the vat was corrosive: another parental caveat. The chores in preparing the unpromising fruit were long and without reward, until the overnight soaking, repeated washing and long boiling in sugar syrup and ginger root were done.

When Mum sent each of the three of us to the pantry to fetch the sugar from a 25lb cloth bag, we'd look up at the rows of bottled fruit and jams. In each glass ball-jar – why so called, I don't know – were the closely packed figs in their sweet pine-green liquor, the massed jewels of an emerald mine.

The storage jars gleamed for six months from their high shelves, as the contents slowly matured, the exterior of each fruit crisping and the interior becoming mushy, divinely spreadable on toast. The Christmas cake, too, would receive a bounty of four finely chopped figs from the preserving jar.

Both my sisters – one 17 months older, the other younger by the same margin – still live in South Africa with their families. I left the apartheid-riven country in 1973 and live in England. Now, years later, I still find myself longing for this konfyt, the Afrikaans word for jam, or here, more accurately, conserve. But given admonitions about wise eating, and the health and safety constrictions on slaked lime, available – if at all – for £20 a kilo, I must either devise a new means of neutralising that astringent sap or be content to dwell on the memory of green fig conserve. Phil Hoby

We'd love to hear your stories

We will pay £25 for every Letter to, Playlist, Snapshot or We Love to Eat we publish. Write to Family Life, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email family@guardian.co.uk. Please include your address and phone number

Did you have a secret wedding?

Actors Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig married in secret last week. Did you marry in secret too? We'd like to hear from you if you've done the same. Tell us in 200 words why and how you did it. State clearly if you want to be anonymous or we will use your name.

Letters should reach us no later than Monday 18 July and be emailed to family@guardian.co.uk, marked Wedding in the subject field.

Entries must include your address and telephone number. If possible, please send a high-resolution photograph of your wedding, as a jpeg or pdf scan. We will pay £50 for each story printed.


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June 10 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My earliest memory, 1963

I will be 50 this August. I am one and a half years old in this picture, my chubby face framed by a fur-trimmed hood. Whenever I am asked what my earliest memory is, a scene I truly believe I can still remember – I say that this moment in the snow is it. We lived in a Wiltshire village on Salisbury Plain – Mum, Dad, my elder sister, Julie, me and our newborn baby brother, Robert, whose arrival only a year and 21 days after mine had been a very happy surprise.

Dad was the third of five children and a driver at the experimental airbase on nearby Boscombe Down. Mum was the elder daughter of a major in the Royal Engineers and a real beauty.

The picture was taken in January 1963 when our small village was typical of many places across the UK cut off by deep snowdrifts. The snow had started with blizzards at Christmas 1962 and lasted through to early March, when it finally started to thaw. With temperatures as low as -16C, it was the coldest it had been for 223 years.

We are standing at the top of our front path; Dad has cleared it of snow. To the right of my sister, who is clutching her doll, you can see beech saplings poking through the snow – these now form a well-trimmed, 8ft-tall hedge. Out of view, at the foot of the path, stands our three-bedroomed house, which had no central heating. Dad would light the open fire in the sitting room and there was a paraffin stove in the kitchen. I don't remember ever being cold in the house and in later years proudly called myself a latch-key kid, because by then Mum worked as a school secretary and had taught me how to lay and light the open fire when I got home from school and let myself in, using my own key.

Dad's job at the airbase included towing out and driving a snow plough to clear snow and ice from the surrounding area. He was a strong man and had lots of jet black hair, which was always handsomely slicked back with Brylcreem. He is wearing his black donkey jacket, which had a leather panel that stopped his shoulders getting wet as he worked. When I look at this picture, my memory is of his big hands, shielded from the bitter cold by brown leather gloves, wrapped around my tubby little waist, giving me a sure feeling of being safe and secure in the world. Somehow I understood that Dad was there to protect me.

Capturing half of our young family in the snow, this black and white moment in time seems a million miles away from a life-defining moment for Dad when, 13 years earlier, having fallen in love with my mother, he was called up to fight in the Korean war. It was often called the "forgotten war" because it was sandwiched between the second world war and Vietnam. President Kim Il Sung had risen to power in North Korea, amassed an army of 135,000 and by force attempted to reunify the north and south.

Although Dad has talked about his national service and always enjoys the reunions with his surviving mates, I can still only try to imagine how he must have felt; leaving behind his sweetheart and everyone else he loved; being so far away from them all for such an extended period of time and not knowing if he would make it back.

Dad faced even greater heartache when my beautiful, brave mother fought two types of cancer over a period of 14 years. Passing away at only 45 years old, she had had a brief, but very happy life with Dad and just enough time to raise their three children in the way she wanted to. I know that in the intervening years, having learned to live with the sadness, Dad feels he is a very lucky man to have found so much happiness with Mum's best friend in the world, Margaret.

Christopher Doris

Playlist: My DJ-kit birthday present

Heart of Glass by Blondie

"Once I had a love and it was a gas / Soon turned out, had a heart of glass"

Music refreshes parts of my childhood I'm sure I would have otherwise forgotten. I distinctly remember, a few days after I turned three, Brotherhood of Man singing in the Eurovision song contest, in a relative's house, while my mum was in the maternity hospital, having just given birth to my brother.

There were plenty of Dad's LPs around the house, and seeing album covers of the 70s was a window into another, very strange, world; discovering the cover and inlay of a 12in record is a wonder children of later generations have been deprived of.

By the end of the 70s, when I was about six, music had improved, and I still remember hearing Hit Me with your Rhythm Stick by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and Oliver's Army by Elvis Costello and the Attractions on the kitchen radio. I may not have understood what the songs were about then, but it is great music I own now, and still listen to.

Around the same time, I was given a little DJ kit as a birthday present: a child-sized turntable and headphones, with a couple of 45s to play. One single was by Darts, the other was Blondie's Heart of Glass. I played it to death then, and I still play it today when I do a bit of DJ-ing at events and in bars.

I suppose it was luck I was bought that record, when it could have been Showaddywaddy or Leo Sayer instead, both of whom were big at the time. When I play it now I may be thinking about fitting it in seamlessly with New Order, Hot Chip or La Roux, but it will always remind me of a family life enriched by music. Mel Gomes

We love to eat: Migsie's cheese muffins

Ingredients

Three quarters of a cup of milk

1 cup of grated cheddar cheese

1 cup of flour

1 huge dessertspoon of baking powder

These can be whipped up in minutes. Just mix together – milk last – to make a sticky mixture. Put into greased muffin tins, about a dessertspoon in each. Bake for 15 minutes at 200C/gas mark six. They are delicious when still warm and spread with butter.

When I was a student at the Johannesburg teachers training college, I shared a room with my good friend Migsie Relph. She gave me this recipe, which has now been a favourite with three generations of our family.

Fifty years ago the only snag to getting them speedily into the oven when an unexpected visitor arrived, was having to use an old-fashioned cheese grater. My children would help with the grating, warned beforehand not to grate their fingers. Eventually, they were able to make Migsie's muffins on their own, which they did when we moved to America and later the UK.

Thirty years after she gave me the recipe, I started making Migsie's muffins with my six grandchildren. They loved them warm, just out of the oven. Hopefully, my great-grandson will soon be able to help his mum make the muffins too – that's three generations now.

Migsie still lives in South Africa. I treasure her handwritten recipe in my torn and tattered college cookery book. Margaret Pleming

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June 03 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Greenwich Mum Time

It was only last year, following the sudden death of my mum (pictured right) that I saw this photograph for the first time. My brother, two sisters and I asked friends and family for memories of her and this was one of the many old pictures that materialised. The friend in question was not exactly sure when and where it was taken but thinks it was during the summer of 1973 – so my mum would have been 26 – in a small garden behind the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

What strikes me most about this picture is how young, beautiful and, as silly as it might sound, very much alive she looks. In the wake of her death it breaks and warms my heart simultaneously, and I have come to treasure it. In 2004, my mum was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which slowly robbed her of her capability to ride a bike (something she did religiously), ramble, hold her grandchild and speak clearly – things she loved dearly.

Watching someone you love decline like this is naturally very painful, but she continued to be her lovely, infuriating and eclectic self despite all she was going through.

My mum was a devoted mother, not only to the four of us, but also the scores of teenage friends who took refuge at our house over the years.

She was also loyal, kind, principled, determined, eccentric (she had a habit of wearing bits of clothing she found in hedgerows and on cliff walks), incredibly bright and knew pretty much everything about everything, from the works of Ovid and Shakespeare to the films of Aaron Sorkin and Mel Brooks.

She was a classics scholar, a fervent breastfeeder and an expert cat's cradler. She was unjudgmental, enjoyed the simple things in life and had a memory that was second to none. A devoted fan of Waitrose, TGI Friday's, Center Parcs and the South Hams, she was bossy and pig-headed and could talk the hind legs off a donkey, but she was simply wonderful. We all miss her dreadfully. Helen Pravda

Playlist: Aunt Betty's inappropriate gifts

Wild Life by Wings

I am writing this as I listen to an album 40 years after Aunt Betty gave it to me. I was only eight when she brought Wild Life for me and Beaucoups of Blues by Ringo Starr for my younger brother, when she came to visit – she lived abroad at the time. These were strange presents to give me and my brother, and our faces must have shown our disappointment that the pressies weren't sweets or toys that would have lasted 10 minutes before being eaten or discarded. I am sorry for that. I recently revisited my vinyl collection and that got me thinking about Betty and these inappropriate gifts.

She was my dad's sister but they never got on. This should have warmed me to Betty because, unfortunately, I have never got on with my dad either. But just as she had no idea what to buy for eight- and six-year-old boys back then, I had no idea what she was really like. I believe she was an alcoholic (as my dad is now) and suffered at the hands of an abusive husband (which my dad also was) back then. Luckily, she found an escape and her next husband was a kind and gentle type who could look after her.

I tried to connect with Betty when we, coincidentally, lived near each other for a few years but, again like my dad, she wasn't comfortable with family contact. I would imagine she didn't have any real friends either. The personality traits on that side of my family are strange to me, and I struggled with Betty's lack of interest in being in touch with my family at that time. Maybe if she was still alive she would be as sorry about that as I am for my ingratitude towards her gift in 1971.

Betty's later gifts to us were of money enclosed in greetings cards; perhaps she decided that was less likely to cause disappointment to ungrateful boys.

If I had been able to get to know her better, would it have helped me to better understand my dad? Probably not, but you never know. What would she have told me? Maybe only that time generally sorts things out, at least to some extent, that I would never be close to either her or him, but that ageing would calm everything down so that we could at least pass the time of day without an argument or worse.

Thanks for the record, Betty – it's still playing today, even though you are not. Roger

We love to eat: My mother's masala chai

Ingredients

Masala chai – readymade blend available from most Indian shops (quarter teaspoon per cup)

Or use whole ingredients – cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, black peppercorns and ginger powder

Black tea (loose or tea bags)

Sugar (optional)

Fresh ginger

Mint leaves (optional)

Milk

Place boiled water in saucepan, add chai masala and all optional ingredients. Bring to boil and add milk. Then add tea. One spoon/bag per person. Simmer for a few minutes. Strain and enjoy!

Ever since I remember, our day always started with the smell of masala chai wafting from the kitchen. My mother made it for my father, from when they were married in 1939, in Kampala, Uganda. Since moving to England in 1972, this tradition continues. My mother used to make her own mix of masala chai – cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, black peppercorns and ginger powder were all ground with a pestle and mortar before the arrival of the electric coffee grinder.  

Later, she started buying readymade masala and we have all followed suit. My father was an early riser and when he retired he was given lessons and performed his duty aptly. Now, every time I visit my mother in London, I usually make chai for her. Nowadays, she likes me to add fresh mint from the garden and fresh ginger for that extra zing.

My sister and brother-in-law also followed the habit. He makes chai for my sister and they always drink it in bed. This chai-in-bed ritual is one of the hallmarks of their 35-year marriage. I met my Dutch partner 10 years ago in Zimbabwe and we, too, have adopted this tradition in our relationship. Dolar Vasani

We'd love to hear your stories

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May 27 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: A flash of the old Nan

This is my nan, pictured on the facing page, on the beach at Hunstanton, Norfolk, sometime in the 1950s. I think she's in her late 30s. She's 94 now and still has those distinctive high cheekbones.I found the shot flicking through a photograph album on my last visit to see Nan. It stood out among all the pictures of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and one cherished great-great-grandchild. Christmas parties with paper hats, coach trips, birthdays, gardens, the tulip parade. – even one, bizarrely, of Auntie Betty's grave stone.

There's a similar shot of my sister and her daughter taken on the same beach, but almost 60 years later, and pictures of my own children riding ponies on the same stretch of sand.

"You see, I was slim once," says Nan, whose hearing aid whistles and whirrs as she chuckles at the injustice of growing old. I see a flash of the old Nan. The one who would put on her blue nylon house coat and heat the chip pan, a cigarette hanging precariously from her mouth, ash threatening to drop into the hot oil at any moment. Sausage, egg and chips for tea, followed by chocolate sponge pudding and pink custard.

I remember, when I was much younger, waiting for Nan to come into the living room for our lunch-time nap. She'd ease her way through the door with a shovel piled high with coal, trade-mark cigarette in the corner of her mouth, balancing the shovel carefully as she closed the door on the cold of the lino floor. She'd throw the coal on the fire and frown as pieces scattered and escaped into the hearth. Nan would sit heavily into the soft, wide chair and I would leap on to her knee. She'd wrap her right arm around me and throw the cigarette into the fire, swiftly with her left hand. I'd snuggle my head into her shoulder.

Today, Nan thrusts a five-pound note at each of the children as we part company. "Here's some pocket money. I've got more than I can spend. I wish I had this much money when mine were youngsters."

"Thanks, Nan!"

We leave, promising to write and come again in the holidays. I'm struck by guilt as I realise how these brief, inadequate visits pale into insignificance compared with our wonderful teas of chocolate pudding and pink custard 35 years ago. Sally Wheatman

Playlist: Tilting at Windmills

The Windmills of Your Mind by Noel Harrison

"Like a spiral in a circle / Like a wheel within a wheel"

Four years ago, in a desperate attempt to bring an increasingly technology-dependent family closer together, my parents started Saturday Cinema. Every Saturday, my parents, younger sister and I would settle down to a film and a box of chocolates. Sometimes it was a film we'd all seen before and enjoyed, sometimes a new one and sometimes a film one of us wanted the others to watch. But we were all required to sit down and give it a chance. We also started rating the films on a dodginess scale from one to 10, according to how cheesy they were.

Last December, I came home for Christmas from university so we revived Saturday Cinema – it was my mother's turn to choose. She picked The Thomas Crown Affair, which she had watched in her youth and remembered little of, other than the theme tune – The Windmills of Your Mind by Noel Harrison. We settled down together for the first time in months. We all enjoyed it, but for my sister and me, the main thing was that the theme song became lodged in our minds, as it had in my mother's.

We were hoping the annual rock'n'roll pantomime at our local theatre later that week would get it out of our heads – it was Sleeping Beauty. But guess which song made a major appearance ... Anna Box Power

We love to eat: Mum's bread dip

Ingredients

White bread

Leftover fried tomatoes

Oil or dripping

When we were children in the early 1970s, my sister and I were allowed to choose what we wanted for breakfast and my lovely Mum would make it for us before school. I don't know how she managed to find the time but, for me, every morning was an adventure in taste and texture that set the pattern for the rest of my life. I loved the combinations of sweet and salty; plain and spicy; creamy and crisp; and inevitably fried in some part.

My sister nearly always had something simple, but I went the whole hog and would have baked beans and bacon, fried bread with brown sauce, fried egg on toast, or dripping on toast, or even warmed-up chips from tea the night before if I was lucky. Needless to say, and probably rightly so, my sister thought I was spoilt and a little bit disgusting.

Despite her views of me as a brother, our favourite breakfast was bread dip, which used the oil and bits of tomato left in the pan from the previous night's tea of fried tomatoes on toast. Mum would add some extra oil or dripping and fry the tomato fragments on a low heat until they started to caramelise. Then she laid slices of white bread in the hot, orangey oil for a couple of minutes, cooking one side till it was slightly crisp. The bread underneath became soft as it warmed through and the surface absorbed the oily tomato essence. Flecks of tomato pulp bursting with sweet intense flavour stuck to the bread and we ate it sprinkled with salt. As Mum cooked more slices, they got darker and we sat there smacking greasy, salty lips with our tongues.

I've never lost the taste for this dish, though now I use olive oil and more tomato than just the leftovers Mum used to use. It has a bit of a Mediterranean feel to it now and I'd like to think it wouldn't look out of place in some tapas bar or on the table at a big Italian family meal. Despite my attempt to update bread dip for the 21st century, it still reminds me of Mum in her apron on damp weekday mornings before school, with Noel Edmonds playing in the background. It never made school easier, but what a way to start the day. Mike Pym

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May 13 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Dad's pink and blue greenhouse

Greenhouse was not quite the right word for the thing Dad built. It was a patchwork of corrugated plastic in rather hectic shades of blue and pink – discarded offcuts from a builders' yard. My mother, who had taken little interest in the project, was mortified by the colour scheme. She went round to the neighbours to apologise and made Dad promise to replace the panels with transparent plastic, which he did – 17 years later.

In the corner of the photograph (on the facing page) you can see his beloved grapevine. Hidden behind it, without fail, would be a dusty bottle of homemade wine, of indeterminate strength. Sometimes, when he was called in for tea, his progress down the garden path lacked definition.

In my teens, I used to escape to the greenhouse for a sneaky cigarette. Dad would frown disapprovingly but then find, to his great surprise, an unopened cigar among the seed packets. We would light up in quiet complicity.

When he retired, he put his old typewriter in there and took up writing, just for the pleasure of it. In the pots he planted the seeds of his imagination, sheets of paper rolled in elastic bands.

After I moved up north, my mother took to sitting in the greenhouse as well, reading papers and library books. Either she had finally forgiven him for the original blue and pink monstrosity, or she was keeping an eye on the bottle behind the vine. I went to stay with them in the spring of 1989, taking my toddler son with me. We all crowded into the greenhouse, popped a cork (which bounced safely off the corrugated plastic) and dined on fish fingers, eaten straight from the grill tray. It's my son's only recollection of his grandfather, who died that summer, aged 72.

I think this snapshot shows a man at ease with himself, enjoying the simple pleasures of life. That was my father, Kenneth Ellis. Kay Ellis

Playlist: When the sun always shines

Take on Me by A-ha

"Take on me / Take me on ..."

I'm an ex-farmer's wife, but not a farmer's ex-wife, and at the time this song was released in 1985 I lived on a farm in Kent. My second son had just been born, a bonny baby. The sun was shining through a long Indian summer, the fruit harvest was just about gathered in and I was back in the car, cruising through the lanes for the first time since the birth, windows down, when the first UK hit single by A-ha came on the radio, bringing a breath of fresh air.

There was Morten Harket, with his amazing vocal range, from rumbling masculine bass to soaring soprano, interspersed with 80s electro keyboard riffs. The music chimed with my rampant post-natal hormones and reminded me that my body was my own again after nine months of co-habiting with a foetus. Ah, what joy – every time I hear this song it takes me back to that fleeting moment of wind-in-my-hair freedom. Fiona Neame

We love to eat: Whiteley's Yorkshire parkin

Ingredients

54lb margarine

212lb golden syrup

35lb brown sugar

132lb fine oatmeal

95lb plain flour

2lb ground ginger

1lb salt

Those quantities need scaling down a bit for home use. I use, in the same order: 162g, 636g, 105g, 396g, 285g, 2tsp, 1tsp. Line a deepish tin of about 300 square centimetres. Tin size is important – the recipe doesn't work if the mixture is too shallow or too deep. In a large pan on a low heat, melt the margarine and then add the syrup. Remove from the heat and add the other ingredients one at a time, stirring well. Pour the mixture into the tin and cover it with greaseproof paper. Bake in a very low-temperature oven for three to four hours. I use a gas oven on the "S" (slow) setting.

Whiteley's baked theirs in the residual heat of the bread ovens after the bread had been removed. The parkin is best stored for a couple of weeks before eating, wrapped in paper. Don't use a tin or plastic.

Whiteley's were bakers in Huddersfield but they closed decades ago. My memories begin with their ginger buns because that was what Auntie Sis brought with her every Thursday when she came for the day. She had no children of her own, which is probably why she gave me a lot of attention – which, of course, I liked. She was not a real aunt, but the widow of my great uncle Charlie who died before I was born. Although a prosperous professional man, he died in debt and with no life insurance, leaving his relatives to supplement the meagre provision for widows made by the embryonic welfare state of the 1930s. When I was old enough to understand, it was made very clear to me that it was a husband's job to ensure that his widow would be provided for.

In the early days of the ginger-bun visits, it was war-time and I liked to examine the special torch auntie used in the black-out on her dark evening walk to the bus stop. It had been made by a clever teenage boy from a cough sweet tin.

Parkin, which was sold at the same shop as the buns, in Market Walk, became a favourite later. My father said it was so delicious that Whiteley's ought to promote it as a speciality, like Kendal Mint Cake or Grasmere Gingerbread. But they never did. Jim Haigh

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April 29 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Dad's sporting life

My father, Robert Henry Parker, was born in 1904, the sixth of 11 children. He was a slight, timid lad, with bigger older brothers. In those days, such families struggled and when his father died a few years later, it was even harder. Two of his older brothers must have decided that Bob needed toughening up because they put him into some local sports clubs.

First, they taught him to swim. He took to the water like the proverbial duck and became an excellent swimmer and diver. He won medals for picking up coins from the floor of the deep end, and others for various races.

Next, his brothers took him along to a boxing club, held at the rear of a pub. He soon learned the ropes and boxed as a featherweight. He took on 14 fights – with his brothers no doubt yelling from the floor – and won all except one, which was declared a draw. He had medals for these, too.

Later, he joined a football club. In this photograph, he is on the far left in the front row. His team won the cup in the 1925-26 season and as the captain he is holding the medals. On the extreme right, second row, is one of his brothers, who supported him. My father played for a number of years – until he met my mother.

Up to then, this good-looking, sporty young man had never had a girlfriend. He worked in a factory, was very shy, and sport did not hold the glamour it does today. One evening, his mate took him to the local hop on a blind date and he met Daisy. She loved to dance but, despite his active life, Bob seemed to have two left feet. Still, he fell for Daisy.

There was just one snag. Daisy, like most young women of her day, had no interest in sport and did not like him "wasting his time" away from her. They courted for three years and once the wedding date was set, Bob gave up all his sport. He must have missed it, but he consoled himself with indoor sports – cards, darts, billiards and, later, snooker.

They married at the village church in 1927. A honeymoon in Hastings was followed eventually by three daughters. War was declared in 1939. Bob was too old for the call-up, but he made munitions, joined the works fire brigade and grew vegetables and kept chickens to feed his family.

Two years after the end of the war, Daisy became pregnant with their last child. Bob had quietly hoped for a son. He had never lost his love of sport, and imagined showing a boy how to manoeuvre the ball into the net, taking him to matches and teaching him to swim – Daisy produced another girl. But with the advent of television, Bob was in his element. In retirement, he spent hours watching all the sports, even snooker, in black and white.

In 1972, he and Daisy went on a pensioners' holiday, where they met friends they hadn't seen since their schooldays. Daisy sat outside, reminiscing with the ladies, while Bob played snooker with his old mates. One afternoon, one of them came out to fetch Daisy, telling her Bob wasn't well. When she went inside, her husband was on the floor beside the snooker table. She bent down to him, but it was too late.

Bob had been cueing the ball when he died – and winning, too. Marion Aley-Parker

Playlist: My excellent American adventure

I Will Follow Him by Little Peggy March

I love him, I love him, I love him / And where he goes I'll follow, I'll follow, I'll follow

Dad worked for IBM and in 1963, when I was 12, he was posted to America for the best part of a year. He was based in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Mum, my brother Richard and I joined him from April to September.

He met us at New York after our five- day Atlantic voyage on the Queen Elizabeth, and we drove up the New York State Thruway – my first experience of a motorway. I Will Follow Him was in the charts, and whenever I hear the lines "There isn't an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep me away", I can see the wide open spaces of America rolling past the car window.

I grew to love my adopted country during our stay and remember not just where I was when I heard the news of John F Kennedy's death, in the November after we returned to the UK, but also that I felt distraught.

There was a happier aftermath to our American adventure. My sister Janet was born the following May, and basic maths revealed that the act had occurred after we had given up our house in Poughkeepsie and were living in a one-room chalet just before sailing home. Mum would be mortified to know that this is being revealed to Guardian readers; Dad would have loved it. Dave Atkinson

We love to eat: Dad's Bahrain beans

Ingredients

A tin of baked beans

A handful of raisins and sultanas

Curry powder

Milk

Empty one large tin of baked beans into a pot and heat gently. Add a large handful of raisins and sultanas. As the mixture begins to simmer, add curry powder and stir. Warm through and serve in a bowl with a glass of cold milk. Perfect on a cold day or after a late night!

Dad was the cook in our house. He could do straightforward things such as Scotch broth, sausages, mince and potatoes with carrots and onions, gigot chops and stews – with dumplings if my sister and I could persuade him. Once or twice a year, in late June we would have "Dad salad", made with tomatoes, carrots, boiled egg, syboes (spring onions) and lettuce, which we never saw for the rest of the year. He cut it all up into piles with a pair of scissors and you got a little pile of whatever you wanted and salad cream.

His speciality, though, was Bahrain beans. He had worked in the Gulf in the 1950s, and we like to think that this was a special recipe he had learned there. Simple, nutritious, tasty and a little bit exotic. James Pringle

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April 21 2011

Food for thought ... Why cuisine or couture can never equal great art

Clothes are to be worn and food is to be swallowed: they remain trapped in the physical world. True art, however, is of the mind

What is art, and what is not art? We all know the answer to that. Potentially, since Duchamp, anything goes as art. So perhaps that question has no meaning any more. A better question might be: what is interesting art? Or better still: what has the potential to be great art?

This last question is the one I choose to pose. It is prompted by the ongoing promotion of certain activities as serious cultural forms that might in the past have been treated with less reverence. Admittedly, this week's announcement of the top 50 restaurants in the world makes no explicit claim that chefs are great artists, but the seriousness with which these exercises take food means the line between culinary genius and genius full-stop seems thinner all the time. You could argue that a similar line has already been crossed by Alexander McQueen, the late British couturier whose designs are to be celebrated by an exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In some banal way, it's easy to say that food is art; that clothes are art. What's more interesting is to ask whether they can be serious art: can they move us; change the way we see the world; make us think about profound matters?

The idea that food is an art, that cooking can be high culture, is nothing new. It goes back at least to Brillat-Savarin, a French aesthete who philosophised the pleasures of cuisine in the early 19th century. In fact, French culture has seen food as artful for a long time, and since the French also invented modern art, perhaps the imagination that can cherish a well-cooked omelette is also the imagination that can value the ordinary world as a cultural artefact. On the other hand, Vincent van Gogh joked that the folk of Provence were stupefied by their endless bowls of bouillabaisse, conveying the point of view that food is nothing more than carnal. It cannot feed the mind. It can soothe, but it does not inspire.

The same goes for clothes. Can fashion make you think? It can definitely make you think about fashion. But McQueen took on dark themes, or so argues a passionate piece about his posthumous exhibition in the Telegraph. The designer was a brooding romantic who used fashion to express his anxieties and release his demons. If that is the case, can his clothes be considered profound? Do they really go deeper than the surface?

I like food and fashion, but I do not believe they ever come close to doing what great art does. Food is to be swallowed, clothes are to be worn. But although I think about art every day, how many great works of art have I touched? I have handled Leonardo da Vinci drawings, but the physical contact, though moving, was not the point.

Art is of the mind; it is ethereal. Everything it gives us it gives to our brains. Fashion and food fail to be serious art because they are trapped in the physical world. Compare a still-life painting of food – one of those rich, laden Dutch images of lobsters and lemons – with a real plate of food. The painting is very obviously not food – it does not give what food gives. But it does nourish something deeper instead. It reaches the parts of us that chefs and couturiers cannot reach.


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March 13 2011

Food tales of the Rich and Famous: Tea with Gilbert and George

A cuppa and a biscuit with art's enfants terribles

While describing the great changes in Spitalfields during the 40 years they've lived there, Gilbert and George recently noted that the Jewish off-licence became a Hindu music centre and the gents lavs an Indian restaurant. Of the latter, George notes: "They said 'It's eat in or takeaway.' I said 'It always was.'"

The first time I visited them – in the 80s, when empty fruit and veg boxes from the market still blew through the area – I was shown their barren, unused kitchen. It had an oven, but its sales tag was still attached. A noise from behind a cabinet caused Gilbert to wince – was it a mouse? – and I was steered from the room. Up in the attic, tea was served by a man in tight little shorts. He was their cleaner, named Staten, which I misheard as Satan. "Our only friend," explained George.

During another lengthy conversation about their modus operandi, they explained that by dining every single day at the very same place, the Market Cafe on Fournier Street, on a diet of stews and pies, they avoided cooking and shopping, which interfered with "feeling the world completely".

We went to their back yard and they prepared and served tea and appeared less austere and poker-faced. Not only were biscuits produced but Gilbert darted upstairs to return with a tape of a radio interview in which Brian Sewell railed against the style and form of sphincters in their pictures.

As it played, Gilbert, like a giggly schoolboy, hid behind his biscuit.


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March 12 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My father surveying the Niger

This is a photograph of my father, John Dunkley, surveying the Niger river in 1949 (he's the one holding the map). I found it in a faded blue cardboard album recording his flying career during the war, and afterwards with West African Airways Corporation. This picture was taken in Sokoto, north-west Nigeria. In the course of their work, routes were planned and planes were delivered – De Havilland Doves and Bristol Wayfarers.

My father joined the RAF at the age of 18, in 1941, and trained to fly in Terrell, Texas. The newly qualified pilots returned home and assembled at Lord's cricket ground, where my father joined 31 Squadron. During the war, he dropped supplies in Burma and released British and Dutch prisoners of war from the Japanese camps. Two quotes were found in his album. The Squadron Song: "Rotting in the jungle, on Ramree's marshy shores, with dysentery, malaria and bags of jungle sores," and on what was expected of the men: "The forecast is atrocious – in fact the outlook's grim. The CO says we have to fly, get up them stairs and have a try."

As my father was standing on the wing of a Dakota, supervising the refuelling, he received a telegram informing him of my birth.

In the 60s, he flew BOAC VC10s across the Atlantic. He returned home from America laden with stiffened nylon frilly petticoats, paper dolls and lollipops on strings, to the delight of my sister and myself. LPs of Rock Around the Clock, Mack the Knife, High Society and Come Fly with Me would envelope the house excitingly. My mother would make Shirley Temple cocktails from grenadine and lemonade, and bake blueberry pies and Betty Crocker white-frosted cakes.

From east Africa, he brought woven baskets of avocados and pineapples, back scratchers and wooden carvings. He proudly brought back a gold watch given to him by the Sheikh of Bahrain.

He had to retire at 50, due to a heart problem. Cruelly, he received another letter the same day – he had been accepted to fly Concorde.

His vision remained skywards, and at dawn he would point out Venus and at dusk, Jupiter. "There is Orion and the Corona Borealis," he would enthuse. "Can you see the belt?" We tried to share in his awe of the magnitude of space. His love of astronomy and his wish to share its wonder was channelled into preserving the Norman Lockyer observatory, near Sidmouth in Devon, and lecturing in the planetarium against a background of Holst's The Planet Suite. His love of flying was summed up at his funeral, in the Flyer's Prayer by Patrick J Phillips, read by my son:

"The hours logged, the status reached / The ratings will not matter / He'll ask me if I saw the rays / And how he made them scatter // How fast, how far, how much, how high? / He'll ask me not these things / But did I take the time to watch the moonbeams wash my wings? // So when these things are asked of me / And I can reach no higher / My prayer this day – His hand extends / To welcome home a Flyer."

His idea of uncharted territory skyward was for ever there. Jane Tipping

Playlist: Thank you for the music

Love Minus Zero/No Limit by Bob Dylan

"My love she speaks like silence / Without ideals or violence / She doesn't have to say she's faithful / Yet she's true, like ice, like fire."

I came out of an all-girls school and only had sisters. It was 1969, and I was 16. Boys were an alien species. I walked into the college common room and saw someone playing the guitar. Male – but I could only tell by his lower half because the face was covered by long, straight white-blond hair.

He was playing Love Minus Zero/No Limit by Bob Dylan, but I only found that out later, when I heard him play it many times again at the folk club we ran together. He was my first real male friend.

After college we lost touch and I married another amazing guitarist – someone I'd recommended we book for the folk club! He, too, played "My love she speaks like silence, without ideals or violence", sadly, I think, remembering a past love. We divorced after 13 years.

Then after another relationship (a country music fan – a bit of a musical hiatus for me) and 30 years since we had last seen each other, my college friend with the long blond hair and I made contact again. He still sings Love Minus Zero/No Limit, only now he has short hair and a range of guitars to choose from – and he's my beloved husband.

I really want to say thank you to these two exceptional guys for the music they've brought into my life. Jo Fallon

We love to eat: Our secret breakfasts

Ingredients

170g mushrooms, wiped and sliced

Butter

Four eggs

One packet of smoked salmon

Two muffins

One bottle of sparkling wine (optional)

Scramble the eggs, fry the mushrooms in butter, toast the muffins and serve with slices of smoked salmon.

With stressful full-time jobs, three school-age children and two dogs we didn't get much time to ourselves. So once in a while my husband and I would skip a day from work (usually a Friday, to relax at the end of a busy week) and after getting the kids off to school and walking the dogs we'd eat our special breakfast while reading the morning papers – in peace, phones switched off, no interruptions from small voices asking for more toast or quarrels over the last of the cereal.

If we could get someone to pick the kids up from school, we'd enjoy a glass or two of sparkling wine with our breakfast. And even better – take it all back to bed and enjoy the decadence. Total bliss.

My husband retires soon and hopefully we will spend many leisurely breakfasts together. If you're reading this husb – I can't wait. Anonymous


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January 06 2011

A Havana cigar for breakfast?

We asked everyone from John Humphrys to Tessa Jowell to Rafael Nadal what they have for breakfast

Helena Bonham Carter, actor

I have muesli – organic Alara, ordinary everyday mix. No sugar. I tend to have it with some yoghurt, Yeo Valley or Rachel's low-fat vanilla. And fresh orange juice, not squeezed – Tropicana. Sometimes I have a frozen banana. I take the skin off the night before and pop it in the freezer. Mmm. Banana ice-cream! On rare occasions, I might have scrambled eggs on toasted soda bread. I do my own breakfast.

Lord Richard Rogers, architect

Breakfast! I love it. It's great to come down to coffee from a really good espresso machine. And a pile of fruit – raspberries, strawberries, peaches, little Pakistani mangoes when they're in season – all cut up with Greek yoghurt. Sometimes I have toast with Marmite. I've been having that since schooldays. Ruthie [Rogers, his wife, the chef and co-founder of the River Café) and I try to have breakfast together, usually in dressing gowns. Often there are people in and out and we are on the hoof. When we are in Italy we have salted anchovies and bruschetta.

Tessa Jowell, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood; shadow minister for the Olympics

I'm pretty routine about breakfast. I get up at about 6.30 and have hot water to which I add fresh ginger and a slice of lemon – very good for the immune system. Then I go down to the gym. I usually eat at 7.45am. I have porridge – I'll ring the changes – maple syrup, nuts. I went off cappuccino, the soapy taste, but I'm on it again, although now I have more coffee, really strong, and less milk. And I love roibosch with a slice of lemon. I do like breakfast to be the meal of the day. There's no rush. These are private moments of complete pleasure. When I was a young woman I didn't eat breakfast. Now that's as unthinkable as not having a shower.

Rafael Nadal, tennis player

I have to have breakfast. No tea. No coffee. Hot chocolate. And Quelitas (traditional Majorcan crackers made of wheat flour, sunflower oil, yeast, olive oil and sea salt). I have them with Majorcan sheep's cheese, or sometimes marmalade, or with sobrasada (Majorcan pate made from pig meat and paprika). I have oranges and orange juice too. When travelling, I might have a croissant with Nutella, or cornflakes with chocolate. I like breakfast.

John Humphrys, presenter

I have two breakfasts if I'm doing the Today programme. When I get to the office at 4.15am, I have a large bowl of fruit, muesli and yoghurt, and a banana – on the assumption it might help my brain work more efficiently. No tea or coffee till after. I drink gallons of water instead. When I get home I have toast with Marmite or blackcurrant and apple jam made by a nice lady who comes when I do Mastermind. On ordinary days, I have fresh grapefruit, then toast and the papers with a pot of tea made with leaves. Not tea bags.

Marie Helvin, former model

In the summer, fruit; in winter, cheese on toast. I'm addicted to Leerdammer, a mild continental cheese, on rye. I think of eggs as an evening meal food. If I'm really going to town, I use my juicer. There's nothing better than starting the morning with carrot and ginger. I don't drink tea or coffee – I probably have one a year and it always sends me flying to the moon.

Sir Terence Conran, designer

I have a glass of juice. Orange. I'm glad to say proper stuff. And coffee, freshly ground, Gourmet Noir from the Algerian Coffee Store. I've been using it since the age of 20. With milk, warmed of course. Sixty years I've been pouring that into my bladder. And a cigar. A good Havana called Hoya de Monterrey. My wife complains at the smoking. I'm normally dressed at breakfast and we have it in the kitchen-dining room in London, or in our country house. When I'm driving long distances in France, I love having breakfast in lorry drivers' caffs – or crisp croissants in a good hotel.

Carlos Acosta, principal guest artist of the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden

I need carbohydrates, but they have to be digestible. You can't go to a ballet class with a full stomach. Breakfast has to be healthy too. I have coffee, Cuban of course, made by my fiancee, with sugar. I like sugar very much. I have sugar with coffee, not coffee with sugar. I try to have protein – eggs, or an omelette with brown wheat toast. You need this. I hammer my body every day. After ballet class, orange juice.


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November 20 2010

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: A bomb just missed my mother

Seventy-three years ago, my mother, Dorothy Arthur, was 15 in this snapshot in her garden in Duncan Road, Southsea. Just three years later, the second world war came to town. What happened on 14 November is told by her:

"On Thursday evening the air-raid warning went, and at about 10pm we could hear the familiar drone of a German plane overhead, circling round and round. I wanted to go to bed but my room was over the living room, and my mother insisted I stayed down until the all-clear. So I sat in the chair by the fire and dropped off. I woke to hear my mother scream "bombs". I thought she was panicking, and that it was the whine of an anti-aircraft shell. But my next thought came extremely fast: my goodness, she's right!

"The whining scream was coming nearer – very fast. I sprang out of the chair, but as I tried to cross the room there was a tremendous crash; the light went out and something thumped my back. I slipped backwards into a hole that had appeared in the floor. I heaved myself out of the hole and went into the passage at the foot of the stairs.

"My mother appeared; she had fetched a candle from the bedroom. She was shaking and screaming, so I put out my hand to stroke her forehead and reassure her. I saw blood streaming down her face and almost screamed myself – but suddenly realised the blood was coming from my hand. My mother noticed that our little dog, Bindy (pictured), was missing. She was a crossbred, silky black, and in the confusion had run off. Someone found her, and, like me, she was covered in plaster dust. She was very frightened and became unpredictable with strangers. As we couldn't go back to our house because the bomb hadn't exploded, the next day she had to be put down.

"Later, I discovered that the thump on my back when the bomb landed must have been a glancing blow from its fin, as there was a vertical tear down the back of the jacket I was wearing. I had slipped into the hole on top of the bomb. It couldn't have been any closer, or it would have killed me, even though it didn't explode. It was exceptionally lucky that – thanks to my mother – I hadn't gone to bed because the bomb had come through the bathroom ceiling and the partition wall between the bathroom and my bedroom, smashing the head of my bed and going through my pillow, before ending up beneath the living-room floor." Judy Cretney

Playlist: My macho music with a drumbeat

Teen Beat by Sandy Nelson

In September 1959 I was given a Dansette record player for my birthday. At 14 I was a real teenager and my two younger sisters looked on with envy.

The Dansette was the must-have gift for every teenager in the late 1950s, and vinyl 45rpm discs were being mass-produced to a clamouring teenage market. The tedious days of piling enormous 78s on to your parents' old radiogram were over. Teenagers could head to their own rooms and play their own choice of music without the tut-tutting of disgruntled parents.

I was into instrumental rock, the "macho" music of guitar and drums. Duane Eddy was my guitar hero and Sandy Nelson could hit a mean drum solo. With my birthday money and a well-paid paper round, I would be able to buy my own discs – and my first vinyl would have to be special. My sisters pleaded with me to buy the latest release by Elvis or Cliff but I resisted. No girlie lyrics for me.

Teen Beat by Sandy Nelson was simply a superb drum solo interspersed with guitar chords starting slowly and building, Bolero style, to a loud rock'n'roll climax. For me this was the music of teenage youth … loud, angry and out of control.

I would sit with my sisters and play it over and over again until the day dawned when we couldn't stand it and had to move on. However, I still loved Nelson's drum skills – as did his contemporaries. He featured on many pop hits of the era, including several with leather-clad rock rebel Gene Vincent.

Nelson is alive and well, courtesy of YouTube, and last night I downloaded Teen Beat and Let There Be Drums, his other major hit, just for old times sake.

However, the sting in my tale comes from my brother, who was born in 1960. On telling him I was submitting Teen Beat to the Guardian Playlist, he told me he still had the very scratched, original disc that I bought in 1959. That disc is older than my brother, and that's scary. John Bookless

We love to eat: Mum's banana sarnies

Ingredients

2 slices white bread

1 large ripe banana

2 tbsp light soft brown sugar

½ oz (15g) salted butter, softened

Butter the bread, leaving the crusts on. Slice the banana lengthways into six or seven syrupy ovals. Arrange them on one slice of bread in a single layer, then trickle the sugar into the interstices and top with the other slice. Press down gently, cut into four triangles, and serve to your impatient offspring.

Four o'clock on a grey winter afternoon, hours since lunch, hours more until Dad's Saturday pizza would be ready. Mum's answer was this rib-sticking wodge of a "snack", best eaten in front of a black-and-white film with the fire roaring. Our bread was always white then, and slathered in butter, but this sandwich was lifted to gastronomic heights by the lumpy, fudgy sugar that Mum kept in a jar for months until it resembled wet sand. If you were lucky, your sandwich hid clumps the size of shingle.

No worries then about carbs or eating between meals. Mum's banana sarnie was guilt-free, the sweetest, chewiest comfort food in the world. My own children refused to try it until they came in starving one day from a long, cold weekend walk. Soon they were murmuring with rapture just like we did when Mum produced her sarnies along with her catchphrase "This'll put you on until suppertime."

I don't even need to eat the real thing to taste it: damp processed bread with not a speck of fibre in sight, sticky bananas and that delectably past-its-best sugar, prised from the jar with a long-handled spoon. Andrew Mortlock

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November 13 2010

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot A life we never really knew

After my mother died recently at the age of 90, we had the terrible task of searching through her belongings. Hidden among the spare toilet rolls and boxes of soap we found many hints and indications of a life we had no knowledge of. Not just the exciting things such as the newspaper clippings of my father's return from India as a war hero, and of my great-great-uncle's VC from Rorke's Drift – it was the little things that were much more powerful.

Her father's mechanical engineering slide rule and a picture of him by huge old-fashioned electrical turbines. We knew he had been mixed race and we were proud of the fact, but here was the photographic evidence of his difference from other people around him in the early days of the 20th century.

We found her ration book, pictures of her wedding, a photograph of her trying on my father's army uniform in the back garden of our house and pretending to salute. Best of all, however, were the everyday pictures of her childhood, especially this one of her when she was almost three, playing in the sand at Rhyl, north Wales.

It is 1922 and she has a floppy ribbon in her hair and an expression of fierce concentration, so intent on the moment. The union flag flutters in the breeze beside her, resplendent and important in those postwar years. Is it the stars and stripes you can see in front of it? Further off, there is a woman in severe black. Is this my great-grandmother, still in mourning after the death of her only son in the trenches?

Strangely, I cannot link the quiet old lady we knew with this determined little girl, frozen in her own historical context.

I used the picture as a present for my daughter, who is expecting her first child – but both of us feel this is not the grandma we knew. This is an unknown child in a completely different setting to one we ever thought of her inhabiting. We somehow thought of her as always grown-up. I suppose no one can ever really know the whole of another human being – even your own mother. Tina Wakefield

Playlist Fade to black one last time

Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd

"There is no pain you are receding / A distant ship's smoke on the horizon / You are only coming through in waves / Your lips move / But I can't hear what you're saying … I have become comfortably numb"

The critics differ on whether this is a song about drugs, but there is no doubt you can read the lyrics that way if you choose. My brother certainly did. It was his favourite track, played time and time again as a young man and throughout his shortened life. The words speak to alienation and self-destruction, and the sweet embrace of narcotics, but the music – especially David Gilmour's unsurpassed guitar solo – offers something more elevated, more hopeful: redemption even. Yet the drugs win in the end.

We played Comfortably Numb at my brother's funeral. His widow to the fore, we played it all: every last bar, despite an attempt by the clock-watching priest at the crematorium to fade it out early. Angry words as the curtain closed. It was my brother's first and only victory over authority. Stephen Shaw

We love to eat Meatballs

Ingredients

500g lamb mince

1 finely chopped onion

1 clove of garlic

1 tsp each ground cumin, coriander and paprika

400g chopped tomatoes

300ml vegetable stock

Lemon zest

Fresh coriander

As a working mother of a two-year-old, I felt particularly smug that my son would scoff these down, no questions asked. Easy to make in bulk, they were great. Pride inevitably comes before a fall, especially when feeding small children, but I could never have anticipated how these meatballs would come to haunt me. In February 2006, my son was diagnosed with leukaemia. He was two and a quarter. I was six months pregnant with my second child, working four days a week. After a nightmare two weeks in hospital, we were home and subjected to an exhausting schedule of chemotherapy and blood tests.

Then there were the side effects of the treatment. In particular, the steroids that accompanied the chemotherapy made him constantly ravenous, and craving for food in a way that made my pregnant desire for goats cheese look silly. He would wake up hungry and eat until about 2.30pm when he would have a little break, and then start again around 4pm in the afternoon until bedtime. Kilos of Shreddies, cheddar cheese (extra mature), cherry tomatoes, cocktail sausages – and these meatballs. His first words in the morning would often be "I'm feeling like meatballs today", and he meant it. As cooking was practically one of the only things I could do for him in those first dreadful months of the disease, I cooked them.

There are many better things to be doing at 6.30am on a Sunday morning than frying onions with garlic, cumin, paprika and coriander. But fry I did. Once fried and cooled, half the onions are mixed with the mince and then formed into balls. The meatballs are then browned and set aside. Into the same pan, add the remaining onion mix, the chopped tomatoes and stock. Bring to the boil, return the meatballs to the pan and simmer for 30 minutes.

I must have made thousands of these over the course of his treatment. The local butcher got used to seeing me loitering as he opened up and started to keep a stash of lamb mince aside for me. When George was in the deepest grip of the steroids, I once used 3lbs of mince in a weekend – all for him.

George is now nearly seven, and has been off chemotherapy since June 2009. He is healthy and lively – but he still loves his meatballs, as does my daughter who was born three months after George was diagnosed. Sally Sellwood


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October 12 2010

Pop-up culture

Temporary shops and restaurants were once a way for artists to subvert empty urban spaces. Now, they're just as likely to be part of a corporate marketing strategy

In a dark, dank nightclub beneath some railway arches, with the clatter and chug of trains overhead, I am having a minor Proustian moment. This London club was last open in the late 1990s, and its smell sends me straight back to that era, my student days: to Britpop and Blur, late-teenage clinches, 70p for a vodka and Coke. The aroma is strong, sour, specific, but it won't linger here for very much longer.

Over the last few weeks this long-abandoned club has been taken over by a group of young event organisers for an ambitious, 99-day pop-up project called Counter Culture. The programme will deliver photographers and DJs, comedians and poets, art exhibitions and parties, a different lineup each night, spiriting this sprawling, downtrodden building straight into the 21st century. One of the four organisers, 23-year-old Lee Denny, meets me at the door, apologises for his moustache ("I'm not trying to look cool, I promise") and shows me around the venue he first discovered when he came to an underground party here.

Denny has some experience of pop-ups: five years ago, he started his own small music festival, LeeFest, in his back garden, and he still runs it each summer, albeit from a larger venue. He leads me into the smaller of the club's two main rooms, kitted out with old, over-stuffed sofas and a much more expertly stuffed fox head. The artist responsible for the fox only works with roadkill, says Denny, and he's particularly excited about a live taxidermy workshop she's going to be running.

We move on through a small changing room, where a pair of grubby grey y-fronts hangs from a high ledge, and out to the main stage. On the opening night, in late September, the club filled up with 980 people, "and musicians kept arriving," says Denny, "people who remembered the place, and had heard about what we were doing. There was Jazzie B from Soul II Soul, and Suggs from Madness. He said 'Have you got a trombone?' and then he got up on stage and was like," he holds one hand to his mouth and slides a fist deliberately through the air, "rum-pa-pum-pum-pum."

Counter Culture is just one of thousands of pop-up events that have opened in the UK and beyond over the last few years – ranging from the small to the large, the cool to the rubbish, the sublime to the ridiculous. There have been pop-up shops, restaurants and gardens; pop-up galleries– one in an abandoned Woolworths in Leytonstone – and cinemas – Tilda Swinton even carted one around the Scottish Highlands. There have been pop-up gigs in launderettes; restaurants in front rooms; films projected in disused petrol stations or on to hay bales in fields.

Those are the more guerrilla projects, the grassroots events, often put together on a wing, a prayer and a stiflingly small bank loan. But alongside these are the corporate-backed pop-ups, the temporary shops and bars and restaurants that appear with increasing regularity, often hosted by well-known venues.

The Double Club in London in 2008, a part-Congolese, part-western restaurant and bar backed by fashion label Prada, was particularly successful. A branch of Central Perk, the coffee shop from the TV series Friends, which opened in London's Soho for a fortnight last year, was used to promote a limited-edition box set of the series. In 2006, Nike opened a shop in New York for four days, selling a special edition basketball shoe at $250 a pair. Gap has used a school bus, kitted out with merchandise instead of seats, as a travelling pop-up shop in the US.

There have been pop-up projects that have opened for an hour, like Mary Portas's vintage clothes sale in 2008, and others so successful that they've eventually become a permanent fixture, such as Tom Dixon's Dock Kitchen restaurant in Portobello Dock in west London. But what unites these disparate projects is essentially a strong fascination with the temporary, with the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow, the idea of excitement, urgency and a dynamic interaction with urban (and it is usually urban) spaces. These are projects that stand in opposition to clone towns, to the idea of uniformity and unending drabness.

The debut of pop-up businesses is often traced back to 2004, when Rei Kawakubo of the cutting-edge fashion brand, Comme des Garçons, set up a temporary shop in a disused building in Berlin. Realistically though, while the "pop-up" description might be fairly new, the idea is as old as the hills. The current craze has echoes in everything from the restaurants traditionally run in people's homes in Cuba to the shop that artists Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin opened in London for six months in 1993, where they made and sold mugs and T-shirts and ashtrays.

The artist Dan Thompson set up his first pop-up gallery with friends in a bakery in Worthing in 2001; he now runs the Empty Shops Network, which advises artists who hope to start projects in one of the country's many disused high-street stores. (It's estimated that 13% of all UK shops are currently empty – and that one in five of those may never be used again.) He says that his inspiration comes from the magical curiosity shops that have appeared for centuries in fiction, "which no one can ever quite find again. I love creating something that's gone so quickly that people say afterwards: 'Was that you? Did that happen?' I love that excitement that you can create in a town, that sense of – what's coming next?"

While these businesses have counter-cultural roots, there's no doubt they've become a corporate concern. As Ali Madanipour, professor of urban design at Newcastle University says, there are two key readings of pop-ups, which aren't mutually exclusive. One is that they can be "a positive way of making more intensive use of urban space," he says, "bringing life to parts of the city that are under-used – they can provide space for local activity, civil-society events, impromptu gatherings. But on the other hand, they can also be an aid to consumerism, in which brands create a stage setting, adding colour and texture to the general mall atmosphere that is the backdrop to many of our urban spaces. Pop-up businesses support shopping – they bring a festival atmosphere to shopping."

The exclusivity of pop-up events means those that are ticketed often sell out extremely quickly. Denny says he now finds it "impossible to get excited about a new place that's opening indefinitely – you think, 'Oh yes, I'll go to that at some point' and you end up there in 20 years. Whereas if it's temporary it's like: 'We've got to do it right now.'"

When pop-ups are hosted by established businesses, this exclusivity and popularity can lead to obvious rewards for both host and brand. Over the last few weeks, the London restaurant Meza has been hosting a MasterChef pop-up, with former contestants from the TV show cooking for diners at a cost of £49 for three courses. When I went there last week, the atmosphere was loud, buzzy, excitable – obviously good for the restaurant, and good publicity for MasterChef. It apparently sold out in 72 hours.

One of the attractions of pop-ups for businesses is that they can act as an informal, unacknowledged market research project. Last week the smoothie maker Innocent ran a pop-up event in London called the Five for Five cafe – offering a two-course meal designed to deliver five portions of fruit and veg for £5. Dan Germain, head of creative at Innocent, said that the event, held in a disused tramshed, was "a no-brainer. Put on a bit of a party for the people who buy the drinks, meet and hang out with them, and find out stuff you wouldn't discover in some weird research group . . . You get all these charts and graphs that say your customer is a certain age, that they live in a certain place, do a certain thing, and then you see the real people. We could just loiter in Sainsbury's by the fridges and watch the people who come and buy our drinks, but we'd probably get kicked out."

Like the MasterChef event, the Innocent cafe sold out quickly, and was cleverly run – the cavernous space was dressed with fairy lights, fruit trees and herbs on every table; there was friendly service, and good food. Any pop-up event this well thought out, prompting this much goodwill, is clearly an excellent piece of marketing.

Germain says a pop-up event is better value for money than running an advertising campaign. "You're getting a more intense return," he says. "Fewer people, yes, but you're hopefully forging relationships that will last a lifetime." Their pop-up event also enabled them to communicate their brand in an incredibly strong, concentrated way. "Everything we want to do was under that roof," he says. Their core message was literally: "up on the back wall, written in big letters: Eat your greens."

Stephen Zatland, a partner at management consultancy Accenture, says that pop-up businesses give retailers other benefits which might not be immediately obvious to the consumer. It's a chance, he says, "to try out a new store location, to see if the kind of people they want to attract will start flocking there before they invest in a permanent site. Manufacturers can try out new products, new services, deliver them direct to the customer, promote a new brand, or try and re-invigorate an older brand".

And they can carry out all this research and promotion for a relatively low price. Zatland says that compared to opening a permanent site, pop-ups are fairly inexpensive. The recession, with its surfeit of empty shops, has played a key role in this trend. "When a lot of Woolworths stores became available, for instance, retailers picked up on those and rented them for a short period to try out something new on the high street."

The pop-up trend has been so big, for so long, that there have been whispers that it must be about to fizzle and die. But Zatland suggests this is unlikely. "There's another interesting trend for a more permanent kind of feature," he says, "where there's a site for maybe eight different pop-up stores, and the content of that site will rotate, change, every eight weeks, or every three weeks. That will be good, I think, because it encourages customers to keep coming back to see what the new feature is."

When I ask Thompson about the corporate fashion for pop-ups, about the way they're being used to flog us more unnecessary stuff, I expect him to be disdainful. But it's quite the opposite. "I love it," he says, "I love the fact that such a daft idea, started by artists, has taken over. I went to a pop-up Gucci put on, and it was fantastic. It's like Quentin Crisp said – don't keep up with the Joneses, drag them down to your level. We've completely subverted all these great brands, who are now having to think differently, more creatively, and that has to be good for our town centres."

There's no doubt that pop-ups can aid regeneration and make a genuine difference. As Thompson points out, "if you live somewhere the size of Worthing or Coventry or Carlisle or Margate, and you lose a few shops, you really notice it. If that's your home town, and you're passionate about it, you'll fight to make it better."

Horton Jupiter (whose real name, he jokes, is "Mystic Rock") is less positive about some aspects of the pop-up phenomenon. He has been running a cafe called The Secret Ingredient from his front room in Newington Green, London, for over a year now, and says he prefers the term "home restaurant", because pop-up has "become something that people use as a marketing tool". He appreciates the temporary, impromptu nature of pop-ups, but projects like his, he suggests, are meant to be precisely an escape from capitalism, from the robot on the end of the phone, towards something more illicit, subversive, personal and warm.

For landlords whose properties have been empty for a while, these events are a great way to promote their building, bring people flooding back in, and perhaps get some free maintenance and decorating work done too. Thompson says he's never "paid anything more than a peppercorn rent – we cover business rates, we cover insurance, and in every shop we've been to we've left it in a better condition than we found it. We'll give it a lick of paint, a clean and tidy. We took a shop in Shoreham-by-Sea, initially for six months, but now for another six, and a place that had been derelict for 10 years has been completely refurbished – which has led to two other derelict shops nearby coming back into use as well."

Where artists go, corporations follow. And so does gentrification, as areas blossom, flourish and improve - and rents subsequently head skywards. Perhaps now, at a time of deep economic anxiety and trouble, we should just enjoy the most exciting of the pop-ups, those that bring life to depressed corners, flowers to abandoned skips, the flicker of film to the hollow beneath an underpass.

There is something slightly sinister about the marketing guile – and rampant consumerism – behind some of these projects, but many are straightforwardly brilliant, and there seems no shortage of people happy to get involved. "Every time I walk past an empty shop or building," says Denny, "I think: I've got to do something in there, I just have to! If I had time, every empty space that was remotely intriguing would be filled."


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October 01 2010

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Mum's sunny spirit shining through

It must have been the summer of 1976 below the cliffs between Cow Gap and Beachy Head. My late mother was then aged 75, I had turned 40, and my daughter, Claire, was 10. I can't remember anything more about that particular day, but it suggests the sort of day that these three sea-loving creatures loved best – swimming at high tide and messing about on the sands at low tide.

The picture says so much about my sea-loving mum. She was born nearby, and swam in it until well into her mid- 90s. High above those sheer white cliffs stretch the South Downs, her other love, where she walked every day until a few months before she died, aged 102.

The sun was shining in this photo as, according to Mum, it always did in Eastbourne, being sheltered from Brighton's less favourable weather by the downs. For her, every day was sunny, every holiday had been a "grand" one, every person she met had been kind and helpful. The rain, the unkindnesses and the hardships in her life, were readily forgotten; the tragedies, of which there were several, could not be forgotten, but they did not dent her sunny spirit.

At Mum's funeral we would have liked to put big sunflowers on her coffin, but it was mid-November, so we had to make do with imported orange daisies and, appropriately, it poured with rain throughout that day in sunny Eastbourne. Jean Perraton

Playlist: My brother's chant finally explained

Open the Door, Richard by Louis Jordan

"Open the door, Richard, open the door and let me in"

When I was seven, and my brother was 17, he used to sing a song ad nauseam – not so much a song, more of a chant. It was called Open the Door, Richard. It was bellowed like a Tarzan cry as he either left the house or came home. Open the Door, Richard. It was baffling. What did it mean? It would be another 42 years before I found out.

In 1991, more than a decade after my brother's death, I went to see a show in the West End called Five Guys Named Moe. It was a celebration of the jazz singer and saxophonist Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five.

After seeing the show I toyed with the idea of either buying the show album or a Louis Jordan disc. I decided to buy Let the Good Times Roll and listen to the man himself. And I'm very glad I did because track no 13 turned out to be Open the Door, Richard, which had not been featured in the West End show, the very song I had heard more than 40 years previously from my brother.

My ears pricked up as the song progressed, with Jordan singing about getting drunk, and I suddenly became aware of a part of my family history. My parents, while not teetotal, disapproved of strong drink. I wondered if my brother was attracted to the rousing anthem of the song or if it was wilful and defiant behaviour, sung to wind my parents up.

I will never know. But it made me smile when I thought it might have been the latter, just typical teenage devilry. David Barry

We love to eat: Lil's flying saucers

Ingredients

1 egg per person

Cheddar cheese

Stottie cake of crusty bread

Lightly grease a Pyrex lid or shallow oven dish. Grate cheese and sprinkle round the lid, leaving a hole in the centre. Break the egg into the centre of the cheese. Place in a moderate oven and remove when egg looks set and the cheese is bubbling. Serve with bread.

Sometime in the 1960s, my father bought for my mother a set of three round Pyrex casserole dishes complete with lids. I remember their appearance in the kitchen was seen as quite cutting edge for the time, along with the introduction of a bottle of Spanish wine with our Sunday roast.

My father loved buying things for the kitchen. He would get quite excited about each purchase, but I don't think my mother shared his passion. I think she enjoyed making do with what she had. My mother was a wonderful cook and, when I look back, she always seemed to be in the kitchen. I think that my father saw buying all the kitchen paraphernalia as his way of easing her load.

I don't ever remember the Pyrex casseroles being used as casseroles, probably because they were rather small for a family of two adults, three young daughters and a baby son. However, my mother, ingenious as ever, used the lids to produce what became her signature dish – Lil's flying saucers.

They were named because the baked egg in the centre, surrounded by melted grated cheese, looked like a flying saucer. She would make them during school holidays for me and my two sisters. The three flying saucers were doled out according to age and size of each lid. We all got an egg, but the amount of cheese differed. As the eldest, I got the largest lid and therefore more cheese, but sometimes I had to swap with my middle sister because she liked cheese more than I did and still does.

When the flying saucers came out of the oven you had to wait a bit until they cooled slightly. My mother used to serve sliced stottie loaf with the meal and this was used to mop up the lovely cheddar cheese, which was crisp on top but gooey underneath.

It was always such a nourishing, comforting meal, one that was always asked for, and its popularity never waned. As the years passed, she made it for her grandchildren, too, and although she is no longer with us my sisters and our children remember those times with great fondness. Leonora Anderson Hogarth

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September 22 2010

Your dinner's on the wall

Broccoli trees, ham houses, chocolate nudes . . . Jonathan Jones meets the people turning food into art

The Mashed Potato of the Future is an inky mountain of mystery. It sits on the plate like a slag heap, or the ashes of an apocalyptic disaster. My wife cautiously digs into it with her fork.

She likes it. My Futurist experiment in cooking has worked. The Mashed Potato of the Future is my culinary homage to the modern Italian poet and avant-garde artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who in 1930 announced a revolution in the kitchen. Marinetti, inventor and leader of the Futurist movement, had already given the world Futurist art, literature, music and architecture. With The Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, he set out to abolish what he saw as Italy's fattening and mind-dulling addiction to pasta. In place of spaghetti, he proposed recipes that are as arbitrary and disconcerting as the discombobulated poems he called "words in freedom"; food as subversion, as provocation – and as art.

Eighty years after it was launched in a Milanese restaurant (one dish was called Divorced Eggs, with the white of an egg cooked and presented on pureed carrots, the yolk on pureed potato), the great Futurist experiment in the art of cooking is back. An entire movement is menacing the frontiers of art and food, an alternative cookery club that calls itself The Experimental Food Society (EFS). As this avant garde prepares to offer the public a full-scale banquet Spectacular this weekend, I dived in to ask the inevitable question: but is it art? For that matter, is it food?

One of the Spectacular's stars, food designers Blanch and Shock, meet me in a London cafe and show me slides of their work on a laptop. There is something fun and conspiratorial about their talk of underground dining, which reminds me of the London art scene in the very early 1990s, before it was institutionalised. They explain how they created a spooky meal to be eaten by the audience at an immersive theatre event, which involved lots of experiments to devise "edible blood". But blood is edible, I point out. Ah, but this was theatrical edible blood, which looks gory but can be eaten by vegetarians, with no health risk. They make me see that a meal is a piece of theatre: they stage meals as narratives, with each course taking on symbolic qualities. Food is art not just if it looks good but if it makes you aware of richer meanings, beyond the simple fact of filling you up.

Food has always been art – for the lucky few. Wander through the British Museum and you see the ornate table decorations that bear witness to the central place of feasting in courts of all cultures. In 15th-century Burgundy, royal banquets were enlivened by bizarre entremets. Between courses, a giant pie might be carried in: it burst open and out flew six swans. Artists lavished their talents to raise mealtimes to the level of art.

The EFS's banquet is a modern answer to these medieval spectaculars. Members such as photographer Carl Warner stages pictures that at first look like homely painted landscapes – until you realise the trees are made of broccoli, the houses of ham. Warner's pictures are modern answers to the great and marvellous Renaissance art of Arcimboldo, who delighted the 16th-century Habsburg court with paintings of faces composed of fruit or vegetables.

The point of the EFS is not, however, just to create strange, food-based works of art. In a south London kitchen, I watch "chocolate artist" Paul Wayne Gregory at work. He creates portraits, and even a nude, in chocolate, at life size. He explains how he begins with a mould of the subject's face or body and then carves exquisite, lifelike details to create the finished chocolate portrait. But each of his sculptures – like the collections of chocolates he devises and the chocolate lolly I taste – can be, in fact demands to be, eaten. Gregory is no amateur experimentalist but a world-class chocolatier, trained in great European restaurants. His chocs are delicious. I feel I have wandered into the world of Willy Wonka.

The fun of the new experimental cooking is that it is less pure than Marinetti's modernist food. Marinetti did not care if his recipes were tasty, or even edible. That's high Modernism for you. But, just as modern fiction incorporates Joyce and Kafka into more traditional narrative structures, today's avant-garde cuisine is post-modernist, not modernist, art. In that spirit, I laboured in my laboratory to invent The Mashed Potato of the Future. It looks like modern art, with a nod to Malevich's Black Square, the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt, and the late, suicidal works of Mark Rothko. But it tastes, if not comforting, bloody good. Inky good. It is actually a domestication of a classic Venetian recipe. You just need to get cuttlefish ink or a cuttlefish ink-based sauce from an Italian deli, and instead of putting it on pasta, mix it into mashed potato, along with garlic and olive oil. It's delicious. It will surely shake the most passé restaurants to their foundations.

• The Experimental Food Society Spectacular is at The Brickhouse, London E1, on Saturday. Events begin at 11am; banquet at 7.30pm. Details: experimentalfoodsociety.com


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September 15 2010

In good taste

Foodballs and Philippe Starck pasta aside, our food has remained largely untouched by the designer's influence. A looming global food crisis could change all that

Have you ever ordered chicken Kiev in a restaurant? You don't see it on menus much but last week I did and, of course, I ordered it. It came with a bone sticking out, and on the end of the bone was a little paper hat. First-class presentation. Strangely, though, this fine-dining version was blander than the real thing – the real thing being the kind made of reconstituted chicken pumped full of water and powdered pork protein that you find in supermarkets. Thinking about how the (authentic) ready-meal version is produced, I imagined it very much like the manufacture of a gas-assisted injection-moulded plastic chair. The raw material – let's call it meatstuff – is inserted into a mould and injected with air that forces it into shape, leaving a cavity. The only real difference is that you don't inject a chair with garlic butter.

It would be deeply unfashionable these days to confess to buying supermarket chicken Kiev. The slow food movement has successfully instilled the idea that eating seasonal, organic produce is the only healthy and ethical way forward. But that may turn out to be a rather romantic notion. We are already staring a global food crisis in the face, and the world's population is expected to grow by almost 3 billion people by mid-century. In which case, the industrialisation and genetic modification of food will probably only become more widespread.

The idea of food as a design product is not exactly new. Pasta is arguably the first example of a designed foodstuff, manufactured for centuries in hundreds of shapes, each one of which is designed to absorb sauce slightly differently – mass production by a high food culture. Philippe Starck had a go at designing a new pasta shape in the 1980s, as did the legendary Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, but neither novelty caught on. Really, it was the American TV dinner of the 1950s that turned food into a design product – it even came in a box designed to look like a television. Inspired by airline meals, the TV dinner dispensed with the time-consuming and messy process of cooking, and compacted the turkey roast into a neatly packaged commodity. In this country it all began in 1976, when Marks & Spencer launched its first ready meal. You guessed it: chicken Kiev.

We don't tend to think of food as design and yet we love it when celebrity chefs treat it as such. Even though most of us will never taste them, we are spellbound by the liquid-nitrogen-dipped creations of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria, of The Fat Duck and El Bulli respectively. Their "molecular gastronomy" employs fundamental design principles, such as rethinking accepted norms and prioritising the user experience.

In a way it's surprising that there are not more designers working with food. They certainly exist though. The best known is the Catalan designer Martí Guixé. For more than a decade he has been experimenting with turning food into products, or – perhaps more accurately – experiences. He created the Foodball concept restaurant for shoe brand Camper, where, if it's not self-explanatory, all the food was ball-shaped. He's started a restaurant where everything on the menu is ordered from local takeaways, he's branded organic peas with images of female icons and he's made cakes that look like pie charts – the icing reveals the percentage of each ingredient in the recipe. He doesn't claim to know anything about cooking but, rather, is fascinated by the idea of edible objects.

Guixé believes that food is curiously under-designed, that it is an essentially conservative medium. No doubt that has to do with our – occasionally deluded – perception of it as somehow coming straight from nature. However, as the global food shortage starts to precipitate technological solutions, we may become more used to the idea of artificially produced nourishment. Last month, The Royal Society published a collection of papers on the future of food (covered in this newspaper), one of which speculated that artificial meat "grown in vats" was a viable way to meet our future demand for protein. Indeed it argued that "in vitro" meat was healthier and more hygienic than the real thing.

It is a testament to how diverse the design world has become that there are designers – albeit in the extreme fringe – who are already exploring the implications of that. Oron Catts, a former industrial designer who now operates out of a synthetic biology lab at the University of Western Australia, actually grew himself a steak in 2002. He used cells harvested from an unborn sheep. His Petri-dish steak was rather chewier than a real one, but Catts is not aiming for fine dining. His work – which, at the more "designer" end has included growing a "victimless" leather jacket – is intended to focus debate on the ethics of synthetic biology. On the one hand, we get to eat victimless meat, on the other, he argues, we are creating a new "semi-living class" for exploitation.

So where does the design come in? A recent graduate from London's Royal College of Art took the implications of work by Catts and his partner Ionat Zurr to its logical conclusion. James King, an interaction designer, asked a simple question: if a steak hasn't actually come from a cow, why should it be steak-shaped? In theory, it could take more aesthetic, abstract forms. He decided, though, to retain some link to the animal, instead using MRI scans of livestock and choosing the most aesthetically pleasing cross-sections. His MRI steak looks like a cross between a chop, a brain and a sea anemone. If you think that the premise of mass-produced chicken Kiev is simply verisimilitude – in other words, this object looks like a real stuffed chicken breast – then this is the opposite model. This is food with artistic licence.

Although the work of designers such as Catts and King is speculative, it raises interesting questions about the future role of designers in the food industry. Traditionally their role has simply been to package the food, to make consumables more desirable, to make it stand out on the shelf. Scientists believe that another decade of research is needed before in-vitro meat becomes commercially viable, but it raises the idea of a new role for the designer: not just packaging what we eat, but designing it.


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July 23 2010

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My beloved red wellingtons

A flashing landscape and the thrilling tug of acceleration. It pulls my breath and stings my eyes, which are wide in awe. Then the sharp impact of the ground rattles below me once more.

We slowed down, and my father expertly slid the bike to a standstill. Running over, Mummy pulled me off and set me on the ground, where I wobbled slightly; I was still not fully in control of my podgy little legs. After a quick kiss on the cheek, Daddy rode off again into the wall of dust kicked up by the other motocrossers, weaving in and out of each other's paths.

I loved these days.

My first bike day was 16 May 1993; I was only four days old. In fact, I was virtually raised in a bike paddock – I knew how to change a sprocket before I could walk.

This picture was taken when I was just four. Sealand Road Industrial Estate had a rather large set of slag heaps, which had been left for several decades and reclaimed by nature, albeit in a rather unimpressive, dusty way, and they were home to numerous happy bikers every weekend. Many times during my childhood, I had been extracted from my warm bed, wrapped up in my scarlet red biking outfit and seated in front of my dad on his speeding bike.

For me this was the ultimate fun. I loved the sensation of flying as the bike leapt from the ground over a hillock and sped through the dust. It never occurred to me that I was in danger because I was undoubtedly safe in my father's arms.

The only thing that I loved more than the bike were my red wellies. These were my ultimate pride and glory. As clearly as if it were yesterday, I remember the long morning scouring Cheshire for the perfect wellington boots for our biking escapades. Shop after shop passed by in a blur – and none were good enough for my little feet. Then, we saw the red boots in the centre of the window display. They had to be mine.

I wouldn't take them off for days. I spent a weekend living in the house, in my precious foot-huggers. Tears before bedtime threatened, so they were tucked up in bed with me.

No footwear was ever so cherished. At first, I didn't wear them outside at all. I was too afraid of getting mud or grime on the scarlet rubber, which shone so brightly.

Bribery with chocolate teddies was futile – sugared promises of Rolos were ineffectual. Truly, it seemed as if the red wellies were destined to never feel the soft sensation of loam beneath their jet black soles.

Then something changed.

One night, my parents solemnly entered my room, with expressions so serious that I folded my legs tightly together and wrapped my arms securely around my welly encased feet.

Patiently, Dad explained that as brave and valiant footwear, the red wellies were suffering being trapped inside the house. I was being overprotective, stopping them from fulfilling their destiny as outdoor shoes. From that moment, I vowed to free my cherished boots at the next possible opportunity.

On their first trip outdoors, the red wellies and I went riding on the bike. As we pulled to a stop, Mum pulled out her camera and took this picture. It brings back such a span of memories for me – from the trust a daughter has in her father, to the magic of red wellies. Elizabeth Melling

Playlist: Odd terms of endearment

For Crying Out Loud by Meat Loaf "I was lost till you were found/But I never know how far down/I was falling" I cannot listen to a track from the Bat Out of Hell album without wanting to get into the car and drive fast with the windows (or preferably roof) down, singing as loud as I possibly can. My husband and I met when I was 18, and this is something we frequently did – usually en route to weekends away in the north of Scotland, driving through bucketing rain and negotiating our way along narrow country roads to avoid the Friday rush-hour traffic, with me as the passenger clutching a crumpled map held to a compass. The allegedly romantic song For Crying Out Loud was one that I particularly enjoyed hollering, not least for its simple repetition but also for the line "and don't you see my faded Levi's, bursting apart", which always had us giggling uncontrollably. Indeed, it is still a line that tends to make us smile: for that is truly an odd term of endearment by anyone's standards.

We used to take it in turns to sing the lady's part during Paradise by the Dashboard Light, as I much preferred singing the man's part, which I believed to have more words, sung with far more force. Thankfully, neither of us has ever been keen on karaoke, and so we have always kept our bad car singing private – we did, however, increase our repertoire on such a regular basis that Meat Loaf was soon all but forgotten. Now, with our two young children in the back of the car, we are often persuaded to listen to and join in songs written for children; however, when we recently ploughed through the heavy traffic south towards the kids' choice of holiday destination (Center Parcs), I persuaded them to allow their father and me to choose the music for old time's sake, and serenaded them with Meat Loaf. The operatic, voluminous, repetitive singing that ensued as we drove was enjoyed very much by us all. Sarah Neary

We love to eat: Dad's brisket barm cakes

Ingredients

Joint of brisket

Bread rolls

Dad was a butcher. When I was young we weren't very well off, but were certainly well fed. Sunday breakfast is the meal we all remember best. For us this wasn't the traditional English with a plateful of eggs, sausage, bacon, black pudding and all the trimmings, but brisket barm cakes.

As they were so large and took such a long time to cook, brisket was the joint of meat most likely to be left over in the shop on Saturday nights. It never fazed Dad though; he would put it in the oven on a low light before he went to bed and get up to turn it off at about 7am, leaving it to rest in its juices.

The smells would drift upstairs and wake us all gently; there were often friends sleeping over. Dad would put the barm cakes or baps in the oven to warm, and as we all trundled downstairs he would be standing in the kitchen, in his pale blue pyjamas with the black cat sitting expectantly by his feet, hoping something might fall her way as he teased fronds of meat away from the bone with his carving fork.

Brisket rarely needs to be carved when it is cooked properly, as it is so meltingly tender. We'd split and spread the barm cakes with butter for Mum, Dad and me. John and Kath preferred margarine while Louise preferred the dripping. George preferred a light touch of French mustard while Dad liked the keen, sharp tang of English mustard to wake him up. But we all agreed that you needed a spoonful of the natural juices to soak into the bread. We'd savour our barm cakes with conversation and large mugs of tea as we recovered from a Saturday night out. I don't find it odd that we remember those "morning after" breakfasts far better than the nights out, because they really were special.

If you think it sounds very extravagant, be assured that the same joint of meat also gave us a traditional Sunday dinner with fluffy golden Yorkshire puddings cooked in the homemade dripping and the best gravy ever made from those meaty juices. Depending who had slept over and who had stayed for dinner, there were often enough leftovers for a stew on Monday night with plenty of brown sauce.

My eldest son is going off to university soon. I already know what we'll be having for breakfast when he comes home with a gang of friends for the weekend. Sue Sheard

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We will pay £25 for every Letter to, Playlist, Snapshot or We love to eat we publish. Write to Family Life, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email family@guardian.co.uk. Please include your address and phone number


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June 23 2010

Jelly, but not as you know it

Bompas and Parr make desserts you won't find at a children's birthday party and cocktails that are far too big for a glass

Next Tuesday, to celebrate the first anniversary of its restored Elizabethan gardens, Kenilworth Castle is laying on a 300-dish, 320,000-calorie dessert course including gold-gilded jelly, nine varieties of custard tarts, 20 sugar sculptures (bears, houses and aviaries with animated birds in them) and a giant sugar punchbowl in the shape of the god Atlas.

The feast is a recreation of a menu served 400 years ago to Elizabeth I. This time around, however, it has not been cooked up in a heavily staffed Elizabethan kitchen, but in the Southwark HQ of two 27-year-old guys – Sam Bompas and Harry Parr – who in three short years have become famous for their jellies, their parties, and their general wacked-out inventiveness. Since 2007, the self-styled culinary architects have pumped a Soho pop-up bar full of gin and tonic mist, created a bowl of punch big enough to row a boat across, and kicked off a 2,000-person architectural jelly food fight under the watchful eyes of Heston Blumenthal, all at the same time as bringing jelly wobbling back into style.

So how did two ex-Etonians with absolutely no formal training in catering become the Blumenthals of the jelly world? After school they set off in different directions – Bompas studied geography at UCL, Parr did architectural training at the Glasgow School of Art and then the Bartlett in London. But shortly before Parr was due to start the last stage of his degree, they decided to "do something fun for the summer", which was initially going to be a jelly stand at Borough Market in London.

"There was no stall selling a healthy, fresh dessert, and we thought of jelly,", says Bompas. "It was always jelly," adds Parr, enthusing about the history and possibilities of his beloved pudding. Borough turned them down, but the pair got a gig handing out jellies at an Innocent Smoothies event in Regent's Park and things unfolded from there.

"We got a little write-up in a paper, and then someone invited us to create a jelly feast for them," says Parr. "We'd never cooked like that before, but we just sort of worked out what they would want, and then worked out how to do it. Once you realise that if you just think about it hard enough, you can work out how to do it, it does boost your confidence." There is clearly, all the same, a certain amount of chaos to proceedings; sometimes the commission precedes the idea, or sometimes the idea precedes the commission but they are still not quite sure how to actually make it work. In the case of the gin and tonic cloud, they had been to see Antony Gormley's Blind Light exhibition, where Gormley filled a room with a mist and visitors walked through it, hardly able to see their hands in front of their face. Bompas and Parr both thought it "would be even better if it was alcohol". They had a hypothetical chat about how you could do it, Bompas mentioned it to "someone with some space" and wham-bam they were booked, "when we really only knew that it should theoretically work, but not if it actually would".

They solve problems by googling them; "Anything you need to know is out there," says Bompas breezily, but Parr's architectural training is obviously also a huge factor, and he provides more of the technical wizardry while Bompas is more likely to be "on the phone all day". They see their complete lack of catering education as an advantage: "If you'd had training you'd always go down one specific route, and actually starting from first principles with everything keeps it interesting," says Parr.

Having worked out how to create jelly moulds using architectural computer software, and a way to make tables move to show off the jelly at its best, they are currently playing around with the idea of pressurised icing sugar in liquid form. "You can ice really accurately over large areas," Parr tells me seriously. After an hour in their company, I am no longer surprised when I ask what they are thinking of icing and the answer is "buildings".

Despite working round the clock and existing on next-to-no sleep, they seem to be having the time of their lives. "It's all a joy," says Bompas. "We're just grinning from ear to ear all the time."


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