Juana Maria in Cuba peeled a bruised plantain in a stiflingly hot kitchen on the outskirts of Havana that’s barely big enough to squeeze in two people. She’s making soup without the chicken she’d planned on using because the time to wait in line for meat that morning was three hours. Because of the ongoing blockade, Cubans have been facing food shortages for years, but cooking with 80-year-old Juana Maria using the supplies she managed to pull together for a meal really brought this home.
“Those first years of La Revolución Cubana were glory years. Cuba was plentiful. Shops are empty now,” she said, leafing through her ration book when we finally sit to eat her (admittedly delicious, despite the missing chicken) plantain soup. I was not expecting what she was about to tell me: Her husband was a part of the revolution, taking part in the famous attack on the presidential palace in 1957 and that she celebrated in Havana when Che Guevara and Fidel Castro finally overthrew Batista’s government in 1959.
From Soviet-era apartment blocks in Moscow to tiny houses on tobacco plantations in Cuba, writing my book, Grand Dishes, has taken me around the world to cook with grandmothers, opening my eyes to the living history in each location I visited. The mission was simple: set out to document the stories of grandmothers around the world and the time-perfected recipes seasoned by their lives.
Traveling with purpose alongside my best friend Iska Lupton, we set about to meet a grandmother everywhere we went. We started with my own granny in Corfu, Greece, who cooks in an outhouse and always on an open flame, then moved onto grandmothers across Europe and eventually farther afield to Russia, Israel, and the Americas. Along the way we spent days and weekends in the kitchens of grandmothers, seeing new parts of the world through the eyes of seasoned locals. These women had spent their entire lives in the spots we traveled to, making them the very best tour guides.
In Sicily, rather than sticking to the increasingly “hip” Palermo, I was invited to the coastal town of Mondello to cook with a wildly gesticulating Italian Nonna Fina, who indulged me on the history of the island as we stirred an enormous vat of blood-red sugo for Pasta con le Sarde, a bucatini dish covered in a sauce heavy with sardines, fennel, and raisins. “Our food here in Sicily has been flavored by the Arabs, the North Africans, the Normans, and the Jewish,” said Fina when noticing my surprise at the addition of raisins.
Later, as we strolled the old town of Palermo, Nonna Fina pointed out contrasting architectural styles–Gothic, Baroque, Byzantine–and I was so grateful for my granny tour guide.
In Israel, a place rife with conflict that often divides opinion, I cooked with grandmothers Edna and Ester. Tel Aviv is a foodie paradise. I reveled daily in shakshuka, dunking thick Challah bread into runny eggs yolks, and tomato stew rich with cumin. I marveled at its rich culinary scene. It’s also a city of contradictions, in which I was made to feel so welcome by the grandmothers who were once strangers to the place themselves. It’s a place laden with expectations and heavy with judgement. And so I went into their apartments armed with questions about what it really felt like to be a resident of Israel. How do those who migrated here perceive their own relationships and claim on this rich city?
The pickled pepper recipe Edna chose to make and the walnut chicken stew Ester made with me gave an insight into their pasts before Israel existed for them. Edna was originally from Romania and Ester from Georgia. They both spoke of their first days in a new state post-war, the promises that were made to them, and the realities that they met when they arrived.
“The most important thing in life is to have good relations with people, which isn’t easy. Everyone has their own character but we can’t depend on only ourselves,” said Edna.
Cooking with grandmothers for four years has opened up the world to me in ways I could never have imagined. The Grand Dishes book was originally going to be a book of recipes from grannies, but it’s become so much more. It’s a compendium of life lessons, history as it was lived by real women, and time-perfected dishes that are the very distillation of these womens’ lives.