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The culinary lives of our grandparents
Something on toast. Words by Clare Finney; illustration by Michelle Wong
Good morning and welcome to this bank holiday edition of Vittles Season 3: You and I Eat Differently.
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I had three grandmothers, therefore I’m statistically more qualified than most to write about the topic. My grandmother on my Indian side, on my Goan side, was a powerhouse in the kitchen. “You know, your grandmother was a great cook” is a line that crops up whenever and wherever she gets mentioned. There are family trees, but also recipe trees, and she sits at the trunk: I still eat dishes made by various branches of the family, some of them fairly distant, where I’m told the recipe has been adapted from her’s. It’s no surprise. She cooked semi-professionally in Mombasa, making food from her home for working Indian men: beef chops, samosas, xacuti, tripe sorpotel. When she came to Britain her output didn’t stop, and her Goa sausages were so valued that one member of the family tried to swap them while couriering them to my uncle: an act of forgery I wrote about in my article for Pit Magazine last year.
My dad was adopted so I have two English grandmothers. I can barely recall my adopted grandmother through my blurry memories ─ like my maternal grandmother she died when I was young. I don’t have the food stories to view her life through, only that she cooked a mean roast, and that my dad got fat off the shards of beef dripping potatoes left in the pan. As for my biological grandmother, well, I heard she could make a decent poached egg on toast. So out of three, only one grandmother left a legacy through recipes, but that’s not necessarily a reflection of a life well lived. It’s impossible to disentangle my maternal grandmother culinary skills from the fact she had to cook for her family from a child, that she was married in her early teens, and that by my age she had five children to feed. How liberating can the stove be when you’re chained to it?
Today’s newsletter by Clare Finney is about the culinary lives of our grandparents and how their narratives differ from our own. In particular, there is a marked difference between our British grandmothers and our immigrant or foreign grandmothers, whose culinary prowess is respected/fetishised in a cookbook genre I tentatively call ‘nonna porn’. At the genre’s nadir, they feel extractive, a reduction of a person to the recipe they can provide. But for better or worse, they are still the main way older women have visibility in the food world.
Perhaps, as Finney points out, we need new stories. I still feel the absence of all my grandmothers, which is why I write about them to keep the second-hand memory alive. But I wish I could quote them all in their own words instead. There are many untold stories still out there; if you’re lucky enough, then you should take the time to record them.
Something on toast, by Clare Finney
“I am not a foodie,” my grandmother says firmly, in much the same tone people use to tell you they aren’t religious. Though a large part of our weekly conversations is about food, my grandma has always been clear that the culinary world she occupies is very different to mine. While my ‘foodie’ world (a word I hate, but which serves a purpose) would normally swirl with trends, travel and new openings, hers remains firmly rooted in reason. Both have their place: her shepherd’s pie and lemon posset are on a par with anything I’ve eaten as a food writer, and I tell her so. But for my grandma, food has always been the facilitator of enjoyment rather than enjoyable for its own sake.
Until my grandad died last year, this distinction didn’t bother me. Actually, I relished the reality check it had on my faddy, foodie existence. But when my grandad’s departure was closely, cruelly followed by successive lockdowns, my grandma’s interest in cooking rapidly waned. Dinner became something-on-toast; her quasi-religious self-cooked Friday fish and chip sacrament fell by the wayside. “It’s cooking for and eating with others, that’s where the pleasure is for me,” she said – and how could I argue otherwise? Cooking for and eating with others – as a mother, a grandmother and a hotel owner – was all she had ever known.
Today’s prevailing narratives of food as self-care, cooking as therapy, ‘cheeky’ takeaways – narratives I have swallowed myself – were not built for her generation, shaped as it was by post-war rationing and pre-war ideas around ‘woman’s work’. It is harder to access the meditative joys of the stove if you have spent your life tied to it by duty, not choice. When I mentioned Nigella’s “cookie for one” recipe, my step-grandmother was lost for words. My grandmother, however, had plenty. “What a waste of time. Why would you bake a single cookie?” she scoffed as she baked five whole cakes for a four-strong household.
Previously, her industrial largesse ensured she herself continued to cook and eat properly. Batch cooking for coffee with friends and visits from us broke up her sensual and nutritional monotony by casting her in the familiar role of chief feeder. Yet lockdown has removed her reasons for eating. As food became the theme of the lockdown, with article after article filled with recipes and recommendations, the gap between the nation’s culinary narrative and my grandmother’s became a gulf.
My grandmother’s story is not a unique one. “Pre-pandemic, around one in ten people over 65 were malnourished or at risk of being malnourished, because they were lonely or unable to get to the shops,” says Lesley Carter of Age UK. “As you can imagine, this has been magnified many, many times over since then.” As well as being Age UK’s clinical lead, Carter is Project Lead for its Malnutrition Task Force. She tells me it is often not financial poverty that is the problem, but poverty in “ideas and enthusiasm”. These are people who are, like my grandmother, at a loss as to know what to cook when there is no one by themselves to cook for; or they are, like my grandfather would have been, at a loss as to know how. Many crave an alternative to their familiar diets yet are unsure where to begin with the explosion of unfamiliar ingredients and recipes. As retirement from work, physical health problems and the pandemic take them away from shared social spaces, their opportunities to cook for or to be cooked for dwindles – and with it their motivation. Yet the mainstream media rarely offers an alternative narrative. To the extent that they appear at all, they appear either as family feeders, or frail people in need of food parcels and help.
Perhaps we need a new story – or rather, we need more, diverse stories. “We do need to counteract the perception and the representation of older adults, which is far less empowering than what we see, and what is available for them,” says Eleanor Mair, communications officer for the movement of wide-ranging, locally-run interest groups that make up the University of the Third Age. She tells me that their cookery, baking and wine and cheese groups offer a model of older life and food that is rarely seen in the media – not to mention a way of reintroducing the social aspect of cooking and eating to those now on their own. Although these groups have continued during the pandemic, it has only been for the more digitally enabled: Zoom-based socialising is not a panacea when 64% of single 65+ households do not have internet access in the UK.
“A lot of emails I get are from readers who have found themselves newly on their own,” says Karen Barnes, the editor of delicious magazine. With a partner who works in the NHS, the last year has left Barnes all too familiar with the “I’ll just have a piece of toast” school of cooking. For her, what the pandemic has highlighted is “the need to acknowledge those who eat alone; for them to find joy in our pages, as well as recipes that meet their requirements.” She cites an email from a man in his eighties who had turned to delicious magazine after the death of his wife, who had always cooked from the magazine. He had no cooking experience. That this man might find not just practical help but solace – companionship, even – within the magazine’s pages was an incredible testimony to the potential the media has to “rekindle one’s enjoyment in food”, as Barnes puts it.
Food is social – for all of us, but particularly for generations that grew up during a time of tight-knit communities, when family and friends were round the corner. Yet as Carter points out – and as the widower’s email proved – there are ways of eating socially without someone else actually being present. Age UK advise eating with a favourite radio show, television program or magazine – something familiar, that provides a sense of companionship.” Barnes recalls another delicious reader, who wrote to her saying “please never get rid of Debora Robertson [a regular contributor, whose columns often explore the emotional resonance of classic dishes] because she speaks to the heart and soul of what food means to me.” “It reminded me why we need to have parts of the magazine that are not just recipes or news and trends, articles that are just there to inspire, or provide joy and comfort,” says Barnes. Food articles favoured by my grandmother and her friends are those which act in lieu of a good conversation, she tells me: making observations or shedding light on subjects you have often thought about or pondered.
The most important thing is generating a sense of enjoyment and interest in food – whether that’s through cooking three courses with a local lunch group or watching Gardener’s World with a quality ready meal. “Many ready meals really are good now,” Carter chides, in response to my involuntary balking. The statistics around ready meal consumption – over 55s are reportedly 35% more likely to eat ready meals and 20% less likely to cook from scratch than younger generations – worry her less than the damaging narratives she sees and reads around older people and food.
At best, it’s uninspiring; at worst it’s misleading. Carter recalls a conversation she had recently with a woman worried about her elderly mother eschewing the fresh vegetables she had so scrupulously provided in favour of stewed apple and custard. Our needs change as we age, she points out – and when the priority is simply getting enough calories, pleasure is really important.
“This is another problem we have: women, and it is mostly women, following the healthy eating, low fat advice the media has fed them all their lives well into old age, and getting very thin.” It’s yet another example of a narrative the media could engage with, in a way that’s positive and meaningful – because let’s face it, “if you can’t have custard, or a cream cake you’ve always loved at 85, then when can you? At that age you’re invariably better off with some weight on your hips. Older people who live alone are not really a part of that world [of food media],” Carter concludes. “But they need to be, and it needs to be far more positive. Food isn’t just nutrition. It’s enjoyment and identity.”
In the last few years, it’s been impossible to notice what Jonathan Nunn, the editor of this newsletter, calls ‘nonna porn’; the growing prevalence of cookbooks and blogs which venerate grandmothers’ recipes to the point of fetishization. From Pasta Grannies and Cooking with Nonna to the excellent In Bibi’s Kitchen, flour-dusted elderly hands have become the hallmarks of authenticity and grandmothers the repositories of culture and memory. That is, in non-British cultures. For many British people over a certain age, food isn’t identity. British grannies are not romanticised in the same way as nonnas, nonyas and yiayias – but then why would you commit your grandmother’s Yorkshire pudding recipe to paper if she uses Aunt Bessie’s?
This British dependence on time saving shortcuts comes with its own complexities, says journalist and author Anastasia Miari. Yes, her Corfiot grandmother is the gatekeeper of brilliant family recipes, but she also never learnt to read or write. “Her entire life has been focused around her ability to grow produce, raise a family and feed that family. She didn't have the same opportunities [as women in Britain].” Miari’s other grandmother is British. “She grew up in an era of emancipation, of a sexual revolution when microwaves were celebrated,” Miari tells me. In my own fetishising of homemade fare I forget that for some grandmothers, shop-bought produce represents opportunity: a life beyond the stove.
The irony, for Miari, is that it is her illiterate Cypriot grandmother who inspired her book, Grand Dishes: a collection of grandmothers’ recipes, lovingly shot and collated by her and Iska Lupton. At first sight, the book seems to tell just the one, stale story of the beneficent matriarch, the defining feature of the nonna genre. Yet the stories of these women, sourced from around the world, show the many different ways in which this tale is experienced and can be told.
“One of the things we really wanted to address with Grand Dishes was the issue of underrepresentation or misrepresentation of people over the age of 70 – even 60, particularly women,” says Miari. “There is an underlying feeling of worthlessness, perpetuated by their lack of presence in the mainstream media – and that does affect your inclination to look after and feed yourself.” What struck Miari and Lupton in the process of compiling the book was how much more integrated and venerated grandmothers were in other countries compared to Britain. “Perhaps it is because we have a tendency to fly the nest away from the family home and don't have regular contact with our grandparents. I think grandmothers are not respected in the same way in the UK.”
Their hope, with Grand Dishes – 10% of the proceeds of which are going to the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness – is that its readers are inspired to contact their grandmother or an older person they know and talk to them about what they used to cook and, ideally, to go cook with them. Everyone is different,” she acknowledges. “But I don’t think you’d convince the grandmothers we spoke to, who spent their lives cooking for other people, to bake for themselves because it’s ‘meditative self-care.’ I think the inspiration to cook has to come from someone outside.”
That could be a phone call, a visit or a lunch club (I love, and want to read about, Kitchen Kings, a local group which brings together older widowed men to learn to cook). It could be an article, radio or TV programme. After speaking to Barnes, I send my grandma Debora Robertson’s most recent delicious article, in which she discusses the joys of soup: the way “good soup is the most supremely comforting thing you can put in a bowl” whilst bad soup “gets on your nerves with sameness”. My grandmother being a supreme soup maker, the next time I call, we talk of little else. She tells me she’s making my favourite, curried parsnip, for her dinner, and freezing a portion of it for my next visit.
I don’t believe my grandma is representative of the average delicious magazine reader, or of people of pensionable age – no more than anyone else over 75. Nevertheless, this soup feels like a small victory: to have myself and my grandmother literally on the same page, connected by cooking and writing, inhabiting the same worlds.
Clare Finney is a London-based freelance food writer, and deputy editor of Market Life, the Borough Market magazine. You can find more of her work at the Guardian, the Independent, BBC Good Food, delicious, Foodism and the Borough Market website, and you can find her on Twitter at @finney_clare.
Michelle Wong is an illustrator and designer based in London. Previous clients include BBC, gal-dem and Shado Magazine. Her work focuses on narrative, identity and politics. You can find her on Instagram @michelle.cywong