What 40 of the World’s Grandmothers Taught Me About Love
I set out to write a book about food. The love lessons were a welcome side dish.
Locked in a bathroom, hot tears streaming down my face, I felt like my heart was on fire. As I listened to my best friend’s grandmother describe the moment her husband of 60 years died in front of her, I realized how important the project we’d embarked on together was. In a year, we’d unwittingly collected relationship advice from the world’s top marriage experts. But the experts weren’t couples counselors — they were grannies.
The Grand Dishes (soon to be book) began as a personal project to finally gather all of my Greek grandmother’s recipes interspersed with her insights on life (sometimes philosophical, other times blunt and cutting). After discussing the idea with my best friend Iska Lupton, whose German granny is equally gifted in the kitchen, we set about cooking with as many grandmothers as we could find.
We began with our networks, asking friends if they had a special granny who might let us share a day in the kitchen with them. Soon enough, people caught wind of what we were doing and began reaching out to us.
We traveled from the U.K. to Greece, France, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Poland, Cuba, the U.S., Mexico, and Russia to cook with grandmothers of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities. Each visit lasted a weekend. We picked up more than just culinary tips.
One year after we began, we were eating Colombian Ajiaco (chicken soup with potatoes and corn) with Abuela Gloria and her English husband John at their farmhouse in Wales. Fat, salty tears mingled with the rich flavors of the soul-filling chicken soup Gloria cooked. I cried again. This time, it was because of the way that John looked at Gloria and how highly she spoke of him. After 50 years of marriage, they were like teenagers.
I’d just gone through a breakup, so I cried both out of happiness for them and fear that I might never find what they have.
We expected to pick up some great recipes while researching Grand Dishes, but we never could have imagined what the experience would teach us about love. There’s an intimacy to be found in someone’s kitchen. As we spent weekends at these grandmothers’ homes — from a Sicilian farm to a cacti-populated private island in Croatia — we shared simple tasks in kitchens filled with the smells and flavors of memory-laden dishes. We formed bonds with every woman who cooked with us.
Those bonds, quite naturally, led us to discuss questions we’d been turning over in our heads as women in our late twenties: How do you know when you’ve met the right person? What makes a happy marriage? How do you decide when you’re ready for children?
At the time, we were both in relationships we constantly questioned. We were facing the (self-imposed) pressure that, soon enough, we’d need to know who our forever person would be. We looked to these grandmothers for the answers we hadn’t lived long enough to give each other.
Open, willing, and with so much wisdom, the answers came over a boiling pot, a finely chopped onion, or a well-laid table. Each woman had a unique experience in love. Some had been with only one man for their entire life (a concept completely alien to us). Others mixed up their boyfriends, confusing their memories of various men but always sure about the lessons they’d learned from them. One found her true love in her seventies and still claims to be completely mad about him.
Their responses were united by an underlying perspective: A lasting relationship requires a willingness to compromise.
Real love takes a joint willingness to accept another’s imperfections, and to hold hands and run with them regardless.
Could it be that we expect far too much from our modern relationships? As suggested by Alain de Botton in The Course of Love, Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan in Sex at Dawn, and countless theoretical studies on monogamy since, are we putting too much pressure on our partners to be The One?
A few years ago, I was attempting to squeeze the man I was with into a mold that fairy tales, romance 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 — while also being great dad material, of course. We’d be monogamous for life and our relationship would be sexually thrilling forever. Oh, and he’d have to be financially successful, too.
If our partners don’t meet this criteria, we’re ready and willing to jump back onto Tinder, Bumble, or Hinge. We blindly expect Romeo to be waiting out there in a sea of topless muscle men and puppy-cuddling profile photos.
After hanging out with these grannies, I’ve realized we’re not so good at knowing how to hold onto a good thing — or even realizing how good of a thing we have (or had!).
In the process of cooking with these women, I let go of the person I’d had by my side. My best friend did, too. What I see now, and what I’m more sure of than ever before, is that love is not what happens within the first six months of a relationship. It’s not something to ascribe to someone who sets my body on fire. Real love takes a joint willingness to accept another’s imperfections. A willingness to hold hands and run with them regardless.
These grandmothers have taught me that you don’t find true love — you maintain it. Here are their words:
Lally: 91, Exeter
I never thought about marriage and I was always ready to say no, but marrying Michael was the right decision when it happened in 1954. We were in some 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 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, else you either have big disappointments or even worse disasters.
Tigger: 87, London
In many ways, (my partner) 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 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.
Ciccina: 84, Sicily
Don’t imagine that when you’re married to someone, there won’t be fights and that everything will be perfect. After 10 years of engagement now, 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.
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, very much. 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 in that relationship and give it your all.
Mercedes: 88, Madrid
The one time I did not like to be 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 thing. None of us are perfect, after all.
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 had 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.
Nicole: 60, Angers, 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’s thinking. I think the key has been to listen and to always talk. Every day you can turn to the other person and tell them it’s over, the hardest thing to do is to decide that it’s going to work and that you’ll make it work.
Zena: 90, London
When my husband died I thought the end of my life had come. I started playing golf to distract myself and I met Murray there. I was with him for 15 years until I met Jerry, my current companion. He’s a rocket scientist — Jerry put the first American into space!
I met him 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 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.” I’d just met him! He came over and we spoke for hours. And Murray was at home in London and was supposed to come to Palm Beach to join me that weekend too. I phoned him and told him “Murray, don’t come, I’ve fallen in love.” I was in my seventies.
Shewa: 61, London
When I was 18, during the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, I went to prison twice because I refused to join the guerrilla fighters. I wasn’t up to it. I was looking forward to meeting my boyfriend (my now husband) so I thought it was better 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 husband. He thought I didn’t want to be with him because he hadn’t heard from me in six months.
I never thought I would die, though. Someone asked me, after all this, “Were you scared?” I was never scared. I always think, “Yesterday is finished so I can now look forward to tomorrow.” Tomorrow, you don’t know what life is going to bring and what is going to happen to you. Whatever is going to come is going to come. You have to embrace it just as you must embrace the changes in your relationship.
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. What you should always have is respect.
Photography by Ella Louise Sullivan.
The Grand Dishes Book is available to pre-order with publisher Unbound here.