There’s no gravy on Masterchef, Grace Dent told Claire Byrne on Wednesday. If you want brown stuff on your spuds, you have to reach for the jus. Grace, restaurant critic, broadcaster and author, reckons that people want comfort food at the end of the day and not the sort of high-end fare that she would review for The Guardian:
“I always say that nobody gets to the end of the day and thinks, ‘Gosh, I’d love a lovely big plate of technique and textures and shards and smears.’ They just want something brown, often. I talk a lot about the restorative power of chips with curry sauce, or a good shepherd’s pie or chow mein from a takeaway. These are the things that often hit the spot.”
Grace’s memoir, Hungry, details her experiences as a child growing up in Carlisle and how she went from being cared for by her parents to caring for her parents. And food – of all sorts – is never far from the narrative. When she returned home to care for her parents – her father suffers from dementia – she wanted to make sure that they ate together as often as possible:
“If we were all eating together, we were still a family, before the final point came when Dad had to go into the home.”
Eating together as a family was fine, unless Grace tried to include some of her “fancy London ways” and serve her parents couscous or something exotic like that. In fact, her mother has a particular dislike for couscous:
“She says it’s the bottom of a budgie – a budgie’s cage. I think she’s actually said some ruder things than that that I won’t repeat on radio.”
No couscous then. Right. The fast, processed, cheap food that was bought and eaten by so many families in the 80s was, even though we didn’t know it then, laden with sugar and other not-great ingredients. Claire wondered if Grace ever considered that the sort of food the Dents ate might have contributed to the family’s ill-health. Grace’s answer is… nuanced:
“As an educated person, I can completely see the correlation between big supermarkets coming to Carlise in 1987, this world of plenty, the excitement that we had around food, and suddenly, over the years, weight gain, my father getting diabetes, my mother having cancer, I set out that I can see a correlation.”
Nevertheless, Grace retains an affection and a loyalty to those same supermarkets:
“I still find them exciting, soothing. I still look back at the times that my family spent going to the supermarket together. Working class family going to the supermarket together was a Wednesday night out. It was a time for my Dad to take us somewhere without having to take us anywhere.”
Grace’s love for her parents and her upbringing is evident throughout the conversation with Claire. But her relationship with her father, in particular, is complicated by the fact that she discovered – almost by accident – that he had a family before the one he had with Grace and her mother.
“I think I kind of knew because I’d found a photo of them at one point. This was during the 70s and the 80s, where, you know, kind of noising off at your Dad and demanding answers wasn’t really something that I did, you know, it wasn’t really something that we did to our parents.”
One of the things Grace discovered while writing the book was the way she’d spent so much time making excusing her father’s behaviour, telling herself that it was down to his upbringing, or it was down to his religion, when really it was just down to him being who he was:
“No – it was just my Dad. He just thought he could get away with it.”
The full conversation, including how Grace developed what Claire calls “sharp elbows” when she set out to be a journalist, and how a really long name can help you get ahead in the world of women’s magazines, is available here.
Hungry by Grace Dent is published by Mudlark.
Niall Ó Sioradáin
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