I’ve always wanted to be a capable, organised cook. One of those deft fingered, sure footed women (sorry guys, but this is about me) with strong hands, that know where everything is in their kitchen, and exactly what they are doing. The cakes that rise every time, the crackle crusted breads from silken doughs, the glossy stews. My Nan was like that, and I cannot recall anything that she cooked going wrong. She would criticize it, almost as a reflex, because that was her all over, but everyone else loved whatever she made.
The difference in watching my mum cook, and my Nan, was that my Mum enjoys it. She enjoys food, and combining flavours, trying different things, talking about what goes well with what, and discussing what she’s cooked with other people. Nan always seemed to maybe not dislike cooking, but she didn’t revel in it, not like Mum and I can, and do.
Perhaps, for her, it really was just a chore, but one that she happened to be very good at indeed. Her chutneys and jams were things of legend in their Norfolk village, and she made so much every year that she could have had a cottage industry going if she’d ever thought to charge. As it was she just cooked mountains of chutneys, her kitchen piled high with garden produce. Always a harsh sting in the air from the white and spring onions, heaps of de-strung and sliced runner beans awaiting a mustard sauce, wooden chopping boards stained puce from fresh beetroot. She gave most of those mountains away.
She had cooked for as long as I could remember. My first knowledge of her girlhood were the tales of her in the Land Army. Hoping to be sent away to somewhere she’d never been, but instead sent to a farm owned by a relative in Thundersley, Essex, was a bit of a blow but she coped, and coped admirably.
She was so small, and slight – “I had a 21 inch waist back then!” – that she could lie down in between the rows of cabbages in the fields when German planes went over, shielded by the dark, voluminous leaves. I can only imagine how terrifying that was as machine guns strafed the fields.
There was the time she had to ‘take the cow to the bull’, which she thought was just a “take that cow there, to stand outside that bull enclosure” instruction. She didn’t realise she had to put the cow IN with the bull, as she wasn’t aware of the purpose of that particular bovine visitation. The farm hands found her an hour later, still stood there, wondering what was meant to happen, with a particularly cross bull glaring at her from behind his fence.
The bull seemed to take a dislike to her after that, charging at her on one occasion and pinning her to the fence, each of his horns either side of her waist embedded in the wood. She wriggled free.
Another time he chased her across a field into a barn, where all she could do was flee up a great pile of chaff which, of course, just kept giving way beneath her. She was, essentially, running on the spot halfway up, while the bull stamped and snorted at the bottom, foaming at the mouth. The farm hands rescued her, once they’d stopped laughing.
Poor Molly Kathleen.
Life never ran smoothly for her. There were Things we never spoke of, which had made her very wary, and almost scared – certainly highly suspicious – of any man that wasn’t my grandfather, whom she nagged to death. Sadly, that was literally. His last words to her were “For once in your life, Molly Crowe, will you shut up and listen!?”
Life probably could have been good to her, had she not seemed to always tread the path of most resistance. In a way I do wish that I could have made her journey easier, but she withstood even me, her only grandchild, becoming by the end a paranoid and bitter woman, insisting that we only wanted her for her money, which could not have been further from the truth.
Our last conversation, after my cards and letters were sent back torn up, was her telling me that I was dead to her, because I’d taken the ‘side’ of my mum and my step dad (over some made up row that nobody but she could actually recall), and me telling her that if that was what she needed to do to feel safe, then so be it, but that I still loved her.
That was that. All contact severed, never to be heard from again. I tried a few times, but there’s only so much hurt you can take before you painfully realise that it’s actually a relief not to walk on eggshells, or jump when the phone rings any more.
Molly Kathleen Crowe, you may not have given me your love, at the end, but you did give me your skill, your curly hair, your siege mentality when it comes to the kitchen store cupboards, and two chutney recipes. (in her words, below)
Beetroot, Apple and Onion Chutney
1lb cooked and peeled beetroot, cold (about 1 cm square)
1lb (after peeling and coring) cooking apples
½ lb onions
½ lb soft brown sugar
¼ pint malt vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
Chop apples and onions quite small (1 cm square) and put into a pan with the vinegar and sugar. Stir over a medium heat until the sugar is quite dissolved then simmer gently until thick and soft. Season and remove from the heat. Leave to cool for 5 minutes and then add the chopped beetroot and stir really well. Put into sterilised jars, cover with jam pot covers and secure tightly when cool. Try to use plastic lined lids as the vinegar reacts with the metal ones and can cause the chutney to taste awful. (This in a cheese sandwich is pure, sweet, tangy heaven ~ Lisa)
2lb (after peeling and coring) of cooking apples
12 oz soft brown sugar
2-4 oz sultanas
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp mixed spice
½ tsp cinnamon
½ pint malt vinegar
Chop apples and onions fairly small. Place onions in a pan with a little vinegar and simmer until soft then add the apples, dried fruit, spices and sugar. Stir well until the sugar is dissolved and then add the rest of the vinegar and cook until soft and thick. If you divide the mixture with a wooden spoon and the divide remains then it is done. Taste and adjust seasonings to taste.
Place in warm sterilised jars and cover with waxed pot covers when cool. Use plastic lined lids as vinegar attacks metals ones and spoils the flavour.