Memoir Graced by family flavour…. and a dollop of class
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On page 20, the fuzzy feeling of togetherness radiates from the page as she describes her then seven-year-old self sitting “snug as a bug” in her living room in a terraced house in Currock, Carlisle, in 1980. As the Dent clan intermittently bicker and joke like close families do, the chapter ends: “I would give anything to go back there for one normal evening. “I was loved and never hungry, and for a small girl from Currock, that was as good as things got…”
Readers, many separated from family by virus rules and regulations, will no doubt experience a similar longing to be transported back to the safety of their childhood own havens.
Speaking to the Sunday Express Grace, who travels Britain reviewing restaurants for the Guardian, has seen at close hand just how people are feeling the strain of separation.
She said: “What I find as I go around Britain right now – and I love chatting – what I find is that with the question ‘How are you?’ people go ‘Yes, I am all right’ but the moment you just scrape slightly beneath the veneer, it’s suffering.
“Everyone is holding so much suffering and I think as we go towards Christmas I’m determined to stay positive because I think the penny’s going to start dropping with a lot of people that there isn’t that Christmas coming.
“You’re not going to be able to do that thing where you go visiting your family – even if you hated it normally it’s still part of life isn’t it? “You go to your auntie’s or you go to your sister-in-law’s and you sit in the living room and you eat a mince pie and you hear the gossip – you have 12 people around the dinner table and four people are at a pull-out wallpapering bench sat on some deck chairs!
“All these things that we laugh at and groan at, they’re probably not going to happen… there’s suffering everywhere.”
The memoir – or should that be ‘mmm’emoir’ given her day job – has family, food and class as its major themes.
It tracks her from helping cook “sketty” – her scouser dad’s way of pronouncing spaghetti – at the age of seven, all the way through to television fame alongside John Torode and Gregg Wallace via school, university and jobs at glossy women’s magazines in the 1990s.
As well as her wit, Grace is known on screen and in print for her one-liners so hard-hitting that they could tenderise beef.
But it’s the tenderness of the writing alongside the humour that is the mark of Hungry, particularly passages dealing with the slow changes the family saw in dad George, before they finally, heartbreakingly, received the dementia diagnosis.
She said: “I think with dementia the biggest problem is that it comes in such small, incremental steps, it is up to the person who is suffering to make the choice to go to the memory clinic or to confess to the doctor that they took their car out the other day and ended up somewhere they didn’t even know where they were… but they don’t.
“Then it’s up to the family to say ‘Oh Dad’ or ‘Oh Mum, do you think you’ve got dementia?’ and we don’t.
“Families are very good at ignoring the elephant in the room and we do it for a reason because, and I think I say this in the book, we know that the moment that elephant in the room is tackled life will never be the same again.”
George, who served in the Army, is now in a care home in Keswick. Grace, her brother David and mum, a force of nature also called Grace, had worked non-stop for years trying to give him the care he needed.
But as his personality and behaviour became increasingly difficult to control they felt it best for his on-going safety, despite Grace feeling she’d let him down.
“My dad’s been in lockdown in his care home since the very beginning and it’s really difficult to talk about.
“But I also know I’m not in an unusual situation at all. I’m in a situation that millions of people will find familiar.
“My dad went into care because there was no way that I could carry on looking after him to the standard that was not going to probably kill him because of some of the things that were starting to happen and now he is very safe.
“However, the price that I’ve paid is that I can’t see him.
“If I walk past I can see him through the window but he has really bad dementia – it doesn’t come in grades but he’s got top level dementia – so there’s no option to go in and see him at all at the moment but if there was it’s the ‘Do I go in full hazmat gear?’ and I think that’s more distressing for him.
“He doesn’t know who I am any more and it would be like ‘Here I am dressed like someone from the Moon…'”.
Grace hopes that talking about her dad, and what her family have experienced, will comfort others in a similar situation showing them that they aren’t alone.
“We’re a nation right now of people hiding that they’ve noticed that people have dementia or hiding that they are putting in a 10-hour shift a day caring or hiding that they can’t cope because once dementia does properly take hold, and you are looking after somebody else, it takes the patience of a saint to deal with it.
“It’s incredible and I think that when I wrote Hungry I didn’t want to be tub-thumping and bang on about how terrible things are, I just wanted to say that ‘I see you’ to all these people…”
Grace has her own unique version of dry, northern wit – imagine if Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood had a daughter and they let her go wild with an expense account with Net-A-Porter.
Serious, moving passages about mental health, her divorce, even the news that her dad had children from before he met her mum are dealt with, ahem, gracefully and with good humour.
There’s no preaching, not even about the state of the nation’s diet, despite believing that her chocolate-loving father’s eating habits triggered diabetes.
She herself still loves a rummage around the “whoops!” reduced section at Asda, and she understands why people are drawn to great tasting, but unhealthy, processed food.
“I think that writing a book saying, ‘Oh my god these supermarkets were just terrible for my family and the food eventually killed us and gave us all these different awful illnesses’, I just don’t think that’s the full picture.
“From the age of 13 or 14 years old I was hectoring my mum and dad about going into Asda at reduced sticker time and bringing back a full gateau – but it brought them so much pleasure.
“They’d grown up in families that had nothing, and they’d grown up with scarcity and they’d grown up with the tripe man coming to the door with some lovely hairy tripe. I was never going to get the message through that processed food wasn’t great.
“And I also feel strangely loyal and have a strange relationship with supermarkets because I kind of love them – my friends laugh because I’m the restaurant critic for the Guardian and I have the whole of London at my disposal, I can go anywhere and get a table, but if I’ve got a day off they ask, ‘Have you been to Asda?’, and I will be in there. There’s something I find very comforting about it.
“The way we started to eat from about 1987 into the 90s and onwards, I saw it with my own family, we all gained weight, we’ve all fought with our weight and we fight with our weight because we love processed foods.
“But the bottom line is, ‘Did my father’s eating give him diabetes?’ Yes. That is a hill I will die on. Yes.”
Grace’s father’s diabetes has now reversed after he lost weight in recent years, something she accepts is “the smallest of victories”.
In person and in the book, it’s clear her beloved parents are the spark behind her unstoppable hunger and drive.
George taught her that she could rely on no one but herself to keep money coming in, the ingrained financial insecurity of a working class upbringing.
Her mum’s tenacious spirit lights up the pages, working, cooking, cleaning, doing the weekly shopping and picking up a car full of girls and taking them to netball matches after school.
Mum was also the driving force behind home improvements, including the porch on Grace’s childhood home that was formally known as “The Vestibule”. Grace describes discovering how the other half lived with nights in luxurious hotel beds while working for women’s magazines in her 20s.
Later she details proudly lying down to sleep, curled up in the vestibule years before.
And she still wouldn’t swap that night in the vestibule for one in any swanky hotel suite.
“That vestibule part – I didn’t know if anyone would get it – but it was the idea that in the 1980s with people who were able to buy their own houses and they tried to do them up.
“Working class people always get presented as this one big lump who are just all the same and they are not… there’s lots of people who are desperately aspirational and want to do little things to make their houses better and my mother always believed that happiness and ‘zen’ was just one more DIY job away!
“So one of the first things we got was the vestibule because my father’s only hobby was sitting in a chair!
“And if you live in a terraced house you come straight in off the street and then you have 12 kids coming in on their roller skates all the time and coming through so she built a vestibule to stop the drafts.
“I always put this down as one of my first massive steps into delusions of grandeur – we had a vestibule with opaque glass!” Grace’s mum is still going strong. “She’s 84 and absolutely full of life and furious, and at the moment we are in a pitched battle to stop her transferring everything from the QVC warehouse into her house.
“I was sitting with her the other night – we speak every night – and we have things in common and she’s always watching QVC so I just put it on and we just sit and laugh.
“I was slagging her off going, ‘Mum this stuff’s c**p, why are you still buying it?’ and then there was this pair of leather boots and I’m going, ‘Actually they are quite nice boots!’ and the woman on screen is selling them and saying they are functional and also sleek and I started thinking, ‘They are functional and they are sleek’.
“Within 35 minutes I had my credit card out so I can’t say anything bad about QVC!” Though her own day job is difficult given restrictions, she is growing increasingly concerned about the peril facing the nation’s restaurants with on-going tiered lockdowns forcing many to close.
She said: “This is where it’s getting incredibly tricky. I’m starting to see places that I would never have thought go are just beginning to give up.
“Right now I’m really worried about the next four months, particularly because January and February are always terrible anyway.”
Looking forward, and in between her writing, broadcasting and podcasting, Grace has a slot on Radio 2 on Christmas Day at 5pm talking to listeners about their day cooking and spending time with the family.
“The Queen goes first, we’ve had a talk and I’m going to let her have the 3 o’clock slot!
“I just want to do something really fun and in really special circumstances because I think this is going to be a really odd Christmas Day and there will be people all over Britain who will feel a little bit sad.”
In the book there’s a running joke about whether she’s ever going to make it as a national treasure.
When Her Majesty is your warm-up act, and you are tasked with brightening up Britain’s big Christmas night, it’s safe to say that you already are.
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