I’ve never been able to quite understand why, when a cake is cut into equal portions, I always manage to get the smallest one. It has to be a matter of perception, right? When I was a child, my brother and I had to share most things – it was just the way it was – so my mum had a rule: one of us got to cut the portions, the other one got to choose. I was the eldest so, naturally enough, I got the knife, and no matter how hard I tried to make the segments exactly equal, my brother always got to choose the biggest one. (Unless, of course, I was portioning tinned sardines when, not unreasonably, my brother would choose to take none on the grounds that I had ruined them, and I would be left with the task of finding somewhere to hide the whole can of fishy mush. Something which I managed so successfully that we never had any visitors for about six years.) It is very much a sign of age that, when somebody offers a slice of cake, you may say ‘Could I have a slightly smaller piece please?’ (That is ‘you may say’, of course, because I would never say such a thing.) Those words would never pass the lips of anybody under the age of sixteen.
I am very much of the ‘Are you leaving that?’ generation. Anything left on a plate (unless it was green, of course) was fair game to anybody around the table who had already finished what they had been given. It was definitely not advisable to take a short rest during meals: one break for a contented sigh and by the time you looked down your last sausage would be long gone. We were not encouraged to rush meals – that was definitely frowned upon – but we did need to keep our wits about us at all times. I was not around for the end of rationing – it ended in 1954 – but I was no stranger to privation. Waste was definitely not tolerated and children were right down the pecking order – with women – so you took whatever you were offered. A slice of bread soaked in gravy often took the place of the meat – which only stretched far enough to feed the men who ‘put it on the table’ – at Sunday lunch. There was loads of veg – every back garden was full of it – but nobody ate just veg did they? It was always meat and two veg (at least one of them, sometimes both, being the ubiquitous spud) or three for the overtly rich. They were definitely the Harrison & Starr of the gravy dinner world. If I’m honest I can still to this day eat just about anything if you put enough gravy on it.
And gravy dinner – Sunday Lunch – brought with it the only pudding of the week: occasionally jelly, but more often cake and, if we were lucky and the cake was on its second week, custard. I remember that a decent sized cake could take quite some time to transit from moist, to just about palatable, to palatable with tinned (evaporated) milk, to needs custard. I didn’t care. I could (and can) eat cake in any manner it is offered to me and, as I am now a mature adult, in any portion size I am given. Although it doesn’t mean that I don’t still envy the person with the biggest slice.