Category Archives: Food & Death

Halligan on Food, Family and Melancholy

It is Christmas in Newcastle and the family home is full of family. We moved the big dining table into the garden, under the shade of the pohutukawas that I had given my parents for Christmas the year I was eighteen; a tree their size is a rare thing in this wind-scoured seaside suburb. I went to a nursery and asked what would grow. I’d given up on roses, but not trees. Now, nearly thirty years later, they were big and shady. The weather was superb, sunny and dry but not too hot. There was always a sea breeze gently blowing the scents of salt to mix with the smell of frangipani and the soft soothing roar of the waves. I remember sitting under the trees with the delicate wind caressing my face.

So we put the table in the garden, knowing we wouldn’t have done this had my parents been alive, and ate all our meals there, sitting late into the evening talking over glasses of wine. It was a melancholy time but greatly pleasurable in the way that melancholy can be. We knew it was the last time that we would live in our childhood house, and we had time to pay attention to this. We were sad that our mother had died, but she was old, and ready, in fact we were sure she had allowed herself to die. She had a number of times survived the slight illness that had killed her, but this time she embraced it, let herself be seduced into the death she desired, and we were part of the everlasting cycle of life, where children bury their parents and go on to make their own lives, trusting their children will bury them, and not the other way round.

Christmas lunch was a huge pile of prawns, which we’d got up early and gone to the fish market to buy, small sweet prawns, the best ones, locally caught, with black bread and butter and pepper and lemon, and good white wine, all of us sitting there peeling our own, the children old enough to manage, eating as much as we wanted. So luxurious.

the-taste-of-memoryMarion Halligan, The Taste of Memory, Crows Next: Allen & Unwin, 2004, 20-21.

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Southern Fare

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My beloved is in Texas; returned to the place of family, sweet tea and barbecue. In honour of her travels (without me!) I’ve been re-reading Michael Lee West’s Consuming Passions: A Food Obsessed Life. It’s a wonderful book, an easy-to-read memoir of family and food in the South.

For the most part, the stories centre around the women in West’s life—sisters and mothers, eccentric aunts and grandmas—those who held life and family together at the stove. I love it because it’s well written and funny, but even more because it resonates with my own experience of food and family in rural Texas. It’s a world of its own.

A few quotes over the next week

Why, recipes were like kinfolk. Mimi’s mashed potato salad reminded me of a pale, plump cousin who avoided heat and sunlight, yet she always smelled of wild onions; Tempe’s pecan tassies were sublime and nutty—very much like Tempe’s daughters; and Myrble’s lemon cake was like a flirtatious tart, one the menfolk couldn’t resist.

At one funeral, Aunt Hettie pulled me aside and said, “This is a shame! What a loss!.” I thought she was speaking of the relative we were there to bury, the gorgeous aunt who had left a well nigh perfect husband to run off with a rough-edged millionaire.

“She’s taken her gingerbread recipe to the grave,” Aunt Hettie moaned. Then she turned to me, “Men could not resist that dish. And your own grandmother took her biscuits with her, too.”

“No, she didn’t!” cried Mama. “I know it by heart.” “You better write it down,” warned Aunt Tempe. “Young people don’t know how to make scratch biscuits. They just pop open a can.”

“Food is dying art,” said Tempe. “At least in this family. We’re burying our best recipes.”