The eating of offal and other variety meats is a sacred activity in our family. Granny, the matriarch, loved me and my siblings the best because we ate whatever she cooked for us. We wanted to impress her. We had sheep’s kidneys for breakfast: glossy purple, halved and fried in a skillet with butter, garlic and onions. Lamb liver: diced and heavily peppered, quick-fried with bacon. Lamb heart could be a little gamey and dense, but it had the sweetest flavour of all. Granny fried the heart in thin strips, like chips. Sheep brain patties, chicken liver pâté, black pudding. The most labour intensive was homemade pig’s brawn. It took Granny an entire day to boil a pig’s head. She would get me to cover the kitchen table with newspaper and she and I would heft the steaming saucepan into the middle. Once it had cooled, we spent the afternoon together, perched on wooden stools, peeling all of the tiny muscles from the face of the pig. Granny combined these goodies with a little diced shin beef and gelatine in a tin. She placed it in the fridge and it set into a cake of jellied meat, also known as head-cheese, which could be sliced for sandwiches at leisure.
For a long while, I was the only grandchild that would eat cow’s tongue. Granny’s butcher used to save them for her as gifts, and she would keep them in the freezer until I came to stay so we could eat them together. She would often have it going when I arrived, and I’d know what it was when I saw her biggest saucepan on the hob. We had a pantomime where I would walk in and say, ‘What have we got here?’ and she would shrug, nonchalant, turn away, and say, ‘Have a look yourself.’ A cow’s tongue is about the length of a forearm. You boil it for an hour with bay leaves and peppercorns, let it cool, and peel off the rubbery skin with your fingers. Some like to eat it hot, but Granny and I preferred it chilled. Granny would curl the tongue on its side in the bottom of a small mixing bowl, compress it under a saucer, weigh it down with an iron counterweight and leave it in the fridge. Once cold, it would hold the shape of the bottom of the bowl and it could be sliced thinly, crosswise. It was extremely tender, with a marbled muscular texture—it looks like wood grain in the cross-section—and the flavour is subtle, like duck liver pâté, or Christmas ham, but without the overbearing sweetness.
This taste for offal was a component of Granny’s code of taste and manners—a complex family rulebook by which people could be judged. The enjoyment of offal fit into this code as a ‘dying art’. These rules, when taken as whole, appeared to coalesce and embed certain values of distinction. She guaranteed that if I followed them, the right people would classify me amongst their membership—doors would be opened.
A fork may only be used like a spoon, with the prongs facing upwards, when you are not also holding a knife, no matter how difficult it is to eat your peas. A napkin goes on your lap, never tucked into your collar. Eat with your mouth closed. Do not speak with food in your mouth. Elbows off the table. You should pause from time to time by placing the knife and fork in a triangle, subtending the bottom of your plate. Haste is unbecoming. Do not appear to be consumed by the task of eating. Don’t poke the fairies. Wash your sticky paws before dinner. Sit back in the chair. Do not lean over the plate. The soup bowl must be tipped away from the body, never towards. The spoon should never dive, it must be used in a ladle action—dipped with the outside edge first by rotating on an axis coincident with the stem and tipped into the mouth using the opposite edge. Never put the whole spoon in your mouth. You may blow, but do not slurp. Bread is to be broken and eaten, never dipped. Everything must be offered: never reach for anything, nor may you ask for something that is out of reach. Indicate you have finished eating by placing your knife and fork in the 6:30 position at the bottom of the plate. The fork prongs should face upwards, unless you would like seconds, in which case they should face down. Anything but strict adherence attracted a sharp kick under the table.
Granny passed down the code by catechism and dictum, and a diluted version was seconded by both my mother and Aunt. My siblings and I were thoroughly indoctrinated with regular stays at the farm, which she referred to as ‘finishing school’. As a very young person, the importance of the rules appeared self-evident, but it was only much later on that I realised these ‘manners’ were really just indicators of class, largely untethered from considerations of function or efficiency. Manners are like inside jokes—they draw their power from the fact that those who know are aware that there are others who do not.
We ate at 6:30 pm every night. Grandpa and I sat at the big oak table. Granny would shuffle in with Grandpa’s plate, flick his napkin open and settle it in his lap. He and I would wait patiently while Granny skirted the long table, mumbling or singing to herself in her gravelly voice, to sit next to me at the opposite end. She moved like a puppet, her carriage frozen in a scoliotic bend, arthritic hands resting above her stomach. She propped her tiny body up with a stack of newspapers and magazines on her chair and nobody started eating until she placed her own napkin on her lap and said:
We mostly ate in silence, apart from the squelching of Granny’s false teeth against her gums, and the hypnotic rhythm of her breath through her nose, wiggling slightly as she chewed. Grandpa, a tall and wiry man that she could dress, feed, and tell about the news of the day, would be largely unresponsive. He was absolutely dependent on her for his existence—did exactly as she told him. She kept him impeccably presented: pressed shirts, cashmere jumpers, expensive haircuts. Once, I remember Granny casually waving her hand at him, as she might point out a new oven, to ask me what I thought of his new teeth—Grandpa could barely close his mouth for the enormous blue-white dentures. Granny said they had looked too small before but ‘they only went up in whole sizes.’
Mum said Granny would have preferred to be a man, in a way. Granny used to chuckle, sardonically, when she told us how, before he got sick, Grandpa used to make her change from pants to skirt before she went to town. And how after she took over the farm, the bank manager refused to shake her hand. She didn’t consider herself a feminist, though. I think she saw herself as an anomaly. She hated anything pink. She wore earth tones, pressed chinos, linen shirts, crew neck jumpers. Her décor might be described as New Zealand gothic: dark-stained wood, bluebird china, iron doorstops. She was respected and feared amongst the community. It was strange to see burly men become quiet and polite in her presence, crossing their hands over their groin and lowering their voices. They called her Mrs Derenzy. I once saw her lecture the sharemilker on the correct way to scrub his dirty nails. She was completely unafraid of silence. She would stand in front of someone, looking at him until he made conversation with her. And she had favours all over town. If she wanted to visit us in New Plymouth, she’d call a local roading contractor, and he would send a worker in a Ute to pick her up, drive her four hours to New Plymouth, drive four hours home, then pick her up again when she was done. She wouldn’t tell me what had put him so far in her debt. I asked her about the conversation during these trips and she said she didn’t usually talk, just looked out the window.
Granny doted on me and my brother—spoiled us—while depriving our sister of the same. When I came to visit, she would drive me to town and have me follow her into stores, where she would present me to acquaintances or salespeople by gesturing vaguely in my direction and saying, ‘My grandson,’ as though I were a new car, or a dog. Even as an adult, she would take me to buy me farmer outfits from Farmlands or RD1. I blushed, and the storeman watched on, while Granny held shirts up against my shoulders to check the size. I followed her with my new bundle of clothes, placed it on the counter and stared at the ground, avoiding eye contact, as the man refolded my new shirts, jumpers, gumboots, or whatever, and then he and I waited patiently for Granny to count exact change from a bulging coin purse. She would say these purchases were ‘our little secret’ and then chide my sister for having anything new and expensive, even when she had saved for it herself.
Granny lived in a state of perpetual agony from the build-up of gases in her stomach. She told me of her surgeon’s surprise when he discovered that she had an extra eight feet of small intestine. ‘Highly unusual, given my size,’ she said. She would lie supine on the sofa, groaning softly, while we watched Coronation Street or Country Calendar. When I asked what the problem was she’d say, ‘I’ve got the most terrible wind.’ I was sceptical that this was purely the result of her exceptionally long intestine. I guessed that it might have had more to do with her unusual diet, but it was not my place to question the matriarch.
When she was dying, my sister and I rushed to the hospital with a strange sense of calm. We saw Granny there on the bed, a catheter running out from under the flannel sheet, her face drained and empty, all softness. I kissed her head, my sister whispered, ‘I love you, Granny.’ I gave her a foot massage. The family gathered around the bed and no one flinched at the smells coming from the last rattles of her bowels; the undignified miasma of death. The doctors couldn’t tell us exactly when she’d die, only that she would. My sister and I left the hospital and drove back to Auckland. In the car I smelled those same terrible farts, and realised they had been my sister’s all along.