All my food heroes are women. My maternal grandmother made elaborate spreads of Christmas baking every December. My mom had a suite of side dishes that she served at all our holiday meals that became something like a family sacrament. My wife, Gillian, can take the bounty of our farm and transform it into a chicken pot pie that will literally make you cry. But I have a special spot in my heart for my paternal grandmother, Elspeth.
My father is an immigrant, and every third year or so, when we were young, we would drop out of school for a month in the winter and head home to New Zealand. My dad has six brothers, and they all have lots of kids, so the Preston family was a large and generally unruly mob. Gran was the calm, sensible and loving eye of the family storm. She lived with my grandfather in a big old house in Island Bay, a working class suburb of Wellington, but every weekend she would head up to the farm in Levin, about two hours north of the city. Gran always drove, probably because Grandpa was well into the whisky by Friday afternoon.
Gran cooked in the tiny kitchen in the farmhouse on an old propane range. Grandpa was a butcher, so we ate a lot of meat. My brother and sister and I would wake up every morning to a breakfast of steak and lamb chops that Gran cooked under the broiler in the oven. She would put a generous pat of butter on each chop as they cooked. At lunch we would have sausages and white bread and Gran’s home-made tomato sauce, with strawberries and cream for desert; Gran always sprinkled the berries with coarse, granulated sugar. Dinner was invariably roast beef with boiled potatoes straight out of Gran’s vegetable garden. Any seasoning other than salt and pepper was strictly forbidden. The only condiment was finely diced tomatoes and onion in a little vinegar. For dessert we might have ice cream with passionfruit that Gran picked from the vines that grew wild all over the farm.
The way my Gran cooked was simple and satisfying and delicious. She had twenty three grandchildren and she cooked for all of them with love. Our daughter was named after her, and was Gran’s 33rd great grandchild. She died just a few months after our Elspeth was born.
The last time I saw Gran she was in her 90s, living alone in Wellington. I have a vivid picture of her in my mind: she was kneading shortbread, a tiny old woman hunched over the counter, her fingers twisted and gnarled by arthritis. She was smiling.
Thanks to Brent for contributing to our #myfoodhero campaign, which supports Community Food Centres Canada to offer empowering food programs that build better health, skills, and belonging in the communities that need it most. Join Brent by making a donation today!