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Kerry McLean: How reminiscing with mum about the corned beef hash she served us as kids proved food for thought about child poverty today

Kerry with mum Fern, daughter Tara and son Daniel. Below: spaghetti letters
Kerry with mum Fern, daughter Tara and son Daniel. Below: spaghetti letters

By Kerry McLean

I love a Wednesday night. For some it's the worst day, slap bang in the middle of the working week and the day furthest away from either the weekend just gone or the one that lies ahead. But it shines like a beacon for me and knowing it's just around the corner really helps when I'm staggering through a disorganised Monday and running to catch up on a terrible Tuesday.

I shouldn't really say it's a lovely day for me as my husband works late every Wednesday and I only get to talk to him for a moment or two in the mornings, about exciting things like have you let the dog out yet, where did you put my keys and why did you eat the ham I was saving for the children's lunches.

We cross paths again in the evening as I'm returning from work and he's making his way there. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I say passing each other on the road between Ballymena and Antrim has the same effect. After almost 20 years together a quick flash of the lights can work like semaphore, simultaneously saying, "I love you" and "I'm sorry I ate the ham".

So why am I so keen on a Wednesday? Well, it's all due to my mum and her fabulous cooking. She minds my mob after school until I get back home and as well as feeding my noisy lot and my nephews, all gathered around her in the kitchen, squawking like hungry baby birds, she also puts a plate aside for both my sister and I.

In just a few minutes she can rustle up the kind of meals that would take me hours and a personal one-to-one coaching session with Nigella Lawson to even attempt. But it wasn't always so.

Just this week my sister and I were remembering the dishes she used to deliver to the table when we were tiny. This was back in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when mum was in her early 20s. It was a time when she was working full-time, studying full-time and juggling life with a husband and two young daughters.

I think it's fair to say that every minute was accounted for and time was not a luxury with which she was blessed. Every meal seemed to appear like magic from the depths of the freezer. There were few meals from my early childhood that didn't feature a potato waffle or croquette, a crispy pancake or a potato smiley face. Canned pasta was also a regular feature, with a dollop of spaghetti letters a common and welcome addition to our plates.

We reminisced about having corned beef toasties for dinner, smothered in tangy brown sauce, knowing that the night after we would be given our favourite, corned beef hash to eat, made with the leftovers.

I had always thought mum's menu choices were made due to time pressures but this week my mum explained that most of her meal planning was made around cost.

As a very young couple, mum and dad didn't have a lot of money coming in, so every penny was watched. Our favourite corned beef hash was only served because they couldn't afford to buy mince for stew. It was a struggle, but we were lucky - we never went hungry and we never even knew the pressure our parents were under.

Not so for many children here. The Children's Future Food Inquiry report came out last Tuesday, revealing the startling number of children in Northern Ireland for whom hunger is a fact of life and a daily occurrence. While my kids are counting the days until they get off for the summer holidays, there are many others dreading it, as it means they'll miss out on the one hot meal they get each day, lunch in their school canteen.

It seems crazy that in a supposedly modern, advanced country, I'm writing about children we pass on the street or sit beside on the bus or the train, going without food. The thought breaks my heart but, even more so, makes me furious. The Dickensian truth of hungry children should not be still be true in 2019.

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