For many food is at the heart of not only their family life but also their culture; Anthea Rowan discovers how food, life, passion and the written word have become intertwined
Soft, smooth, saffron-yellow dahl scantily salted and proffered on a spoon by her doting ayah: my mother’s first food memory and one which roots her firmly to India where she was born in big, bustling Bombay. The dahl has remained a dish she’s loved, the ayah whom she also loved taught her to speak Hindi, which she forgot long ago. Mum recalls little of her formative years on the subcontinent but she does remember that: comfort food and love. M F K Fisher who published her memoir, The Gastronomical Me, in 1943 wrote, ‘The first thing I remember tasting and then wanting to taste again is the grayishpink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam. I suppose I was about four.’ Famous restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa, whose book Nobu will hit the shelves in November, writes that his earliest memories are accompanied by a backing track of kitchen noises: rattling utensils and knives slicing deftly against a wooden chopping board. The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, due for publication late September, is Emily Nunn’s endeavour to journey her way back to wholeness and happiness following the death of her brother and almost simultaneously being ditched by her partner as she cooks her way through memories and meals with friends and family.
Food, imperative to life is so often accompanied by that essential Other: Love It’s hard to separate them. Nurture and nourishment. Small wonder Julia Child is quoted as saying, ‘Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soulsatisfying and eternal’
If I consider the food of my own childhood, I remember cooking with my mother and the sense of occasion that attended these sessions. The planning: when would we cook: always in the afternoon, to prod the slow hours of the day onward. What would we cook: something sweet, to eat for afternoon tea, something that required collaboration, team-work. We, mum, my younger brother and much later my little sister and I, would pore over cookery books, elbows on kitchen counters, us children standing on upturned bottle crates to gain some height. We liked to look at the pictures in Katie Stewart’s Cooking Better All the Time, which was interleaved with recipes that mum has ripped out of Good Housekeeping, feasting our eyes on Devil’s Food Cake and Strawberry Gateau, Chocolate Swiss Roll and Cherry Russe all enthroned on ornate cake stands dressed with doilies (it was the seventies, after all) and back lit with violet lights. We never made any of those things. It was the connection that was important, the closeness, the opportunity to talk, ‘Why’s it called Devil’s Food Mum? Temptation, she said. What’s a Russe? How come we don’t have cake plates like that?’
The perfectly ordinary and perfect chocolate cakes we baked with my mother were an exercise in diligent division of labours: my role was to measure ingredients using an old cast weighing scales, watching for the precise balance, adding or removing a single spoon of sugar to get it spot on; my brother’s was to sieve flour, a task he performed with enormous gusto so that he and the counter tops were dredged in a fine dusting of white powder, mum’s was to break and separate eggs, a skill which we observed with the same awe that might inspire a medical student watching a neurosurgeon at work. We were allowed to handle the electric beater, taking it in turns to whip the mixture to a consistency so smooth and silky and air filled that bubbles rose and popped on the surface as if the bowl’s contents were sighing with sweet pleasure.
“The way we cook and eat, our whole attitude to food, is bound with memories that sustain and nourish the way we cook for our partners, our children, our friends.”
The impatience that consumed whilst our cake baked and cooled was unbearable but finally Mum declared, the back of her hand against the sponge languishing on a wire rack to test for temperature, that it was time to decorate it. We filled it with butter icing that was flavoured and stained mocha with Camp Coffee Essence. When Mum had sandwiched the two halves carefully together a feat that we regarded with almost as much awe as her egg breaking skills, the tips of our tongues caught between our teeth, necks craned to perfectly witness this episode of confectionary engineering we watched her spread the top with chocolate icing made from a paste of icing sugar and cocoa powder (which was sifted as clumsily and enthusiastically together by my brother as the flour) and boiling water. She dipped a palette knife into a mug of still warm water before each stroke so the icing set mirrorsmooth and glossy, and the cake looked too beautiful to cut. To this day I follow the same recipe that my mother used for that Chocolate Cake, easily multiplying ingredients depending on how many hungry people there are for afternoon tea: 2 eggs, 4 oz of sugar, butter, flour, cocoa to colour and taste, 3 eggs and six of everything, 4 and it’s 8. And I cannot eat it, cannot bite into that sinful (so that’s why the Devil I think?) chocolaty taste piqued with coffee and creamy with butter without being thrown back to those gloriously happy, life affirming afternoons.
Sometimes we made a Victoria Sponge cake, two halves clinched in a kiss with thickly whipped cream and strawberry jam from a tin all pinkly squishing out of the sides, and dredged with a snowstorm of caster sugar. Eating Victoria Sponge cake made me feel English because, Mum said, Queen Victoria invented it. Sometimes we made Scotch Pancakes. (Which made me briefly believe that we really were the Half-Scottish-and-half-Irish we were always told we were even thought we were white children growing up in Africa pretending sometimes to be English). We dropped the batter, which mum had beaten to a smooth sheen, onto a hot griddle and waited until tiny bubbles appeared, when they did we knew that the underside was brown and the pancake ready to flip. We made a great warmly steaming heap and piled them into a clean dishcloth. We ate them seated at a table set for tea with china and linen dripping with teeth achingly sweet Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup. I cannot consider a tin of the stuff, lid sticky on my larder shelf today, without a small sentimental swell.
“I thought warm and grateful thoughts about my mother. She instilled in us nothing but a total and unconditional pleasure in food and eating.”
The way we cook and eat, our whole attitude to food, is bound with memories that sustain and nourish the way we cook for, and eat with, our partners, our children, our friends later. Gabrielle Hamilton who wrote Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef described by fellow published foodie Anthony Bourdain as ‘simply the best memoir by a chef ever’, had a difficult relationship with a difficult mother a French woman who taught her how to properly pronounce, like a European and not an American she remembers, the ‘s’ in Salade Niçoise and Vichyssoise, yet that same tricky woman inadvertently gifted her a passion an education and a career: ‘For the first time in probably the entire decade that had passed since I had seen or spoken to my own mother, I thought warm and grateful thoughts about her. She instilled in us nothing but a total and unconditional pleasure in food and eating.”
Hamilton’s whole ethos in creating her successful New York restaurant, Prune, is founded upon her early relationship with food and cooking; as soon as she began working “ I saw the threebin stainless steel pot sink, exactly like ours, I felt instantly at home and fell into peeling potatoes and scraping plates for the dishwasher like it was my own skin. And that, just like that, is how a whole life can start.” And her upbringing meant she knew exactly the type of restaurant she wanted ‘ a place with a Velvet Underground CD that made you nod your head and feel warm with recognition. I wanted the lettuce and the eggs at room temperature … I wanted the tarnished silverware and chipped wedding china from a paladar in Havana, and the canned sardines I ate in that little apartment on TwentyNinth Street. The marrow bones my mother made us eat as kids that I grew to crave as an adult. We would have brown butcher paper on the tables, not linen tablecloths, and when you finished your meal, the server would just pull the pen from behind her ear and scribble the bill directly on the paper like [the waitresses in France] had done. We would use jelly jars for wine glasses. There would be no foam and no ‘conceptual’ or ‘intellectual’ food; just the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry’
Hunger: so vital in sustaining enjoyment of food, love, life. The last word, then, must go to M F K Fisher about whom poet W H Auden said, “I do not know of anyone in the States who writes better prose” who wrote “Like most humans, I am hungry…our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…”
WORDS: ANTHEA ROWAN