The secret that helped unlock a place and a person.
My mother was raised, slowly and deliberately, on a small, sea-locked patch of land fourteen miles off the coast of France; an island that, in theory, belongs to the English Crown, but, in lifestyle and culture, bears greater resemblance to its French counterpart. It’s the kind of place a nomad would visit, because as soon as you step onto the island’s shores, you immediately feel like you’re part of something. The island brims with turbulent history: its power passed back and forth among nations for centuries, so that if you put your ear to the ground, you can still hear the hurried footsteps of the Vikings, the victory calls of King John’s men in 1204, the eerie hush brought over by Nazi Germany. And yet, all this time, there were still cows to milk and potatoes to grow, so Jersey maintained its down-to-earth quaint quality that brings thousands of tourists over today.
The island, spanning an area of only forty-five square miles, boasts a population of nearly 100,000 while designating over 50% of its land to agriculture. Since the liberation of Jersey from Nazi Germany at the end of the Second World War, the island has become something of a “posh” place to live, its picturesque beaches and breathtaking views beckoning the rich in linen and Mercedes from all over the world. At Jersey’s core, though, hidden to the tourist and the foreigner, is the life and society of the “Jersey-man.” It’s an agricultural society, comprised of plowing potatoes as the sea salt sticks to sweat, of attending hog roasts with brimming hats and homespun dresses; of chickens, wild rabbit, and the scent of lavender that the wind carries across the cliffs. It’s a nautical society, one where talk of the tides spills over with greetings, where mussels don’t get more fresh than right off the boat in time for market, where islanders managed to survive the war on “seaweed soups” and scavenged crabs. This is the Jersey my mother knows; the Jersey I want to recapture.
I come from a long line of fiery and independent women. My great grandmother became pregnant at seventeen, and, in the face of the intense social pressure of the time, chose to have her daughter anyway. My granny, after following her husband to England and Guernsey for his job at the bank, finally put her little, powerful foot down, insisting that her children should be raised on Jersey. And my mother, who I’ve known to be an unshakable rock beneath her buttery British accent and piles of curly hair, knew from a young age that island life was too small for her. She couldn’t wait to get to the mainland, where life seemed bigger, more real, perhaps. In many ways, when my mother left the island, she left her stories with it, keeping only the reminders of why she didn’t stay.
Talking to my mother about food, I expected to hear more of the same— about the cracks beneath Jersey’s perfect exterior, tensions between her and the brother I’ve met only once, the way gossip grows like weeds , how one can never drive a stretch of more than five miles without hitting the sea. Surprisingly, none of those things were mentioned. I discovered, most pleasantly, that when my mother talks about food, her voice softens. It becomes nostalgic and wistful, as though the memory of food — the cooking and enjoyment of it — encompasses all that was good in her childhood.
My mother grew up in a world where everything was still made from scratch: before QuickMarts and frozen food, before potatoes and red meat were considered bad, before children got to dictate what went on their plate at the dinner table. Her mother, my granny, cooked every meal. My grandad, a banker in starched suits, was a man of rhythm, of predictability, and so every dinner consisted of meat, a vegetable, and a starch. Saturday mornings were for “fry-ups”: thick, fresh pork bacon, fried eggs, warm, homemade bread dipped into the grease. My mother still remembers the day Granny was surprised with a big electric frying pan: the whole family stood around the stove, wide-eyed, watching the bacon sizzle.
When Sunday afternoons coincided with low tide, there was no place better to go than the beach, and the whole family went: Granny with her pursed lips and patterned dress, Grandad in a swimsuit that blended with his olive skin, Great Granny, Papa, Auntie Jan, Uncle Joe, Auntie Queenie, who made too much tea and scoured the leaves for fortunes, Uncle Arthur, who, with his sailor’s mouth and smoker’s cough, ran a healing business. They all loaded up a car bound for the sea shore, my mother, her brother, and sister in tow. Baskets laden with porcelain dish ware, towels, beach chairs, and propane stoves were lowered by rope over the forty-foot cliff that separated the beach from the rest of the island. Once everything was arranged, like little towers in the sand, the cooking would begin: frying local sausage on the propane stoves, simmering beans, boiling water for cups of tea. It was a habit my mom acquired for herself. Years later, picking up family from Jersey at the Toronto Airport, a three hour trek from home, she would fill a thermos with hot water and pack the china tea cups, so that our visitors could enjoy a much needed cup of tea after the flight.
Sundays in high tide were no less enjoyable. Granny celebrated the Sabbath with a Sunday Roast, complete with Yorkshire puddings and roasted potatoes. “None of that,” Granny would say when the children sat down inside. “The sun is out, we’ll eat on the lawn.” So, my mother and her siblings would carry the dining room table through to the lawn, where they would eat a hot lunch in the hot sun, sweat intermingling with gravy. Granny hated to be inside.
Like myself, my mother also had the experience of growing up on good, homemade food without taking part in the making of it. Granny was fiercely possessive of her sunny kitchen with the glass door, a trait passed down to my mother and then, it seems, to me. Our family, it appears, views cooking as a solitary sport, a duty and perhaps a gift of love to those we feed. Recipes are withheld, partly out of humility (“Oh, I didn’t think you’d want my recipe; there are so many others out there!”) and partly out of pride (“If I give her my apple pie recipe, she won’t need me anymore to make it!”). The recipes are lost with the person who makes it. And so it is that at twenty six years of age, married with a kitchen of my own, I have no recipes from my family tree, and my mother, who I am interviewing, is on her knees digging to the back of the cupboard, looking for a recipe that might have some history attached.
Several moves and thirty years since leaving the island she once called home, my mother can give me only snippets of recipes, only hints of the real thing. Granny made excellent rice pudding, she says, and Great Granny — she was known for her pies. I scribble this down, ready to approach my granny next for information.
My mother and I say our goodbyes, her bouncy hair receding in the rearview mirror, already thinking, I’m sure, about the next thing on her list. As I drive away, I wonder why I am not frustrated that I have not acquired a single recipe. She gave me only bait, only a little bit more dirt to keep digging in my search for tangible family recipes.
Then I realize: my mother has, for the first time, let me into her childhood. She left the island at eighteen, and then spent years leaving it again in habit and memory. I don’t think my mother knew how to untangle the knotted parts of her childhood enough to share them with us; her relationship with the Jersey she remembers is tumultuous and complex. Food, however, is an untarnished memory: it comes from a place in childhood that is whole, warm, and satisfying. She could talk about food freely, without any misgivings or hurt attached . My mother spent years locking us and herself out of her adolescence, out of her need for freedom, out of an island that, for her, was always too small.
Food, I realized, was the way back in.
Rachael is an MFA Student and Writer in Pittsburgh. She blogs at Steeped in Thought.