Saturday, December 25, 2021

Interview John Cooper Clarke / ‘Only eat at the table. And don't watch TV while eating’


John Cooper Clarke



John Cooper Clarke: ‘Only eat at the table. And don't watch TV while eating’

The poet and performer on his dad’s sandwiches, the iniquity of snacking and disappointing Dutch food

John Hind

Sat 16 Mar 2019 18.00 GMT

When I was a kid, for a while my mother worked afternoons at the high-class confectioners round the corner. It was also a tobacco shop. The two went hand in glove. Quality candies, ice-creams, walking canes and baccy products. Mum would bring home lots of sweets which had been on sale too long but were still perfectly OK, and she’d say, “Take your pick.” That was a bit of a perk.

John Cooper Clarke

The first time I saw a green pepper, it was outrageous. There were quite lot of Jewish people in Salford and some were Sephardi and they ate Greco-Middle-Eastern food. I remember my mum saying, “Ohh, you can’t eat green and red peppers – they’ll blow the top of your head off.” So for a long time I thought they were chillies the size of fists. 

Mum was a great cook, smashing. She did well with most things, with the possible exception of tripe and onions. I’ve never really got into tripe. But one trusted one’s parents not to poison you in those days; you didn’t ask questions. If it was put in front of you, you ate it. An innate trust, quite touching really. And I didn’t know what tripe was. We lived opposite Frank Wong’s Chinese and next to him was UCP – United Cattle Products, known colloquially as the Tripe Shop – and in the window were all kinds of animals you wouldn’t dream of eating, including big sheets of tripe looking like bed linen. Dad preferred his honeycombed, cut with onions and carrots. But it was a while before I said: “Leave me out of the tripe.”

Dad once made a fantastic sandwich out of what he called mock crab - something he picked up in the second world war. At the shop Foreshaw’s there was cheddar cheese, called cooking cheese, and cheshire, for sandwiches and special occasions. Dad grated up cheshire, added mustard, salt, white pepper and loads of Worcestershire sauce and mashed it all up – so it had a dressed crab appearance – and slapped it on a slice of Mother’s Pride. I’d never seen him produce anything edible before then. I’m getting peckish just describing the ingredients.

I never went abroad when I was a kid. The first time I went was with my first wife, to Holland when I was about 22. Dutch food is terrible, I think. What sort of person starts the day with egg and cheese? I’d thought everybody in Europe ate better than us and I was quite disappointed.

I don’t walk around the streets eating. There’s something well over the top about the amount of snacking that goes on nowadays. When I sit down to eat, the greatest spice of all is hunger. I don’t understand nibbles – going to someone’s house for a meal and they say, “It’s going to be 20 minutes late, so here’s a bag of Doritos.” No thank you, I can wait.

Me and my wife have a rule about only eating at the table. We’ve let that slide a bit, because I’m writing my memoirs on the dining room table, but we know this is an unusual, temporary situation that’s made us slovenly and lax. You shouldn’t be watching television while you eat either – everybody should be eating and shovelling together at a table. That’s what I grew up with. There was no “Don’t speak with your mouth full.” I can’t stand people who remain silent at table.

I grew up living in badly converted apartments with inadequate kitchens. “Kitchen” was a place where Mother stood, with a sink and a stove. Anyone else was in her way. But I never had the yearning for a dream kitchen. I quite like cooking, but not to the extent that I look on a kitchen as a domain.

I hardly saw anyone on the punk scene eat anything apart from the odd bag of crisps. Except for Steve Jones [the Sex Pistols guitarist], who could show you all the best pie and mash shops in London.

I hate chickpeas. I like hummus but I ate that before I realised it was made out of chickpeas.

I developed early, travelling the country, my modus operandi of asking at the hotel desk, “Suppose it’s your wedding anniversary, where would you take the wife tonight?” so I’ve been able to build up a mental map of restaurants veering from “five star” to “avoid like the plague”. I’m a fussy eater. I like my fish and chips or fry-ups, all the standard riffs, but I want to know they’re the best in town. For instance, I once spent five days in Great Yarmouth – it’s a long story – and there was a mile of places serving Sunday dinners and I needed to know the best. I’m a bit of a perfectionist like that. “I only have five days here; give me the lowdown, give me the place.”

The most I’ve ever earned was from three Sugar Puffs commercials, playing the sidekick to the Honey Monster. It was amazing.

Ketchup to the table. A screw-top white. It’s never, ever wrong.

I have an arrangement with [restaurateur] Mark Hix where I do an impromptu reading at the Hix Bar in Soho about every few years and for that he feeds me and mine for nothing. He’s a lovely man and getting the short end of the deal.

My Favourite Things

I love French food. I’ve come to the conclusion that if a French person can’t make something delicious, no one can.

Fine wine. I love a restaurant where some sommelier has obviously gone door to door in Tuscany.

Locanda Locatelli near Marble Arch. It’s not cheap but it’s marvellous. I once ate there twice in one day. They’re lovely family people and they’re not overstretched.

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