A 92-year-old South African who can hold a plank while recounting the time Margaret Thatcher enjoyed her piroshkis, a 66-year-old American who’s been developing a top-secret BBQ sauce recipe for 20 years, and a 71-year-old Colombian who became a psychoanalyst after daily talks over chicken, corn, and potato soup with her landlady. These are just a few of the stories in Anastasia Miari and Iska Lupton’s Grand Dishes, a new cookbook spanning three continents, 10 countries, and 70 grandmothers.
Miari, a journalist, and Lupton, a food stylist, began Grand Dishes as a crowdfunded side project to document their own grandmothers’ recipes. Soon, they found themselves on a four-year journey around the world, learning recipes and conversing with women in French, Spanish, Greek, and Italian, plus some gesticulating and giggling in Russian. Through it all, the two learned each woman’s secret ingredient to a hearty meal and happy life. Mirai and Lupton talked with us about food as a mode of storytelling, the importance of highlighting older women, and what it means to cook with context.
This interview has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.
Carolyn Grace: Where did the idea for Grand Dishes come from, and how did you make it a reality?
Anastasia Miari: It started with my grandmother, Yiayia. I wanted to create a book of all of her recipes and silly stories. As I was ruminating on that idea, I watched an episode of the Netflix show Cooked where grannies from different parts of the world were baking bread. That’s when I thought about featuring recipes from grannies all over. I got in touch with Iska and Ella Sullivan, our incredible photographer, and asked if they wanted to join this project. They said yes, and the next question became where to find other grandmothers to cook with.
Iska Lupton: We started with Yiayia and my granny, Lally. As we told more people about what we were doing, more people asked if we could feature their grandmas. We began sharing their dishes and stories on Instagram. Ella’s photos were amazing; she shot everything on film. From there, grannies came to us—well, technically their grandchildren, but you get the idea! When we started going abroad, we’d visit a grandmother anywhere from a few hours to a few days. We were nervous at the beginning, not knowing each other. But by the end, we’d all be hugging and laughing and exploring these massive questions that you don’t normally get to on a first meeting.
CG: At the beginning of the book, you mention that every grandmother you met “cooks something with context.” What do you mean by that?
IL: Each dish had been cooked for years and years, and behind every one was a story. In most cases, it was a recipe that had been handed down by the grandmother’s own grandma. So by “context” we meant the context of time, generations, different dining table setups with different family members—but always eating the same thing. There’s so much richness beyond the food itself, which makes it so special. We live in a time where more and more recipes are being created on a daily basis for different publications, but all the while there are these recipes that have been developed over generations that risk not being captured if we don’t write them down and print them.
CG: What’s your favorite recipe in Grand Dishes?
AM: Every recipe is so delicious, we say something different each time! One thing that I want to re-create is my Yiayia’s marinated sea bream. I’ve had it so many times now that the book tastes of it.
IL: I spent six months in Sicily with one granny, Dora, who made caponata every week. It’s so generous in salt, sugar, and olive oil—which is definitely a theme throughout the book.
CG: Why capture both the lives of these women and their dishes, as opposed to just sharing the recipes?
AM: Iska and I have discussed how these are women society often forgets. As a woman, your existence is relevant in the media until the age of 40, and then you kind of get dropped off the face of the earth. As we continued to meet these grandmas, we realized that so many of them were shocked that we wanted to spend a day photographing and interviewing them. They haven’t received that kind of attention for a long time. When we were first speaking to publishers, many told us we had to feature famous grandmas because people would only be interested in that. That couldn’t be further from the truth. These seemingly “normal” women have done things that are truly mind-blowing, and they have the most incredible stories because they’ve lived for over 70 years, through great social change.
IL: My granny, who’s German, is not an incredible cook. But she’s got this powerful story of fleeing Nazi Germany and enduring such horrific things. My family has always tried to get it out of her, but she’d say, “Oh, you don’t want to know that.” In the interview with Anastasia, when my family and I weren’t there, she was much more forthcoming about everything. By bringing her story together with the dishes she makes, her whole life experience makes more sense to me.
CG: I imagine there were some interesting experiences cooking with these grandmothers that didn’t make it into Grand Dishes. Any memorable outtakes?
AM: Ella and I were in the south of Sicily on a farm, cooking with an Italian nonna. She had gotten up around five in the morning to make this taiano, a pasta bake traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve. She got her son-in-law to set the wood-fired oven because she wanted to do everything in the most authentic way possible. She cooked for six or seven hours and would check on the food every half-hour despite being pretty unsteady on her feet. Finally, she sat down to relax a bit and her son-in-law went to check on the taiano, but as he pulled it out of the oven it all went on the floor! Ella and I tried helping him scrape it off the floor and put it back in the tray, but by then the rest of the family had discovered what happened. There was a lot of angry gesticulating and shouting in Italian at first, but thankfully we had cooked a vegetarian version for Ella, which we ultimately photographed and featured for the book. So it worked out quite nicely.
CG: In the book you describe how you “looked to these grandmothers for the answers we haven’t lived long enough to give to each other.” What life lessons did you learn that really resonated with you?
AM: I will always remember when we went to see Gloria, the Colombian grandmother in Wales. It was a really drizzly day, and we’d had an awful experience getting there in this horrible storm. When we got to her farmhouse in Wales, it felt like getting a big hug. We’d all just broken up with our long-term boyfriends—some of whom we had thought might be our life partners—and Gloria, who’s a psychoanalyst, had this amazing way of talking about loss and grief. She’s had some really big losses in her life, and the way she spoke about them really eased our worries and put everything into perspective. It was a weekend of learning how to not sweat the small stuff, and how to live with pain as a part of life.
IL: When we were with an American granny named Westelle, at one point she just looked at us and said, “I’ve had a good life.” It was like saying, “I’m nearly gone, but I’m happy with everything that’s been.” And we just burst into tears. I remember thinking that if I can feel that philosophical about my life one day, and be happy to leave it because it’s been so fulfilling, that’s just incredible.
CG: How have the grandmothers and their families reacted to seeing themselves in print?
IL: They’ve been a bit too cool about it [laughs]. We’ve been sent some lovely videos from grandkids of their granny seeing Grand Dishes for the first time. This one granny in New York, Maral, sent us a sweet message about how her grandkids are now saying that she’s famous. She said, “Whenever you come to New York, you come and stay with me.” We also gave the book to the family of June, the grandmother we feature from Hackney in London. She died nearly two years ago, but getting to show her daughter and granddaughter her Grand Dishes story—something that will live on forever—I don’t think we realized how significant that could be. I went to June’s funeral, and they had printed off her pages and placed them around the room. That was insanely moving, seeing everyone read her story and say, “Oh my god, this is so June!”
AM: Yiayia’s a Scorpio, so she likes to keep her feelings hidden and was trying to play it cool. But when she saw the book cover, she went, “Oh, I’m on the front! And I’m on the back as well!” As we looked through the book together she’d go, “Here I am again!” I went to her house recently and she positioned the book on the back shelf above her sofa, so you see it right as you open the door.
Is there a dish your grandmother cooked that you still love today? Let us know in the comments!