Tony Judt on gastronomic encounters in the London of his youth @ New York Review of Books. Just because you grow up on bad food, it does not follow that you lack nostalgia for it. My own gastronomic youth was firmly bounded by everything that was least inspiring in traditional English cuisine, alleviated with hints of Continental cosmopolitanism occasionally introduced by my father’s fading memories of a Belgian youth, and interspersed with weekly reminders of another heritage altogether: Sabbath evening dinners at the home of my East European Jewish grandparents. This curious melange did little to sharpen my taste buds—it was not until I lived in France as a graduate student that I encountered good food on a regular basis—but it added further to the confusions of my youthful identity.
My mother was born in the least Jewish part of the old London East End: at the intersection of Burdett Road and the Commercial Road, a few blocks north of the London Docks. This topographical misfortune—she always felt a little tangential to her surroundings, lacking the intensely Jewish milieu of Stepney Green a few hundred yards to the north—played into many otherwise curious aspects of her personality. Unlike my father, for example, my mother had great respect for the King and the Queen, and was always half-tempted to stand up during the Queen’s speech on television in later years. She was discreet to the point of embarrassment about her Jewishness, in contrast to the overtly foreign and Yiddish quality of most of the rest of our extended family. And in an inverted tribute to her own mother’s indifference to Jewish traditions beyond those ordained by annual rituals (and the decidedly Cockney ambiance of the streets where she grew up), she had almost no knowledge of Jewish cuisine.