Henry forgot to write “eat, eat” is my entry in the Australian Country Style Magazine 2012 short story competition. The judging and winning entry notification time has passed and I haven’t been notified so I guess I’m now free to share it. I’m not an enthusiastic short story writer but the brief was in 2000 words or less “cooking from the heart”, which I am passionate about.
There are ghosts in my kitchen. I know who these ghosts are. They are familiar to me.
Henry Scott Holland wrote “Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way that you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was, let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.”
My ghosts never slipped into the next room. They stayed right in the room in which they are most comfortable: the kitchen, and would add their own words, “eat, eat” to Henry’s.
Midweek dinners are not beneath one or another ghosts’ attentions, but on days when cooking lends itself to a pastime of expression and joy, I feel the jostle of the entire entourage. As is their want, they don aprons, stocktake the fridge and cupboards, and position themselves by the bench or around the big timber table.
The ghosts are Polly and Jessie my grandmothers, and my mother, Janice: although not as senior, her presence is fundamental. The faint aroma of tobacco indicates when my Pa, Cliff takes his place at the kitchen table.
The larger of the small furry ghosts Bo, settles into her rightful dog position on the floor beneath Pa’s chair, where she can keep an eye on the smallest ghosts Baddy and Jack, whose feline presences find strategic situations underfoot near the bench and the fridge, and complete the tableau.
There are others. It’s a country kitchen, and ethereal or not, all are welcome and any opportunity to congregate and confer is not missed, evidenced by an ultrasonic hum of conversation. During the day cups of tea serve as refreshment but later, toward evening, when I pour a glass of wine to complement the preparations there is a sigh of accord. I sip for all of us, and we commence cooking: that’s why everyone is here.
Most cooking I do is for my partner, the Gorgeous One and as his preference is for old fashioned home cooking the presence of his grandmothers May and Muriel is most welcome. His grandfathers Roy and Vince and dad Keith come to the table from time to time. There may or may not be a bottle of beer between them. Oftentimes the Gorgeous One’s beautiful Sal has rear guard in the doorway in the traditional way of canine warriors.
Food isn’t simply physical sustenance. It is remembrance and connection of our hearts and souls. My kitchen ghosts bear witness to this legacy of love they bequeathed to us. Such as I have a plan in mind, the food is as much theirs as mine. There are no recipes, no exact quantities: just memories, and with their spirit flowing through my heart to my hands I take ingredients and as if by alchemy they materialize into tantalising forms, echoes of the past and nourishment for the heart and soul of a being.
Cooking corned beef simmered in water laced generously with malt vinegar, brown sugar, mustard powder, peppercorns and bay leaves is my Pa and six year old me in the farm kitchen on a Sunday afternoon. As well as tender corned beef and smooth, onion tinged white sauce for dinner I would look forward to corned beef fritters with the lightest batter dipped in tomato sauce for Monday night’s dinner.
Opening a packet of mixed dried fruit, my hand instinctively finds the jelly cherries, and I’m immediately time shifted to the late 1960’s and the kitchen table at the farm with my Nanna making the Christmas pudding while I wait for the honour of adding the tiny coins specially saved.
Compared to the farm, Sunday night dinners in town were the fast food of the time and tantalising to my little self. Dinner plate sized wafer thin pancakes drizzled with lemon juice and sugar and rolled are my mother making a special treat in our house with the polished timber floors and laminate kitchen countertops. Or, it might be the soup of the time, Campbell’s tinned tomato: tart, delicious and creamy with fresh milk from the farm, served with frypan sandwiches made with sliced white bread delivered fresh by the local bakery’s horse and cart, Kraft cheese, leg ham, and toasted crisp and golden with butter. Dad says we ate these meals when we were poor. I laugh and tell him we were never poor.
These days making soup for the Gorgeous One means pumpkin. In the time it takes to share a glass of wine and the events of our day, I roast big unpeeled oiled pumpkin pieces with whole onions and knobs of garlic until all are just caramelised, scrape and squeeze them together and blend with a drizzle of olive oil, sprinkles of sea salt, white pepper and raw sugar until the soup shines. Thin slices of sour dough loaf and cheddar as mellow as our mood are the only substitutions to the original frypan sandwich line up.
The small furry ghosts still don’t like to miss a meal and are ever present especially when their favourites appear: smoked oysters, gelatine topping on pate, Friday night pizza, biccies and cheese at 4pm, breakfast toast, the odd prawn head or corn cob. We indulge in these regularly for their benefit, but corn kernels and prawns for us, and make spiritual offerings of the cobs and heads.
The rest of the family are not unaffected by the influence of the ghosts: get togethers are testimony to the weight of the members’ correlation of food and familial bonds. Whatsoever the occasion, we assemble with eskies, pots and boxes of foodstuffs, plus wine and beer. For weekend sojourns, each day is planned to include breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, pre-dinner nibbles, dinner and finally, groanlingly, dessert. We may intersperse these with excursions to the shops or beach.
Responsibilities are assigned according to tradition, preference or speciality. For breakfast the uncles barbeque snags and bacon. My aunt creates her inimitable microwave scrambled eggs. I’m banned from toast duty due to a somewhat warranted reputation for burning it. Because of a bid to sneak in tinned tomatoes, I make proper tomato and onion by chopping roughly half a dozen good tomatoes, a couple of large-ish brown onions, sizzle them in butter with sea salt, white pepper and a substantial spoonful of raw sugar until the butter and tomato juices are a glossy sauce.
Morning and afternoon teas are in the form of the pre-prepared goodies packed in Tupperware, including Dad’s beloved from my childhood and still, Rock Cakes. As I sift 2 cups of SR flour and rub in 1/3 cup butter until it resembles breadcrumbs, I feel his presence as if he knows what I’m cooking. I add ½ cup sugar, a pinch of ginger, a handful of sultanas, an egg with a big dash of milk, stirring until the dough is stiff. Dollops on a greased tray bake in a medium oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
Day 1 lunch is handled by the women and comprises platters of fresh bakery rolls sourced on one of the walks, with cold meats and cheese, or sometimes prawns, and salads, accompanied by chilled glasses of beer or white wine. I presume ghostly pressure from my Nanna is the reason my uncle finally produced the famous family egg mayonnaise of which he had kept details of the recipe obscured, but traditionally made from fresh farm eggs and milk. *Note: Several key ingredients and methodology omitted due to Mafioso style threats.
Pre-dinner nibbles are a contemporaneous grouping of cabanossi, cubed cheese, pickled onions, corn relish dip and Jatz, nice cheeses and preserved meats, water crackers, pate and fresh fruit selection, customarily assembled by my sisters.
Dinner is the forum to display faithful or newly discovered recipes. Dad usually provides an entrée of prawns if not eaten at lunch, and Oysters Kilpatrick with an unusual adaptation of chopped corned beef substituted for bacon. Several varieties of casserole or curry having simmered the afternoon long will likely be on offer with a variety of sides, popular being homemade fried rice and potato bake, and a token salad for health. The Gorgeous One is somewhat sceptical of “foreign” tastes, and finds solace in the potato bake. The rite involves partakers helping themselves, attendant bottles of wine: white then red, and boisterous conversation.
Dessert is greatly anticipated despite the quantity of food already consumed, as the dishes are family staples: lemon meringue, grammar pie with custard, Dad’s currant damper with “cocky’s joy”. My own favourite harks to my grandmother from the other side of the family, who made delicious savoury potato dumplings. Mine are the sweet version augmented with apple, bathed in golden syrup sauce and served with ordinary vanilla ice-cream. Incongruously, as I cook them my mind goes to her dining table and an aromatic dish of rich stew bedecked with resplendent orbs.
Day 2 lunch is Dad and my stepmother’s pungent pea and ham soup that tastes like home, with fresh bread from a by now necessary waddle to the bakery; or fish and chip cones from the local pub and a by now obligatory wobble along the river, closely followed by a nanna nap which involves the usual suspects finding comfy chairs, pretending to read the paper but given away by audible evidence of their snooze. The rest of us retreat to the relative peace of our sleeping quarters.
Day 2 dinner is whatever is left and reheated from Day 1. The following day none of us can face food, and departure breakfast is a cup of tea.
Sundays at home are sanctuary from the weekday world for the Gorgeous One and me. Late afternoon fingers of sunlight illuminating lazy dust motes signal the time when the ghosts materialise, and I prepare for a ritual of thankfulness by assembling my tools: a selection of bowls, trays and utensils. First the big, solid white mixing bowl, its purpose to make Snap Biscuits so the Gorgeous One has pieces of my heart to accompany him into his working days. With an old wooden spoon I cream ½ a block of tenderness aka butter with ½ cup of sweetness… sugar that is, and add a huge splash of vanilla essence as I remember the many ways I love him. An egg is added for goodness and a cup of self raising flour beaten in for resilience. Lastly a pinch of ginger keeps the spice in our life. Ten minutes on a well used biscuit tray in a warmish oven and the spoonfuls of batter become golden, fragrant tokens of love. Magic or cooking from the heart? The distinction blurs.
Despite living in a modern working world the need for food keeps us grounded, and although we are not rich we never feel poor, or alone, while the ghosts stage-manage. The old ways remembered and echoes of times past intermingle with our own stories handed down, and become our legacies of succour when we join the ghosts.
I leave you with Leslie P. Hartley’s opening sentence of The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, and something to consider… as much as this is true, surely the past has its own cuisine: the food of the heart.