Chuck wants us to write about food and its connections in a tribute to Anthony Bourdain today... so here's my connection to food. I hope you all enjoy it. I've used my real memories and real names.
From when I was a little girl, I remember my Granmother’s house being a place where there was always something to eat, something of grand smells emanating from the kitchen, of learning how to cook, stir, taste and enjoy the end result of at the very gentle and experienced hands of a dear, plump, and sweet old lady in a blue house dress and an apron.
Yes, my Grandma’s house was the place to go when you wanted to be fed to the very brim, the pussy-bow, to the state of almost being sick, because my Grandma Killips was one of the best cooks in my family ever! From the moment the door opened, you inhaled that delicious scent of her baking – yes, she had been baking all morning just for us grandkids with Grandpa in the front parlor reading the paper (well, making out he was) and hoping he’d get a good feed of the freshly turned out Date Roll or at least one or two of the Sticky Cornflake Biscuits (which he loved but they stuck to his dentures and he had to go and run them under hot water to get the honey off them).
And it was those Sticky Cornflake Biscuits which were always made for me – especially for me – as they were nice and soft, filled with peanuts and chewy, warm sultanas and sticky all over with honey and treacle, binding the cornflakes to each other, and to the tray; as well as to anything that came in contact with them... oh yes, they were so yummy as they came off the tray and were laid out one by one on the grease paper-covered wire trays lining the counter along the wall, where Grandma kept her old Tupperware containers of tea and coffee and drinking chocolate. In the above cabinet were cups, saucers and the dinnerware as well, all nice and old and hard-wearing, with an old-style carriage on the plate itself being pulled by four grand horses.
It wasn’t just her sweet foods which made the visits to Grandma’s house all the more fun. She used to make a roast lunch to die for; I mean, the roast vegetables alone were a meal within themselves! The potatoes were gorgeous and crunchy on the outside and lovely, light and fluffy on the inside – all the way through! – and even more delectable when you added butter! And the pumpkin was cooked so well, you could eat the skin; which was so sweet, nobody left that on the plate; and if you did, Grandpa gave you a horrified look and took it off you!
The one thing I didn’t like eating there was Brussel Sprouts. No matter how Grandma cooked them I would gag on them; and they smelled horrible. My brother and I were not allowed to have dessert or leave the table until we ate our brussel sprouts. So, Grandma would tell Grandpa that she’s stick around and make sure we ate them; and the minute he was in the living room down the hall, she’d scoop them off our plates and eat them and plop down our bowls of triple-layer jelly with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream in front of us and whisper: “A secret between us three, okay?” and then she start clearing the table. I think deep down inside, Grandpa knew all about our ‘secret’, but didn’t let on, but really, I never liked those little cabbages – even now in my forties – they just smell and taste horrid.
Cooking has been a big thing in our lives because of our Grandmothers. Oh, yes, I also had a Nanna who was alive when I was younger. But she wasn’t as liberal when it came to us kids with food as Grandma Killips was. Nan Parker was always one who kept the sweets hidden high and out of reach, told us to not eat the plums in the fridge (and yet they vanished without us touching them) and wouldn’t let us eat so much as a Milky Way before dinner. She forced us to wait the whole six hours between lunch and dinner, thinking us kids – who lived most of our lives on pure sugar and junk food when we were at school and at home in between meals – could survive the afternoons in the back yard, when really we wanted to be running around half of Moorooka and Annerley with the other kids.
It was nice to be around Nan Parker, but she had her ways when it came to food. If you didn’t eat your carrots one meal, when you were 16 years old, you never got them again for the rest of your life – ever! It happened to me. I love my honeyed carrots – especially Nan Parker’s honeyed carrots (I still don’t know how she did them to make them ooze honey on the plate, and wish to hell I did) – and one night, I didn’t eat the honeyed carrots, some potato and beans because I was full. Well, the next meal, I didn’t get any carrots... I thought she didn’t have enough. But nope, I never saw another carrot grace my plate for the next decade. When I asked her about that, she said, “Oh! I thought you hated them! So, I took the hint and didn’t give you any.” I was stunned! I shook my head, “Oh your honeyed carrots, really??? I love carrots! I was full and couldn’t fit in another bite that night; that’s all.” After that, Dad said to his Mum to ask people about why they left things, or if they’re full, not just assume they hate things.
Cooking in Nan’s kitchen was another thing too. I asked if she’d like me to bake a batch of scones in her kitchen; and Pop Parker jumped at the chance that somebody else was going to ‘have a go’ at making something in the place! He was all for it and sat at the kitchen table watching me eagerly as I pulled out my cookbook I had brought with me (I had gotten it for my birthday that year) and Nan followed me around like a bad smell, double guessing my measurements, turning down the oven when I turned it to the correct heat (then Pop went and turned it back up for me when her back was turned and put on some tea). Well, as I was washing up and cleaning the counter, with the egg timer going, Nan just wouldn’t leave the oven door alone! She kept opening it and checking on them, letting the heat out! Pop ended up leading her out of the kitchen and telling her that I was baking, not her. The kitchen wasn’t going to catch fire and they were scones, not a huge experiment going awry. She was so flustered that somebody was using the kitchen and not her that I ended up just letting the scones be the way they were – not adding on any time as I should have – and when they came out of the oven, they were undercooked and Nan blamed me for it.
I never cooked in her kitchen again.
That’s not to say I never cooked again.
At high school, we had a great catering course which my brother took up... but I was just as good at Home Economics. We had to make an apron before we were allowed in the kitchen though. And once we all did – or most of us did – we were asked to cook our first meal; and for a lot of us, it was the first time we had ever been in a kitchen. I learned a lot from my Home Economics teachers; and since then, I have learned a lot from my brother and my Mum as well.
My brother went in and started out as an apprentice chef at some of the big and snooty restaurants around Brisbane, like Two Rooms (both locations) and there’s a nice little place in West End he worked at as well. And, he may not have finished his apprenticeship, but he learned a lot about cooking and how a kitchen runs.
So, when I moved out home, I started out with the crappy powdered food and eating take-away food, all of which made me very sick. But over the years, I’ve learned how to cook through recipes in great books. I started buying recipe books I wanted to learn from, writing my own recipe journal and relishing in the moment when I have adjusted a recipe enough to call it my very own.
I have learned a lot through experimentation, looking at herbs, and working on my own recipes and what food goes with what herbs and seeing how far I can push the culinary envelope. My Cold-Buster Soup is one my family has tasted often; and I have made for them when they’ve really needed it. It wards off the harshest cold, and busts the flu out of their system. My vegetable soup is a great stodgy soup filled with everything I can get my hands on along with pasta - and occasionally chillies for a great kick, or some curry powder as well. My favourite foods to make are Italian foods; as they’re the most delicious and rich. My Pumpkin, Spinach and Mozzarella Cannelloni is the best one I’ve experimented with – even when I’ve changed it to eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini.
My brother has often phoned me just as I’ve put something into the oven and asked me, “Hey, sis, what are you creating for dinner?” I’ve told him and he’s written it down and made it; then called me later on asking where in the hell I got that recipe. I’ve told him, “Aaaw, well, I made it up last week, and wanted to see if it was the same this week; and it was.” Yep, gotta say, experimenting with your cooking with great, fresh food is always a fun thing to do! But you have to have the previous knowledge of what food goes with which herb beforehand, or it’ll all taste like dirt.
Food connects us all – from the youngest of our memories to the time we have had with each of our family gatherings – it will always be there to pull us together in one way or another. It’s a connection no matter where you are in the world, what language is spoken, what culture you’re emerging yourself into – food is the connection to everyone and everything everywhere. I have learned that the best food in your life takes more than an hour to prepare; and only minutes to eat. Prepare with the best ingredients, and use the best utensils on hand. Your kitchen need not be a massive one, but it must be a useful one; and that’s all which matters; as I’ve made the best vegetarian stews, pizzas, soups and tofu burgers in my very own kitchen; and yet it’s not the best place in the world to cook, it’s not very impressive, and it’s not filled with character, or the most expensive equipment around... but it’s got me as it’s cook with my cookbooks – and really that’s all my kitchen needs, that’s all I need in my life as a writer. So long I know how to cook good food, I’m going to be okay; and considering my Grandma, my Nanna, my Mum and my brother are all great cooks, I think I’m going to be okay. It’s the connection to these people which I can pass onto my niece and onto my friends as well – the food connection network.