An eager audience gathered in the Baillie Gifford Marquee at Phyllis Court (and online) on Tuesday 5th October to hear Cindy Burrowes talk to Ed Balls about his memoir, Appetite: A Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food.
Cindy’s first question was about the book cover which shows an image of a young Ed Balls. Ed said it was a 1972 school photograph, notable for his self-cut fringe. His book is about memories of his life evoked by thirty-four recipes he learned from his grandmother and mother. He has been the cook in the family since his wife, Yvette Cooper, in Ed’s words, ‘retired from all cooking’ when their first daughter was born. The book was born out of a photobook of recipes put together as an eighteenth birthday present for his daughter. His agent then offered him the opportunity to take part in BBC’s Celebrity Best Home Cook (which he won) following which his publisher suggested he write a book of memoirs told via the recipes he cooked on the programme.
Ed said home cooking is an unusual thing. It’s not Masterchef, you’re only cooking for the people around the table. Ed joked that during lockdown he thought his family would be bored with the same old recipes so he tried some new ones, and after three days there was a rebellion. Cook what you know we like, his family said. In Ed’s opinion, the role of food is not to be the centrepiece or a place for innovation, you just want the people you’re feeding to ask for seconds.
Cindy described Ed’s book as joyful and felt he comes across as someone who is willing to have a go, to try new things. Ed joked that embarrassing your kids is part of a dad’s role. He also thinks it’s good for people to see the ‘human side’ of politicians, something he feel current politicians would do well to bear in mind. Ed also told some very funny but affectionate anecdotes about former Prime Minister Gordon Brown (whom he served under as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families) and his less than adventurous attitude to food.
Cindy asked Ed about his charity work, such as running the London Marathon in aid of Action for Stammering Children. Ed said he didn’t actually discover he had a stammer until he was appointed to the Cabinet. Sometimes in interviews he couldn’t get words out and he was eventually diagnosed with what is termed an ‘interiorised stammer’. Initially, he resisted making his condition public but later he was persuaded to ‘come clean’, as he put it, and did an interview in the Telegraph.
Cindy asked Ed if were to pick two or three recipes from his book, what would they be? He picked a crab and samphire tart because it takes him back to memories of his childhood. Ed’s mother has had dementia for fifteen years and now lives in a care home. Sadly, it was through food that Ed’s family first became aware of her condition when she made a chicken casserole, which she had cooked countless times before, but it was completely raw. Or when she made a lasagne but forgot to put in any pasta. Ed has found that in caring for a person with a dementia you have to get used to living in the moment and that it requires enormous patience. However, his mother still has music and is able to sing the hymns she loves – and when Abba songs are played she always joins in.
Cindy said she understood Ed had recently finished filming a documentary series about social care which will be broadcast by the BBC in November. Ed said it was important to him to listen, understand and not judge. To this end, he spent two weeks working in a care home and accompanying carers on domiciliary visits. It was eye-opening to find out what ‘personal care’ actually entails and how important it is to respect the dignity of those receiving care. And he was shocked to discover domiciliary carers are expected to make fifteen visits in a day, complete everything necessary in a visit within thirty minutes and don’t get paid for their travel time.
Cindy then opened the floor to questions from the audience, both those attending in person and viewing the event online. Asked what his proudest achievement was, Ed said on a personal basis it was bringing up three fabulous kids but from his time in politics it was, ironically given current events, achieving cross-party support for a rise in National Insurance to fund additional investment in the NHS. Ed was asked about his time as Chairman of his beloved Norwich City football club. Ed said he’d always harboured a desire to play for them and joked he still takes his football boots along to matches just in case they need someone to come on as a substitute. In response to a question about what he will do next, Ed said he is working with Lord Eric Pickles as co-chair of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation Advisory Board on delivering the new Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre to be located beside the Houses of Parliament. Finally, Ed was asked if, looking back, he was pleased he lost his Parlimentary seat. He said not at the time but that eventually he was reconciled to it. His closing words were ‘Always be proud of what you’ve done but don’t try to recreate the past’.
A thoroughly entertaining and thoughtful speaker, it would be lovely to see Ed Balls make a return visit to Henley Literary Festival. A date for your diary – next year’s Henley Literary Festival will take place between 1st and 9th October 2022.
This review is based on notes I took during the event and my own recollections. Any errors in recording views expressed during the discussion are my own.
About the Book – Appetite: A Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food
Appetite is a memoir with a twist: each chapter is a recipe that tells a story.
Ed Balls was just three weeks old when he tried his first meal in 1967: pureed roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. From that moment on he was hooked on food.
Taught to cook by his mother, Ed’s now passing her wisdom on to his own kids as they start to fly the nest. Reflecting on his life in recipes, Ed takes us from his grandma’s shepherd’s pie to his first trip to a restaurant in the 1970s (and ordering an orange juice as a starter); from the inner workings of Westminster to the pressures of parenting. This is a collection of the meals he loves most, and the memories they bring back.
The world may have changed since 1967, but the best recipes last a lifetime. Appetite is a celebration of love, family, and really good food.
About the Author
Ed Balls is a broadcaster, writer and economist. He is Professor of Political Economy at King’s College, London, a Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-Chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation. His popular BBC TV series ‘Travels in Trumpland: with Ed Balls’ was broadcast in July 2018 and a second series ‘Travels in Euroland with Ed Balls’ aired on BBC 2 in January 2020. Ed has also presented the BBC TV series ‘What Britain Buys And Sells In A Day’ with Ade Adepitan and Cherry Healey which broadcast in October 2019. Ed was part of the core ITN Election night team in 2017 and 2019, and broadcasts regularly on BBC’s The One Show, Radio 2 and Radio 4. His next BBC series ‘Ed Balls: the Crisis in Social Care’ will air on BBC 2 this autumn.
Ed, a former Member of Parliament, was UK Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer (2011-2015) and served in the UK Cabinet as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (2007-2010). He was the UK Minister for Financial Services (2006-2007) and the Chief Economic Adviser to the UK Treasury (1999-2004) during which time he was Chair of the IMFC Deputies and UK G20 Deputy. While Shadow Chancellor he was co-Chair with Larry Summers of the Center for American Progress Inclusive Prosperity Commission.
Ed is married to Yvette Cooper MP. They have three children and live in London and Castleford. His interests include learning the piano, running, cooking, sailing and supporting Norwich City, where he is a Vice-President and former Club Chairman. Ed was the inaugural winner of the BBC’s Celebrity Best Home Cook in February 2021. He was a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing 2016 and was nominated for a Bafta for TV moment of the year in 2016 and as part of the ITN General Election team in 2017 and 2019. In February 2019, Ed climbed Kilimanjaro with eight other well-known climbers, raising over £2m for Comic Relief (Bio/photo credit: Author website)