Findus Crispy Pancakes and red lemonade - Remember the old-school treats that actually made us happy?
Rancheros, fruit cocktail, Findus Crispy Pancakes and red lemonade - Pat Fitzpatrick reckons it's time to forget about healthy eating for a while and celebrate the old-school treats that actually made us happy
They pronounced it Whishul Billy. They were distant cousins of ours, a brood of unmarried brothers and sisters who lived together on a west Cork farm, looking across at Courtmacsherry, on the road to Timoleague.
Whishul Billy was Whistle Belly, red lemonade that made your belly whistle. Outside Cork, red lemonade meant Taylor Keith (TK). But people from west Cork had no truck with Taylor Keith, and not just because it sounded like a runner-up act in the UK heat of Eurovision. Down in that part of the country, you drank Deasy Lemonade. So when our distant cousins offered Whishul Billy, it was a bottle of Deasy that was put up on the table.
You couldn't refuse. Their Deasy was served cold and super-fizzy, with the kind of sugar content that made your eyes sore - in a good way. I was thinking about it recently, on a roaring-hot summer day with my own kids, on a beach looking across to Courtmacsherry. You can't get Deasy any more - they closed in 2001, when Irish people started to get fussy and demanding lemonade that looked like it was made with lemons. (As in, it should be yellow.)
Deasy, TK, and the other Irish staples of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, they were all outstanding. Yes, they might have killed us if we stuck with them every day, but at least we might have died happy. It's something that occurs to me these days, when I'm nibbling on a bit of asparagus off the barbecue. Yes, this tastes nice. More importantly, it makes me feel good about myself, and you can't get enough of that. But it's still not as nice as the cheap coleslaw they used at the hot-dog caravan on Dublin's Leeson Street during the 1990s. I think it was called Wolfies, but don't quote me on that; it's not like I ever saw it sober. Those hot dogs with coleslaw were some of the best meals of my life.
Why do we hate the food we used to love? Seriously, we stumble out of a bar in Barcelona at 5am in the morning, eat churros from a van, and think we are engaging in the local culture. We do the same here, and act as if it's disgusting. I think it's time to stand up and say the 1980s and 90s were a golden age for Irish food. (And not just because most of it was actually golden.)
I'll never forget the first time I tasted a Yoplait strawberry yogurt. I'd say I was about 12 years old and vaguely in love with two sisters in Kinsale. (At that age, I was vaguely in love with a lot of women, including a few nuns.) Anyway these sisters, (the girls, not the nuns) were posher than us, and arrived somewhere one day with this thing called yogurt. They gave me a taste; it was very chaste. As Dom Perignon said when he invented Champagne - it was like tasting the stars. I was well into my Deasy Lemonade by then, but this was a different level altogether. The creaminess, the fruit, the way it was cold out of the fridge, the way the older sister let me share her spoon; even writing about it now has me back on the road up towards the GAA pitch in Kinsale.
You can't talk about sweet yogurt like that any more, in case a small child hears you and decides to become the size of an American. That's a shame.
We're making our own kefir yoghurt drink at home these days; it's an on-trend probiotic thing that originates from the Caucasus Mountains in Russia. This might explain why people from that part of the world are slow to smile. (A lingering memory of the gulags might have played a part, but I'd say it's mainly the kefir.) This kefir is supposed to be really good for your gut. It certainly makes me feel good about myself, but the taste, well, it's just bitter. It would make you wonder - what's the point of living until the age of 120, if you don't have any decent memories?
Another pivotal moment in my youth was when a guy I barely knew in school offered me a Ranchero. This was habit-forming in a way, and led to a phase in my 30s when I'd accept anything offered to me by a stranger, even if he was called Tripzee and lived in a squat with his rescue whippet. But Jesus, those Rancheros were good: the zing of salt, the coating on the tongue, the way they'd clog up your teeth.
Tayto was the gateway drug in this whole area. I think it created one of the great rifts in Irish life - you were either a cheese-and-onion or salt-and-vinegar type of person. A bit like the Repeal the Eighth debate, there was zero understanding of the other side's world view. I'm on the cheese-and-onion side of life, and have no idea what people see in salt-and-vinegar. That's why I moved on to Rancheros, while the salt-and-vinegar brigade progressed to Chipsticks. To this day, I'm wary of someone who likes Chipsticks.
There is no such divide around Findus Crispy Pancakes. They were a winner from the get-go, a watershed moment for a lot of us growing up in 1980s Ireland. One Monday we were having unlovable bacon and cabbage. A week later, we were given Crispy Pancakes, or Orgasm on a Plate, as they weren't called, because vulgarity didn't come to Ireland until 1997.
They were so good, we didn't even ask why they were called pancakes. Presumably, Crispy Pies didn't play well with consumer focus groups. What played well with us was the slow reveal. You couldn't taste the first two forkfuls, because the inside of your mouth was coated with molten Crispy Pancake filling. But after that, it was just magic, chewy and crispy and cheesy, and all the flavours tasted the same if you closed your eyes.
Better still, the whole crispy-pie-in-the-oven thing completely changed life for our mothers. Gone were the days when our mam had to boil the shit out of some poor vegetable and then threaten all sorts to get us to eat it. Now all she had to do is pop a few 'pancakes' in the oven and make sure we didn't bite her hands off.
She also got a Friday bonus, thanks to Donegal Catch. It's considered run-of-the-mill now, but it was a revolution for us when it replaced the Friday hunk of tasteless cod, topped with something that had the cheek to call itself parsley sauce. An extra Friday dessert treat was a dollop of cream on top of something called fruit cocktail, from a tin. The label mentioned something about syrup, which, as far as we could see, was a pretentious name for sugar-water. Not that we cared, the way it melted in with the cream when you picked it up on the spoon.
It's worth noting that not everything was brilliant. I remember going to my Aunt Noreen's house once and asking who had a puke in the kitchen. It turns out her son Paul had put something called pizza in the oven. It was one of those small, soggy ones that were launched during the 1980s, tarnishing Italy for a whole generation of Irish people. It didn't really recover until the opening ceremony for Italia '90, when we saw the supermodels walking around with their mad cool hats.
Cadet didn't hit the mark, either. The soft-drinks range was launched as a patriotic enterprise, with a TV ad where the bottles marched around to the tune 'Cadet, Orange Cadet', as they made their assault on Coca Cola and Fanta and other 'bloody foreigners'. We took a few sips and went back to the bloody foreigners. Or maybe a drop of Whishul Billy, when we were lucky enough to be in west Cork.
But these were just two low points in a golden era. Just look at the sauces that shaped our generation. Before Thousand Island dressing came along as a sign that you had notions, every household had to make a key choice. Are you a Chef Sauce or YR (Yorkshire Relish) establishment? It was a badge of pride for my parents that we were a YR house. They stuck it out for years, in face of all the evidence that Chef was a clear winner.
We had tasted Chef in our friend's houses, pretty much drinking it out of the bottle, and begged them to make the switch. But they were YR people, l and that was that. I've hated Yorkshire ever since and feel a simmering rage whenever Emmerdale comes on TV. (Although that might have nothing to do with YR.)
Chef has stood the test of time. It has seen off sweet chilli sauce, which was everywhere 10 years ago, until we realised it was like putting spicy bubblegum on our food. It works on turkey sandwiches in winter, and on burgers in the summer. The ingredients in Chef, like garlic and spices, which seemed exotic in the 1980s, hinted that there was more to life than well-done steak and peas. It paved the way for curries, ramen and your favourite bao house.
And still we're not supposed to like these legacy convenience brands. They have too much sugar, too much salt, too much taste for the food police. They are damned as 'processed' by the kind of millenials who are happy to queue around the block outside a doughnut shop. They are sniffed at by middle-class lifestyle chefs, presumably because they can't fill their new cookbook with pages full of, "Long day? Why not give them Crispy Pancakes and a fruit cocktail?".
The whole foodie wellness drive is a mirage. Jamie's 15-minute meals take 30 minutes, and that doesn't include the time you spent muttering, "Try it when you don't have shagging minions to prep and clean as you go, Jamie."
It's a fantasy, where food is a competitive leisure activity rather than something you need to get through on a weekday, without anyone dying of malnutrition.
One of the great things about having kids is you are reintroduced to food reality. Our kids don't eat broccoli to feel good about themselves; they don't ask for kimchi or turmeric because it would look good on Instagram. They go by their senses - touch, sight, smell - and if it passes all those, they'll give it a taste.
They seem to like what I liked when I was small. Bread, oranges, potatoes, crying at the sight of a green vegetable other than peas. They'll take as much sugar and salt as we'll give them - which can be a lot, if we're tired and they're cranky.
Last summer in France, we stopped at a restaurant alongside the canal in Narbonne for lunch. We ordered fish and chips from the kids' menu, assuming that was the French for fish fingers.
Never make assumptions about the French. The waiter arrived out with two plates of swordfish. Jesus wept. It was hot, we were hungry, "They're never going to eat this," I thought, sure I was going to cry. The waiter winked, and arrived back two seconds later with a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup. Like I say, never make assumptions about the French. Our kids horsed back every last morsel of their fish, without even drowning it in the red stuff.
That's the thing about tomato ketchup, Chef sauce, sweet yogurts and Crispy Pancakes. They have stood the test of time. The world is a better place now that we've moved on to try things like kimchi, kale, dim sum and even kefir. But I'm glad that my kids are reconnecting with some of the old classics. My only regret in the summer heat is that I can't give them a glass of old Whishul Billy.