There’s a chill in the air but my kitchen is filling with the warm scent of honey and spice: cinnamon, anise, mace, cloves and ginger. I am making German Lebkuchen, or Advent cookies, which smell as cosy as a winter market. Baking gingerbread feels like a sweet denial of the harsh world outside the kitchen, and more so than ever in this second pandemic year.
These are not the industrially made chocolate-coated hearts you get in bags at the supermarket, though I love those too. The Lebkuchen I am making are rectangular and each is decorated with a single glacé cherry and four blanched almonds, one in each corner. Supposedly, these are the biscuits that would have made up the walls and roof of the witch’s house in the original Grimm’s fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel”. It is an old, old recipe, one that could only have come from a grandmother.
Not that the grandmother was mine. My maternal grandmother was neither German nor interested in baking. As the first person in her family to go to university, she feared that if she developed too many skills in the kitchen she might be expected to stay there for ever. If I limited myself to the treats of my grandmother, I would eat nothing but ready-made mince pies at this time of year. My grandmother felt it was a waste of time to bake a cake when you could be reading Balzac. She called me a clown because I liked cooking (and watching TV).
It is only now that I can see she said this out of love. She saw the kitchen as an unserious place that my sister and I needed to be protected from if we were to fulfil our potential.
Then again, one of the joys of cooking in the modern world is that, thanks to cookbooks and online videos, if you didn’t learn from your own grandmother, you can borrow the precious secrets of someone else’s. Many of the things I make at this time of year are other people’s family recipes, which have become my own through repetition.
The Lebkuchen recipe is a case in point. It features in Advent by Anja Dunk, a beautiful book of festive German baking. Dunk is half Welsh and half German, and the cakes and biscuits she makes every year for her three boys were ones she learnt from her German mother during her childhood. When Dunk tested this particular Lebkuchen recipe, she gave one to her mother, who tried it with her eyes closed to verify that it tasted exactly like the biscuits of her youth. Thanks to Dunk, I can pretend I am German for an afternoon. I can dream of a midwinter filled with poppy-seed snails and gingerbread houses. I can cook my way into different family traditions, ones that smell and taste completely different from my own.
How does anyone become a good cook? The idealised story, particularly as told by Italian and French chefs, is that cooking should be learnt at the stove, standing next to an elderly relative who passes down secrets that have been honed over generations. One of the chefs who has told this story most consistently and movingly during his long career is Raymond Blanc, whose latest book, Simply Raymond, is peppered with impeccable recipes from his French mother, who died in June last year, aged 97.
The book includes Blanc’s mother’s vegetable soup with chervil and her chicken braised with white wine and mustard. There is Steak Maman Blanc (a dish she made every month during Raymond’s childhood) and Tomato Salad Maman Blanc, in which the juices of the tomatoes combine irresistibly with garlic, oil and red onion (the secret ingredient was the tomatoes, which Blanc’s father grew and ripened in the warmth of a kitchen windowsill).
In a dream world, perhaps we would all have had childhoods like Raymond Blanc’s, in which our parents taught us both to garden and to cook. But what if our parents didn’t have time to cook or didn’t know how? Or what if — like my granny — they thought the kitchen was less important than other things, such as work? Even in cultures like Italy’s and Spain’s, where shared knowledge of traditional cuisine is more widespread than it is in the UK and US, there is no guarantee that a grandmother will be a repository of timeworn recipes.
Many of the most successful food writers and chefs have been open about the fact that they grew up in households where not much home-cooking went on. The Iranian-British food writer and TV broadcaster Sabrina Ghayour was not taught to cook by her mother or grandmother. Ghayour therefore had to learn Iranian cooking for herself, dish by dish. One of the reasons her recipes feel so approachable and fresh is because she had to learn the steps in a more conscious and deliberate way than she would have done had she been learning at her grandmother’s side.
So, far from being a handicap, some modern chefs say not having learnt to cook from a grandmother can be an advantage because it frees them to do whatever the heck they want. Pamela Yung, head chef at Flor in London, has remarked (in a new book, The Female Chef by Clare Finney) that the trope of cuisine being passed down from parent to child is “a good story” but “not the only story”.
But what if you actually want to learn the proper dishes of an old-fashioned grandmother? One of the most striking food trends of the past couple of years has been a new enthusiasm for the sheer skill of older female home cooks, a skill that seems in danger of vanishing unless it is recorded. Grand Dishes is an excellent website that features the food of grandmothers from around the world. There is Juana Maria in Cuba who makes plantain broth and Sharon in North Carolina who makes shrimp stew.
Meanwhile, the Pasta Grannies channel on YouTube, which has more than 800,000 subscribers, shows nonagenarians — and, in some cases, centenarians — kneading and shaping pasta with their hands. In a world where so many of us flit from recipe to recipe, there is something steadying about watching 93-year-old Cesaria making lorighittas pasta the same way she always has.
This is a type of Sardinian pasta shaped like a hooped earring, which we see Cesaria winding around her still dexterous fingers in a double twisted loop. Cesaria, who passed away in 2020 aged 96, was famous in her town, Morgongiori, for being able to roll the pasta so thin it looked like threads.
The kind of knowledge that a person develops through cooking the same thing over decades is not like as the book learning my own grandmother prized so highly. It is an intelligence of the fingers and the nose: a process of constant tiny adjustments until the dish smells and feels the way it is meant to. This is why even people whose grandmothers have a passion for cooking — unlike mine — may still find it hard to learn from them, at least if they are in a hurry.
Strangely, video technology seems to be a more accurate way to transmit the kitchen knowledge of grandmothers than the written word, because learning to cook is more about show than tell. In February 2020, the entrepreneur Harish Malhi (who had worked for Google) launched a new company called Diaspo. The basic idea of Diaspo is to use Zoom cooking classes taught by older home cooks as a way to connect generations through food. It resonated in deeper ways than he could have imagined because of the social isolation of the pandemic.
The idea for Diaspo came about because Malhi — who is from a Punjabi Indian background — felt so nostalgic for the food of home while living in Dublin. Everywhere he went in the city, he saw curry houses with the same limited range of dishes — chicken tikka, lamb bhuna — but it was nothing he recognised. He craved real home-cooked food but did not know how to make it. He wondered whether there was a way to track down some of the best home cooks in the UK from different food cultures — Moroccan, Lebanese, Caribbean, Malaysian, Indian — and persuade them to teach one or more of their best-loved dishes.
The internet is not exactly short of recipes. But what Malhi felt was missing from Google food searches was the kind of family food cooked behind closed doors by older people who are not necessarily tech savvy — he was looking for “your neighbour’s grandmother’s best dish”. Malhi used Facebook groups and word of mouth in his hunt for people who had a reputation in their communities for being especially good cooks.
One of the most popular teachers on Diaspo is Zalilah Idris-Maggs (“Zal”), a Malaysian woman who has lived in Wales for 20 years and whose day job is working in a hospital café. Zal tells me over the phone that her six sisters back in Malaysia “can’t believe” she is now getting recognition for her cooking from audiences all over the world.
She was nervous before the first Diaspo class she taught in the spring of 2020, but her son helped her make the technology work. Before teaching that first class, she had only cooked for friends and family. Some of the dishes she teaches, such as chicken cooked in a particular way with ginger and soy sauce, are specific to her home town, Caunter Hall in Penang. “You cannot get the recipe anywhere,” she says.
The people who sign up for her classes are a mix of Malaysians who want to learn the food of their childhood and non-Malaysians who want to learn a new cuisine. She says she learnt everything she knows from her mother and calls this “the proper way”. But she hopes that for the students in her classes “the outcome is the same” as it would be learning from a family member.
One evening in October, I take a Diaspo group Zoom class and learn how to make “brown-stew chicken” with Christiane Ayre, a cook from the Caribbean island of Martinique who grew up in a family of eight and who says that everyone in her family knew she was the best cook. This dish, Christiane says, is the equivalent of a British roast dinner: something always eaten by families on a Sunday. It isn’t a fancy dinner-party creation. The chicken is caramelised until it is really dark with brown sugar and then stewed with a mixture of sweet peppers and spices such as paprika and “all-purpose seasoning”, plus a Scotch bonnet for heat.
From the first minute, the atmosphere of the class feels much more real than any cooking show on TV. Christiane is casually dressed in a pale green Brooklyn NYC T-shirt and we can see the pots and pans and jars in her kitchen, as if we were hanging out at a friend’s house. When my two sons and I sit down to eat the chicken later, with mounds of steamed rice on the side, I am struck that the sweet and savoury gravy tastes like home — someone else’s home.
In the recordings of Zal’s classes I have seen, she is constantly telling her students to adjust the heat. “Put it back in the slow and leave it there,” she says while explaining how to prepare nasi lemak (a Malaysian dish of rice, chicken, sambal and cucumber). In a Diaspo class, there are no rumpled linen tablecloths, no artful sprinklings of pomegranate seeds, no tiny vases of flowers, no expensive Nordic-designed saucepans. There is just a woman, her kitchen and a few ingredients that she knows like the back of her hand.
“It’s like a legal way to be super-nosy without being arrested for stalking,” says Rebecca Batey, whom Malhi describes as Diaspo’s most committed participant. Batey lives in Athens, Ohio, where she works as a data specialist in opioid addiction research. One of Batey’s three children is “medically fragile”, which meant the whole family had to take extra care quarantining. She found that joining Zal’s cooking classes in 2020 gave her a welcome escape from the four walls of her apartment and a feeling she was not alone. When watching Zal, Batey says, “You can see the backsplash on her stove and there’s no prep chef that comes in to deal with the bits and pieces.”
Of all the dishes she learnt to make, Batey says the one she returns to the most is a simple dish of rice and peas learnt from Christiane. “It’s really just cooking your rice in coconut milk and dumping peas in. Oof, it’s good.” It’s the kind of boiling-an-egg cooking so basic it wouldn’t make it into the pages of most cookbooks. Batey describes it as “the food you eat on a Wednesday”. She would never have thought to make it if she hadn’t seen Christiane doing it with such casual confidence.
In the end, the appeal of learning to cook like a grandmother is not authenticity or even tradition. By the time a North American cook is making a Caribbean dish of rice and peas, it is no longer authentic anyway. What makes the experience so powerful is that it is about the transmission of deeply grooved cultural knowledge, the kind of knowledge that is measured by the senses. It’s about learning stuff from people who know something so deeply they can’t imagine not knowing it: how spices should smell when they are balanced, how dough should feel when it is raw and when it is cooked.
Half of the comfort of making something like a German grandmother’s recipe for Lebkuchen is knowing that though the scent of the spices and the sticky feel of the dough may seem new and even weird to us at the first attempt, someone else was here first.
Bee Wilson is author of ‘The Way We Eat Now’ (Fourth Estate/Basic Books)
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