Actually, it was worse than that: I was a complete beginner at food. My mother had been going out to work since I was about 6, and was a reluctant and unimaginative cook (sorry, Mum, if you're reading this over my shoulder from the spooky ether somewhere, but you know it's true!). To make things worse, I was a fussy eater: no onions, no vegetables other than peas or sweetcorn, that sort of thing. So, frozen foods like beefburgers and fish-fingers, which were new on the market back then, were a godsend for her. Tasty, child-friendly food in minutes! * It is an interesting question, what impact my prodigious consumption of MSG over the years must have had. Perhaps, like Alf Tupper's fish'n'chips, it is the secret of my super-human powers. Or my delusional nature. Or both.
Things were changing in Britain, food-wise, in the 1970s. If you bought into the alternative-lifestyle package, then "whole foods" were a big part of the deal. Brown rice and pulses sat around in sacks on the bare-board floors of whole-food shops (in those days, often run by a commune) which had been stripped back to their Victorian essentials. Actually, a lot of the "alternative" 70s was about stripping out the false fronts and facades installed in the 50s and 60s, literally and metaphorically, in search of a buried authenticity. As if truth were a decorative cast-iron fireplace concealed behind plasterboard.
Actually knowing what to do with any of this dusty stuff was rare knowledge, spread out into the community via various self-styled Earth Mothers and Macrobiotic Shamans. Quite often they got it badly wrong, but you were usually too gratefully stoned to complain much about eating the flavoured mud served at their tables, and learned not to mock or to suggest a takeaway. Other times, other manners.
A new sophistication about food was happening, too. Exotic things like red and green peppers began to appear in greengrocers, and ordinary folk began eating out. This was the age of prawn cocktail, scampi, chicken in a basket, and Black Forest gateau, all washed down with Liebfraumilch. Mostly disgusting and badly cooked, but when you're acquiring new tastes you have to learn to push through the Disgust Barrier, a bit like a sword-swallower overcoming his gag-reflex.
Which reminds me of a story.
One day, one of my housemates (whose upbringing was rather more sophisticated and metropolitan than mine) returned from the shops looking particularly pleased with himself. "Look what I've got!" he said, and removed a bulbous, warty light-bulb-shaped thing from a paper bag, that was the most hideous dark green in colour. "Um, syphilis? Blood poisoning? A dragon's egg?" I wondered.
"Look, this is the most delicious thing in the world... An avocado pear!"
Now, I'd heard of avocados -- they crop up in Gerald Durrell books -- and knew that "avocado" was a very now finish for bathroom fittings. I'd never seen one before, though. Why anyone would want a dark-green sink covered in warts like a toad was beyond me, but then I didn't much fancy prawn cocktail either.
With much ceremony, my friend prepared vinaigrette, and sliced the pear in two, revealing an enormous stone sticking out of one half, like a dead lizard's eye, and a corresponding hollow in the other half, surrounded by yellow-green, putrid-looking flesh. "They taste way better than they look!" he promised, pouring vinaigrette into the hollow, and offered me a spoonful. Aah! It was possibly the most distressingly awful thing I had ever tasted. Not since I was blindfolded and had cloves placed on my tongue in a "guess the taste" game in Cubs had I felt so violated by a food item. I retched, and spat it out.
With disbelief, I watched my friend wolf down the whole thing, as if were the most delicious thing in the world. I think he thought I was being perverse and theatrical, but it might as well have been monkey's brains he was spooning out of that satanic green egg. I have never eaten one since.
Sometimes, the Disgust Barrier is simply set too high.
Not an avocado...
* For some reason, this reminds me of a favourite joke from Mad Magazine. A man in the desert is contemplating a packet labelled "Instant water -- just add hot coffee".