The cooking connection
From prawn cocktail to chicken tikka masala, the Recipes and Reminiscences cookbook provides an insight into UK diets over the past five decades. Anneke Hak finds that it is also connecting older citizens with people in their present
For many people living with dementia, short-term memory loss is a distressing challenge that they face on a daily basis. Imagine finding it difficult to remember what you ate for lunch, let alone what you did yesterday.
But what if you asked the same people what they liked to eat twenty or thirty years ago? The reaction might be very different. The Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (RMBI) has produced a cookbook called Recipes and Reminiscences, which takes a trip down memory lane to see how the food we eat has changed over the years, using recipe contributions from RMBI care home residents.
Going back in time
There are nearly eight hundred thousand people living with dementia in the UK; by the age of eighty, one in five is affected, and one in three people will have the condition by the time they die. ‘Dementia’ isn’t a definitive term, it’s a word coined to describe a collection of symptoms that affect the victim’s memory and thinking skills severely enough to reduce their ability to perform everyday activities. There isn’t currently a cure for dementia, so an effective way to connect with someone with the condition is to meet them halfway, through reminiscence work. If they are struggling with their short-term memory, many carers find it beneficial to take them back to a time that is easier to recall.
‘It’s a way of valuing what people have done and their own life history and story,’ explains Julie Heathcote, author of Memories Are Made of This. ‘You’re never going to make them better, but you can impact upon their mood and well-being. Talking about their memories boosts their self esteem and makes them feel they can contribute.’
‘It’s about building bridges to find out where there are similarities, to rediscover the importance of relationships and learn more about people,’ agrees Edna Petzen, assistant director in marketing and quality at the RMBI. ‘We find that as people age, we see them when they are frail, whether they have dementia or other complex needs. They’ve obviously lived a life before they move into our homes and we want to understand that in a way that helps us connect with them.’
The RMBI has been caring for older Freemasons and their dependants for more than one hundred and sixty years. It operates seventeen residential care homes across England and Wales and has used reminiscence activities for a number of years.
‘Reminiscence shows what people can do rather than highlighting what they can’t’ – Edna Petzen
From memory quilts to wedding walls, on which residents hang pictures from their wedding day to encourage conversation, activities coordinators organise reminiscence-based projects on a regular basis. ‘There are so many different ways that we use reminiscence to help people connect with positive experiences in their past and promote positive feelings in the present,’ says Edna. ‘It’s a way of connecting with people that shows what they can do rather than highlighting what they can’t.’
When Julie helped train RMBI staff in reminiscence work, one of the suggestions coming out of the sessions was to reminisce about recipes with elderly residents. ‘Most people took to it really well,’ says Edna, ‘and we were inundated with classic recipes, some from war years and others from the modern day.’ It was at this point that the RMBI decided to pull together a cookbook structured around the decades most likely to have had an effect on the people in its homes. ‘We broke it down into decades and focused on the different types of food and dishes available,’ explains Edna. ‘They’re based on the ingredients that were accessible at the time and really explain the history of the way we eat in the UK and the big influences that have come about in our whole dining experience.’
Recipes and Reminiscences features some unusual recipes – by today’s standards at least – such as spam fritters, as well as the shopping habits of the families that cooked them and more modern-day phenomena like processed meals.
‘If you go around to see someone, they will offer you a cup of coffee or tea and probably something to eat. Food aids social interaction and is something that a lot of people can remember,’ explains Julie. ‘It’s also a subject area that isn’t troubling. Talking about husbands and wives might be an upsetting subject, whereas talking about food is an enjoyable subject for everyone.’
With the success of TV programmes such as MasterChef and The Great British Bake Off, home cooking has never been so popular. So, who better to give a foreword to Recipes and Reminiscences than Mary Berry, one of the most iconic ladies in the kitchen. ‘We thought that Mary Berry would be fantastic,’ enthuses Edna. ‘As an older woman she has an understanding for what we do as an organisation, and as a food writer herself, I think the subject area really resonated with her.’
Promoting the cookbook might be a little hard for some of its contributors – the eldest, Phyllis, who supplied a recipe for Jubilee biscuits, became a centenarian in March – but RMBI homes will host events based on each of the book’s decades to celebrate its release. Talk about having your cake, eating it, then writing the recipe down.
Recipes and Reminiscences is available to buy at www.rmbi.org.uk. All proceeds go directly towards funding activities for residents in RMBI homes.
‘Talking about food is an enjoyable subject for everyone’ – Julie Heathcote
A taste of the decades