Oct 19, 2022
6 mins read
I suddenly realised that I’m always trying to make a nice, polished essay for you; something with a vague sense of structure and coherence. This is because of the contract the writer makes with the reader: you give me your precious time, I give you my best stuff. I can sometimes make the contract sound a whole lot more noble and romantic, but that’s it, au fond: precious time/best stuff.
There’s a note on the word ‘best’ here. It may be the best I can do that day. Not Best in the World. (Obviously.)
And then I was standing in the kitchen and starting the base of a soup and listening to an operatically dull podcast (we all make listening errors) and I began thinking about food. I don’t have a lovely beginning, middle and end for you about food, but I do have a lot of thoughts.
And then - bear with me - I started to think how much people love snippets. You know, little dashes of gossip or small comical moments or top tips for life. (Even thought I don’t really believe in top tips, I still love top tips.)
And I wondered whether sometimes I didn’t have to form a coherent whole. Maybe I could sometimes do fragments. Because the whole point of this is to make you smile and smiles come in many different forms.
So, here goes.
The food thinking came in a scatter and a rush. I’d been thinking about the fashion for fancy little plates, where the food looks like a picture. I see this on the telly, and I think it is a thing in various grand restaurants. I am making soup, because I love soup, and my mum made the best soup, and I suddenly had a yearning for the food our grandmothers made.
This is a collective of fantasy grandmas who live in my head. Neither of my actual grandmothers could cook. One was never taught. (She had quite a strange upbringing.) The other one had no interest, and was too busy smoking sixty cigarettes a day to think about food.
I thought: how on earth did Mum learn to cook? She made proper, hearty food - fish pie and kedgeree and Yorkshire pudding and scones and wholemeal bread. She could do a bit of fancy. Every year, when I was very little and Mum and Dad were still married, there was a cricket match in the village and my mother got out the fish kettle and cooked a whole salmon, which was the highest flying luxury in the seventies, and served it with delicate cucumber salad with dill, so that the hungry teams could eat a celebratory lunch.
I can still taste it, that delicious wild salmon.
But mostly, her food was nourishing and plain and made from the freshest ingredients, from the garden and from the farm, with store cupboard staples bought from Mr Spackman in Hungerford, where she went specially.
Where did she learn all that?
I also thought, slightly sadly, that my father never had a feeling for or a love of food. His favourite thing was a British Rail bacon sandwich with HP sauce. I seem to remember there was even something called Daddy’s Sauce, which he also cherished. Can that really be true?
The grandmothers in my mind can all make tremendous soups and fragrant stews and chicken with rice; the kind of comfort food that makes you feel as if you have come home.
Then there are the Italian nonnas, who live large in my imagination. I think of them, guarding the secret ingredients, the family recipes, passing them down the matrilineal line. The men of Italy can be dazzling chefs, but oh, the nonnas know the score.
I think: I’d like to write a cookery book called something like: Food Your Grandmother Made. It’s not very catchy, but I’ll work on it.
Here are the other thought fragments which are running around in my head. Some of them are just questions. Like: can it really be the case that Boris Johnson is still living at Chequers? I did my great-aunt shocked face when I read that. But I think I saw it on Twitter, so it may not be strictly factually accurate.
I’ve been trying to stay away from politics for a long time. It was Brexit that did it for me. All the shouting and all the tribalism and all the lying. There’s a desperate second-rateism in contemporary politics and it makes me sad. (I studied Gladstone and Disraeli and Peel at school and university and they were not always right or even admirable, but they were giants. I feel as if I’m living in the era of pygmies.) But the fascinating thing about this present shower is that they have somehow cut through. Ordinary people going about their ordinary work are talking about Liz Truss. It’s not just the political commentators and the Twitter obsessives. They are talking about her in the shop; the vet and I spoke about her yesterday; her name pops up on all my WhatsApp groups.
The main emotion is bafflement. Nobody can explain any of it or understand what is going on. I peer at the latest developments out of the corner of my eye and start to suspect that the entire government is engaged in some arcane form of performance art.
My other random thoughts just now are about fame. The Andy Warhol prediction has come true: everyone can be famous for fifteen minutes. I hear from my posse about the YouTubers and TikTokkers who are taking the world by storm. I see the Insta-conquerors who have eight million followers. I can’t keep up with the reality television stars. (I quite often see names trending on social media and I have no idea who they are. Not even a glimmer. My sweet Kayleigh, Queen of the Posse, has patiently tried to explain to me who the Kardashians are, but I still don’t quite grasp it. They always sound to me like characters on Star Trek. Captain Kirk beams down on a distant planet and the last thing he expected was a mysterious tribe of Kardashians.)
What I don’t understand is why anyone would want fame. That’s your life, gone. You are a persona, for other people to project their desires on. You can be hassled in the street and interrupted at lunch and subject to mob attacks on Twitter.
I think: if I was absolutely brilliant at something which brings fame as a by-product, acting, say, or singing, I’d go and live in a small Hebridean island and wear a hat.
I have got seventy more thoughts, but I’m running out of brain-space now. My last, rather misty, profoundly grateful one is: the beauty of free, fascinating, roaming talk. I don’t mean argument or debate, which often makes me cross and tired and ends up with people dying in their own muddy ditches. (Metaphorically, that is. Although some of the current fury feels as if it could be almost fatal.) I mean the talk that explores and asks questions and brings that kind of gusting, knowing laughter that comes from connection and collective experience.
I had such talk tonight, with a brilliant group of women. I had one yesterday and one this afternoon, with the old friends. I had a vastly merry chat this morning with a group of ten-year-old girls, who had come to play with the red mare. All that lovely talk. I thought: what a gift that is. I never, ever take that for granted.