Passing on food traditions

rolling out pastry

Observe the concentration: rolling out the pastry for a ‘treat for daddy’ – circa 1964. Note the slow combustion stove in the left-hand corner.

My book club is currently reading Brick Lane, which is about Bangladeshi migrants in London. It prompted one of my anglo-Aussie friends (AAs) to comment that she enjoyed reading about the how the food traditions in that culture, and felt that these traditions were lacking in ours. I suspect a lot of AAs feel like that – it’s part of our belief that compared with everyone else we Anglo-celts don’t really have a culture.

Well, I certainly don’t feel that way about food. OK, I do feel a little envious when I see – for example – big extended Italian families cooking together on Italian Food Safari, but I definitely have food traditions that I learned from my mother, and I am actively engaged in passing them on.

These traditions are more to do with baking cakes & biscuits than with meals. I grew up on fairly predictable & plain fare: cold meat & salad for lunch, grilled chops & three veg most nights. This was dictated by time, cost & availability – we were lucky enough to grow our own meat and much of our own veg – as well as inherited English food culture. I admit, it wasn’t hugely interesting, though I was lucky to have a mother who was an excellent cook & didn’t cook the veggies to death. Perhaps that’s why it was over creaming butter & sugar, and learning the tricks for a nice light scone, that we bonded.

My Mum baked cakes, biscuits & slices several times a week to provide morning tea for the various people who visited the experimental farm we lived on, and afternoon tea for her sweet-toothed children. For many years, she did this in a slow combustion wood stove.

My Mum died last August, and it was food that inspired the eulogy I gave at her funeral. This was because I suddenly realised, as I ate a cafe meal of roasted beetroot & pumpkin salad garnished with walnuts, a day or two before the funeral, that I have Mum to thank for my love of fresh fruit & veggies, and for my appreciation of the ‘fresh, seasonal produce’ – that is now a bit of a celebrity chef cliché. My Mum – daughter of a greengrocer and wife of a farmer/green-thumbed gardener – knew all about that decades before celebrity chefs came along.

Just as one example – she instilled in me a love of that strange vegetable beetroot, because she stewed & pickled her own. With that as a benchmark, I can only tolerate canned beetroot when it’s heavily disguised on a hamburger.

So my eulogy became a series of thank-yous to Mum for what I had learned from her, or what I was grateful to her for, culinary and otherwise.

My earliest cooking memory is of making an apple pie as a ‘treat’ for Dad. It had green pastry and I seem to recall that the filling was not very traditional, but Mum had a wonderful tolerance for my culinary experiments. So did Dad, as I’m told he actually ate it. I feel sad when I hear of families were the mother rules the kitchen and won’t let the kids in to learn about food with her. I have countless happy memories of planning, cooking and talking about food with Mum. And of eating it all of course, especially when we had collaborated on Christmas day or other extended family feasts.

I have moved on and honed my skills since then, and one of the activities I particularly enjoy doing with the children in my life is baking. Most recently, some cranberry cupcakes yesterday morning with three of AM’s siblings – Abrantie, G Ketewa & Treasure. It was so much fun & the results were good too.

On other occasions we have cooked ginger biscuits (Mum’s recipe), Anzac biscuits & tried various other classic biscuits from – what else? – the Women’s Weekly Collection of Biscuits and Slices. (Well, I can tell you what else: the Country Women’s Association Cookbook, except that my 1974 edition doesn’t have any pictures to inspire; or my Mum’s own black, food-stained folder full of her collected recipes).

Looks like Abrantie is getting serious about cooking. When I spoke to him on the phone this morning and asked about his plans for the day, they included making ginger biscuits. On another call, his mum, Obaapa, consulted me about buying a mixer as she’djust seen one on special. It could be a good investment; perhaps he’ll end up as a celebrity chef.

But at the very least, Abrantie will grow up with not only his Ghanaian, but also my food traditions. As will my son AM, who at 17 is not hugely interested in cooking, but can still produce (with a little guidance) a mean cheesecake and a succulent rack of lamb. (He tells me – dear little sexist piglet – that he plans to rely on Treasure for his Ghanaian meals when his Dad & Obaapa are no longer able to provide them). Well, given our attempts at cooking Ghanaian food, he may have to.

So yes, I can confidently say that I am a link in the chain of my cultural culinary traditions. Cupcakes rule, ok!

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