I have been married more than once — more than twice actually — and have enjoyed (sometimes endured) several relationships both before, and in between my various marriages.
However, there are two institutions to which I have shown unswerving and unconditional loyalty during my conscious lifetime: the first — pardon the cliché — is to the football team of the one-club town where I grew up, namely Sunderland; the second is to the consumption of chopped liver. Both have caused me severe pain from time to time (well, in the case of my football team, most of the time), the latter, when over-indulged, giving me a well-deserved, but equally-well-worth-it stomachache the following morning.
I consider myself something of a chopped liver “anorak”. I pride myself on being able to locate, on the evidence of a solitary spoonful or, as is more proper, a rye-bread-bearing mouthful, the precise distance from Vilnius, Warsaw or Odessa where the recipe was first conceived. With how much ox or calves’ liver, egg, onion, chicken fat and bread has the chicken liver been adulterated?
Or has the core ingredient of chicken liver — the quintessential component, nay, the sine qua non of our ancestral delicacy — been altogether forsaken? Is it dry or cloying, this dish, which is as distinctive a part of our cultural heritage (Ashkenazi, at any rate) as the Talmud Bavli or a Woody Allen movie? What is the consistency: satisfyingly thick and bitty, its key elements clearly demarcated, or — heaven forfend! — very finely chopped, its constituent parts undifferentiated, closer in fact to its machine-made rival, the dreaded goyishe pâté, so beloved (I am told) of French restaurants?
But my affiliation with chopped liver goes way beyond the mere gustatory or epicurean.
Like Nick Hornby’s bond with Arsenal FC or with popular music, chopped liver has had a deep associative significance in my life, linked to sibling rivalry, the twin emotions of Oedipal love and hatred and, above all, the bestowing of intra-familial status.
Let me explain: I would frequently play the part of inveterate belcher over the plate, newly arrived, that belonged to my incredibly sensitive and fastidious younger sister, thus colonising for myself an extra portion. On a Friday night I would invariably eat so much, generously spread on substantial slices (that’s too restrained a word – “chunks” would better capture it) of challah, that I would forgo the pleasures of the three remaining courses and spend the rest of the evening prostrate beneath the dining-room table..
Anyway, onward to the main story: basically, my grandmother made simply the best chopped liver on the planet; (whose grandmother didn’t? I hear a strangled cry), but this was not some minor triumph of empiricism over subjectivity and rationalism, this is objective Platonic truth: hers really was the best ever.
And this story concerns the symbolic power and hierarchical status that attached themselves to her chopped liver.
In our family, especially among the cousins, the children, that is, of my paternal grandmother’s two sons and one daughter, it was chopped liver and its allocation that was the measure of where one had reached in life. Before one’s barmitzvah (I genuinely don’t remember whether this rule applied to girls – this was after all a very frum “Litvak” community, in a far-flung provincial outpost of our island home) one received a single piece of challah with a thin coating of the magical liver.
The accession to manhood was marked by promotion to the rank of recipient, now, of two pieces of the said bread-and-liver combination. When one passed O-levels, the upper coating of liver became noticeably more pronounced and, with A- levels and the attainment of a place at university (invariably in London), one reached the ultimate goal of no fewer than three abundantly adorned slices.
Oh yes, and to qualify for the liver, you manifestly had to have attended shul, dropping in on her liver-producing factory (I mean home) on your return journey — Sunderland, I should clarify, is a small place, or at least that’s true of the two roads on which the Jews principally resided and which involved no great walking distance.
Needless to say, later on, during my secular rebellion against all matters religious, I would fall out of bed on a Saturday at about 12.30, put on my best suit, carry my hat and rush down to my grandmother’s, to all intents and purposes a righteous congregant, with a tale of who had got maftir and what length winklepickers so-and-so was wearing. Sometimes a virtuous cousin would betray me, but more often than not I would get my hands on the filthy lucre, I mean liver.
One outrage I could never fathom, though, or accept, was the cruel, discriminatory treatment of the most senior of our generation of cousins — this was, by the way, positive discrimination and I hope he chokes (only slightly of course) on his liver when reading this. He it was who, as the oldest of us all, was fast-tracked into receiving his three slices merely upon being barmitzvah-ed, whereas the rest of us had to wait until A-level success.
So where is this all leading, you may well be wondering?
Answer: to my grandmother’s last Shabbes on earth. For she died on Cup Final day, 1972 (Leeds United beat Arsenal 1-0, an Alan Clarke low-diving header sealing the win, almost a year to the day before my own north-east team would gain their famous, highly improbable odd-goal victory over Leeds, Ian Porterfield securing the win in the 32nd minute; I always thought it was rotten luck that my grandmother so narrowly missed that once-in-a-lifetime triumph. Hang on — I tell a lie: the Lads beat Preston in 1937, a victory which, though she didn’t witness, she must surely have “experienced”).
But I digress. My father had found her body on Saturday lunchtime on his return from shul, the silver Shabbes candlesticks which she was to give me as a wedding gift that August lying at the foot of her bed. When he phoned me with the terrible news, I was settling in for a day’s build-up to the big game (remember, the only live televised game of the year) in front of the telly in my Hampstead bedsit; for I was now a prisoner of conscience (aka northern émigré) trapped in the effete pastures of north-west London.
My brother, also London-based, was for some reason uncontactable — so he got to watch the final — and my uncle, child of my now deceased grandmother and self-proclaimed friend of Don Revie, was actually at Wembley Stadium (TV viewers apparently saw an urgent message flashed onto the huge Wembley screen asking him to contact the authorities). So it was that at 3 pm exactly (kick-off time at Wembley) I set off from King’s Cross on the long train journey up to Wearside.
When I eventually reached my grandmother’s home at around 8.30pm, there was a sizeable crowd, comprising mourners (we’re a large family) and various representatives of a highly supportive community. My father was understandably very emotional, which did not sit altogether comfortably with the English-like composure (one might almost say stiff upper lip) of the other family members in the house.
In order to remove myself from this rather awkward scene, with people telling my father, quite inappropriately, to calm down, I took myself into the kitchen and… there it was: a bowl containing the last chopped liver my grandmother would ever make.
There must have been the equivalent of 12 slices’ worth or even 14 — which in the context of my upbringing and the apportionment of status within the family was a kind of chopped liver nirvana.
I stared longingly at the bowl. Then suddenly and magically, as if from nowhere, my aunt (incidentally also my first teacher in primary school), who I guess wanted to escape the prevailing atmosphere in the lounge, entered the kitchen.
She looked at me. She glanced at the bowl. She looked at me once more. I turned to the liver. She looked again at the bowl. She turned to me. We looked at each other. She winked at me and uttered these immortal words: “Go on, then!”
I scoffed the lot.