(Originally written in January 2014)
The festive season is only a couple of weeks in the past, and already many of us are looking ahead to Christmas 2014 (go on, admit it). I am one of those people. I love Christmas. Who doesn’t?! Grinches, Scrooges and feckwits, that’s who. I am the annoying one who can’t help BUT blare out Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ the day after the Hallowe’en fancy dress session, to relieve me of my fear-ridden hangover. “Could be worse, lads.” I say, with half my home-made mummy costume still intact. “At least it’s Christmas in 7 weeks”.
What I love most about the festive season is all the yummy food I get to eat, and – particularly since I moved to London over three years ago – the amount of time I get to spend with my GIANT family. All of my lovely and legendary Aunts and Uncles aside, I have, wait for it… 50 first cousins. Yep, deadly.
Funnily enough, even though my family is so big, I am very proud (and incredibly grateful) to say that I am close enough to everyone, on both sides. I am actually quite close to many of my second cousins as well. Few things in this life make me happier than spending time with my family and relatives, especially if good food and a few tipples are involved. As a collective, I think it would be fairly true to say, about the Fennellys and the Hacketts (Mum’s side), that We Love Our Food! We love eating it, we love making it, we love talking about it and some of us regularly enjoy playing with it (if you think I am only referring to my younger cousins on that last point, think again.)
On both sides of the family tree, it is evident that we have all been brought up by parents who were themselves raised to be appreciative, open-minded and indeed passionate about food. We are also quite keen on the wet stuff that comes with it. Nothing beats a family session!
Just yesterday, when sat in the back of the car with my folks, en route to have dinner with my Grandpa – the subject of food popped up, as it regularly does. I was due to spend the following morning with my Nanny Delia – Dad’s mommah – getting a lesson from her in how to bake her delicious nutty brown bread, and we were chatting about how great it was that we have these sorts of things to pass down through the generations. It got us to talking about how some people really miss out on what good food can bring to life, and that none of us ever really appreciated (or in some senses, even realised!) how lucky we all were, to have been brought up as we have. We have been exposed to food in a way that has moulded us all into individuals with exceptional appetites, and great social lives!
Dad said, “I remember it was a case of having all of this homemade food available to us, all of the time and not really thinking anything special of it. We were so used to it, you see. We got excited at the prospect of a sliced pan from the local shop because we were so used to eating fresh breads at home. It never really occurred to us, all the work and the time that Mammy put into the food that we ate on a daily basis. And believe me – with seven hungry kids, it was a lot of work”.
“We were far from well-to-do, but Mammy found a way of making the most out of what they could afford to bring into the kitchen. All things considered, I grew up eating very well, and I had no idea and probably very little appreciation”.
My Mum then chimed in, “Grandma and Grandpa travelled a lot to France from early on in their marriage, so we are all exposed to their “experimentation”! Mum would put her own spin on the dishes they’d come across on their trips and serve them up to the nine of us.”
Quoting her best friend (and my fairy Godmother!) my mum said “Frieda would say ‘Liz, there was always one big pot of something or another in your kitchen, and it was always something delicious and different. Everyone would just help themselves as they came and went in the evenings’. “Frieda saw the sort of food that my Mum cooked up, as unusual and exotic in comparison to what she was used to. To us though, it was just our standard home cooking.”
Mum added “Then there was the garden. Because we had a fair amount of land, some of our garden was used as an orchard, and we also grew rhubarb – all of which was looked after by Pat the gardener. As a result, Mum was constantly baking and we had pies coming out our bloody ears. The mad thing is at the time, all we wanted as kids was to go to the shop and stock up on processed food, like those disgusting fish pancakes you used to get!”
“Mum would get our bread from Bewley’s, and I remember how they would slice the fresh pan right then and there in front of you, and then bag it up. This was beautiful bread, the next best thing to home-baked bread, yet we still wanted supermarket sliced pan! Because, to us, THAT was exotic. Growing up, I didn’t know there was such a thing as frozen food – and I think I was nearly married before I did. Mum just never bought it.”
Mum continued, “It is now when we are grown up, that we can look back and see how lucky we were to have something that, as children, we took for granted. You can really see the dividends… everyone in the family has benefitted from their exposure to food on some level – be that a career path, a hobby or a damn good appetite for any good food that is put on the table!”
Hearing my parents chat away and reminisce about their food related memories made me think about my own.
I have been very blessed. I have grown up in a house where the fridge was always stocked to the brim with all kinds of yummy food. We were never short of fresh fruit and veg, always had a good selection of fish and meats, and there was regularly some freshly baked bits and pieces knocking about. Mum constantly experimented just like my Grandma did – and still does – so the spectrum of dishes and cuisines we had was vast.
One of the things I look forward to most when I go home, is my Mum’s cooking. Liz Fennelly is an excellent chef and a huge inspiration for Baby Got Bake. Anyone who has had the pleasure of eating her food, will know that I am not exaggerating at all when I say she has quite a gift. And boy, does she make it seem effortless!
An example – Myself, my brother and a couple of friends came home from a night out together and were fairly drunk, and hungry! It must’ve been about 3.30am but for some reason Mum was still up. Being the legend that she is, she said she’d just “whip us up something quickly”. Next thing we know we have a load of freshly prepared, delicious Croque Monsieurs sitting in plates in front of us, waiting to be demolished. Not bad for an impromptu fix for a case of the late night, alcohol fuelled munchies, right? It’s easy to look back fondly like this now, but when I was younger it used to really annoy me that she never bought any convenience food. One of my good friends used to always have…wait for it… microwavable burgers, for her dinner and I loved having them when I visited. The thought of eating one of them now… not so nice.
Funny how it works like that, isn’t it?
To conclude here, I’d like to take a brief moment to say a word about my Grandma who I’ve mentioned above, the incredible Mrs Betty Hackett. Less than two weeks ago, on December the 30th after a short and unexpected illness, our beloved Betty left us to go and hang out with the other Grandma angels. She was the grand age of eighty-six, and so incredibly elegant. Not a day has gone by since, where I don’t think about how truly amazing she was, and how she touched the lives of every single person that knew her, in her own very unique way. This woman had a knack at making everyone feel very special – be that via a phone-call, in person or – my favourite – a hand-written letter. We were all truly her favourites 🙂
Grandma would get uncomfortable at the thought of anyone publically singing her praises, so I won’t go on. I could… believe me. But I won’t. I’ll say this though – I have no doubt in my mind that Grandma has been looking down on all of us over the past couple of weeks with a big smile on her face, as we dine together more frequently than usual and chat about this, that and everything in between. She loved a good chat, especially if it was over some yummy grub.
Like Grandmother, like Mother, like Granddaughter.