My mum always cooked a traditional roast dinner on Sundays. Dinner, usually eaten in the evenings by our family mid-week, was moved to lunch time on Sundays. Sunday Lunch, even to me as a small child, felt unlike mid-week meals which seemed more like food put in front of us to nourish the body. Without the words to describe the feeling of Sunday Lunch, even as a six or seven year old, I knew this food, this meal, was more than just about nurturing our bodies. It would not be until I was a University student sharing Sunday Lunch as a guest of a Church family, or cooking with fellow students that I would understand this tradition as one of communion, sharing, appreciation, thankfulness and sheer delight in this great British tradition.
Today, continuing the tradition of eating roast dinners with family and friends, many people flock to the local pub for Sunday Lunch. Who knows how many families in the U.K. today keep up the Sunday cooking ritual at home? Perhaps people are too busy to cook on Sundays, or maybe with so many two-parent-working households the Pub offers a treat while still maintaining a tradition.
When traditions survive from generation to generation one has to wonder why? What is so important about this tradition, or ritual that keeps us so engaged? When traditions and rituals are based in religion it is easier to comprehend why they would stand the test of time. Perhaps even if the “why” of Sunday Lunch is not universally analysed, the answer can be found deep down in the British psyche.
When I moved to California twenty-four years ago with my then almost six year old daughter, I found it hard to maintain this treasured tradition. The weather is better in California than in England. The almost year-round sunshine tempted us into outdoor living, enjoying the simplicity of being outside in the warm sunny weather. As with any other day of the week we found ourselves eating dinner in the evening on Sunday. After all, who would want to punctuate an otherwise cloudless, rain-free day with an extended time indoors only to eat?
I mourn the loss of this tradition in my California life. I love when I go back to England to visit and Sunday Lunch becomes part of my life again. One thing I can say about all of our mealtimes while Alexandra was growing up, is that we were fortunate enough for them not only to be about nourishing the body. Every mealtime, sitting around the table, was an opportunity for discourse, for making sense of the world and each other. We navigated school life, parenthood and anchored our stories, discoveries, lessons learned, joys and sorrows shared, around a table of food conjured out of love with the help of fresh ingredients and the memory of cooks before me, like my mum.
Back when I was a little girl living in London in the 1960s, Sunday Lunch, for our family and everyone we knew, was part of a greater Sunday ritual. Going to Church came first, followed by Sunday Lunch at home. Often the men went to the pub for a drink after Church while their wives dutifully returned home to the kitchen.
In anticipation of Sunday, our family ate dinner late on Saturday evenings. We ate late so that my parents could stave off early Sunday morning hunger. Dad and Mum didn’t eat breakfast on Sunday mornings because Catholics had to fast before receiving Holy Communion. They needed their bodies to be as pure as possible in order to receive the body of Christ. Fasting on Saturday nights was a sacrifice I had to make only for a short time as not long after I made my First Holy Communion, this fasting was no longer required by the Catholic Church. With the arrival of “Vatican Two” our young Catholic lives changed. Mass became more interesting as we understood it for the first time as it was said in English, not just in Latin.
I remember my mum getting up early on Sundays and preparing the vegetables and the joint of meat before Church. She would put the meat in the oven, and set the timer to switch the oven on while we were at Mass. Even though I must have been about six when mum got a cooker (stove in the USA) with an oven with a built-in timer, I can remember her being very excited about it. The next piece of culinary equipment my mum seemed to get a lot of joy out of was a stacking steamer pan set. Vegetables were so much nicer steamed than drowned and saturated in a pan of boiling water. Perhaps it is because of my mum’s excitement at such things that I, at the age of twelve, was extremely proud of my first electric hand mixer. I know, weird isn’t it? A twelve year old saving up her pocket money to buy a food mixer. A foreshadowing of things to come, maybe.
Even back then when I was little, I knew Sunday Lunch wasn’t just about the food. It was about sharing that food with family or friends. Occasionally my grandmother, mum’s mother, would come for lunch. I never questioned the absence of my grandfather. I can only remember meeting him once. Mum didn’t talk about him and I never asked. Now and again my favourite Aunt – Aunty Ethna and her husband, Uncle Bill, came for lunch bringing their four children with them. These were the only cousins I really got to know. Mum was the eldest of eleven and so her siblings were very spread out in age and marital status.
More regularly than any other Sunday guest though, was an honorary uncle, Uncle Joe. Uncle Joe was a friend of my dad’s. Dad and Uncle Joe were both writers for the Irish Press Newspaper in Dublin before they left Ireland to make their “fortunes” in London where the streets were “paved with gold.” From what I can remember being told about Uncle Joe, he continued to be a journalist, while my dad tried out a variety of jobs.
Mum and I loved every second Sunday because that’s when Uncle Joe came to lunch. In fact, just today mum and I talked about our memories of this man who, as mum said “was a part of our lives forever.” To mum and I Uncle Joe was the bringer of gifts. He brought mum a box of Black Magic chocolates every visit, while he brought me something different every time. Sometimes Uncle Joe brought me a toy. Other times he brought me a book, or after Santa Clause brought me a record player, Uncle Joe built up an eclectic collection of forty-fives for me. I listened to songs from Pal Joey, or part of a movement by Beethoven. Best of all I liked listening to “I could have danced all night” from My Fair Lady. I learned the words off by heart, and would stand on my bed singing along to the record at the top of my voice.
Of the books Uncle Joe gave me the ones I remember most were a few collections of poetry, The Wind in the Willows, and a volume of The Encyclopedia Britannica. I longed to own a whole set of the encyclopedia. I begged mum every time the Encyclopedia salesman showed up on the doorstep to buy them for me. They were too expensive for my parents. Now, at the age of 57, I still have one of the poetry books Uncle Joe gave me. It was because of one of those poetry books combined with my love of The Wind in the Willows, that I felt inspired to write a poem about Mole and Ratty. It must have been a sad poem, don’t you think, as I remember my mother crying while I read it aloud?
My favourite toys from Uncle Joe included a Slinky, and a Gyroscope. Uncle Joe spent many hours playing with me, and reading to me. His attempts at explaining the science of the Slinky, or the Gyroscope were lost on me. I was fascinated by the magic of the seemingly self-propelled falling and folding motion of the Slinky. I can still hear the sound it made as coil followed coil in a silver-spun journey from the top of the stairs to the bottom. The Gyroscope became boring quickly when spinning it seemed pointless.
He might well have been the admired and adored gift giving friend to my mother and me, but to my dad, Uncle Joe was “The Communist.” As a little girl I didn’t know what a “Communist” was, but I knew it was something bad because dad would yell “you’re an effing communist” at Uncle Joe, and Uncle Joe would ask dad not to shout in front of “the child,” and mum would say to dad “listen to him, Paddy.” The shouting and accusations didn’t come about until after lunch, and usually by tea time all was well with our little world again, when mum would bring in sandwiches made up of whatever cold cuts of the roast meat we’d have eaten that day, along with picked onions and pickled cauliflower. Occasionally mum would bake a cake, but that’s for another story.
I asked mum today about why dad accused Uncle Joe of being a communist. Mum is almost 81 and she will tell me she forgets things. She had no recollection of the accusation. I had asked mum about “Uncle Joe the Communist” a few years ago, and at that time she told me it had something to do with a socialist newspaper Uncle Joe had been writing for secretively. At that time mum remembered my dad being very angry when he discovered one of Uncle Joe’s author aliases.
Memory: Fallible, our own, and only our own. Is memory truth? And if so, whose truth? I always tell my readers and my students that when I write memoir I write my truth, and there may well be other truths.
For now, in this chapter as in others, I am interested in sense memory and all the recipes, recollections and stories that brings. With that in mind I hope you will enjoy my Sunday Roast recipes. I hope that when you cook you will create and recover memories of your own to share along with the food. And of course, you can turn any day into a Sunday with a hearty roast dinner.
(Note to Root – Mum loves and approves this story.)
Traditional Roasted Chicken with a Twist
All measurements are approximate to taste.
1 Free Range Organic Chicken (Choose a size to suite the number of people you desire to serve)
1 sweet onion
1 medium size lemon
1 small bunch of herbs (fresh cut handful thyme, sage, a few twigs of rosemary) If you don’t have fresh herbs a tablespoon of good quality Herbes de Provence will work.
2 Tbsp of olive oil
2 Tbsp of butter
2 cloves of minced garlic
Salt (large sea salt crystals or kosher salt), pepper, and paprika to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Strip herbs from twigs then chop or mince finely. Melt butter in microwave until sizzling. Stir herb mixture into butter with approximately one clove of garlic. Crumble some salt crystals and pepper and combine to a paste. Gently slide your fingertips under the chicken skin to break up the membrane. Spoon herb butter mixture under the skin and massage to evenly cover the chicken. Peel and slice onion in quarters. Put half of the onion into the chicken cavity. Cut the lemon in half. Squeeze half of the lemon into the cavity and place the remaining half of the lemon into the cavity along with a few uncut herbs.. Loosely tie the chicken legs together with culinary string. Massage olive oil around the top chicken breast and legs. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and a light dusting of Paprika. Place chicken in oven. Cook at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Then reduce to 375 degrees for 1 hour. Baste chicken thoroughly with pan juices after 1 hour and check the color. If chicken is already golden, cover loosely with aluminum foil (shiny side down). Check for doneness every 15 minutes using a meat thermometer. Chicken is cooked when meat temperature reaches 165 degrees. Remove meat from oven to a carving board. Cover with foil and let rest. Meanwhile make gravy. See Gravy section.