(culi­nary)

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - El­iz­a­beth Melville Re­view this­life@theaus­tralian.com.au

What is it about fam­ily recipes that strikes such a chord in us? Handed down through the gen­er­a­tions, they be­come po­tent re­minders of our first child­hood mem­o­ries and feel­ings.

When we cleared out Mum’s house, where she had lived the 63 years of her mar­ried life, we found few clues to her in­ner per­son: no di­aries, press clip­pings, cards or let­ters. But high up on the kitchen shelf, dusty and ragged, were her recipe books. As we pulled them down, out spilled cut­tings from old Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly mag­a­zines and bits of pa­per with her fa­mil­iar, strong hand­writ­ing.

Here was the fundraiser recipe book, self­pub­lished by the P&C stal­warts dur­ing our time at high school. Joan H’s “light as fin­gers sponge”, Mabs’s sharp steak and meat loaf and Mrs B’s cheese­cake were all there, re­mind­ing us of picnics and pro­gres­sive din­ners with Mum’s friends and their fam­i­lies.

Mum al­ways stated she hated cook­ing. The kitchen be­came a trap for those feisty young women of the war years who, in Mum’s case, blazed a trail via med­i­cal lab­o­ra­to­ries in army hospi­tals. Be­ing trained on the job, how­ever, left no scope for paid work af­ter­wards, when th­ese women’s main role be­came homemaker.

Raised as a coun­try girl and the youngest of six, Mum never did much cook­ing un­til she mar­ried. Our fam­ily sta­ples in­cluded stews in the pres­sure cooker, fruit and cus­tard, grilled meat and three veg, and on rare oc­ca­sions roast chook and pavlova. Money was tight in the early years of her mar­riage.

Mum and I had many bat­tles over food. My tastes were more gourmet. Be­ing a prac­ti­cal but not very demon­stra­tive woman, Mum threw all her love and car­ing into the food she pre­pared and the clothes she made. Dis­like of ei­ther was con­strued as per­sonal re­jec­tion. As the 1960s be­came the 70s, Mum was dis­mayed that her homemaker role was chal­lenged by her con­fi­dent daugh­ter, even while she se­cretly was proud of my aca­demic achieve­ments and pos­si­bly slightly en­vi­ous of my op­por­tu­ni­ties.

But as I thumbed through the recipe book, I re­alised so much of their con­tents had be­come my own fam­ily’s favourites. Caramel fin­gers, which Mum used to throw to­gether on a Fri­day night while the oven was on for a roast and she also was cook­ing a sponge for the school cake stall on Satur­day. My cousin once com­mented that we’d be eat­ing caramel fin­gers at Mum’s wake — and we did! Just but­ter, sugar, flour and a packet of dried mixed fruit: de­li­cious.

Mum would have been stunned that th­ese sim­ple recipes evoked such trea­sured mem­o­ries of the time she took to make our fam­ily a lov­ing haven, when she se­cretly may have de­sired a more stim­u­lat­ing life out­side the home.

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