I learnt in the middle of last night that my Grandma had passed away. It was certainly not unexpected – she was 91 after all, and has been poorly for a long time. She was the last survivor of a generation in my family the like of which I don’t think we will ever see again.
She was the daughter of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants (I am, in fact, of 100% Eastern European origin, even 3 generations later) who arrived in the country 100 years ago. Her dad, my great granddad, set up a butchers shop. She survived the war – and the enforced separation from my granddad – and went on to raise four boys. She also lost two sons.
Her brand of matriarchal charisma, mixed with a inexhaustible doses of kindness, humour and generosity set her apart as a lady.
Both my grandma and my mum’s mum, my Nanny, loved nothing more than cooking for their families. A Jewish kitchen is always an open one, no matter what the circumstances, and both revelled in having the whole family together on a Friday night for a Sabbath meal and on high holidays and festivals too. Even though I am a non-believing Jew, it is a source of great pleasure that my own mum has continued the tradition and Archie’s Friday night meal at my parents’ house is undoubtedly one of his highlights of the week.
Coming from relative poverty, the cooking of my grandparents’ generation involved lots of cheap cuts of meat, cooked slowly, and copious amounts of fat and salt. This probably explains the high incidence of heart disease in the community!
Cigerashed Potato (fried onions and mashed potato) was a meal in itself, and remains one of my favourite comfort foods to this day. My grandma made great “kichels” (Jewish biscuits), wonderful chopped liver, melting slow cooked beef brisket and, needless to say, a marvellous chicken soup. Both my Grandma and my Nanny used to deliberately burn the onions in a Friday roast. Odd as it may sound, these onions were always the first things to be eaten and were forever fought over. The more burnt the better.
More than anything, my grandma’s food culture – and that of my Nanny too – taught me all about the value of getting everyone round a table at any and every possible opportunity. These events marked me as a child for their food, for their raucousness, for their generosity of spirit – and of course their rucks too! All par for the course in a large family…
For me, food is family and family is food – and no-one can have personified this better than my grandma. Sadly her advanced dementia meant that she was not able to get to “know” Archie in the true sense. But it is testament to her – and all those from her generation – that their legacy will live on long after their passing, every time we all sit round a table together or set foot in the kitchen. Indeed, one of my most prized possessions in my kitchen remains her orange Le Creuset casserole dish. It must be at least 30 years old, probably way more, and has the markings of a dish which has cooked many a delicious stew.
Archie can be seen cooking with it in our Chicken Hotpot video. He may have barely known her, and he certainly cannot realise it, but the influence of this remarkable lady – and those of her generation – outlives their own lifetime and will continue to mark our own lives for years to come.