Writer Anastasia Miari recalls the most profound lessons she learned from a year of cooking with grandmothers.
Locked in a bathroom, hot tears streaming down my face and my heart on fire, I came to a realisation.
I’d just listened to my best friend’s grandmother describe the moment that her husband of 60 years died, right in front of her. It was then that I realised how important the project we’d embarked on together was.
Unwittingly, my friend and I had been picking up relationship advice from marriage experts for a year. And I don’t mean relationship counsellors – rather, we had spent the past 12 months talking to grandmothers from all across the world.
The Grand Dishes project, soon to be published as a book, began as a personal quest to finally gather all of my Greek grandmother’s recipes, interspersed with her insights (sometimes philosophical, other times blunt and cutting) on life. Having discussed the idea with my friend Iska, whose German granny is equally gifted in the kitchen, we set about cooking with as many grandmothers as we could find.
We started with our networks. We put feelers out, asking friends if they had a special granny we might be able to spend a day in the kitchen with. Soon enough, people got wind of what we were doing and started to reach out to us. Over the course of the next few months we travelled to Greece, France, Spain, Italy, Croatia and Poland. We cooked with grannies of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities, often for a weekend at a time, and picked up far more than just culinary tips.
Fast forward a year, and we were sat eating Colombian Ajiaco with Abuela Gloria and her English husband John, at their farmhouse in Wales. My fat, salty, tears mingled with the rich flavours of the soul-filling chicken soup that Gloria had cooked. I was crying again – this time because of the way that John looked at Gloria and how highly she spoke of him. They still acted like teenagers, even after 50 years of marriage. I cried with happiness for them, but also a fear that I might never find what they have.
Through the Grand Dishes project, we had expected to pick up some great recipes, but I never could have imagined what we would learn about love from the experience. But there’s real intimacy to be found in someone’s kitchen.
Invited into these grandmothers’ homes for a weekend, from a Sicilian farm to a cacti-populated private island in Croatia, we shared simple tasks in a kitchen filled with the smells and flavours of a dish loaded with special memories. It is perhaps unsurprising that we formed a bond with every woman we cooked with.
Those bonds, quite naturally, led to questions that we had both been churning over in our minds throughout the project.
“How did you know when you’d met the right person?”
“What makes a happy marriage?”
“How do you decide when you’re ready for children?”
We were both in our late 20s, in relationships that we constantly questioned, grappling with the self-imposed pressure that soon enough, we would need to know who we wanted to spend the rest of our lives with. So we looked to these grandmothers for the answers that we haven’t lived long enough to give to each other.
Open, willing and with so much wisdom, their advice was delivered over a boiling pot, a finely chopped onion or a well-laid table. Each of the women we cooked with had a unique experience in love. Some had been with only one man for their entire life, a concept that was completely alien to us. Others mixed up their boyfriends, confusing their memories of various men but always sure on the lessons they had learned from them. One found her true love in her 70s and is still completely mad about him. The one, overwhelming and resounding view that united all of their responses was that a lasting relationship requires a willingness to compromise.
Could it be that we expect far too much from our modern relationships? As suggested by countless theoretical studies on monogamy since, are we putting too much pressure on our partners to be everything, lest we end up with someone that isn’t ‘the one’?
A year ago, I was attempting to squeeze the man I was with into a mould that fairy tales, novels and Disney films had led me to create for him. I wanted a man who would be my intellectual equal, lover, and best friend. I wanted him to be monogamous for life and remain sexually thrilling, all while being great dad material.
Many add financial success onto that wish list, too. If our partners don’t match up to this criteria, then we’re ready and willing to jump back onto dating apps like Tinder, Bumble or Hinge, blindly expecting Romeo to be out there in the sea of topless muscle men and puppy-cuddling profile pics.
What we’re not so good at, I now realise, is that we don’t know how to hold on to a good thing anymore, or even realise how good that thing we have (or had!) is. I let go of the person I had by my side in the process of cooking with these women. So did my friend.
What I see now though, and what I know and am sure of more than ever before, is that love is not a feeling I should attach to the first six months of a relationship, or to ascribe to someone who sets my body on fire. I now believe it takes a joint willingness to accept the others’ imperfections and to hold hands and run with them regardless, to be in love.
Most of all, what these grandmothers have taught me is you don’t find true love, you maintain it. Read on to share some of my favourite bits of their wisdom, all told in their own words.
“Tim changed the course of my life”: Tigger, 87, London
In many ways, Tim dictated what I did with my life. But I would not have had it any other way. Without him, I would not have found myself in the Tanzanian mountains dining in the huts of local people, or living on the beautiful shore of the Shire River in Malawi. He changed the course of my life and I happily let him. Throughout our life together he would often grow restless and decide to change everything, and off we would go. I cannot imagine how I did it but I just held hands with him and ran.
“The most important thing is respect and understanding”: Ciccina, 84, Sicily
Don’t imagine that when you’re married there won’t be fights, and that everything will be perfect. Nowadays, after 10 years together, people can divorce and exchange people. Do you think that’s a better life than the one I led? The most important thing is respect and understanding between a couple. You have to love them and respect them, in spite of it all.
“You must take care in relationships”: Lally, 91, Germany
I never thought about marriage and I was always ready to say no [to anyone who asked]. But marrying Michael was the right decision when it happened in 1954. We were in a pub in Leicester when he proposed. He said ‘d’you think we’d better get on with it?’ It’s the sort of thing Michael would say, instead of falling on one knee and doing all of that stuff. He was lovely and very matter-of-fact about things that you could have been rightfully hysterical about, and that’s what made it such a happy marriage – his tremendous readiness to compromise.
People keep throwing this phrase at each other to ‘take care’ and I often wonder what they mean by saying that. It’s so important to take care in so many ways, not just when you’re driving your car. You must take care in relationships, or you’ll either have big disappointments, or even worse disasters.
“If you are sure of what you’re doing, it’s magic”: Clara Maria, 89, Madrid
It’s so important to have faith in whatever you go into - even with men. You must believe in what you do, always. You have to believe it is going to happen. If you are sure of what you’re doing, it’s magic. It opens all the doors. All you must do is believe.
“None of us are perfect”: Mercedes, 88, Madrid
The one time I did not like being a woman was when I was pregnant with my first child. Pregnancy should be reserved for cows, not for young ladies. I had such a terrible time. I was tired all the time, so I began to take my breakfast in bed. My husband, who really was the sweetest man, would bring it to me – and I have taken my breakfast in bed ever since. It is these small admissions, kindnesses and allowances of the other person’s weaknesses that make for a lasting relationship. None of us are perfect, after all.
“In our time, we wouldn’t even consider that we weren’t happy”: Rajni, 80, India
I met my husband six months after we were engaged. I agreed with my father that I would marry him, so I simply had to like the look of him. I remember I was so skinny because I nearly died of Typhoid before the wedding. I saw him for the first time from the ship as I arrived in Tanzania from India. To me, it wasn’t a choice or option to think it wouldn’t work. In our time, we wouldn’t even consider that we weren’t happy. We made it work.
“We had a pleasant relationship but nothing special”: Zena, 90, London
When my husband died I thought the end of my life had come. I started playing golf to distract myself and it was there that I met a man called Murray. I was with him for 15 years until I met Jerry, my current companion. He’s a rocket scientist – he helped put the first American into space!
I met Jerry while I was holidaying in Florida. I was actually with Murray at the time. We had a pleasant relationship but nothing special. When I went out with Jerry, I felt like I’d known him all my life. There was such a connection, I couldn’t get over it. I asked him if he’d like to join me for the weekend in Palm Beach and he said ‘sure’, even though we’d jut met. He came over and we spoke for hours.
Murray was at home in London and supposed to come to Palm Beach to join me that weekend, too. I phoned him and said, ‘Murray, don’t come, I’ve fallen in love.’
“You have to embrace the changes in your relationship”: Shewa, 61, London
When I was 18, I went to prison twice. There was a war between Eritrea and Ethiopia and I was imprisoned for refusing to join the guerrilla fighters. I wasn’t up to it. I was looking forward to meeting my boyfriend (who is now my husband) so I thought it was better that I didn’t go. Instead, I walked through the desert towards Sudan.
Of course, I got lost for six months, and had to live with nomads in the desert until I found my way. I got completely lost because the land was flat and I couldn’t navigate it at all. When I arrived in Sudan, I didn’t have anything. No clothes, no shoes. Nothing. The first thing I did was call my boyfriend. He thought I didn’t want to be with him because he hadn’t heard from me for so long.
I never once thought I would die [in the desert]. Someone asked me, were you scared? But I was never scared. I would always think, ‘Yesterday is finished so I can now look forward to tomorrow’. You don’t know what life is going to bring, or what is going to happen to you tomorrow. Whatever is going to come will come. You have to embrace it, just as you have to embrace the changes in your relationship.
“Fights are normal”: Anastasia, 83, Corfu, Greece
The most important thing is to respect the person you have chosen to be with. At the beginning, you love him for all that he can bring to your life in the future. At one point, your love changes and you love him instead for all that he has done for you. It’s important to respect your own choice by respecting him. Fights are normal. But what you should always have is respect.
“The key has been to listen and to always talk”: Nicole, 60, France
When we married we went to see a priest and the priest told us to always agree in front of our children. We have always followed that advice. After 34 years, we understand each other. We know what the other person’s thinking. I think the key has been to listen and to always talk. Everyday you can turn to the other person and tell them it’s over, but the hardest thing to do is to decide that it’s going to work.
The Grand Dishes Book is being crowdfunded with publisher Unbound. Support the project and order a copy of the book here for the complete collection of life lessons and recipes from grandmothers of the world.
All photography: Ella Louise Sullivan
This article was originally published February 2019.