Feedback with AJ Pearce
Photo: Jenny Smith Photograhy
This month we talk to author AJ Pearce about her food likes and dislikes.
It all started with buying a 1939 copy of Woman magazine from eBay...
This switched a light on for AJ Pearce who became fascinated by the war era, and how women were living through the challenges of the Home Front. Her collection of magazines (currently over 600) is a huge part of her research. Her debut novel Dear Mrs Bird was published in 2018 was followed by Yours Cheerfully in 2020. Her latest book Mrs Porter Calling is published this month.
As AJ prepares for her book tour beginning on May 25th, we managed to snatch some time with her and found out why you should never count up how many biscuits you've eaten and why she always has glass storage containers in her fridge
What food always reminds you of your childhood?
I was a child of the seventies, so my memories are not necessarily cordon bleu. My mum is a good cook but doesn’t particularly enjoy it, so I look back and think cooking for all the family, day in day out was just amazing on her part. A big treat would be something like vol-au-vents with chicken and mushroom in them – real 1970’s stuff, and we always had a pudding. I remember my mother cutting out a recipe from a magazine, and it’s the easiest, most alcoholic (I didn’t have until I was old enough to drink) recipe to make. It was this 1970’s party dessert and consisted of 2 packets of chocolate chip cookies, a lot of chocolate custard, whipped cream – and a bottle of brandy. No wonder it used to be a big hit at dinner parties!
Do you cook?
My friends say I’m a better cook than I think I am. I think I’m dreadful, but I probably just lack confidence. I enjoy trying and I used to really enjoy baking. I like non-pressure in the kitchen and if I come up with something edible, I’m really, really pleased! I’m cooking lot of fish at the moment which I’m enjoying. I can do a good Christmas dinner, not fancy, but I’ve never poisoned anybody. Yet.
Are you a recipe follower or do you go off piste?
I do go off piste. It’s a bit like the satnav where you’re driving along and the satnav says go right and you think “No, I don’t think you’re correct”, and go left. I tend to do that with recipes and if I haven’t got an ingredient, I always think it doesn’t matter if I leave it out. Unless it’s something vital like flour. I just have the view to add more garlic or more lemon, and everything tastes better.
Do you have a current favourite restaurant or type of restaurant?
I like good gastro pubs and I always have salmon; I love it seared with vegetables. We’ve got a lovely local Italian restaurant which is always fantastic. Recently I went to Grangers in Clerkenwell, and that was absolutely fantastic. I had a wonderful salad; it was colourful and full of different textures and tastes. It was glorious.
What food or ingredient could you not do without?
First of all, lemons. I like squeezing them over cooked vegetables, it just adds a little bit of zing to something like broccoli. I’d find it very hard not to have cheese, and I put garlic in everything!
Is there a memorable meal you can remember eating?
I think most of my happiest memories are partly about the food, but also about who else was there and the occasion. I was as happy eating sausage, chips and beans with my family as I would be eating the very finest food. Last Christmas was our first one post-lockdown and being able to do that with everyone was so special.
You are a big fan and collector of women’s magazines; are there any recipes you have read you can share with us?
All the ones in my books are from cookery books or magazines from that time, and that’s partly to be authentic. They're also very interesting. The fun ones are the ingenious ones for example there’s one which is 'How to use Carrots to make a Pretend Chocolate Sauce'. For us that sounds ridiculous, but chocolate and sugar were rationed in the war, and they were having to work around things, they also used cornflour to make fake cream. I also found one called 'Hidden Treasures', which is blancmange with jam in the middle. I find it fascinating writing about the Home Front.
Is there something particular you always keep in the fridge?
I’m a relatively recent convert to oat milk. I really like it, but it does depend on which brand, I did have to persevere and eventually found Oatly Barrista. There is always cheese, and tonic water. I recently switched to having decent glassware storage which sounds a bit mad, but when you have leftovers, salad or vegetables lurking in the back of the fridge it's easy to forget them, then they go all soggy and you end up throwing them away. But leftovers look a lot nicer if they’re all stacked nicely and you can see what's in them. It’s made me far more organised, and I don’t forget about things in the bottom of the fridge now.
Is there anything you like to snack on when you are writing to get your creative juices going!
Well, it used to be biscuits and then I sat down and worked out how many I would eat over the course of a novel, and it was thousands! I do try to eat proper meals otherwise it’s very easy to munch your way through fizzy sweets or nuts, you’re just in your own world. I drink too much coffee when I’m writing.
What would be your last supper if literally anything was available to you and where would you eat it?
I’d actually like to make a whole day of it. Starting with a lovely brunch sitting in a beautiful garden in the summer with all the people that I love. We would have one of the best ever afternoon teas with exquisite sandwiches and scones and tiny, perfect patisserie cakes. And because it’s a last supper none of us would feel full up so we would just carry on eating and eating. And possibly some champagne too!
Mrs Porter Calling by AJ Pearce is published by Picador on 25th May 2023, price £16.99 in hardback.