Thursday, March 31, 2011

When Home is... your Grandmother’s Kitchen. An interview with authors Laura Clarke & Claire Wallace

With Mother’s Day just around the corner many of us will be planning to spend time with our families; sharing a meal with our mothers at some point that weekend. But really, how often do we talk to our mothers – and if we’re lucky enough our grandmothers – about their lives and our families stories?

There may well be a favourite family dessert we have been enjoying all our lives but how many of us know the origins of that recipe? Why our mothers or grandmothers used to cook it, who gave the recipe to them and why it has become such a family favourite? We may never think of how these stories began. It’s just a fact that this is our family’s cheesecake recipe; or our family always glazes a ham at Christmas time.

Usually by the time we reach an age when we want to know more; when we’d appreciate the wisdom and seek the comfort of the older generation, our grandmothers aren’t here anymore to give it. It was this realisation that gave Laura Clarke and Claire Wallace the inspiration to record grandmothers stories from around the world. The result is the just published, beautiful recipe book My Grandmother’s Kitchen


Both women had recently met and both were at turning points in their lives when the conversation about this joint project began: ‘My grandparents brought me up’, says Laura who lived with them in England from the age of 11. ‘When my grandmother died she left me three things: her engagement ring which I wear every day, her kitchen table which we used on the cover of our book, and her recipe book filled with her handwritten sheets of recipes.’

'A couple of years ago, after my grandfather died, I missed them both horribly. I realised I was working in a job I wasn’t passionate about and thought what am I doing? They didn’t raise me to be unhappy so I quit my job and thought about collating my grandmother’s recipes during my time off work.’

‘It was around this time that we met,’ continues Claire, ‘My grandmother had died many years before Laura’s, when I was only 19. Laura and I were talking about our grandmothers and their cooking and I realised I didn’t have any of her recipes written down at all.’

The conversation moved on from their cooking to a desire for both women to talk to their grandmothers again; to ask their advice about all aspects of their lives. ‘It felt like we realised too late how much they had to teach us,’ says Claire.

‘They had lived such amazing lives already and we have so much to learn from them. I remember my grandmother saying just before she died that she still felt 19 and that it was only when she looked in the mirror she realised differently.’

The concept from the beginning was always to include other grandmothers in their book. ‘It was never to be just about our own grandmothers,’ says Laura, ‘We were both passionate about the importance of grandmothers in the home and how great an influence they can be.’

‘So much importance is placed on youth in today’s world and I remember my grandmother saying to me in her 80s that sometimes she felt invisible. We were inspired to find everyday grandmothers for the book who were inspirational because of the lives they have led bringing up their families.’

This book was always going to be much more than just a collection of recipes from around the world. ‘We wanted to fill the book with the kind of information we knew we’d want from our grandmothers if we’d had more time with them,’ begins Laura, ‘we wanted to share these women’s life stories, we wanted them to pass on their wisdom.’

Both women interviewed the 17 grandmothers and their families for up to four or five hours each. They spent numerous hours cooking with them, spending time with their children and grandchildren, calling them constantly to ask more questions and in all cases Claire and Laura cannot emphasise enough how welcomed they were into each household.

It was a hugely emotional journey for them. ‘These women were so positive,’ says Claire, ‘despite some of the stories they shared. It was a reminder of all the things you don’t ever know are behind a face. You don’t know what anyone has been through and you certainly can’t judge their life journey by looking at someone’s face.’

The most emotional part of this journey for Claire and Laura was the death of one of their grandmothers, Cherie Keetley. Cherie died nearly a year ago and while she didn’t live to see the book’s publication, she loved being a part of its creation.

‘Cooking, like love, should be undertaken with wild abandon’, was a piece of wisdom Cherie shared and after her death her family were so grateful as they realised that without this book they would never have written Cherie’s story down. ‘Her recipes were completely embedded in her head’, laughs Laura.

‘I have notes and notes from cooking with Cherie,’ continues Claire, ‘as she had no idea about measurements cooking purely from instinct. Of course, we needed measurements to write the recipes so there was much laughter and trial and error!’

‘This project was so fulfilling,’ continues Laura, ‘we had no idea of the journey this would take us on and we realised again through Cherie’s death how important it is to capture your own families stories.’

The end result is a beautiful tribute to grandmothers everywhere with a chapter at the end to capture your own family’s story.

‘We wanted every page to be unique,’ says Claire, ‘we wanted it to look like a real grandmother’s recipe book with fingerprints, remarks and drawings by kids, splotches of jam.’

And intertwined within it all: those longed for comforting and inspirational words gained from years of perspective, endurance and experience.

No matter what your age who doesn’t need to be reminded that ‘things seem worse in the moment’ or ‘do not always think about your problems: you will see one day they are not so important’ and, finally, ‘Friends are like elevators. They either take you up or take you down. Hold on to good friends and let go of the rest.’

Recipes not only for food but for lives lived well.


As the seasons in Sydney begin to turn and the weather is cooling down, Laura and Claire thought it would be fitting to share with us a wintry recipe from their book. And a drizzly, cool day like today is the perfect time to try it a warming pumpkin soup...

Rosa Munoz's Pumpkin Soup Serves 6
A friend gave me this recipe many years ago and I have been making it for my family ever since. Over the years I have adapted it and added the nutmeg and coriander. It is a delicious, warming recipe in the winter months.

1 whole Queensland or other pumpkin (it should be approx. 2.5 kg when peeled, deseeded and cubed)
3 medium potatoes
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon oregano chilli flakes to taste
1 teaspoon cumin
1 pinch nutmeg
½ bunch fresh coriander
1 litre cold water or vegetable stock
salt and pepper to season
chives and sour cream to garnish

Start by peeling and deseeding the pumpkin. Cut the flesh into cubes. Then peel and cube the potatoes, thinly slice the onions and roughly chop the garlic. In a medium pot, heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil over a high heat. Add the onion, garlic and coriander and cook until the onion is lightly browned. Add the spices and stir well for about 1 minute. Add 1 litre of cold water or vegetable stock and then the potatoes. Bring to the boil. Turn heat to low, cover pot, and simmer until potatoes are almost cooked. Add the pumpkin and season to taste. Cover and simmer until the pumpkin is cooked. Remove from heat. Remove half the liquid from the pot and put aside in a bowl. With a hand blender, purée the pumpkin mixture and add the reserved liquid until it becomes a soup (thickness to your own preference). Pour into bowls and garnish with chopped chives and a dollop of sour cream.

For more information about Laura Clarke and Claire Wallace, or to buy a copy of the book visit

Their Facebook page also reports on the latest book news and gives you an opportunity to ask questions or contact Laura and Claire direct. Visit

All photos © Laura Clarke and Claire Wallace

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When Home is... the Dining Room

Recently I went to an open house with a friend; a grand old house out of both our price ranges. It was grand for many reasons – hugely proportioned rooms, wrap around veranda, a butler’s pantry – but it was perhaps the dining room with its table for 12that made the house feel most grown-up. People don’t really dine in ‘dining rooms’ anymore, do they? Formal rooms are rarely a selling point these days and while, for me, the most exciting part of our recent renovation was creating a ‘dining nook’ I never envisaged us dining in a separate room to the kitchen.

I didn’t really think much about these thoughts... until I read House Thinking by Winifred Gallagher today. This book is all about the psychology of home; how home not only ‘reflects but also affects who you are.’

So, I was interested to realise how conflicted I truly am. My dining nook says more about me as a person than I ever realised.
‘Today when we ask ourselves, “What kind of people are we, and what kind of home do we want?” our different answers are often reflected in our dining space. If we think of ourselves and homes along the lines of “practical, friendly and casual”, we may decide that it’s silly to waste space on a dining room when most meals are eaten informally in kitchens. If we see ourselves as the kind of people who do things the right way, we may prefer to eat in a handsome formal dining room gleaming with silver...’

Ok, I get that. I would like to be considered as ‘practical, friendly and casual’ AND my new nook reflects this too. BUT, then Gallagher writes:

‘The idea that we may be judged by our dining room or even our wineglasses, or that we care about such judgments, is discomfiting. Yet at mealtime, most of us take some trouble – setting the table, pouring wine, making conversation, lighting candles – to remind ourselves and others that if we’re not to the manor born, we weren’t born in a barn either.’

Hmmm. On Saturday night we had friends over on the spur of the moment. We cooked pasta to watch in front of the rugby; a practical, friendly and casual meal to reflect our practical, friendly and casual selves.

Except we didn’t sit on the lounge to eat or gather around the island bench in a practical, friendly and casual manner; we sat in our dining nook using the ‘good’ cutlery and the ‘good’ plates, drinking red wine out of – albeit Ikea – wineglasses and looking over and around the vase of flowers in the middle of the table to see the game on the television.

Oh, and the children also came downstairs a couple of times to complain that we were talking and laughing too loudly.

Confusion abounds and perhaps it’s time to stop reading books about house psychology.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When Home is... a Toddler without Day Sleeps

It’s been a week between posts. Sadly the quietness hasn’t been due to an inundation of freelance work, a book offer or a busy social life. Instead it’s due to very little time alone and a very moody toddler who thinks he doesn’t need to sleep during the day anymore.

My predictable time off in the middle of each school day is no more and it has reminded me of how I felt a few years ago when I was going through this ‘transition’ (for us both) with Ned. History is repeating itself in our house and below is a piece I wrote for Sydney’s Child a couple of years ago which reminds me that this is just a phase... and home will not stay this way forever...

No More Naps (Published in Sydney’s Child magazine, February 2009)

I nervously look out my French doors towards the garden as I pour water into the coffee plunger and my friend chats obliviously. It’s four o’clock on a Friday afternoon and my two-almost-three-year-old son is running around in circles laughing maniacally. This is not a good sign. As my friend’s daughter, of a similar age, bends down to pick up his toy lawnmower, my son lunges, pushing her roughly and shouts indignantly — as only a two-year-old can — ‘No, that’s MINE!’

After the fracas is resolved, I turn to my friend apologetically, ‘He didn’t have an afternoon sleep.’ She nods, smiling empathetically.


The day begins well; with his older sister at preschool we enjoy a bit of shopping followed by morning tea at a café, an elaborate fantasy game with fire engines and diggers, lunch, and three picture books before bed. I come downstairs looking forward to a couple of hours of quiet, or perhaps more honestly, Oprah and a cup of tea. But then I hear a little voice singing. It’s the theme song of his favourite cartoon about a fire engine.

‘Stay calm’, I say to myself, ‘It won’t be long before he drops off. He looked tired enough.’ I turn up Oprah.

Half-an-hour later he shouts out to me.

‘Hello mummy,’ he says with his angelic smile as I open the door.

‘It’s time for a sleep. You haven’t had a sleep yet, have you?’ I say sternly.

‘No, I’ve had a wake.’ He answers honestly.

Another half-hour goes by. Oprah and my tea are finished, but still my son sings. I put the washing machine on to stop myself listening and becoming more frustrated.

I go back upstairs. He’s sitting in bed looking at books. How can I be angry about that? Yet, I also know that without this sleep the afternoon will descend into hell.

I attempt for a third time to make him nap.

I chat to a friend on the phone, out in the garden, where I can pretend he is sleeping soundly. Then he appears, clutching Babar the elephant, wide awake and smiling. It’s over. My generally calm, placid little boy who has now been awake since 6.30am will have to survive on no sleep until this evening. To do so, he will become a wilful, manic, teary and unpredictable mess.


I used to think an overtired newborn was trying, but that was before experiencing an overtired toddler. When my daughter began to threaten to drop her afternoon sleep around the same age I remember commenting to a friend who was a counsellor that I didn’t know how I would cope without having a couple of hours off each day. She laughed and said that she had counselled many mothers who went through a depression once their toddlers stopped day-sleeps. I attempted to smile despite the sense of dread.

But, of course, as with all new chapters of parenting, my daughter and I found a way to settle into this new arrangement: some quiet time reading in her bedroom after lunch each day allowing me the illusion of time to myself. Before long she was at preschool a couple of days a week and I became used to a three hour break while my baby son slept.

Oh, how quickly they grow though. And I had forgotten this awful transition time when they still need a sleep to get through the afternoon despite resisting it. As I pour my friend her coffee and listen to my daughter call out from upstairs that her brother is ‘not playing gently’ I am reminded why I stopped socialising in the afternoons.

There’s a crash upstairs, a wail and a stern ‘you naughty boy’ from my daughter. Her tea-set has been thrown across the room. I bring him downstairs and tell him that he will have to sit with my friend and me as he can’t play gently. He eats afternoon tea and rubs his eyes. He spills his water and rubs his eyes. He bangs his knee getting down from the table and howls. It’s only 4.30pm.


At 5pm my friend and her daughters leave. My son is now covered in mud and mosquito bites from playing in the garden, but at least he hasn’t annoyed the other children for the last half hour. I decide a bath before dinner is necessary tonight.

He seems calmer now and more loveable; smelling of baby shampoo and clean pyjamas. There were tears about his dinosaur pyjamas being in the wash but he has finally grown attached to the monkey ones he is wearing. But the contentment doesn’t last long. He spills dinner down his front and is devastated. Tears because he has made a mess, tears because he wants to still wear these monkey pyjamas. Finally my daughter and I convince him his robot pyjamas are much better and peace is restored.

By now my husband is home. My son climbs onto his father’s lap and quickly asks for a story and bed. He sucks two fingers and hugs the toy elephant he sleeps with every night. My husband carries him upstairs. His red-rimmed eyes stare at me as he waves good night. He has given in. It is only 6pm.

I reflect, while pouring myself a glass of wine, that there is actually a positive side to the end of day-sleeps.

Monday, March 14, 2011

When Home once belonged to... a Bank Robber

Darcy Ezekiel Duggan was a bank robber and according to the Sydney Morning Herald, New South Wales’ most notorious prison escape artist.

In 1946, he escaped from a prison tram by cutting a hole through the roof with a kitchen knife and climbing out. Today that tram is on display at the Sydney Tramway Museum. Wikipedia details another time when he reportedly escaped from prison, leaving a note on the wall of his cell which read “Gone to Gowings”. He spent 30 years in prison; half his life.

For the other half spent outside of prison, he had to live somewhere. And for some time he lived in a terrace house in Sydney’s inner west; a terrace house that eventually belonged to friends of mine.

While restoring the old house, they discovered more stories of the home’s past. During a visit to the local demolition yard looking for windows, my friend met a man who used to live in her street and ‘run the best two-up game in Sydney’ in the backyard. Another time her husband saw a family sitting in a car outside the house staring in. The father explained how it was once a boarding house and his whole family lived in one room. He wanted his children to see that not everyone grows up in a big house.

A house with a colourful past and colourful characters; but were there any signs of Darcy Duggan’s occupation? Perhaps. A loose brick in the kitchen wall was always a curiosity. A brick my friends spent many years not moving. A loose brick seems an ideal hiding spot for gold, money, jewellery. Might Darcy have left something behind when he was put in prison?

Sadly, the house was not going to give up that secret. When they finally did move the brick nothing was revealed. But elsewhere in the house, who knows?!

Darcy Duggan Police Photo 1949 © State Library of NSW

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

When Home was... a family of seven children

John and Elizabeth Liddell, the couple who bought our house in 1883, lived in a time when the average number of children per family in NSW was seven. I always wondered how many children Elizabeth gave birth to but was unsure of how to find out. Some nights, in the very early hours, when my youngest was a few months old, I'd sit on the stairs listening to him cry despite a tummy full of milk, and stare through the balustrade wondering if Elizabeth ever sat here on the same step, dizzy with lack of sleep.

Thankfully a friend’s father, with a flair for researching family history, came to my rescue and so the story of this house continues.

It seems John and Elizabeth were bang on average. There were seven little Liddells born between 1858 and 1878: Elizabeth, Caroline, Lydia, Ada, Emily, Alice and Henry.

Poor Elizabeth: 20 years of pregnancies, labour, breast feeding, sleepless nights and then, sadly, the death of two of those children.

She and John lost their eldest daughter, Elizabeth, in 1879 and their only son, Henry, in 1880. We were unable to discover why they died, but being only a year apart I can’t help but imagine it was an illness.

In 1887, the author of a report ‘The Wealth and Progress of NSW’, TA Coghlan wrote that in the late 1870s, 'Sydney was troubled by an extraordinary visitation of sickness; children died, stricken by diarrhoea and atrophy, pneumonia and bronchitis, diphtheria and scarlatina and measles. Its children were literally decimated.’

Two children from one family in one year – how many children from other families in our street might have died at the same time?

But it wasn’t just children who were at risk, obviously. Back then it was dangerous for women to give birth at all; particularly working-class women, like Elizabeth. In suburbs such as ours, the birth rate began to fall in the late 1800s and a Royal Commission was set up to uncover why. Not surprisingly, the working classes were stressed about the financial strain of providing for their families and apparently – I would have thought responsibly – resorted to birth control techniques.

The Commissioners felt the opposite: women were avoiding their ‘natural responsibilities’ and ‘putting their selfish desires before the nation’s need’. As the authors of the book, Leichhardt: on the Margins of the City write, ‘Two things couldn’t come quickly enough for many of these women: the change of life and an old age pension...’

I wonder how Elizabeth felt about motherhood? Did she attempt to avoid any of those pregnancies? Did she worry about feeding all those mouths? Or did she feel it was her role, as a woman, to give birth to as many children as she was able?

The mothers I have bumped into on the street, outside Elizabeth and my home, ask if I’m planning any more children. ‘Oh no,’ I say, ‘it was a huge decision for us to go from two to three.’

I ask them of their plans, ‘Two is enough,’ they may say, or ‘I’d love another one but I have to convince my husband first!’ Or, ‘if we had three we’d need to move to get a big backyard’; ‘I don’t have the patience for anymore’; ‘If money wasn’t an issue I’d have four.’

What would have Elizabeth’s conversations been like 130 years ago, standing in the exact same spot as I do talking to her neighbours? Very different, I’m sure.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

When Home is... an Old House

First, apologies for making the article about our house history so hard to read! The pages are now posted here as J-Pegs.

But the subject of today's post is about someone else's house history; of something left behind. This is the story about an Edwardian terrace, on Sydney’s Lower North Shore, facing out to the harbour. It’s about a photo that was found behind an old fireplace in one of the bedrooms. Only the corner of the photo was sticking out, slid up between the cast iron fire surround and the mantle. The owner noticed it while cleaning one day and thinking it was a piece of cardboard or rubbish, she pulled it out.

She found herself holding a black and white portrait of two women, dressed formally, in a garden. The women looked similar – perhaps sisters – and were standing close together, nearly touching. They were both wearing long, plaid skirts and had 1920s hairstyles. Feeling sure those sisters had once lived in the house, the owner also felt sure that the photo belonged there, hidden away back in its hiding place.

Not long after, the family noticed by the landing, at the top of the staircase, an outline on the wall of more stairs going up to the attic. An attic that no longer existed, had never been lined and an impression of a staircase leading to nowhere.

The family dog refused to walk on the landing, next to this outline of stairs and opposite the bedroom door where the picture had been discovered. He would shake as he walked passed and if his ball ended up in that space he would cry and not move to collect it.

Years passed and the woman never mentioned her find to her family. They moved and rented the house out for a year before it sold. At the end of the lease, the tenants were glad to leave complaining of being woken by footsteps on the landing every morning at 2.20am. Thinking it was their children, they would get up to investigate but there was never anyone to be seen.

Was it one of the sisters? What was their story? Did they have a falling out? Was there a betrayal? The possibilities are endless, aren’t they?

After hearing about the footsteps, the owner went back to the house for a final look before the sale went through. The photo was still there, the corner still sticking out, and she was left with the very strong feeling that this was the place the photo belonged and should always stay.

I wonder if it’s still there today?

Article originally appeared in the (sydney)magazine Thursday, February 24 2011 and is republished with permission from the (sydney)magazine

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When Home is... the (sydney) magazine

Do you know any stories about the people who lived in your house before you did?

I always felt that researching the history of the people who lived in our house would be more interesting than researching my family tree. It's hard not to feel an affinity with people who also chose to make your house their home. You instantly have something in common.

Here's my result, published in the (sydney) magazine, inside the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, February 24th 2011.

Click here.


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