Mary’s story: the power of food

Mary and Pam

Mary Clear with Pam Warhurst in Mary’s garden

‘When I’m king,’ Prince Charles once told Mary Clear, ‘you can plant wherever you like.’ Mary likes to tell that story of her meeting with royalty because it’s a world away from what she experienced as a child.

Mary is one of the driving forces behind Incredible Edible Todmorden, the local food movement that’s changing the way people think about what they eat and where it comes from. Todmorden is pioneering changes in the way people talk to their neighbours, the way they learn and the way they do business. But the roots of those changes go back a long way.

The story of Incredible Edible Todmorden is now being written by Joanna Dobson, who has worked for the last two years to find out why it is inspiring so many people around the world – a TED talk by co-founder Pam Warhurst has now been viewed three quarters of a million times, and incredible edible projects are popping up everywhere.

Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution is Pam’s story and is written in her voice. But it’s also the story of a town and its people, and how they are getting to grips with the challenge of food and climate change.

In one interlude in the story, Mary tells of her childhood and the power of food.

“The reason that I understand the power of food is that I grew up in absolute poverty. I lived in an awful lot of children’s homes and I learned that you can use food to be kind to people or you can use it to control them.

I remember one home that was run by nuns and every day the nuns would have bacon for breakfast and they would cut off the rind and save it for us. On Sundays that rind would be fried up and we would have it. To us it was a great treat: we were grateful that the nuns hadn’t just thrown the rind in the bin. When you have known what it is to be hungry, that kind of thing sticks in your mind.

Some of my earliest and best memories are of food breaking down barriers and bringing happiness to my own family. I was born not long after the war in an army camp in Essex that was being squatted by poor people from London. My mum had five illegitimate children and back then that was scandalous in a way that you can hardly imagine now.

When we were eventually moved into a council house it was as if we were lepers – nobody would come near us. My mum had a pretty middle class upbringing so she had no idea how to cook because that was what servants were for.

But even if she had known it wouldn’t have made a lot of difference because we had a big stove that ran on coke and wood and there was no way with five children that she could get hold of enough fuel to make it work. So we ate things like cracker sandwiches: two slices of bread spread with Stork margarine and squashed together around a couple of cream crackers. Occasionally we would have fried bread with lard and if there was a bit of jam my mum would make it last as long as she could.

As children we knew about foraging long before it was fashionable and on the way to school we would eat ‘bread and cheese’, which is the old country word for hawthorn leaves.

The thing was that because my mum was middle class, she was good at reading and writing and that is why, every two or three months, the gipsies would come to call. I absolutely loved those times.

Mum would write their letters for them and they would always start the same way: ‘Dear so and so, I hope this letter finds you as it leaves me.’ The gipsies would bring all their pots and pans and they would bring eggs and a chicken and maybe some vegetables and while Mum was writing their letters they would fire up the stove and cook a beautiful stew. It was so exciting and it left an indelible mark on me of the way that you can use food to make a really huge difference in people’s lives.”

The power of food is now changing the way people think in dozens of Incredible Edible projects. As they say in Todmorden, if you eat, you’re in.

Next: The lost art of wasting nothing…

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