Small Sweet Thing
Your grandmother holds out an old blue biscuit tin, lined with crisp, white baking paper.
You spy small, even, golden morsels; breathe sweet vanilla.
Mama’s little baby loves shortenin’, shortenin’
Mama’s little baby loves shortenin’ bread…
She sings to you – maybe you’re three? – smearing a little cake with butter, then fills your cupped palm with warmth.
Your mouth waters. You devour her gift.
With your entire being, you know you are blessed.
Years on, you puzzle why, at the furthest edge of the Empire, your Irish migrant grandmother sings you a Plantation song. And, why she sings about shortbread, when you’re eating a pikelet.
Then you learn that the song was a hit, written by a populist American poet, around the turn of the last century.
And, you read that shortening bread is fried batter bread, a mix of corn meal, flour, hot water, eggs, baking powder, milk and shortening.
Those who could not afford rings to make crumpets would drop the batter freely into the pan, so pikelets also known as the ‘poor man’s crumpet.’
Last week, you discovered that your grandmother worked in the kitchen of Currygrane, a teach mór; one of the Anglo-Irish big houses. You see her, a girl at the huge, blackened, wood range, flipping pikelets on a heavy griddle.
They call them Scotch Pancakes here. From the Welsh –bara piglydd, we call them pikelets. The perfect word for a warm, buttery, bite-sized morsel of love.
You have a pikelet recipe packed away…somewhere.
It’s not her recipe.
You have the memory packed away…safe for now.
Your small, sweet pikelet.
Something Sweet To Finish
A life is like a story, like a meal – get to the end.
Carefully. Daily. Sweet, sweet mealtimes. Last course. He’s got the sweet teeth.
Cold pudding, he likes. Always cleans the plate. Something sweet to finish.
Bands of dough cling to his stained teeth. “Struck it lucky with you, doll…got some more?” He slaps me on the arse where the last bruises are still flowering.
His need. His needs. Without limit. Tonight, his man-handling can’t touch me.
Flakes of my golden phyllo pastry cling to his wobbling crimson jowls. Stabbing at his empty plate, he licks his fat fingers. “This…whaddoyacallit-where-you-come-from, love?”
“Special dessert. In English…no. Sorry.” I shrug.
Hard-eyes rove my body. Custard oozes like pus from corners of his mouth. “Almond’s got a real kick dunnit?”
I smile, praying that I haven’t been too heavy-handed. But still, he believes that he’s tasting almond.
He erupts with a loud and long burp. “’Scuse I. Custard’s gorgeous. Could eat this from here to Kingdom Come.”
No need to tell him that he’s a prophet.
He smacks his greasy cinnamon and sugar dusted lips. “Strong almonds tonight, almost bitter.”
“And bring coffee,” he grunts. He sucks his tongue.
I bring out a platter and this time each little bougatsa glistens with clover honey. Enough to mask that almond flavour.
“Honey—sweeter for you,” I coo.
“Too kind.” He winks. “You know what I like.”
It should be served warm, but he doesn’t know. I serve it cold. How I like it. I never came here to be treated like this.
He posts every sugary, creamy parcel into his gaping mouth.
Not long now.
Then, all gone.
Tasty: The Alchemy Of Words & Food
Sometimes food is a conscious, deliberate centrepiece, and sometimes it seeps into my work. Culturally, food is very important to me, and maybe when I write, ancestry and the epigenetics of the Great Hunger are at play too. Both of my grandmothers were extraordinary cooks, and cooking was my Irish grandmother’s work since she was sixteen.
Rather than why, to me the question is why wouldn’t you write about food? Food can speak powerfully to memory, history, character, place, time, culture, mood, power. I am interested in the bonds between women and how they are celebrated and honoured, rites of passage, and how transmission of culture and knowledge takes place. Food is a base element, such a touchstone. Served with words, food gains new alchemy, working as a shorthand for the writer – and the reader.
The other day, I came across Rothko’s “recipe for a work of art” and to me, the painter’s words apply equally to writing…and food.
• There must be a clear preoccupation with death — intimations of mortality…Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death.
• Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist.
• Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire.
• Irony. This is a modern ingredient — the self-effacement and examination by which a person for an instant can go on to something else.
• Wit and play…for the human element.
• The ephemeral and chance…for the human element.
• Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.
Joanne Harris writes stories rich with food, and her fight to get them published is sobering. Who would want to read that, right? In her Wolf Hall trilogy, Hilary Mantel speaks volumes about Thomas Cromwell through his knowledge and passion for food. As Gasston notes about one of my favourite authors, food is everywhere in Katherine Mansfield’s work. She suggests that short fiction is itself “a type of snack – something you can pick up when you need it, something private, rebellious, sumptuous and (often) decadent.”
Yeah, Randall Kenan, food is us.
Alex Reece Abbott is a Penguin Random House WriteNow finalist and winner in the Irish Novel Fair, Northern Crime, Arvon, Crediton and HG Wells prizes, Alex’s short fiction is a finalist in, among others, the Sunday Business Post/Penguin Prize, Maria Edgeworth, Tillie Olsen, Bridport, Grindstone, Word Factory and Lorian Hemingway prizes. A New Zealand-Irish writer, she writes across genres and forms. Her stories are widely anthologized, including in Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, The Broken Spiral (UNESCO Dublin City of Literature Read), The Real Jazz Baby (Best Anthology, 2020 Saboteur Awards), MIROnline, Flash Fiction Festival Anthology, Grindstone, Pure Slush, Truth Serum, Tishman Review, The Short Story, Pulp Literature, Fictive Dream, Blink-Ink, Hypertext, Reflex Fiction, Bath Flash Fiction, Flash Frontier, Casket of Fictional Dreams, Splonk, Spelk, and Heron (Katherine Mansfield Society).
“Small Sweet Thing” first appeared in Pure Slush Greed 7, Deadly Sins, Vol. 3, Bequem Publishing 2018. “Something Sweet to Finish” first appeared in Flash Frontier, Sugar, June 2014.