It turns out that Grace Dent and I have more in common than I ever thought. I’m sure it’ll come as a surprise to her as well. We’re both Northern, both enjoy our food, will both happily extol the virtues of Pizza Express and Pret, and we were both getting pretty tired of Arya and Sansa’s season seven shit. As if that wasn’t enough, it now appears that we both have an Aunty Sheila to placate.
Yet, while Grace and I are clearly two pips from the same pomegranate, our Sheilas are worlds apart. Her pleasantly passive out-of-towner in need of an undemanding dining spot meets my heroically knowledgeable out-of-countryer, who’s been there, cooked that and wouldn’t have put garlic in it, herself. To be brief, my half Italian aunt is my culinary guru. She has taught me about pasta and, in turn, warped my perspective on life, the universe and everything. James Martin may (rightly) pine over old Keith Floyd clips, Michael Caines, Ollie Dabbous et al. can worship at the altar of Raymond Blanc, soulless glamour-‘grammers can be as Deliciously Ella as they like, I whatsapp Sheila.
My love for and skin-deep understanding of Italian food culture has been developed primarily in Sheila’s kitchen. There, I have come to learn some of the priorities and paradoxes of Italian cuisine: that measurements are for the English, that there is no set way of making a dish, that your way is wrong. We’ve had crash courses in pizza making, spent long mornings scaling, skinning and filleting red mullets, crushed prawn heads by the tonne, haphazardly shaved truffles over fried eggs, and with every fresh sauce, each exciting salumi, my appreciation of produce and process has grown. As has my insight into Sheila’s generosity, passion, patience and utter commitment to creating something delicious for people she cares about.
Our kitchen conduct and approach to eating give a remarkably incisive insight into our character. When, as a bubbly blonde eight-year-old at a friend’s house, I pulled a real-life sick face emoji at my sister over the tinned mac n cheese we’d just been insulted with, or when she, aged six, would demand smoked salmon sandwiches on her playdate rider, we revealed ourselves as the horrible little snobs that we unwittingly were. For this, I can thank my other culinary idol: Mum.
I don’t suffer from the ‘my mum’s shepherd’s pie is the best’ delusion. It’s actually her beef carbonnade that stands out, if anything. I know that she doesn’t cook down her onions enough and chops courgette into hideously irregular wedges, never takes the time to properly sear a roasting joint and has her head turned far too easily by lamb kofta flavour crisps, but it matters not. Despite her working full time, we would come home and have a cooked meal almost every night. Obviously, trying to rustle up a ragu in half an hour on a Wednesday evening can be troublesome in the flavour stakes but, for better or worse, she’d never let that stop her from trying. And whether it was rushed recipes at home or never being subjected to a children’s menu when dining out, the message was clear: We eat well and we eat together.
Festival time is when she really came into her own. Whipping cheesecake mixture, portioning out coconut pyramids and deep-frying fish/latkes/anything that would fit in the pan are the motifs of my Jewish upbringing. We’d take a huge amount of pride in presenting our dishes to the family, or sit, waiting for a validating ‘Sam made the coleslaw’ and the resultant nod of approval from Gramps. Now, the rabbi would shudder at my shopping lists, but I’ve never lost that celebratory approach to a meal.
Entering the kitchen with a friend can be a real test of compatibility. I no longer live with the housemate who snuck pecans into the bolognaise. Through cooking with someone, you do more than discover new recipes. A lesson in food is a lesson in people. Just as Sheila and my mum have shaped my attitudes towards eating (and, therefore, living), I have learned about them as individuals and had the chance to explore entire cultures.
Eating is at once personal and universal. Ashkenazi Jews and Italians don’t have too many dishes in common, but there are striking similarities in attitude: your mum is always right (unless overruled by grandma), to eat one portion is an affront… they differ on gefilte fish. More often than not, cooking for and with others can be stripped back to the fundamentals of nurture, love and a little bit of competition – which is surely the most familial trait of all. Really, to have a culinary idol is just to have an idol.