In recent years I have found myself storing half-onions under saucers and saving bits of leftover bacon to throw into a quiche and began to suspect that supermarket sell-by dates were a con designed to make me buy more yogurt. I knew that my newfound thriftiness wasn’t just a reaction to the economy then one day, reaching for the bone handled knife I always use to peel apples, a picture flashed into my mind. My grandmother was seated at the table in her simple kitchen tearing the leaves off rhubarb stalks, in her hands that very same bone handled knife.
My Mayo grandmother lived with us in London and she died when I was in my early twenties. I have always missed her humour and her presence but lately I have missed her in a different way. Recently I have come to feel her legacy in the domestic details of my life and I miss having her to there to share them with.
I want to show her my own wonderful rhubarb patch, ask her advice on keeping the crows away from my gooseberries, have her to show me how to darn the elbow on my expensive Lainey Keogh cardigan. Mostly I want to stand at her side in my mother’s kitchen and have her teach me to make her wonderful soda bread again. This time I would take real note as she throws the flour and bread soda into the bowl, measuring by eye alone, gradually adding in the soured milk then gently kneaded the dough into a delicate round, gathering in every last crumb leaving the red Formica tabletop spotless. I’m ready to learn from her now. I am ready to listen. I want my time back with her not as a girl in my twenties, my head full of new clothes and boyfriends but as a mature woman with children whose domestic situation reflects so much of her own.
When my mother refurbished the kitchen in her family home, she passed me on a number of Granny’s things. Her cookery books, the mixing bowl she had made her bread in for forty years, and crucially – the bone handled knife that she carried about in the pocket of her apron, always. The small, flat instrument with the rounded blade had started its life as a dinner knife, but, for some eccentric reason, Granny had sharpened the centre of it until the blade was concave. To this day it is extraordinarily effective in cutting everything from vegetables to bread. “Granny’s Knife” sits in my cutlery drawer and I use it everyday. My husband is mystified and slightly nervous of the thing and never touches it. With it’s ancient yellowed handle, and strange shaped blade it looks like a hybrid butter knife – but it still works, and using it is a way of keeping her with me. Often, when I am chopping an onion, or peeling an apple she comes into my mind – stout and stern working at our kitchen table, then throwing her head back into a loud burst of laughter so suddenly you’d nearly jump out of your skin! Material possessions are not as important as people, but they often outlive them and for what they represent, for they way they remind you of a person, they are important. My grandmother’s knife had no significance for me until she died, but now I can remember her using it from when I was a child. My own children are unaware of these things now, but as they reach adulthood, the legacy of my grandmother’s generation will live on through him in the comfort of the home I have created for them. I let them know “this is my grandmother’s recipe” when I serve them up a traditional dinner. They aren’t listening, they don’t care that I ate the same foods as a child but just as I by some mysterious process absorbed my grandmother’s ways I know that my children will come to appreciate, perhaps even cherish the history of their home lives. Despite their eye rolling, the meals I cooked and the knife that I used, which once belonged to their great grandmother, will all log in their memories. Perhaps one day they will come to cherish the way history can enrich our everyday lives as I have.
Here I am making boxty to my grandmother, Anne Nolan’s recipe.