“Don’t eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Michael Pollan
My Grannie was no cook. She preferred gin, the stock markets, and a good game of bridge.
It feels as though Shirley Donkin was my only grandparent. She lived in Birmingham, and we’d drive up from Kent to see her a couple of times a year. It was the 1980s, the drive took around 4 hours, all packed in with pillows and books and the dog and me wishing I had a Walkman like my silent brothers. Radio 3 or 4 on the car stereo. Top Trumps on the back seat. Getting lost on Spaghetti Junction and keeping silent. Hopefully me not getting car sick, for once. Four kids, two parents one dog in the Montego estate. Tea time arrival.
I can’t remember what she’d say as we crashed in but I can see her face, round and soft. Always smart but sometimes before her time, her outfits tended to Prada-esque bold prints in brown, lemon and lime or hot pink and yellow. Always court shoes. Perm. She didn’t understand sweatshirts and tee shirts “are you dressed, my dear, or have you come in your pyjamas?”.
But it was tea time, so apple squash for us, lapsang souchong tea or sherry for the adults. The tea trolley beside grannie, and she would pore. And hand out the crisps. At least two, full to the brim, busting out bowls of crisps. Golden crisps, pale Skips and deep brown peanuts staring at me from the delicate silver bowls. And every time, but hoping against hope, that the crisps, just this once just this one time – that they would not be chewy, not be stale.
They were always stale.
Supper was worse.
In comes Grannie to the small, formal dining room. Oil paintings of grandparents. Breakfast set. Complete set of royal wedding mugs. On the plate is a wobbling pink thing. For main meal not for pudding. It stank. Of fish. She said “salmon mousse” which confounded 8 or 10 year old me. Pink mousse was strawberry mousse that mum made or in little tubs from Sainsbury’s. How did you turn fish – something solid, that you have with chips or mash, and peas and sweetcorn – how do you make that into something squidgy? That feels like pudding should be pudding? Why would you?
The whole dish was off. Rancid. It’s the first time I can remember being allowed to refuse something, and that Grannie would consent to it being chucked (my dad has a clear memory of trying to carve a half-raw, past its best, pheasant. They had to eat that).
Grannie was born around the onset of the First World War, to a naval family. For reasons lost to history, her teenage years were spent in a hotel. She was raised to manage staff, not cook. She married my grandad around the onset of the Second World War, and learned to cook and feed her new, young family from rations. So, hardly learning the love of good food from, well, from anyone. And that’s, I think, the reality that so many people have. Food isn’t romantic; it’s survival, it may be a chore. I know when I’m alone I can barely be arsed to scramble some eggs.
I miss Grannie. I can still hear her voice, “Right you are” at the end of a phone call. We weren’t close, but I know she loved us and that she would be proud that I am building a career. When one of my brothers started working at Loaded in the early 2000s, she would go into Smiths and ask for “Loader” magazine. She rebuffed well intentioned shop assistants who tried, desperately, to stop her from buying the lad-mag bible . “My grandson works there” she’d assert, and would hand over her money with such pride, and a little glee. Line by foul-mouthed line, she would read his pieces out at the breakfast table to my (Catholic) parents. They thought she was clueless. I think she was happily wicked.
My mum did ask her about the crisps, once “Your children don’t notice” she said. Mum corrected her, and from then on, we had in date crisps. I like to think she saved the stale ones for her golf club friends.
No artisanal bread or farmer’s market could have induced Grannie to care more about food. Not everyone has to plan tomorrow’s breakfast as they eat their lunch, nurture a scobi or perfect home smoked trout . Food is love for a lot of people. For a lot of other people, it’s just sustenance. Hopefully not stale sustenance, but for lots of people, that’s good enough.