french grandmother france sponge cake vintage family photo

Something about lists

A couple of years ago, the year my grandma finally passed, my grandad found her recipe for Gateau Paulette. Gateau Paulette was a cake she baked so often it had acquired her namesake. A golden loaf, presented on a rectangular china platter, perfectly risen. She’d serve it with tea, coffee, sometimes bowls of hot chocolate, cutting it open to reveal the sweet yellow sponge beneath. 

The recipe my grandad found was less of a recipe and more a list of ingredients, intended I guess for nobody else but her. Perhaps she wrote the list quickly on her way to the shops. More likely, she was trying to remember. Hooking her quickly fading memory onto something concrete. I can imagine her now, furtively putting pen to paper (not in the pencil she used for her crosswords), neatly folding her handwriting between the lines of a notepad. Chocolat 60 grams, quickly crossed out.  

Lists like these are rarely for sharing. There’s something intimate about them. Not intended for any audience other than the person who wrote them. While I know Mamie would not have minded me sharing her recipes and lists, they still feel like diary entries, rather not revealed. Personal polaroids. 

french grandmother cake recipe vintage photographs

“A shopping list is the haiku of the food world, where the story of people, their lives, and their priorities lay waiting to be discovered, far beyond what initially appears to be a rather utilitarian piece of writing. All kinds of lists are fascinating although some have a longer life expectancy than others”, says Nicola Miller in her newsletter, Tales From Topographic Kitchens. A haiku might sound like a grandiose metaphor for a shopping list, but if poems (in their oldest form) are stories to help us remember, what then is a list?

Mamie’s cooking was her way of knowing she existed, her sense of daily purpose. For as long as I knew her without Alzheimer’s, food was always on her mind. Always. She spoke her affection for us in the cakes she baked, the three-course lunches she made every day, the locked cabinet of Kinder Surprise she always had stocked up. These were her poems. Poems she covertly translated into lists to help her remember a language she was losing her grip of. What was it like, Mamie?

Lists reveal something of the person who wrote them, as much as about the time and place they were written. A few years ago I found a stack of my grandma’s accounts. Back then groceries and their prices were recorded neatly in notebooks, the bills paid to the butcher, baker, the pharmacist and grocer at month’s end. Turns out Mamie bought butter by the kilo a lot, salad leaves and radishes, eggs and whole chickens, fromage frais and petits pain, bottles of Evian and beer. So this is how a normal northern French family ate during the 40s, 50s and 60s! Look back through old notebooks and you’ll find jotted recipes, pages crammed with scraps of paper and hasty scribbles on used envelopes, household secrets passed from one neighbour to the next with a sound word of advice. This one below came from Judy’s great-grandmother, dating back to the 19th century.

old english recipe book

Rather than proper recipes, her Scotch Cake and Sandwich Cake were written as lists, with an assumption of knowledge that the modern cook would need to Google. In another notebook, kept by Ann Corbett in the 1920’s, I found recipes jotted in pencil, for Golden Pudding with only one line of method: bake in slow oven 1 hour. Another for Christmas Pudding; the only translation of the ingredients list was steam 4 hours, boil up again 2 hours when required. Some had no instructions at all because of course there was no need; the intention of these lists were self-explanatory, at least to the author. The quantities given are another mystery; a gill of syrup, 3 quarts of water, 4 drams of ginger, a teacup of milk, a pennyworth of barm, a nut of butter. How large were teacups back then? How much was a penny worth?

With lists as with recipes as with poems, they are open to interpretation and error. Unless the intended meaning has been handed over, through the action of showing or telling, how do we reach back, untangle the tousled threads of memory to understand their contexts? Perhaps Mamie didn’t write this list to remember, maybe she meant to pass it to a friend or my uncle next door and misplaced it in a drawer. 

grandmother cake recipe ingredients list vintage recipes

When grandpapa gave it to us, me and mum picked it apart, reaching back, sticking together bits of memory, trying to remember how exactly she’d have folded in the eggs, the temperature of the oven. Garniture 100g? We don’t recall a topping. Finally, cake baked, we sliced it open. It tasted like hers, sort of. At least how I remember it 20 years later.