“Food brings people together”: three years of Zena and Steph’s foodie friendship

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Older neighbour Zena (85) and younger neighbour Steph (30) have been matched on our Love Your Neighbour programme for over three years now, and have spent an incredible 130 hours chatting together. Over the years, we couldn't help but notice a running theme in their weekly conversations. This pair have clearly got one thing on their minds: food. So we thought it was about time to investigate their shared gastronomical passion (and see if we got any snacks along the way!)

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Sure enough, as we were en route, Steph messaged to say she was stopping off at Zena’s local Colombian bakery, Paula’s, on Brixton Road, for this evening’s snacks, and we were treated to cheese-stuffed plantains, one of Zena’s favourites. She’d had them for the first time back in April and since then has been experimenting with making her own, and finding a suitable cheese for the middle.

During the pandemic, Zena’s diet was unfortunately limited, but as restrictions eased, Zena's health improved, and since then she and Steph have been exploring Brixton's foodie spots. The pair recently celebrated their friendship’s anniversary by ordering a local Chinese takeaway, which they ate while watching Ottolenghi on the cooking channel. A couple of years back, they’d visited The Wine Parlour, just around the corner from Zena’s, where they snacked on fancy cheese and clinked glasses of fizz.

“We got a cheese plate, with all these different kinds of cheese, and rosé... Zena jokes that I must drink so much wine in wine bars that I’ve got dividends, and should be getting some money back one of these days!” Steph laughed.

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They’ve also bonded over the food from their Irish backgrounds, although their memories of it rather are on the bland side! “My mother was a terrible cook,” said Zena, “It was my grandmother who did the cooking. It was typical Irish food. We had lots of stews with dumplings, plum pudding... We did have a lot of vegetables, because we had a garden where my father grew vegetables. Potatoes every way you could think of them!” Steph agreed: “We talked a lot about eating endless boiled potatoes, and your boiled cabbage, with your boiled bacon... I first learned about salt when I stopped eating meat as a teenager, so my granddad would give me no boiled bacon, just this huge giant single potato and cabbage, and I was like I think I need some salt!”

While Zena claims she’s a ‘hopeless’ cook, she clearly knows what she’s doing in the kitchen. She shared her recipe for her favourite simple salad, which involves ripe avocados, tomatoes, salt, pepper, virgin olive oil, and sometimes cucumber if she has some, and on special occasions she'll also make homemade chicken wings. She told us that she once had a carer who said, “For an old woman, mummy, you eat a lot of food! which made her chuckle.

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Both Zena and Steph now eat less or no meat, and are pleased that the tradition of meat and two veg on a plate has gone out the window. “With vegetables you can do a lot more... you can make a salad of anything, you don’t just have to have tomatoes... you can eat mango, papaya, watermelon... Anything you can buy in season.” Zena feels lucky to live in Brixton, where her friend Sanella, who does her shopping, can source her all sorts of fresh vegetables. She has an adventurous palate, although she’s still coming around to okra, which she’s only enjoyed when Sanella cooked it during Ramadan.

We also talked about the cost of living, and how these days it's even more important to not waste food, with the price of meat being a reason many people are turning to vegetarianism or veganism. The pair often exchange tips during their calls on how to use up a glut of courgettes or leeks for instance (apparently rosti is a good option!), or what to do when you’re gifted chard from your neighbour’s garden — Steph suggested pan frying it with some garlic. Zena’s also into her kitchen gadgets, having sourced a mandolin to slice her potatoes for dauphinoise, and making good use of her new stick blender for lots of soups, something that Steph also makes to use up odds and ends like broccoli stalks.

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“Food brings people together, said Zena, “when you’re cooking... you share the meal together, you can talk about the food. It’s great. That's one part of living, isn’t it? Eating and talking.” Well, it’s certainly worked for these pals, and we look forward to hearing more recipes, tips and local recommendations as their friendship continues.

One of the key things that makes our Love Your Neighbour programme work is that we connect neighbours based on things they have in common. If you have an interest you’d like to share with someone from another generation, why not sign up and see whether we can find you your local match? Just follow this link and we'll be in touch about next steps.

Lauren Barr

Posted by Lauren Barr on Wednesday 30th August 2023

Lauren leads on our Love Your Neighbour programme in Lambeth, connecting younger and older neighbours for one-to-one friendship. Lauren was born and bred in Lambeth, and some of her favourite places include the borough's hidden green spaces and Colombian bakeries: she's a sucker for empanadas!