No Grey Food for E M Forster

Helvi Oosterman

Forster was returning to England from somewhere exotic, maybe India, on the boat train, sitting in the dining car, he’s waiting for the breakfast to be served. He wrote about this episode later in Food and Wine magazine; it was 1939.

“At last the engine gave jerk, the knives and forks slid sideways and sang against one another sadly, the cups said ‘cheap, cheap’, to the sauces, as well they might, the door swang open and the attendants came out crying  ‘Porridge or Prunes, Sir? Porridge or Prunes, Sir?’ Breakfast had begun.

That cry still rings in my memory. It is an epitome—not, indeed, of English food, but of the forces which drag it in the dirt. It voices the true spirit of gastronomic joylessness. Porridge fills the Englishman up, prunes clear him out, so their functions are opposed. But their spirit is the same: they eschew pleasure and consider delicacy immoral. That morning they looked as like one another as they could. Everything was grey. The porridge was in pallid grey lumps, the prunes swam in grey juice like the wrinkled skulls of old men, grey mist pressed against the grey windows. ‘Tea or Coffee, Sir? Rang out next, and then I had a haddock.   It was covered with a sort of hard yellow oilskin, as if it had been out in a lifeboat, and its insides gushed salt water when pricked. Sausages and bacon followed this disgusting fish. They, too had been out all night. Toast like steel, marmalade a scented jelly. And the bill, which I paid dumbly, wondering again why such things have to be.”

Some breakfast that was. We all have been faced with inedible food at times, and Foster’s brekkie has made me think of what has been my most horrid food experience.

If I had been forced to swallow the doughy dumplings mum sometimes added to her otherwise excellent pea soup, I would now have to say that it was that soup. Luckily  my darling sister loved the dumplings and allowed me to slip them on her plate when no one was looking.

Having to eat raw oysters for the first time and at a rather formal lunch was scary and somewhat tricky, but a good white makes many unwanted things slide down easily. Then there was that dreadful cook in my primary school, and her even more dreadful food… I think that was IT, and only some warm school milk to assist you to  get it  down.

What about you, was it tripe, brains..or a crocodile steak?

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4 Responses to “No Grey Food for E M Forster”

  1. lonia scholvinck Says:



  2. gerard oosterman Says:



  3. Nick Says:

    As a kid, Mum made a tasty sweet flavoured soup. I would have two maybe three bowls. My two older brothers wouldnt touch it, however I enjoyed it and so too my younger brother. It was lamb brain soup. I enjoyed it for several years.

    My brothers still hate the thought of it.


  4. joe carli. Says:

    When I lived “down the coast”, my mate and myself gathered some fresh abalone for the lady next door to cook. Of course we were invited to partake. Having never before tasted the shell fish, I didn’t know what to expect..It was a shocker!.. a real gob-choker! know, when the food just refuses to go down?…so you have to force-swallow?…AND, when we had finally gagged the last morsel from the plate and thinking ; “well, that’s that!”…”here”, she said most kindly..”Have some more”. ….I tell you, if it wasn’t for the fact the woman had three beautiful daughters sitting there at the other end of the table….


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