How many grandmothers do you know who encourage children to play with their food? Most tut with disapproval while you do your best to enforce discipline.
Not Judy Jackson. She is more likely to be serving her grandchildren blue or purple water and encouraging them to hold bowls full of meringue upside-down over each other’s heads. These tricks are contained in Jackson’s latest book, called Lookit Cookit — Kitchen Games for Curious Children.
“I was inspired by one of my grandchildren,” Jackson explains. “She doesn’t like eating and much of my day is centred on the kitchen, so when she came to stay, I devised lots of games we could play with food to inspire her and keep her entertained.”
The book — Jackson’s eighth during a 40-year career in food writing — encourages children to investigate food and is intended for children from the age of four to 12-years-old. “The younger ones will need the help of their parents,” she says, “but the 10- to 12-year-olds should be able to enjoy it with minimal supervision.”
Jackson has even included a recipe section for a three-course meal which children can prepare for their parents. “It starts with a recipe for lemon and ginger tea to calm their parents while they wait,” she laughs.
Family is clearly important to the 73-year-old who has four sons and 12 grandchildren scattered across the UK, United States and Israel. Two of them are pictured on the book’s cover and another — her 14-year-old grandson — helped her adapt the book to iPad format. “I’m getting pretty adept at IT, that was just a bit too complicated,” she smiles.
Don’t expect traditional child-friendly sweet treats. Jackson says she has a horror of artificial colours and flavours. “I’m very much against limiting them to recipes like chocolate krispie cakes,” she declares. “It’s just as much fun to explore and cook savoury food.” She has included an idea for children to use juice from a cooked beetroot to paint onto natural yoghurt, which she says “looks fabulous”.
Jackson’s career in food began after she needed to find an alternative to her previous job as a translator. “I enjoyed it but it didn’t really fit into life with small children, so I started catering.” She diversified into teaching cookery from her kosher home. “It was the 1980s and the era of nouvelle cuisine. I had so much fun inventing kosher dishes that were nouvelle cuisine,” she laughs.
After pitching ideas for a kosher nouvelle cuisine cookery book to publishers, she was commissioned to write a more traditional Jewish cookery book. Six others followed as well as a foodie novel, The Camel Trail, which won a World Gourmand award. “Perhaps they didn’t have many entries that year,” she says modestly.
Jackson’s efforts are not limited to teaching children. She also hopes to take the mystique out of cooking for adults. “I want to make people feel better about cooking and not worse,” she smiles, which was why she wrote A Feast in Fifteen Stories — a New Start for Hesitant Cooks. The book contained recipes alongside stories of her own and other people’s kitchen disasters. This ambition has evolved into her latest project, a daily food blog called The Armchair Kitchen. “I was fed up with pitching ideas to editors, just for them to come back and say ‘no’. I’m past that, so I decided — on the advice of one of my grandsons — to start a blog.”
The Armchair Kitchen offers a daily photo and friendly but pithy entry relating to food. Jackson does not work on Shabbat so posts two entries on a Friday. On Sunday the blog is devoted to literature. “Books are my other passion,” she says.
In her view, dinner-party entertaining has changed. “There used to be pressure to impress. You would bring out the silver and the crystal. Nowadays, it is about casual entertaining after work — people want the Jamie and Nigella lifestyle they see on television. I want to help people realise they can cook good food in the time it takes to stand in the supermarket check-out queue.”
She posts photos by professional food photographers, but also takes many herself. “I spend hours getting trying to get them right.” She also offers recipes.
There is not the income stream offered by books and newspaper articles, but her reward is the reaction: “It is amazingly gratifying to know that you are making someone out there smile instead of being miserable” she says.
“I started the blog three years ago, and now have more than 22,000 followers. I’ve no idea how this works,” she laughs. Impressive for a grandmother — but Jackson is not your average bubbe.