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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