Hungry by Grace Dent

This is a book about childhood food, what the government call ‘levelling up’ and the tragedy and face that it can become living with someone who has dementia.

First off, the childhood food. It’s not just those in the north and of working class that loved chip butties and Campbell’s soup. I can remember having condensed mushroom soup with added mushrooms on rice as fancy food, once having had it served to us as a family in a restaurant with all of us really enjoying it. And whilst she comes back to this food when her Mum is unable to look after her dad having said for years ‘he’s not got dementia, he’s just a dickhead’, her tastebuds have developed and changed during the time she has spent eating out in London and then eventually as a restaurants critic. She has moved from the Toby Carvery, didn’t we all have those in the 80s, to the likes of Moro and all new restaurants, managing to wangle tables through persistence and, one suspects, a little bit of cheekiness. Bit all of this is quite hollow when you can’t prevent your Dad from slipping away into the ravages of dementia.

The love between Dent and her father is beautiful, not because he tells her he loves her all the time but because of the things she does with him, cooks his specialities, tucks under his armpit to watch TV and his name for her, Presh as in Precious. He calls her his ‘only girl’ but Dent eventually finds out that he has two other daughters with a previous partner and a son with another one, none of whom are spoken about or visited or invited to stay. So not his only little girl, then. Her parents both have previous lives but they are not discussed as a family.

Her relationship with her mother is one that she comes to appreciate as her own marriage collapses: someone has to be around enough to tidy up, buy and cook food, clean the bathroom when it is needed and generally take charge of the home and often, even now, that someone is the woman. It is almost impossible if both partners have jobs that demand their time and energy more than 48 hours a week or at anti-social hours (anti-social for family life). What happens then? We never get the answer as far as Dent is concerned although we do get the recognition of the fact that her mother was on the go almost every single minute she was awake and as children they didn’t think anything of it, demanding food, clean clothes and money when they wanted it.

What comes over very strongly is the resilience and perseverance that Dent needed to break into the world of media, one that was not at the time over run with those from the working class or of any diversity. How many people have the guts and energy to do what she did, were as hungry? She was one of those children who had a dream about what she wanted, realised she couldn’t achieve it where she lived and set off for London to find it. It is an age-old story, rags to riches but only in terms of money, and then the reflection on the fact that it might not be all you thought it would be.

I have to say, the book reminded me of Nigel Slater’s memoir, Toast so it didn’t feel completely new, although the specifics relating to Dent were.

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