JEN­NIFER O’CON­NELL

My granny wasn’t given to dec­la­ra­tions of af­fec­tion. But it’s there in the cook­book I in­her­ited

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE -

I’ ve been get­ting to know my grand­mother. This is not as easy as it sounds, since she died when I was 20. I never knew her as an adult, and I’m not all that sure I knew her as a child ei­ther. She wasn’t the kind of grand­mother who hauled you up on her lap and show­ered you with kisses. Un­like my other granny, she didn’t have a drawer full of choco­late, or any de­sire to learn to ride a skate­board. But she was en­trepreneurial, fear­less, witty and, I sus­pect, frus­trated. She took books se­ri­ously, es­pe­cially ones fea­tur­ing women who es­caped the bonds of do­mes­tic­ity.

I’m afraid I’d have lost her voice by now, for­got­ten her mirth­ful eyes and her sharp wit, if it wasn’t for a bat­tered book that sits on my kitchen shelf – her an­cient copy of Maura Laverty’s cook­book Full and Plenty. In the days of my grand­mother and Maura Laverty, cook­books were not the equiv­a­lent of scat­ter cush­ions for your kitchen, ac­ces­sories de­signed to make your shelves look smart, while hint­ing you were the kind of per­son who might once have paid $ 27 for av­o­cado toast over­look­ing Syd­ney Har­bour. Recipes were not about toss­ing in a fist­ful of this or lash­ings of lovely jub­bly that, but were pre­cise, ef­fi­cient, thrifty. Her gen­er­a­tion didn’t suf­fer from the need to fetishise food the way ours does, or pre­tend that whip­ping up a crispy squid with mashed avo was easy- peasy. Maybe that’s where we’re go­ing wrong, with our 15- minute recipes that take two hours and 37 pieces of equip­ment, and our rows of pristine, pas­tel- spined cook­books.

We ob­sess about food: pho­tograph­ing it; watch­ing other peo­ple eat it; queu­ing for doughnuts; read­ing about the lat­est place to find the best pizza. But we don’t spend much time cook­ing it, or even eat­ing it. At the most re­cent count, I own more than 70 cook­books, and for the last decade and a half I have pro­duced meals from a reper­toire of roughly five dishes.

My grand­mother’s Maura Laverty is not an ac­ces­sory. It’s a se­ri­ous, hard­work­ing cook­book, now held to­gether with tailor’s elas­tic, the dust jacket curl­ing at the edges like burnt toast. There are pages stuck to­gether with flour, hand­writ­ten recipes, and lit­tle nuggets of ad­vice on how to prune roses ( never, ever af­ter St Pa­trick’s Day) or get boot pol­ish out of car­pet ( car­bon tetra­chlo­ride).

Some of the old­est news­pa­per clip­pings are for be­gin­ners, like the ones for stew from the Daily Mir­ror “for the lady who claims she can’t boil wa­ter with­out burn­ing it”. As my granny be­came more con­fi­dent, her own recipes get more am­bi­tious, the quan­ti­ties larger, her notes in the mar­gin more un­com­pro­mis­ing. I can hear her, firmly ad­mon­ish­ing Delia Smith for po­tato scones that turned out “a lit­tle bit flat”. I imag­ine vast, loud fam­ily Sun­day lunches of lamb and salmon with veg and creamy po­ta­toes, and Vic­to­rian sponge for af­ter.

Near the end, a sliver of pa­per with a hand­writ­ten recipe falls into my hand, and mo­men­tar­ily shat­ters my heart. “Pizza for 1 Per­son”, it says, in her care­ful script.

The gen­tly scold­ing sur­veys that come out ev­ery year all say the same thing: that kind of cook­ing is al­most gone. We’re re­ly­ing more than ever on quick, heav­ily pro­cessed hits of calo­ries. To be fair, if you spend all day sautéing in an of­fice, and then sweat­ing on a long com­mute home to a messy house and tired chil­dren, not even Maura Laverty would chide you for not at­tempt­ing to braise a house­keeper’s cut.

But still, we’re miss­ing out. Food has al­ways been about more than just fuel. Food, pre­pared by some­one who loves you, is not just about nu­tri­tion or taste. When we don’t have any words, we turn to food. When some­one is sick, we say ‘ I’m think­ing of you’ in a cur­rency of tray bakes and desserts. When things are tense at home, my hus­band’s roast chicken with

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A sliver pa­per with a hand­writ­ten recipe falls into my hand and shat­ters my heart. ‘ Pizza for 1 Per­son’, it says

le­mon and chorizo cuts straight through any si­lence. When I want to say to my chil­dren that I’m sorry for the long hours, and the per­pet­ual dis­trac­tion, I apol­o­gise with lasagne. Ev­ery­one thinks their mother’s ap­ple tart or scones are the best in the world – and the truth is, they’re all right. ( Ex­cept for my chil­dren, whose mother – to her shame – hasn’t made scones since 2011.)

Food is our most fun­da­men­tal way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing, an end­lessly rich lex­i­con of joy, apol­ogy, de­sire, mem­ory, tra­di­tion, friend­ship and love. My grand­mother wasn’t given to dec­la­ra­tions of af­fec­tion. But it’s there in the book I in­her­ited, in the care with which she cu­rated 50 years’ worth of recipes and life hacks.

Maura Laverty saw in cook­ing a po­etry, and a kind of mind­ful­ness – the “neu­rotic”, she writes, should try rub­bing but­ter into flour for scones and feel­ing “the pu­rity of flour, the cool vel­vety feel of it, the gen­tle, in­ces­sant calm- giv­ing mo­tion of the fin­ger­tips”. I’m go­ing to give it a go this week­end – but I’ll start with my grand­mother’s recipe in­stead. The key is to place the tray on an in­verted Swiss roll tin on the sec­ond shelf, just so you know.

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