We’ve never had an Easter like it, but I’d guess it won’t be the last celebration we have that changes shape and becomes a new thing. Probably it will be small with just a handful of people, maybe it will be partly virtual, with unusual groupings of family members present, and others on Facetime.
And the calls aren’t bad – over the last week, we’ve had dinners with Ryan’s family from afar, and they have worked – you can hear people’s news and have a quick catch up. But there is something about milestone meals that is different, a tempo that requires proximity, or maybe it’s proximity that leads to that tempo. You can’t really have a two hour conversation around the table when everyone’s quarantining in different locations, video call or not. You can’t have a second bottle languidly being opened, another pick at the ham (stop or there’ll be none left for tomorrow!), a sliver more cake 20 minutes later, a window opened, a pot of coffee put on, a dog given a stern reprimand for begging from the easy targets. You can’t have a group of callers arriving unannounced while everyone’s still sitting around the table, bringing their news and jokes and noise into that space.
A couple of weeks ago in London, a glorious sunny Sunday, missing having friends over, I made a big cheese soufflé (using Felicity Cloake’s recipe; note it rises better in ramekins). It tasted nostalgic and cheering to me; a dish my mum occasionally made on weekends in the past when she had a bit more time. It would be the perfect dish for an Easter weekend meal – simultaneously light and rich; indulgent but simple; impressive but not too much of a palaver to put together.
It got me thinking about these special dishes that we have frequently. Not the dishes that were amazing because we ate them once at a very special moment – a seafood dinner beside the sea in the Cinque Terre at sunset for example, or an incredible restaurant meal, or a wedding dinner, or a memorable picnic on a holiday, or even Christmas. No, not those. Those feel way too far away at the moment, and lovely though those ideas are, I am pining for the more mundane, routine notes of celebration; the dishes that our families and friends serve at every celebration, or just whenever there are people over. The little bits that make up the feasts of our lives.
So because we are not looking forward at the moment, I am looking back on the good times, the good dishes, the memories that remind me that a normal way of living and loving and eating together will return.
Growing up in Ireland, there was a lot of commonality between families on these sorts of dishes. Some of these dishes have gone out of fashion. Some were the highlight of less culinarily sophisticated times (chicken with ham and grilled Emmental I’m looking at you), and have been gently, affectionately put out to pasture. Some still appear year after year, and we love them for it.
So here they are, the feasts of my life. I’d love to hear yours.
Cocktail sausages (obviously)
Crispy garlic mushrooms (served by Granny, on special plates, to my brother and I, who felt very grown-up whenever we had them)
Dips (in special dips bowls that all fit together) & Olives on cocktail sticks in a bowl that is shaped like an 8 & Crisps (more than you should eat)
Vol au vents with creamy chicken & mushroom filling (I don’t know why, okay, but they have to be there)
Smoked salmon on buttered brown bread (eaten on the sly at fancier events. Initially intimidating when you were small, then hard to stop)
Chicken, cheese and ham (chicken breasts with a layer of ham and then Emmental on top, grilled till the cheese was melted and bubbling; a strong early 90s vibe)
Nigella Lawson’s chicken & sausage bake (made with Superquinn sausages, for best results)
Big trays of lasagne (Consistent quality, always a winner. Load up)
Slow cooked meat (could be a classic ham, could be beef; if Ryan and I are cooking for a crowd, it will likely be shredded pork or brisket)
BBQ burgers or steaks (Burgers carefully made with a burger press and set on waxed discs, then looser form as the years go on. Cooked on our little wrought iron BBQ, smoke wafting, wasps circling. Bay leaves set on it afterwards by me and my brothers to make putrid smelling smoke. Steaks, burgers, all the bits that go alongside)
Creamy casseroles (‘Hillsborough pork’ when I was a child – an unusual sounding but surprisingly delicious stroganoff-style dish made with pork pieces, bacon, cream, orange zest, peas – now creamy chicken and mushroom or tarragon dishes, always a winner)
(these are a very important part of the feast)
Mixed salad with cherry tomatoes and cucumber (served in a large wooden bowl)
Squidgy garlic bread
Raw broccoli salad with feta (for a fancier event, maybe a communion)
Pasta salad (oily and vinegary and made with tricolour pasta long ago, now pesto pasta, both welcome)
Crusty baguette (cut into diagonal slices, a job for someone who’s been getting in the way)
Creamy starchy bakes (here I include my mum’s gratin dauphinoise and Ryan’s mum’s creamy crispy carrot and parsnip bake)
Small handful of homemade deep-fat-fryer chips (not many going, so be fast)
Birthday cake (to me this means ‘fatless sponge’ covered with cream and sliced strawberries and eaten in the garden for somebody’s birthday) OR Vienetta OR Romantica
Ramekins of homemade chocolate mousse (preferably eaten in multiples at a family friend’s house, to your mother’s eternal mortification)
Pavlova, or if a more informal event, then a bought meringue nest with whipped cream and berries
Sliders (generally only served when there is a whole tear of unruly cousins around. Fun times ahead)
All served with cups of milky tea
Top hats (made with pink and white Prince’s marshmallows and the big rectangular box of Smarties)
The important thing to remember is that good times will come again, and we will have our shoes on ready for them.
But in the meantime you could do worse than remember and cherish the good times you have had, the easy, carefree, breezy fun gatherings that mean so much. Think of the dishes you and your family and friends love, and maybe make one for your Easter table this year, even if it’s a bit out of place. Tell them that you’ve made it and thought of them. And feast on your own beautiful life.
Love After Love Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.