by Lauren Mote
As I started to write in the introduction of this website, my Nana, born Florence Evelyn Osborn, was my primary culinary influence, from as far back as I can remember using a fork as a means to eat, rather then an effective weapon to fend off my two brothers at the dinner table. As I previously mentioned, I come from a typical single parent family; my mum Linda was always at work to provide for us, while my two brothers, Sasha and Jake, and myself were at school. We would come home to find our Grandad, Bryan, in the kitchen anxiously reciting the cooking instructions for the casserole of unknown ingredients Nana had sent for our supper. The casserole we would never hope for was the one that always arrived: pineapple chunks, canned “swift ham”, potato chips and noodles.; although it sounds like a hawaiian pizza gone completely wrong, the tuna variation was quite appetizing, which we happily gobbled down twice a month.
The age of the casserole and the microwave/convection oven arrived at the same time for Nana. As she told me once, while handing me a microwave cookbook to take home with me, “you know Lauren, I used to teach a night class on microwave cookery…”; you don’t say? Flipping through the cookbook I see many familiar favourites, including roast beef and chicken legs… wow. Could I actually give up my stove-top and conventional oven for a microwave with “flavour”? I seem to recall desserts in this very book, at the back of course, to conclude your reading with something really challenging to test in your own kitchen. Does lemon chiffon cake bring back any memories?
Other favourites included the chili, always lots of chickpeas. Sasha, Jake and I could never understand what they were, they just looked strange. As a child, you eat with your eyes, so if chickpeas looked strange, there was no chance for great taste. We ate around them, which was around the same time we received the grandad glare, “why aren’t you eating those? Finish your supper”. Soon Grandad would realize he was outnumbered by children, and hand over the “princess tarts” or” lemon Bakewell tarts” to our custody without a fight. This also marked some of the only times that we had ever been given refined sugar and preservative rich foods.
Nana made a lot of experimental dishes, some she would find on the back of her A&P receipt and others from Chatelaine Magazine, but most of her prized dishes were family recipes that she would produce strictly from memory. The important thing to remember is that Nana always used the children as the guinea pigs; for the good stuff, but for the questionable inventions too, such as jell-o made with milk where water would’ve been the ideal ingredient to blend with the gelatin.
Family occasions based completely on British tradition were the times I really remember,… as I wipe the drool from my chin. British people love to over-cook, over-prepare, over-estimate and over-feed, maybe in fears that another war will take place, and food will quickly become scarce while living in the basement for months. At least we won’t go hungry, we’re still full from last Thanksgiving. We would always begin our gastronomical occasion with sandwiches and tea at 2 in the afternoon: ham and relish; chopped egg; salmon; cheese and onion; all variations were slathered with butter on white bread. the tea was always perfect. My Auntie Carol was in charge of the tea. No one could ever make a cup of tea like Carol could. Next would be a familiar scene in the den, including my brothers, Grandad and Step-Father having a light snooze while they prepare for the feast that would surely arrive in 2 hours.
Mum and I would be in the kitchen, between a rock and a hard place. Nana has so much pride, she can do “everything”… she would never let Mum help; she is quickly escorted to the nap-area. I always stayed; Nana knew that I wanted to learn to cook, not to assume responsibility to give her a break; Nana loved to cook and entertain, it was her livelihood. I would learn to make real beef gravy, cranberry sauce, Keen’s powdered mustard stirred with water to make a nice paste for the roast,… and those were just the condiments! Vegetables were always peeled by Carol the night before. I was in charge of making salads; nothing fancy, iceberg lettuce, vine-ripe tomatoes, white button mushrooms, skinless english cucumbers, and red onion. It was always to be served in a huge crystal bowl that felt like it weighed a hundred pounds! No homemade dressings here, only bottled salad cream (a British thing… like creamy coleslaw), ranch, french (Grandad’s favourite and he doesn’t even like salad, but Nana forces him to eat it) and thousand islands, which is my most loathed of all dressings, and ironically, Nana and Carol’s favourite; it’s brownish-pink, creamy and sweet; not my cup of tea.
Carol would be out setting the vintage 1950’s table, accompanied by the striped velvet chairs in the dining room; everything matching and completely uniformed. Polished silver cutlery, good china, silver platters and christmas crackers (the ones with the paper crown and toy inside). Tiny sherry glasses accompany each place setting for when Grandad cracks open the bottle of Spimonte Bambino sparkling wine. At this point, my Nana’s sister Joan is on the organ, singing and playing our transitional theme song from “nap-time” to “supper-time”. When all the sisters are together, or when Joan is doing a solo at the organ, it sounds like squawking seagulls, which is predictable; the accent: Nana’s family is from the Midlands in England, Wolverhampton in particular.
Grandad starts things off: him and Jake exchange Christmas cracker toys, and Grandad immediately puts on his paper crown. Like copy-cats everyone follows his lead. Grandad has the “shakes” so I serve his salad and pour his beer. I glance next to me and discover that Grandad is eating around the tomatoes and the onion… typical. Most older generations do not like raw vegetables, especially acidic ones.
The plates are warming in the oven. I am always the designated server that takes the modifications of the guests to the kitchen. My mum is a vegetarian, but Nana seems to forget every year. I recall during one dinner service Nana opened a can of tuna and slapped it on the plate next to the mash, “…what am i a cat?” Mum sarcastically whispered to me. Other modifications like, “not too much for me” and “extra potatoes” goes unnoticed. All plates are reasonably heaping, and a good quantity of everything offered.
Grandad is always served first, very traditional. The mountainous plate requires two hands for me to deliver. Stuffing, roast beef, roast ham, fluffy yorkshire pudding, parsnips, brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, the best mashed potatoes on the planet, and carrots. The gravy and other “unidentifiable sauce” for the vegetables awaits his plate at the table, strategically placed in front of his beer glass for convenience. Like the cordial man he is, Grandad waits for every one to be served before consuming his supper. Everything at serving time has to be perfect or the whole thing fails; just get the food out! Nana’s fast; she’s been doing these dinners for at least 50 years! Next comes Step-Father, then Carol, then Sasha, Jake, Mum, myself and then Nana, whose hips have both been replaced, so I carry her plate.
We sit down and silently savour and stuff ourselves for the better part of 30 minutes. By this time, the pots and pans of food in the kitchen make their way to the centre of the table as remnants of the salad course quickly vanish. Sasha and our Step-Father quickly bounce on second helpings of everything. Mum spontaneously grabs a slab of yorkshire pudding before it disappears, as the rest of us undo the top button on our pants, or remove one notch on our belts to compensate.
Nana is still rushing. There is no time to discuss dinner, the table is cleared quickly as the dessert is receiving its finishing touches in the kitchen. As Nana warms up the bread and butter pudding, I am making the custard for the christmas pudding, followed by the whipped cream for the top of the trifle. Nana has extra desserts to go with the desserts as well; homemade mince tarts and buttery shortbread cookies, jell-o with fruit, and blancmange, usually in a fish mold or another shape that is strangely unrelated.
After our enormous feast, where Nana has barely picked at her plate, the exhaustion takes hold. Following a quick digestive drink, like a brandy, it’s bedtime. The children are passed out. The amount of leftovers that are shipped home with us are incredible. It’s good eats for a couple of days at least. Our favourite was always the “Christmas sandwich”: everything in tupperware in the fridge are sandwiched between two slices of whole grain bread with mustard; it was even more delicious then it sounds.
Nana cooked like this well into her 83rd year, but sadly, there is no energy left in her for this kind of extravagance. We spend Christmas Day at a Chinese food buffet in Belleville. Nana refuses to let John and I go through the trouble of cooking a feast for everyone. Nana’s traditional feasts become an unmatchable legacy. The introduction of garlic and black pepper into most foods we eat have prevented her from allowing “new” cooks into her kitchen.