I recently learned that Cornwall now produces champagne and, while I was shocked, I wasn’t surprised. Over the last few decades Cornwall has outrun its image as a quaint and cobbled holiday place to become a festival-hosting, sustainable foodie, surfer paradise. Cornish tradition has been largely (re)invented. For instance, Cornish Yarg cheese whose Celtic sounding name suggests it was enjoyed by King Arthur was named after its creator Alan Gray (Yarg) in the 1980s. My Grandmother, whose recipe for Cornish pasties is the radical object I’m writing about, was an unreconstructed Cornishwoman
Born in 1906, Jessie Louisa Bessie Tamblyn was an obtuse and insular woman; deeply suspicious of anyone who wasn’t directly related to her. She was born and grew up in a Cornwall that was poor and isolated, characterised by cheerless Methodism. She never lost her Chapel language ‘That place is a palace of sin,’ she’d say as we passed the pub on the corner. She sang hymns while she hovered the carpet, her favourite was ‘When I survey the wondrous cross.’
In our family we were the oldest and the youngest: Jessie looked after me a lot and I adored her. Together we watched Googie Withers in Within These Walls on Saturdays while my parents were in the pub and we danced to Shakin Stevens when he was on Tops of the Pop. As an adult, chapel days forgotten, she took on the world with refreshing irreverence. She swore, drank beer and played elaborate practical jokes. One time she made me an apple pie bed and filled it with cutlery that she’d chilled in the fridge beforehand. She was a great teller of stories too. When I read Roots, Alex Haley’s 1976 account of the origins of his African American family, I was fascinated by the role of the griot, the keeper of a family, or tribe’s, oral tradition, because it perfectly described Jessie. This is why I was surprised when I saw the pasty recipe: because I hadn’t known it existed. People hardly ever wrote anything down in our family and recipes, like Jessie’s stories, existed in memory only.
We were sitting around the table at my Uncle Grahame’s (Jessie’s youngest son) when the recipe was produced. It is a sheet of A4 paper that has been laminated. It’s pitted at the top by numerous drawing pin holes where it’s been attached to various kitchen cork boards. Splodges of gravy in the top right hand corner reveal the recipe was attempted with the paper to hand more than once before lamination. Jessie herself made corrections in biro that has faded to pale green over time. She replaced lard with Atora suet and adjusted more than one of the quantities.
I was thrilled to see the notes Jessie’s handwriting. They were like the ones on old envelopes under the kitchen wireless: ‘Kat Food’ and ‘Pay Milkman’. In the same way she mixed lowercase and capitals. In the same kitchen, radio droning, she made pasties on Friday afternoons. She had beautiful long fingered hands and prepared the potatoes with an inappropriately large knife, casting off a long skein of thin peel. If you threw it on the floor, she said, you would see the initial of the man you were going to marry, but it was only ever like an L or an R. She stood at the draining board slicing the potatoes very thinly, the cat standing up on his hind legs beside her waiting for offcuts from the meat.
Jessie’s pasties bore no resemblance to the pastry husks with their chicken tikka fillings that fill the shelves these days. They were the size of a man’s size eleven shoe. The pastry was delicate and soft, the meat and potatoes and onions all cooked to the same consistency; nothing a bit underdone or a bit overdone. I never thought to ask where she had learned the recipe and, although she constantly told stories, she never told the one that you hear about pasties being prepared as lunch for tin miners or being sweet at one end and savoury at the other. Pasties were definitely for special occasions, however: which is why, I guess, she prepared them as a treat at the end of the week. On Friday evenings she would parcel the pasties up and the men from each branch of the family would come some distance to collect them for dinner.
I don’t know if there was a handwritten copy in existence before but it was my Mum, Sonia, Jessie’s first daughter, who typed it upon a piece of foolscap paper. Born in 1934, Sonia was a handsome, strident woman, forever raging against the fact that she was an ordinary person. Despite the fervent belief that she was destined for grandeur, Sonia, like so many young women at the time, trained as a shorthand typist at Pitman’s College in the late 1940s. In the 50s she had a stint as an actress but resented the fact that she was deemed unsuitable for ingénue roles. ‘I’m just too sexy, that’s what it is’ she’d say, Instead she was picked for character parts and, possessed of a manic gallows humour, remained a remarkable comedian and mimic. She identified strongly with the stars of her youth, Leslie Caron, Elizabeth Taylor, and especially Vivien Leigh, who, as a child, I believed was somehow related to us. When she had me she sensed a captive audience. I remember her dancing a heavily idiosyncratic version of the dying swan for me in our living room, seeming to suggest that she had lately been on stage with Nureyev.
I can just see the flourish with which she fed the paper into her typewriter. Despite the low esteem in which typists and secretaries were held Sonia was in no way diminished by the more mundane qualities of her work; rather she elevated them to dizzying heights because they were what she did and everything she did was the best thing, the right thing. She was capable of talking to the Prime Minister and saying ‘Ah! That’s all well and good but you don’t have a hundred and fifty words a minute.’ Often she entertained me with stories of the less able girls she had encountered (‘deficient’, she called them) at J and F Stone, an electrical goods company where she worked for twenty years. She told me how one had mucked up a template, another had been penalised for using too much carbon paper, all of them had been reduced to tears at one time or another. All except for Sonia who held her head high, like a warrior queen. ‘I gave as good as I got,’ she’d say, ‘I soon slapped ’em down.’ After her marriage Sonia no longer worked but she would often type letters for my Dad and it was obvious she took pride in what she could do and how well she could do it. Looking at the recipe it struck me that everything my Mum had been painstakingly taught, and that her fellow typists trembled to get wrong, no longer exists. Shorthand, words per minute, carbon paper, templates and stencils are all gone. In terms of history the world of the typing pool was short-lived and has gone largely unrecorded.
It’s interesting that the recipe, which Sonia, as the only family member who could type, must have typed up, contains evidence of a few tensions. The language used, ‘firm but pliable’ and ‘golden brown’ smacks of Sonia’s pretensions to Elizabeth David, neither were things Jessie would ever have thought of saying. In fact, we can see from looking at the bottom that Jessie crossed out the latter and wrote – with emphasis – ‘Cooking time 1 hr’. I also wonder, since Jessie felt it necessary to revise the quantities and nature of the ingredients, whether Sonia decided to make her mark on the recipe and embroider it a little.I really have no idea why the recipe was committed to paper.While preparing this piece I asked around the family and nobody knew. My Uncle Grahame, who laminated it, guessed it was for posterity. I can only think it was because other people wanted a crack at making pasties the way Jessie did and they thought that if the recipe was written down it would be enough to enable them to replicate (it wasn’t). It wouldn’t surprise me that if a family member had requested the recipe written down Sonia might, in her officious way, have taken over the writing, making her stamp on things and offering advice, whether wanted or not, tweaking the things Jessie said, as she said them. As I said before, in a family where there is a story behind everything, however mundane, it’s surprising there is no story behind this.
I love the recipe because its sheer physical presence reminds me of my mum’s much prized typing skills and the heavy sound of her manual typewriter that she often set up on the dining room table to produce CVs and letters for family members or friends or people from our flats who asked her. I love it because it provides a link with Jessie, the place she came from and represented for the whole of her life (she never lost her accent). It conjures up a complete picture of an afternoon at her house, watching her cook. It reminds me of her handwriting, her good sense in the face of Sonia’s excesses and the delicious taste of her pasties. Neither Jessie nor Sonia had many possessions so a document that stirs up a soup of the different impressions I have of them is precious.
Their lives were so different from mine, I am subject to far fewer of the frustrations than they were. They were two working women who had done low-paid mundane jobs and went on to become housewives. Not much to write about, some might think, but I cannot believe that their invention, their exuberance, their beauty, their wit and, above all, their humour, might go uncelebrated. I’ve asked my uncle to leave this radical object to me in his will: so that I can leave it to my daughters in mine.
THE TRANSCRIBED RECIPE: