A handwritten recipe falls from my grandmother’s cookbook: “Pizza for 1 Person”. My heart shatters
Jennifer O’Connell: Food is an endlessly rich lexicon of joy, desire, friendship and love
“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.” Photograph: Getty Images
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 kitchen 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 books 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 the novelist, broadcaster and cookery writer Maura Laverty’s iconic 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 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.