by Heather Parry
This fantastic essay from Heather Parry marks a new direction for Knight Errant Press. Like many across the world, we’ve been affected by COVID-19. We’ve had to postpone projects and had a host of events cancelled. Sad as this may be, it is necessary.
Knight Errant’s aim is to support readers and writers by publishing stories and voices from the margins. As a team we have decided that, until we have a better grasp of the situation, right now the best way to reach you and keep Knight Errant running is by publishing digitally. We will focus on commissioning writers for publication online. You can find out more about the new guidelines here.
Our first blog talks about the comfort and solidarity cooking can bring during difficult times and how flavours and food punctuate our memories – a subject that we think has been close to everyone’s heart in the last couple of months. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did.
Two streets over from my flat there is a bakery. We call it the Secret Bakery, because it only opens on weekends, and only from 9am until whatever time they sell out, which they do without fail every week. They specialise in twice-baked almond croissants, ludicrously affordable sourdough and, most relevant to my interests, vegan cinnamon buns — but each week the counters are full of brookies (brownie cookies), danishes and even pastéis de nata, the Portuguese custard tarts that will melt the heart of the coldest of souls. The pastry-inclined amongst my neighbours will line up in almost any weather to get their hands on those sweet baked goods, and for almost any amount of time, because once you’re in that line you don’t get out of it.
I love this little ritual; waking up on a Saturday morning, taking a coffee and a book and waiting outside the bakery with my neighbours, who invariably have cute, over-friendly dogs or cute, over-friendly kids and whose gossip I can eavesdrop on, enjoying the low-level drama with none of the fallout or responsibility. I love it particularly because I have lived in this flat, in this city, for only a year, and for the first six months or so it seemed I was never here on the weekends, pulled away to Edinburgh for work or further afield for friend and family duties, always missing the short hours the bakery was open. This ritual, for me, is a part of making Glasgow really feel like home.
A few weekends ago I lined up for 45 minutes outside the Secret Bakery, knowing that this would be last time for many weeks, or even months, that I would be able to do so. My neighbours and I stood 4 metres apart from each other, the queue stretching all the way around the corner and onto the next block, with only a few people allowed in the shop at any one time. When my section of the line did make it in there, we watched in horror as someone’s small daughter took a disposable wooden spoon from the holder, shoved it in her whole mouth, then put it back in with the rest. We leapt and rescued the spoon, throwing it immediately into the bin with those it touched, acutely aware that the world had changed, and such wee mistakes now constituted a biohazard. I filled my bag to the brim with the bakery’s goods, and on my way home left pistachio knots outside the door of some friends in our stair. Now, more than ever, is the time to share.
When things start to go awry in my world, I start to cook. Making (and eating) food has always been a comforting process in weird times; as a kid, whenever I was sick I got to stay off school and spend the day with my grandma, who had six children and would deliver a lemon drizzle or a coffee cake to each family every week, the latter made with the cheap instant stuff and studded with walnut halves on top. If you were ill — or, realistically, if you were faking being ill to get the day off school — she would let you lick not only the bowl, in which she’d generously left half the cake batter, but also the mixer paddles, the spoons, the spatula and anything else that held even the slightest remnant of the mixture. Miraculously, you’d find that your symptoms had all but vanished by the time the cake was done — inevitably to be replaced by a sugar overdose, but still.
The making and sharing of something comforting as a response to difficulty was ingrained in me from a young age, and it has stuck.
I didn’t really realise this until it was a few days into lockdown and I found that I’d done Instagram cookalongs of my dinners for several days, putting out into the digital world not only what I was making and how, but my general cooking experience; what I was listening to, tips for getting the best out of garlic, encouragement to drink while chopping veg. Immediately people — my friends, yes, but also folks I’ve met once or twice, and some I’ve never met at all — started responding, asking questions about what I was doing or sending photos of them cooking along with the story. It’s always a bit of a shock when people show interest in the more mundane aspects of your life, but I have been continually surprised over the last few weeks to see just how many people are interacting, virtually, over the process of making breakfast, or dinner, or cobbling together some leftovers for lunch. We’re swapping techniques, we’re requesting recipes, we’re reminiscing about when we ate this one thing here or there, with this person or that, and planning when we might go there again. We’re sharing.
I am lucky enough to be ensconced at home with my partner who eats almost anything, so I have someone to feed, someone with whom I can appreciate the food we have. But the process of putting all of this online made me realise that cooking isn’t just about making the finished product. It’s not even just about sharing the food. It’s having someone sitting on your counter, amidst a pile of flour, critiquing the way you knead. It’s licking your finger and pressing it into the crumbs of a dessert, knocking someone else’s hand out of the way and trying to get the last bits before everyone else. It’s accidentally throwing a whole lasagna onto the floor and having someone to laugh at you until they cry. Food, the process of food, is communal, and so are the successes and failures of its making.
A couple of weekends ago I got it into my head that I’d recreate the miso caramel that makes up part of the famous dessert they serve at the best restaurant I’ve ever been to — but instead of the whole dessert, I’d layer that miso caramel on top of shortbread and underneath a layer of melted dark chocolate, the ultimate fancyass millionaire’s shortbread. However, pouring caramel and caramel intended to set solid have very different methods, and despite frantic attempts to freeze the whole thing hard, what I ended up with was ice cold shortbread, freezing chocolate and caramel that still flowed from the middle of it like a non-Newtonian liquid. I told my mum that I’d failed to make a set caramel; she responded by digging a 30-year-old half-destroyed BeRo cookbook out of the kitchen drawer and making the same millionaire’s shortbread recipe that I’d have eaten when I was a child. Her caramel was perfect.
Right now the comfort of Instagram, and the internet as a whole, is that it’s allowing us all into each other’s kitchens, letting us peer into our friend’s oven to see if that sourdough is rising or falling, showing us how someone else cuts an onion, letting us learn from each other’s mistakes. It’s letting us share the process of making.
My trip to the bakery turned out to be the last before lockdown in the UK. In my 45 minutes of slightly sombre waiting, I devoured the entirety of Tiny Moons; A Year of Eating in Shanghai, a brilliant and comforting book about food, memories and belonging by Nina Mingya Powles. In it, Nina explores the destinations of her life so far via her experiences with meals and the people with whom she cooked and ate. Food, for her, is a way back to her Chinese-Malaysian heritage via the streets of Shanghai and Wellington; it’s the connections she has with the grandparents, her family, her friends.
I gravitated towards that book, and have re-read it again since, because for me, and I think for most of us, what we eat is about more than the flavours and textures of what we put in our mouths. It’s the smells and sounds of where you are when you are handed a plate; it’s the driving rain against the window that makes a shepherd’s pie extra warming, the aroma of freshly ground coffee that makes you crave an oaty biscuit. Nigel Slater once said that the perfect dinner at the end of summer is a cheese toastie with cold beers at the end of the garden on the last warm evening there is; food is situational, and emotional, and what makes a meal good is not just what you eat but who you eat it with — and where. The comfort of food for me right now is not just about the food itself; it’s about all the people and places I think of when I eat it, the people and places I can’t currently visit. The foods I’ve been cooking during this crisis have been foods that hold strong memories of good times.
It’s a Thursday evening. The first spring sun is shining through my kitchen window as I sit
with a glass of wine and eat olive tapenade and bruschetta, and for a moment, if I close my eyes, I am back in Lucca with my three brilliant friends, a bottle of Borolo that we couldn’t afford half drunk on the table in the middle of the afternoon, our skins toasting slightly in the sun, my cheeks hurting from laughter and that sharp Italian salt. The banana bread with peanut butter is a journey on the Manly Ferry in Sydney, being full-body exhausted from an afternoon failing to surf, falling asleep between mouthfuls of sweet cake and thick, creamy flat white. The Venezuelan breakfast is a breath-takingly hot and humid morning in Panama City, hungover and fragile, sitting at plastic tables with huge glasses of juice, spooning black beans into sliced arepas and sweating onto the plate. The risotto with deep fried capers is an evening crouched on the beach on Lewis, cooking over a camping stove, feeling the open sea breeze and watching the sun go down; just add a cold beer. All these with the people I love.
But the times to relive through meals aren’t just the adventurous ones. I make Dishoom’s house black dal to remember the group visits to the restaurant in Edinburgh, the friends coming north to see me for the first time in years, several plates between us and forks clashing over each one. I make parkin, Yorkshire’s famous and unbelievably delicious ginger cake, to take me back to Bonfire Nights in my parents’ back garden, potatoes cooking in their jackets on the fire and recently extinguished sparklers sticking out of the lawn. And for the first time in my whole life I learn to make crisp, soft-on-the-inside croissants stuffed with pistachio frangipane, a minor variation on the ones they make at the Secret Bakery and nowhere near as professionally done, but it means that on Saturday mornings we can wake up and have a coffee and read a book and eat fresh pastries as we did before; as we will do again. Making and sharing will go on regardless, and after this, though the world might be changed in immeasurable ways, there will still be people creating delicious things for you to eat, and there will still be kitchens with crumbs on the floor, and there will still be a place you can queue with your neighbours, listening to their gossip and stopping their children from dribbling on the disposable cutlery. Food will get us through it all.
(And even the ruined shortbread was delicious.)
Heather Parry is a Glasgow-based writer and editor. She won the 2016 Bridge Award for an Emerging Writer, the Cove Park Emerging Writer Residency in 2017 and was a prizewinner in the 2019 Mslexia Short Story Competition. Heather’s work explores self-deception, transformation and identity. She is the co-founder and editor of Extra Teeth magazine. She likes food, wine and crocheting small things when angry at politics.
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Like many across the world, we’ve been affected by COVID-19. We’ve had to postpone projects and had a host of events cancelled. Sad as this may be, it is necessary.
Knight Errant’s aim is to support readers and writers by publishing stories and voices from the margins. As a team we have decided that, until we have a better grasp of the situation, right now the best way to reach you and keep Knight Errant running is by publishing digitally. We will focus on commissioning writers for publication online.
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