Photo: Anna Williams
When she wasn't in her science lab pouring things into test tubes and creating noxious fumes over Bunsen burners, my Irish grandmother loved to cook. She was a science teacher at a girls' school in the town of Sherborne, in Dorset, England, where she had moved in 1922 to escape the "Troubles" in Ireland. Sherborne is a beautiful place filled with ancient buildings made of honey-colored stone and dominated by a famous abbey. For six years, it was my home, too, not only because I was a boarder at the school but also because my parents were overseas (my father was in the British Foreign Office), so I often spent weekends and vacations at my grandmother's house.
She became a central figure in my life, and a deep bond developed between us. In the kitchen, where we spent much of our time, we discussed religion, politics, science, literature, and, of course, Ireland. When we talked, she'd use a rolling pin, a wooden spoon, or a saucepan—whatever was at hand—to drive her point home, like Khrushchev when he banged his shoe on the table at the United Nations. Her food reflected her personality: She threw herself into it unconditionally and with passion. Her pastry was irresistible, her stews a legend among my schoolmates, and her scrambled eggs all the richer for the two extra yolks she cracked in. (Butter, eggs, and cream had been rationed during World War II, so she was making up for it by the time I lived with her in the late 1950s and early '60s.)
And she had the touch. When she tasted something that really pleased her, she would puff out her chest and announce with pride, "You could give this to anyone!"
We cooked and talked, digging our hands into the flour bin and rolling out pastry, shaping brandy snaps around the handles of wooden spoons the moment they emerged from the oven, frying potato pancakes in the bacon fat she collected in a can at the back of the stove, and even boning a whole chicken and then stuffing it with sausage meat and pistachios.
Much of what we made came from my grandmother's recipe book. In 1918, a year after she married my grandfather, she had begun writing down her favorite recipes in a neat, flowery hand. Forty-eight years (and nearly a lifetime of cooking) later, she copied one for Carnation chocolate soufflé onto the last of the book's 300 pages. The recipe called for evaporated milk. Beneath it, she wrote, Note by H.O.H. [her initials]: Try fresh cream instead.