The craze for Chinese food reached the North-East a little later than most parts (like the South-West, the opposite nether region, which was, for instance, late to catch on to punk – the first heavily-studded, safety-pinned teenagers turned up in the wild beyond Exeter well after the Sex Pistols had called it a night). But my sister Clare and I, meeting up one summer after our university terms were over, were both keen – keen enough to try to reproduce the kinds of stuff they had on offer in the newly-minted takeaway. The options were pretty limited at that stage, it has to be said: chow mein, chop suey, sweet and sour battered balls, spare ribs, and pease pudding (well, it was the North East… no, I am lying about the pease pudding).
About the same time, cookbooks started to appear, to cash on the Chinese craze, with recipes which referenced impossible-to-find ingredients, like soy sauce (never mind the really hard ones). However, spare ribs looked like it was easy enough to manage. The problem was, neither of us had actually ever been to a butcher to buy something (a sheltered childhood, but I dare say we weren’t the only ones). And what were they spare ribs of? Which animal? The books said, on closer inspection, that they were from the pig. Okay. Then we would confront the butcher.
If you don’t know anything about butchers, and have never set foot on their sawdust floors – not with a view to purchase – nor asked for a cut of anything, you are in a position of potential embarrassment. It is the same embarrassment you face at a garage if you don’t know what a carburettor is, or a milliner’s if you don’t, well, if you don’t know what millinery is (I am still at a loss like this in flower shops. I can tell a curtal-sonnet from a Pushkin sonnet, but that’s never stood me in any good stead in any retail environment. I just don’t know one flower from another).
So we probably looked a right pair of prats as we stood before the cleaver-wielding, hat-wearing, blood-stained purveyor of meats. ‘Yes?’ he said, inquisitively, after we’d stood there as silently as if before an altar. ‘Have you,’ we asked, with a certain fake insouciance, ‘any spare ribs?’ ‘I have,’ he said firmly, adding ‘How many do you want?’ Oh blast! Caught out when we were doing so well!
Seeing his customers looking pink and mute, he opened a newspaper, and popped a fair few – perhaps as many as twenty – on to it. ‘Will that do?’ we nodded sagely. He rolled them up. ‘You can have them for three shillings,’ he said, even though decimalisation had already taken place. Three shillings! It was a bargain! The Chinese must have been raking it in!
We set to the preparation of food with a certain gusto. There was much basting, much spicing, much marinading, though not necessarily in that order. We laid the stuff out in a tin of some sort, and cooked them as per the instructions, which were easy to follow. After the appropriate interval, during which there was much looking and looking again, as is the way with novice cooks, we got them out, and prepared to eat our first home-produced, completely authentic Chinese food.
The first thing that struck us was that there wasn’t what you might call a lot of meat on the ribs, not compared with the ones you bought, ready-made, over the counter. The second thing was that, try as we might to convince ourselves, the things weren’t actually that tasty. In fact, they were what an innocent bystander with an appetite might have called unpleasant.
The third thing to strike, with all the force of a ferrule, was that, although Chinese food had reached Sunderland, the terminology that went with it had not made such great advances, and was probably held up somewhere in the deep south like Derby. And so our daring question, ‘Have you any spare ribs?’ had struck no gongs in the butcher’s brain. What he had heard was ‘Have you any ribs going spare?’ and had provided us, at no great cost, with the ingredients for what he assumed was a special night out for our dog.
I suspect it was Clare who first suggested that we go to the takeaway that evening.