I have been thinking a lot about food recently and the comfort a home-cooked meal brings. Maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of Winter when comfort meals (like the Shepherds’ Pie I’m in the middle of preparing for dinner tonight) always conjure strong memories of feeling safe, warm and secure.
Maybe it’s also because I’m writing up my interview with Natalie and Simon Thomas, owners of The Sydney Picnic Company, which will be all about how food makes a ‘home’.
Whatever the reasons, I thought now would be a good time to start thinking about the relationship between food and home. Last year I wrote an article that was published on the parenting website Sunny Days. It’s all about my food memories, recipes written on bits of paper, backs of envelopes and shoved inside a recipe journal...
Scraps of the Past
(first published on Sunny Days, 1st July 2009)
'It’s the making-food-book!' says my son excitedly as I search through the multifarious scraps of paper that live inside this book to find our banana bread recipe one recent Sunday afternoon.
I bought this blank-paged journal soon after I left home when I realised I didn't know how to cook spaghetti bolognaise, tuna mornay or whatever other childhood comfort dishes a 21-year-old thinks she needs to know. I had planned to write all the recipes in it, just as my mother had done and continued to do throughout my life. But after neatly writing a few, the book remains blank and unopened. The spine threatens to break though; it has begun to tear thanks to all the loose paper recipes I 'one day' meant to transcribe but instead are just shoved inside.
My husband walks into the kitchen as I begin to sift. 'I don't know how you can find anything in there.' He adds as he passes, 'We don't even use half those recipes.'
And, as I stare at the mountain of paper in front of me I realise he's right. There are recipes I cut out of magazines five years ago and have never attempted. But now is not the time for a cull. My son has already pulled a chair over to the kitchen bench and is on his way to collect eggs from the fridge. Not the safest job for a three-year-old. It hadn't taken long to find the banana bread recipe anyway. I know the scrap of paper it's on -- my father's old company's letterhead -- and it’s heavily stained with coffee cup rings and traces of, perhaps, egg? As I grab the beaters I wonder why I never bothered transcribing this. Five ingredients and three steps is hardly many words, yet it's been sitting on that piece of paper, inside that book for years.
Once the banana bread is in the oven I decide to declutter. One more recipe could be the metaphorical straw. So it begins: the Coconut and Raspberry Bread torn from a magazine, dated a few months after my daughter's birth nearly six years ago. The same recipe I used for the morning tea after her Naming Ceremony. Instantly I'm back in our first marital home, the sun streaming through the window as I baked. I don't want to throw that memory away.
Moving on, there's a lemon syrup cake recipe which I remember taking on a weekend trip to the country when I was eight months pregnant. We weren't near any shops and had to bring all the food. Next to the list of ingredients are little ticks made by my husband's hand. Obviously it was his job to pack the food. We ate that cake drinking cups of tea while watching the cows and ducks as we contemplated life with a baby. Another memory, another scrap of paper kept.
An old printed email appears from a time before children; a risoni recipe a friend had sent me -- at 10am -- that apparently I wanted to cook that night. Obviously it was a slow work day. It's strange to see the sign-off with my position and company details: another life. Both of us are now home with children and it's not long before I find a handwritten note from that same friend for a kids’ version of chicken casserole. No longer does she end her recipes with 'serve with a full-bodied red'; now it's 'add some chilli and it becomes an adult dinner'.
Some shiny paper unfolds and I realise it's fax paper -- a faxed recipe! -- with writing so faded some letters no longer exist. I notice the measurements are in pounds and ounces. It's the apple crumble recipe from my oldest school friend. Her British mother used to make it for us frequently when we were kids and when this friend's grandmother died she was given the Wedgewood dish her grandmother used to bake this crumble. I've always known it by heart and think of her family whenever I make it. I can't bear to throw out the memory of using our parents' fax machines to communicate when we were 14. Also, how many recipes end with 'Put in a bowl and eat with spoon’?
There’s the 'San Choy Bau' recipe I secretly tore from an office magazine, now crinkled at the edges. I fondly remember this ‘phase’: my husband and I were living together and this recipe became the 'dinner party' one. What could be better than friends, a bowl piled high with iceberg lettuce leaves and a few bottles of chardy? Oh, the mess. The lettuce breaking, the sauce running down chins... the carpet... but who cares when you're 23? Actually, if we cooked this now for our three children it would be a similar experience. Best kept; those were good times.
A green note sticks out. It's the mussels in white wine recipe from an aunt. She and my uncle invited us over for dinner to celebrate our engagement. Afterwards, she wrote the recipe while washing up. It's still water-stained from a stray soap sud. A few years later they divorced and my aunt cut off contact with his family, including me. I was very fond of this aunt and now, with the benefit of age, I can understand her inability to stay involved with his extended family. I don't want to erase the last evidence of her in my life though. Another scrap to keep.
A recipe that has made it inside the book is 'Tim's flourless chocolate cake', written by Tim himself. I remember the night we ate this. He was going out with one of my closest friends and it was perhaps only the second time we met. Each couple brought a course and theirs was obviously dessert. They were late. 'It's my fault,' he began, 'I got stuck at work and got home to discover I was out of flour.' I looked at the flan tin he was holding with the very flat cake. 'But it's ok, it doesn’t need it.' And very quickly, after a few bottles of red, it became Tim's signature dish. He wrote the recipe down late that night and I wondered if years later I would even know this Tim of 'Tim's flourless chocolate cake' fame. As the oven timer goes off and I pull the banana bread out, I question how I didn’t realise he would go on to marry my friend and later become godfather of our youngest son.
Now, looking at the pile mounting in front of me I decide to stuff all these pieces of our past back inside the heaving covers. These scraps are the keepers' of our family's story; I realise this book is one of the most important objects in our house. My husband's trash is my treasure it would seem.
Later, my mother tells me about an old lady who didn't survive the recent catastrophic bushfires in Victoria. She was found in her car and next to her was a complete china dinnerset. The image haunts me. Imagine the tales those plates, soup bowls, cups and saucers would have to tell. What precious memories did they trigger which made the thought of losing that china unbearable for her?
I don't want to throw away my memory triggers. One day when the children are older I will share these stories about how those recipes have shaped our family and later it will be up to them to decide if those scraps of paper are ready to be binned.