Tamasin Day-Lewis: Spilling the beans

The Day-Lewis family code was never to talk to outsiders. But now Tamasin, the sister of Daniel and daughter of Cecil, has broken ranks with a touching foodie memoir

When Cecil Day-Lewis lay dying in the home of Kingsley Amis, his two young children, Tama-sin and Daniel, would slink off together to practice a trick their host had shown them: to recite the entire alphabet through a single burp. It is the kind of detail that makes Tamasin Day-Lewis's new book, Where Shall We Go For Dinner?, billed as "a food romance", such a joy. The book was intended to be an account of a year's travels with Rob, her partner, but it evolved into a subtle blend of travelogue, recipe book and memoir.

There is a nightmare press trip through Puglia that somehow manages to overlook the food; a tour of the US with her singing star son Harry; an over-ambitious yomp across the mountains of Southern France; and a chat with Julia Roberts, as the Most Famous Woman in the World feeds her twins. There is also a moving account of the final months of her father in Amis's home, as his wife and daughter masked the truth about his fate in a conspiracy of silence and laughter. Through it all are infused the tastes and aromas of her "greedy obsession" with food. For Tamasin Day-Lewis taste is more than an aide-memoire, it is the essence of life.

For someone who has been brought up with a rigid contempt for public revelation, it is an extraordinarily intimate book. "It was a great risk because I'm not someone who talks about myself," the slender 53-year-old admits over a steaming mug of lapsang souchong in the spacious kitchen of her Somerset farmhouse. "It has been drilled into my family that you don't talk to journalists, you don't give anything away. You don't talk about your father. You don't talk about your brother. You don't talk about your grandfather. You just plough your furrow."

Given the recent very public row about Amis père et fils, led by the cultural theorist Terry Eagleton, it is not surprising that their close friends the Day-Lewises are protective. Theirs is also a family of extraordinary talents and tangled relationships. Cecil's infidelities have been pawed over by a prurient press since the 1950s. Among his mistresses was Elizabeth Jane Howard, later the wife of Kingsley Amis, and best friend of Jill Balcon, Cecil's second wife, the mother of Tamasin and Daniel. In a society where pursed-lipped disapproval was the norm, the family's acceptance of Howard (she is Tamasin's godmother) caused more than raised eyebrows.

The closeness of the two families was reflected in Howard's invitation for the family to decamp to the Amises' Hertfordshire home during Cecil's final months after seeing the family struggle to keep their spirits up in their gloomy Greenwich house. When I observe that staying with your father's ex-mistress would be considered unusual for most families, Day-Lewis snaps back: "What is normal for me is how I was brought up." A frost spreads through the kitchen, and it's not coming from outside. "As a child I never thought there was anything peculiar about my life because my life was my life," she adds.

Life chez Amis was boisterous. "Everyone knew him as this sort of right-wing reactionary," she recalls. "But I can't think of anyone in my life who has made me laugh more than Kingsley Amis. I hold him in enormous affection." As well as the legendary feats of burping, Amis would keep the two families entertained with risqué talk and outrageous comments and by dancing to jazz while stoked up on Bloody Marys with extra vodka.

Eighteen-year-old Tamasin would watch in tongue-tied awe, desperate to impress her surrogate uncle. "I was so shy and so inarticulate," she recalls, laughing. "I just thought, he is going to think I am stupid. But actually the whole point was that he was making everyone laugh. He had this tremendous kindness." There is a crack in her well-modulated voice and she runs her fingers through her mane of raven-black hair. "What he did, which is amazingly generous when you think of it, was to allow my father to die in a happy house."

She looks out of the window to the fields beyond. A soft October rain drizzles down the glass. It may be more than 30 years ago, but the conflicting emotions of that time appear fresh.

Though Day-Lewis cannot recall the exact moment she fell in love with food – "the one mystery is why we fall in love with anything," she says – the stay at the Amises was significant. Each day she would hunker down in the kitchen, helping Howard prepare the meals. If Kingsley was the clown, Jane was the cook, nurturing them through the pain. It is a role that appealed to young Day-Lewis and one she has played throughout her life, whether cooking for university friends, film crews on her successful documentaries or the nation through her show on Living TV, filmed in the kitchen in which we now sip our tea.

Much can be accomplished by feeding people, she claims. "If you are having a difficult time with a child it is much easier to discuss things over a good dinner. I have got far further with people by sitting them down and cooking them dinner."

At this point my tummy rumbles. She seems to hear, because she asks whether I would like a biscuit. It is the first time she has mentioned feeding me, though Day-Lewis's publicist had lured me to Somerset by the promise of lunch or afternoon tea. The cookery writer appears not to know. "I should have made a cake but didn't have time," she adds with a smile. It is not an apology and I remain unfed.

Perhaps it is just as well, given her habit of serving up roadkill. Not quite a freegan (that would involve foraging around the waste bins of supermarkets, which she detests), Day-Lewis cannot pass roadkill without checking to see if it is still warm and edible. In Where Shall We Go For Dinner? she describes how she cooked a squashed badger for friends. It was not a success. Not because she roasted a run-down Mr Brock, but because it should have hung longer and been marinaded for a few days. "It was very, very gamey," she observes, as if badger was on the menu at homes across England. "The blood was very thick and dark." At this point I mention that I am a vegetarian. She looks confused. It may be something she has heard of, but not something she understands.

What she does understand though, is British food culture; or rather the hypocrisy that causes us to turns our noses up at rabbit while happily munching away at endangered cod. "We are the first generation who don't eat rabbit," she says tapping her forefinger on the table in irritation. "Why don't we eat rabbit?" she asks.

"Myxomatosis? Watership Down?" I suggest. She does not seem to hear.

"There is no reason," she says throwing her hands into the air. "Rabbit is one of the most delicious things around. It is free round here – the price of a cartridge. It's better to eat that than fish that is not sustainable. We turn up our noses at really good food. Rabbit could be eaten like chicken. It is good meat at a reasonable price that you can cook very easily."

Despite her zeal about healthy, sustainable food, Day-Lewis is pessimistic that attitudes will change. "You have to start with people who care a bit," she adds with a shrug. The English, she says, are more eager to watch cooking on the telly than to care about what they cook and eat. " I can't make people buy the ingredients. I can't make them sit down together. We want to eat food that takes no time at all and is made of mechanically recovered slurry."

As for Jamie Oliver's attempts to force children to eat decent school dinners, the plan is fundamentally flawed. "It will never work. You have to get them into the kitchen as part of the curriculum and make them cook," she says. It was a lesson she learned in the kitchen of Elizabeth Jane Howard as she chopped vegetables and tried to forget her father's illness. "No child ever didn't eat what they cooked for themselves. That is what life is all about." *



Where Shall We Go For Dinner? By Tamasin Day-Lewis (Weidenfeld £16.99)

The extract

"... I was Jane's jobber and chopper... my unskilled labour meant I couldn't ruin or be responsible for anything but I could help, and I could begin to learn a little about cooking and budgeting for an ever-shifting population of people with huge, and in Kingsley's case, eclectic appetites. I could learn, like Jane had, how to take it in my stride"

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015