When you turn on the television now, food and cooking programmes are a staple diet. I have learnt how to spatchcock a chicken, marinate any jerk meat and whip up a crème brulee. I know what modern plating looks like, and can come up with recipes from a fully-stocked larder to meet the requirements of any cooking challenge for the contestants aspiring to be the next Master Chef.
That’s all theory, of course. Practise is another thing. And those same cooking channels always seem to focus on how great grandmother’s cooking was, how she made the perfect meal, and had all of the secrets to make everything turn out just right.
Here’s my truth: My grandmother couldn’t cook. She’d burn water, and the only way anything ever appeared on any plate was as a cinder. Burnt to a crisp; incinerated, like something that survived the firebombing of Dresden.
My other grandmother was dead before I arrived on the scene, so my only experience of generational recipes came with the flavour of carbon-au-noir before the very notion of chargrilled was ever coined by some gourmand or burger chain advertising guru.
My mother was a good cook. She even taught it for a while a couple of evenings a week at a club in inner-city Dublin. I’d go along sometimes and get to help — or hinder, no doubt. She loved to bake cakes and tarts. There was always something special about being able to lick a spoon or get your tongue between the curved metal beaters of a hand-held whisk. When my sister had her tongue between the metal beaters, you have no idea the amount of steel will it took not to turn the handle and catch her tongue there to teach her a lesson.
We’d almost fight over who would get to lick the bowl in which a chocolate cake was mixed, and nothing tastes like a six-year-old’s fingers soaked in cocoa goop and raw flour. Hmmm.
When Grandad came around to our house, he always salivated over his daughter-in-law’s cooking. Having been married to Granny for so long, the poor man was emaciated, and I’m sure his gut didn’t know how to react to my mother’s dishes. Come to think of it, once he retired, he would come around to the house almost daily.
I can remember him slurping soup and gobbling up shepherd’s pie, apple tarts and fairy cakes. The poor man got to eat real food on a regular basis for the first time in his life.
When it came to baking, there was an unspoken but bitter rivalry between my mother and her sister-in-law, Grandad and Granny’s daughter.
Then there was the Christmas pudding. This had to be made weeks in advance, with just the right amount of dried fruits, nuts, extracts of bottles and a bottle of stout. At least that was my mother’s recipe.
Aunt Mary — Grandad’s daughter, had another one, but it obviously wasn’t passed on by Granny as she’d burn cornflakes. But the real difference of opinion came over the cooking method. Trust me, family feuds lasted for six months a year over the correct way to cook the pudding. My mother’s technique was to place it in a ceramic bowl which was then tightly sealed with kitchen foil and string, and then place that into a pot with just the right amount of boiling water, while the whole thing was attended too with all of the preparation and planning of the Normandy beach landings.
Aunt Mary’s technique was to wrap the pudding mixture in muslin and steam it for hours on end.
My mother’s always had shape and form — and taste too. Aunt Mary’s was more round, like a bowling ball. Mum always said it lacked flavour and was never as good as hers.
Granny never passed judgement — she wasn’t exactly in a position to side with daughter or daughter-in-law.
Grandad just ate.