I don’t believe in ghosts. Never have. Not once have I imagined the creaks that I hear in the middle of the night as anything other than the ageing sounds of an old house. That said, I do believe in spirits. Especially in my kitchen. In fact, I have one and I feel her presence constantly.
Mum died some years ago. To be honest, cooking was never her thing. She gave herself to it out of necessity and love and did a decent job. In her basic 1960s kitchen with the ever-changing wallpaper, she chopped and stirred, boiled and baked, roasted and grilled for her family of men for all the years I can remember.
Of all her boys, I was the one who hovered the most. I chopped alongside her, set the table, strained the overcooked veggies, stirred gravies and puddings and licked the beaters. I liked mum’s kitchen. It was safe and happy, like her. It was a place filled with her optimism, her make-do and her endless generosity.
In many ways I am nothing like mum. I am introverted, careful, shy and pessimistic. Yet it’s when I cook that I know myself as her son. It’s when I cook that I have this strong sense of continuity with her. It’s in the kitchen that I remember mum most tangibly and know her influence and her love. When I’m in the kitchen I feel her spirit.
For years now I have taught a unit called Table Spirituality. Each time I do I begin the first session with an extract from one of Jill Dupliex’s books, the unfortunately titled Old Food. Though Dupliex writes beautifully, I keep returning to this piece for more than good writing. For in a few simple paragraphs, she captures something deeply true about the spirit of cooking. It resonates each time I read it.
There are ghosts in our kitchens. You feel them at your back as you push the onions around in a little oil, when you crush the garlic or when you pull a cake from the oven and feel the heat against your face. These things have been done before, and will be done again: your actions are the actions of the centuries. You can hear them, too, in the whistle of a kettle, the gentle simmering of a stew, the sound of a broom sweeping the floor – the music of the kitchen, over the centuries.
Every time you pick up a knife or wooden spoon, you become part of a continuous human flow, a chain whose links are forged by sweat, sacrifice, steam, soil and a strong sense of survival. Centuries of chopping onions, shopping, stirring soups, peeling potatoes, stoking fires, sniffing stews, baking breads, grinding spices, pounding grains, baking cakes and caramelising sugar stand behind you as you move from shelf to sink to stove.
Centuries, too, of burning your wrists, of grating your knuckles, of slicing into your fingers, of dropping and breaking things and of leaving the dishes until the morning. Years of planning special effects, briefing servants and worrying about who to sit with whom at the table. Years of people carting their produce to market, of praying for rain or sunshine, of moving stock from one field to the next, of slaughtering animals, hunting game and throwing lines, nets and traps into rivers and oceans.
To me, this is one of the deepest, most fundamental rewards of cooking. To know that generations of men and women have stood in the kitchen, stirring, simmering and spicing as we do. Hoping that ‘they’ – the people who are about to eat – will like it, as we do. Sneaking a glass of wine, as we do. And sometimes, wishing ‘they’ were somewhere else, as we do.
Preparing a meal can bring a deeply felt sense of the continuity of life. It hits you with the force of the ages felt at the birth of a child, but it’s easily forgotten in the hurly-burly of daily activities.
Jill Dupliex, Old Food: New Ways with Old Favourites, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998.