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Good Things, my mother, sponge cake and Jane Grigson

By October 17, 2020No Comments


As well as a recipe from Rory O’Connell‘s The Joy of Food this week, we’ve also got an essay from the book, all about, as the title suggests, his mother, sponge cake and Jane Grigson’s Good Things…


When I first started cooking professionally, or at least started to learn my trade in the kitchen at Ballymaloe House, one of the first cookery books I became aware of was a book called Good Things by Jane Grigson. Up till that point of my life, when I had been helping my mother in our own kitchen at home, the books referred to were for the most part oilcloth-covered notebooks that my mother had transcribed recipes into in her beautiful, neat handwriting. There were also scrapbooks with recipes carefully cut out of magazines and newspapers and pasted onto the pages. These home-compiled records were very important and my mother referred to them regularly and followed them assiduously. Though she was a natural and instinctive cook, capable of creating lovely food by eye, experience and imagination, there were particular dishes that definitely required a recorded list of ingredients, a scale and a measuring jug to comply with the directions.

Unlike Good Things, where Grigson wrote precise and lovely words of introduction, creating little mental pictures for the cook (there are also simple line drawings in Good Things), there were no colourful stories in my mother’s handwritten books. Occasionally a recipe was credited to a particular person who had shared the treasure, such as Mrs Dillon’s Sponge. I always wanted to know who so-and-so was to have deserved a particular mention and to try to create my own imagined picture, though it was the cooking that brought these dishes to life rather than the prose preamble in Good Things.

I adore my mother’s books, but find that nowadays I have to be in the correct frame of mind before I open them. Any little chink in the emotional armour can be chiselled into a larger fissure of loss when I see her perfect script.

Somehow, print just does not affect me in the same way. I suppose it is the difference between the physical appearance of the printed word on the page and the meaning of the same words. The meaning can move me, of course, but the look, shape and colour of the print does not. Print can be beautiful, classical, floral and elegant, but I don’t find its appearance emotional – aesthetically pleasing, definitely, just not heart-wrenching. The word laid down by the hand is a different matter. In the rising and falling of the letters and words formed by hand, with Is dotted and Ts crossed, there is another story rather than just the one being recorded – the story of the hand that held the pen, the relationship between the reader and those hands.

The title of a recipe that I had forgotten is enough to take me back to that happy kitchen and a flood of memories ensues. The memories are not just of the food, the meals and the thrice-daily gatherings, but of my siblings and, of course, of her – my mother. I can see her with her hair gathered into a neatly plaited bun and covered with a little headscarf tied at the nape of her neck, looking industrious rather than fashionable. However, she almost always wore a scarf leaving the house, different ones for different events, but in that instance tied below the chin, which was fashionable then. This is what happens when I open those recipe books – my mind wanders off and I become lost in a mist of memories that are mostly far removed from, but nonetheless prompted by, the handmade copy.

The sponge cake recipe will have transported me to the bank of the river where we would swim in the summer. We would walk the couple of miles there and back, down the road past the village pump where most local houses got their drinking water and then over the stone stile on the wall beside the chapel and through the chapel meadows.

Of course not all those days were warm and sunny, but those are the ones I remember. The silence of the single-file walk on the single-file path broken by the deafening hum of bees and the fizz of flies, twittering of birds, squawking of crows, purring of pigeons, protestations of thirsty cows and cattle – this country landscape was a kind of ‘wilding’ long before we knew what wilding now means. Cattle and cows were wary of you then, not like now, when many seem angry, aggressive, threatening, pumped – back then, we walked among them without fear. Our minds wandered, with no smartphone to distract or with which to capture or share the scene. Somehow these images have been carefully filed in glorious Technicolor in my mind, ready to be pulled out when prompted or needed. I can see there and be there. I can move the vista around in my head in full 360-degree imaging – hazelnut-brown and stick-thin limbs, a single puffy cloud, shriekingly white tan lines, a horsefly screechingly batted away, little fields that had never been turned by the plough, dry summer grasses shaking a dusty haze through the air, summer shorts and sandals, handed-down T-shirts, towels over shoulders or rolled up like a Swiss roll, swimming things and a basket with a flask, cups and a sponge cake.

Neat and efficient, my mother fed us beautifully, the food made more delicious by the love that went into preparing it. Feeding nine hungry mouths, she must have felt like a mother sparrow relentlessly returning to the nest to chirping hungry beaks. The table was always set with a little bunch of flowers. It wasn’t grand, but it was civilised.

Getting back to Good Things and Jane Grigson, the book was first published in 1971 and was full of treasures. When I pick it up today, it is still fresh and relevant. Over the years I have cooked many dishes from this book, some unchanged from the original recipe, others tweaked to suit how we like to eat nowadays. What I am trying to get to here in a rather roundabout fashion is how over the years we have come to use the words ‘good thing’ to describe a particular type of dish. Did this come from the connection to the title of this classic book and what does ‘good thing’ really mean in the context of a dish? It is certainly not an expression I would use to describe a fantastic and complicated dish in a contemporary restaurant. I might call such a dish sublime or sensational, but not a good thing. It is reserved for dishes that are less involved, though nonetheless require skill. There is more of a suggestion of comfort, timelessness, endurance, intelligence, a friend impervious to fashion and shifting trends, though of course sophistication and elegance are inherent in the title too. It could be a dish with just a few ingredients or one with a long list of additions. I suppose it is a title that describes much of the food that I like to cook – that is, dishes that are delicious, possible, relevant, seasonal and stylish but not faddy. My mother cooked many good things. Where possible, I like to cook good things.

So there are no foams, froths, skids or slicks in this book. Those are for kitchens with time, space and manpower, where many hands make light work of those clever tricks. That is not to say that I will not suggest a foamy consistency to a soup or a frothy drizzle of cream whipped softly with a little milk to make it lighter and, yes, frothy. But I draw the line at skidding or slicking.

The Joy of Food: A Celebration of Good Things to Eat by Rory O’Connell  is published by Gill Books and available now in bookshops and online, priced at €24.99.