New Old Lunch
A diary entry about a new old lunch in a new old house, a recipe for pasta sauce made with chicken roasting juices, pumpkin, and sage, and eating notes
Hello! My name is Rebecca May Johnson, I am a writer and cook and this is my Substack. This week’s newsletter is a diary entry about a new old lunch, a recipe for one of the best pasta sauces I have made, and eating notes.
My first book SMALL FIRES, AN EPIC IN THE KITCHEN was published two months ago. It received reviews in The Observer, The Sunday Times, the i Paper and The New Statesman. I read from it on BBC Radio 3.
Here is a playlist of music that either appears in Small Fires, or which I listened to in periods depicted in the book.
New Old Lunch
The kitchen at Sam’s grandparents’ house is roughly where it was before, but nothing in the kitchen is where it was before. Much of it no longer exists because of the fire. The new room is a different shape. We lift a heavy round tabletop ferried here by car onto a frame so there is a surface on which we can do things. Everyone is a little frantic, nervous and excited. They are busy putting things where they imagine they were before, or in the spirit of where they were before. People mutter to themselves about the right place for this or that. There are minor differences of opinion. We find wine glasses in an unexpected drawer. Nick, who is 91, is finally sitting down. But he is not really resting: he talks nonstop about shelving brackets. He wants to display his paintings as soon as possible, maybe even before there are chairs to sit on. At his insistence I message Sam’s mother Emily a photo of the size of bracket he wants.
Sam’s aunt Hannah, grandmother Ann, and I unpack boxes of assorted kitchen bits, removing the newspaper from each object. Hannah flattens out the crumpled newspaper and folds it. A trestle table is retrieved, repaired, then erected, and we arrange the contents of the boxes like a display at a jumble sale. One gilded saucer, one faceted glass, one delicate china cup. Slightly-scorched-but-intact items. Some ugly crockery that had been donated and could not be refused because of the good intentions it arrived with.
I want to make a meal that is the kind of lunch I have eaten in the house before it burned down. I knew the wooden house that this new one replaces for seven years before it turned to ash. The others who are here – Sam’s family – knew it for thirty-five years at least. The new house is an echo and the lunch I am making is an echo, too. We are here and not here. Here and there at the same time. It is the first time we have been in the building, but it feels almost the same as being in the familiar house that was destroyed. Eerie, but good too. They are very full of feeling as they rush about assembling the new-old house, and I want to make them lunch.
Hannah suggests that Ann would like soup. She hardly ever gets to have soup, so we’ll give her soup. In this house Ann will have soup! And a salad, I say, thinking of salads I had eaten here before, prepared by Nick. He likes salads with things in them; treats in the folds of the leaves. And par baked rolls: another echo. I pre-heat the new oven and wash up the contents of the sink so that I can wash the salad. I find a radio and put on Radio 3. I tell Hannah they could do with a light over the sink, as it’s quite difficult to see. I cannot find a big enough salad bowl, so I use two. The leaves are what I can salvage from a discounted bag of wilted pre-washed leaves and two gem lettuces. In the fridge I find the end of some blue cheese and after hunting around, walnuts. And two apples from the garden. The salad is sliced apples, small pieces of blue cheese, walnuts, lettuce and a simple oil and vinegar dressing in a small jug. I bake the rolls, checking often (Nick says he usually burns them) and heat two tins of Heinz tomato soup in a pan.
We wash up cutlery and find bowls, and I dish out the hot soup, of which there is just enough. I put the lunch on a tray: hot white rolls, tomato soup, a block of butter, two bowls of salad, the jug of dressing, and a bottle of sweet-ish Austrian white wine (Nick’s favourite). We sit on the big white sofa, which is a recreation of the one that burned in the fire. Nick has put a duvet under the sheet that covers the sofa as he thought the new one wasn’t soft enough yet. Ann manoeuvres herself into position near the window in her wheelchair. We sit around a low table, eat lunch and look out at the garden – which is the same – and take in all that survived.
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