What’s the USP? A global tour of grannies, learning about their lives and their cooking. Other grandmothers, it turns out, really did make exceptionally good food that tied together family relationships and defined the tastes of the generations that followed them.
Mine, on the other hand, didn’t really do any cooking but did have a habit of keeping the lunch meats from half-eaten café sandwiches in her pocket to feed to the dog later. She didn’t own a dog, but just hoped to see one at some point. The food ideas of the late, great Chris ‘Nanny’ Thomas have not made it into Grand Dishes.
Who wrote it? Iska Lupton and Anastasia Miari, two friends who were inspired by their own grandmothers to travel the world interviewing other grans about their lives and their food. ‘This book is not about what it’s like to be old,’ the book tells us on a number of occasions. ‘It’s about what it’s like to have lived’.
This is the first food book for either of the authors, though in a sense that doesn’t matter – we’re here for the Abuelas and the Nonnas, the Nannys and the Grandmas.
Is it good bedtime reading? There’s a very balanced prose-to-recipe ratio here, with the majority of the book split first into chapters (Soups & Sides, Vegetables, Fish, Meat, Something Sweet) and then divided by grandmother. The obvious flaw here is that grannies aren’t easily able to share both a recipe for trout and another for jelly – though I can think of a few I’ve met in my time who would be tempted to pair those two.
Each granny is given plenty of room to breathe (no factory farmed Bubbies here). As well as an introduction from Lupton and Miari that tends to mythologise their experience in meeting and eating with their subject, there’s a story from the grandmother that might cover where they’ve come from, or how food has impacted their lives. Finally, there’s a recipe or two, drawn from the grandmother’s kitchen but kindly edited by the authors for both consistency and – importantly – the inclusion of measurements that were often eschewed by instinctive grans.
Perhaps best of all, each woman has a little fact sheet that tells us where and when they were born, what their mother tongue is, the name of their grandchildren, and what those grandchildren call them. No getting in this book unless you’re a full-fledged gran! We’re not letting just any old lady in this book. You’ve gotta have the gran-specific nickname to prove your status!
Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Generally speaking, you should be fine. Lupton and Miari really have drawn in grannies from all over the place here, with Grandma Anne in New Orleans, Abuela Juana Maria in Cuba, and a wealth of ex-pat grannies who have relocated from the likes of Thailand and South Africa. Despite this, most ingredients are easy to pick up in even the biggest supermarkets. Occasionally a guest recipe from a professional chef will throw you into disarray though. Why is it everybody else’s gran shops at Tesco, but AngloThai chef John Chantarasak’s just happens to use salted duck egg? Typical.
What will I love? The book has been put together with immense love for all of the women involved, and it shows. The range of recipes on offer is immensely varied, too, and features meals that feel genuinely unique even amongst my fairly large cookbook collection. Grandmother Sharon’s Outer Banks Shrimp Stew with ‘Pie Bread’, for example. Or perhaps Miss D’s Pastry Pig Ears.
What won’t I love? The other side of the same coin is that there’s very little coherency between the recipes offered by the 60-plus grandmothers in here (that’s both a fair representation of quantity and age). As a result, this is less a book for casual cooking and one for browsing and inspiration. People often reach for Jamie Oliver’s books thinking ‘I want something quick and nutritious), or Claudia Roden’s thinking ‘I feel like something with a Mediterranean feel tonight’. What are you reaching for here? ‘I’m really craving food that’s been approved by a septuagenarian I’ve never met’?
Killer recipes: Bobee Harriet’s Corn and Crab Bisque, Grandmother Dona Margarita’s Mexican Rice with Chicken Offal, Abayeye Shewa’s Kale and Mustard Leaves Cooked With Garlic, Abuela Juana Maria’s Cuban Plantain Soup
Should I buy it? Grand Dishes often feels a little more like a coffee table title than a traditional cookbook. Though there are plenty of delicious recipes here, the real focus of the book is always on the stories of the women that sit at its heart. This weighting means that the title might be a little limited for those who have limited space in their lives and their kitchens for cookbooks – but those who want something warm and cosy to read that might also offer them an idea or two for dinner will be well served here.
Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars
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Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas
This book was longlisted for the Andre Simon Award 2021. Read more here.