My mother’s parents were born into the genteel world of colonial Trinidad, and both were misfits. My grandfather was the son of a sugar plantation manager who only let him have friends who were ‘socially useful’. The result was that he had a very lonely childhood. My grandmother, the daughter of an oilman, was stubborn, often bad tempered, and more interested in the needs of dairy cows than playing tennis or sitting around drinking pink gins. Her mother—who had three other daughters to worry about—despaired of ever marrying her off.
Though my grandparents moved in different sets as children (oil and sugar didn’t mix), their paths crossed in England just after the Second World War. Community lines were blurring and people were united by a need to re-build. My grandfather was recovering from the exhaustion of marching with the Reconnaissance Corps through the Far East at a farm in Devon. My grandmother, who had spent the war driving an ambulance to free up men for the front, had finally got her wish and was learning to milk cows a few acres away. Like so many soldiers, Grandpa had come back for the war with a yen for the peaceful farming life. Grandma wanted to marry a farmer and make dairy cows a permanent part of her existence: it seemed a perfect match. With high hopes they settled on a farm in southwest England.
Their relationship was never perfect. Both were constrained by the polite attitudes of their colonial upbringing and English boarding school educations—my grandfather once told me it was as if they were wearing masks well into middle age. There was a lot that went unsaid. Still, they held together amid an ever-expanding whirlwind of cows, chickens, pigs and children. What they had in common was their interest in how to live— and the best ways to grow food and eat it.
The decades after World War II were a heady time in the world of food production. Chemical-heavy farming was in, and big corporations were pioneering new techniques for processing and marketing ‘labor-saving’ convenience foods. Rationing was over—and so was the period when feeding a family was a full-time occupation. Housewives were freed up to join the workforce by the widespread availability of canned meat, fruit and veg, quick-frozen foods and ready meals.
“When she’d screwed on the last jam jar lid, she calmly called Grandpa in from feeding the pigs and told him to take her to the hospital.”
My grandfather, a great neophyte, jumped on the bandwagon and sprayed his crops with every chemical going, but my grandmother completely refused to do the wifely counterpart and fill her fridge with ready-meals. They soon had five children to feed, along with sundry farmworkers and the visitors that my grandfather, who loves a stranger, welcomed to their table. A bag of frozen peas and a few fish fingers would have gone a long way, but Grandma flatly insisted on cooking everything from scratch, picking all her ingredients in the cottage garden she planted next to their farmhouse. To this day I don’t think anyone’s worked out why she went this route—maybe it was plain stubbornness or a form of English masochism—but she instilled a love of farm-to-table eating in all her children several decades before it became fashionable.
When she was 72, she woke up early one morning and began making a huge batch of cucumber pickle. English cucumber pickle is different from the American kind; it’s more like relish, but eaten alongside cheese and ham rather than in hotdogs and burgers. When she’d screwed on the last jam jar lid, she calmly called Grandpa in from feeding the pigs and told him to take her to the hospital. She died a few days later, leaving a cupboard’s worth of cucumber pickle behind her. A practical pledge of love, perhaps; her way of preparing for the end.
The cupboard’s contents have long been polished off, but her recipe is still handed round. No family occasion passes without a jar being opened, and no child leaves home without being forcibly gifted a few. It has become a sort of symbol of what’s unspeakable in family ties, of an attitude towards eating, and above all of the pursuit of life’s passions, however quixotic. It is no surprise that a deal-making moment in my relationship with my now-husband was sitting across the table from him and my father at the end of a generous meal, watching as they polished off a jar of cucumber pickle together in one sitting. No ham or cheese, just a couple of spoons.
Makes 4lbs (1.8kg)
3 large cucumbers
2 large onions
2 oz or 1/4 cup (50g) cooking salt
2 cups distilled malt vinegar
1 lb or 2 1/2 cups (450g) soft brown sugar
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1. Peel the cucumbers and onions and slice thinly. Layer in a sieve or colander, sprinkling a little of the salt over each layer. Weigh down and stand over a bowl or sink for 3 hours – this is to remove all the excess water. Drain and rinse.
2. Heat the rest of the ingredients in a large saucepan until the sugar dissolves. Add the onion and cucumber and bring to a boil for one minute. Using a slotted spoon, scoop the cucumber into sterilized jam jars. Simmer the juices for 15 minutes then pour over the cucumber. Let cool before screwing the lids on tightly.
Anna Neima is a freelance writer and PhD candidate at Cambridge University.
She blogs at lunchlife.org.