Category Archives: Food & Family

Memory in the kitchen

bwt2In the most recent issue of the wonderful Bread Wine & Thou is a beautifully written piece by Melbourne writer Ramona Barry. In it she recounts her journey with cancer and its impact upon her family’s life at the table.  It is an extraordinarily moving piece, and there is really nothing to do but go and read it.

In the midst of Barry’s piece is this little ode to the virtues of the home cook and her capacity, even in the midst of life at its worst, to hold a family together through the most menial practice of memory in the kitchen.

Nostalgia can play an important part in professional cooking. Just look to Heston Blumenthal trying to recreate summer holidays with his now famously sensorial dish ‘Sounds of the Sea’. On the flip side it is memory that the domestic cook relies on, day in and day out.

Memory helps to get food on the table in a timely manner and take into account everyone’s dietary requirements. These are the details that you need to learn intuitively and over time. There is no explaining to the non-cooks in the family that to do a proper roast dinner you must start preparing at 4pm to get it on the table by 7pm. Nothing is more frustrating than watching kitchen interlopers swanning in at 6.30 and expecting their lamb shanks with the nightly news.

Memory allows you to be able to cook dinner as a staggered meal, taking into account after-school activities, late meetings and extra guests. You need to be able to throw a meal together when the entire family has collapsed on the couch after a road trip, or half of them are in bed with the flu. You rely on memory to manage the juggling act seamlessly and daily.

Barry’s words are a gentle reminder of the primacy of the home cook in the civilisation of our lives. The domestic matters. It reminds me of the thesis of Michael Symon’s masterful The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks, in which he demonstrates the oft unrecognised role of the household cook.

Cooks have always been in the background—both ever present and unnoticed. Their contributions have seemed too common, pervasive, trivial, unproblematic. Cooks generally have been women, and their achievements overlooked as inglorious and private. They have been restricted to the chopping-board and spice rack. But while each of the cooks’ actions might be infinitesimal, the results have multiplied into civilization.’

Ramona Barry, “An Extra Place at the Table” in Bread Wine & Thou, issue 2, 2016, 86-95.

Michael Symons, The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks: The Story of Cooking in Civilisation and Daily Life, Viking, 1998.

Artwork: Jonathan Leaman, ‘A Jan Steen Kitchen’, 1995.

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Van Gogh’s table

“The Van Gogh family ate where they lived, in the back room of the parsonage. Like everything in Anna’s life, food was subject to conventions. Modest and regular eating was considered crucial to both good health and moral wholeness. But with two cooks in the tiny kitchen, Anna could indulge her middle-class aspirations to larger, more elaborate repasts, especially on Sundays. If evening meals were the daily worship service of the “cult of the family,” Sunday dinner was its high mass. These quiet extravagances of four- to five-course dinners left a deep impression on all her children, especially Vincent, whose lifelong obsession with food and sporadic attempts at self-starvation mirrored his turbulent family relations.”

UnknownAn extract from Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: A Life, Random House, 2012. Picture: ‘Still life with a basket of apples’ by Vincent Van Gogh

What shall we have for dinner?

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What shall we have for dinner? What do you want for dinner? This is an anguished cry and often heard in suburban and even urban households whatever the makeup, gender and partnership. I have a habit of wailing: I don’t mind buying it, and cooking it, just tell me what you want to eat! I’ll do the work, you do the thinking.

I have a whole bookcase full of cookbooks, and yet thinking of what to go and buy remains difficult. It’s the balance as much as anything: nothing too fattening, or fatty, or rich … not red meat again, you could eat fish just once, I’m sick of pasta … It reminds me of an experience I had when I was first married. A long time ago. I had the current notions of wifely responsibilities, which would seem old fashioned now. It was in the starry-eyed honeymoon stage, when a nicely married young woman imagined herself as the perfect wife.

That’s when I had my experience. You could perhaps call it a vision, if something so black deserves a name. It made me think of Macbeth, the part where he goes to the witches and asks them about the future. He’s already bloodily murdered a number of people to get hold of the throne, now he wants to know will he be able to pass it on to his children; will the descendants of Banquo, his dear friends whom he also killed, ever reign over the kingdom that he has lost so much to gain? The witches show him a procession of kings all looking like Banquo, and obviously his offspring, the last one carrying a mirror in which a whole lot more are reflected. He cries, What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?

That was me, realising that I had a lifetime of meals to prepare. One, two, even three meals a day, all made by me. Lined up and marching out into the invisible future. What, I cried, will the line stretch out, even to the crack of doom? 

the-taste-of-memoryMarion Halligan, The Taste of Memory, Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2004, 27-28.

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.

dinner time at your place

A while back I clipped an article from a newspaper. The reporter had asked a group of young people to describe dinner time at their house. Here’s what they said:

‘I eat dinner with my mum, my dad and my dog, We don’t talk a lot, ’cause we’re too busy watching catch-up TV that we recorded earlier in the day. It’s a pretty laid back time, because we sit down together and do something we all like doing.’  Tracey, 14

‘I usually eat by myself. My parents are either not at home or upstairs playing on the computer. So obviously I rarely talk during dinner. I like it that way.’ Matthew, 14

‘We never eat together. I eat at about 5pm, always something different from the rest of the family, because I’m very picky and hate a lot of stuff. While I’m eating I talk to mum, but usually our conversation turns into an argument, which then fades and we watch the Simpsons.  Mum and my brother eat at 6.30 and watch a game show on TV, and then my father comes home about 8.30 to eat what mum made and tell us about the day.’ Sasha, 13

‘I eat dinner with my brother Manuel, my sister-in-law Dara, my niece Alexis and my baby nephew Jordan. I like dinner time, because we first say our prayers, and then we eat and talk about our day and things. We laugh a lot and have a nice time. My niece always makes us do little things where we clink our glasses and say, “to the open road” and stuff like that. She got it from a Goofy movie!’ Daniel, 14

‘Usually, my mum will call me from work and ask me what I want to eat. If I’m in a hurry, which I always am, I’ll tell her McDonalds or Hungry Jacks. She brings it home around 5 o’clock and then I sit in front of the TV. Mum usually does something else ’cause she doesn’t eat much. Usually I’m finished in ten minutes and I get back to my schedule.’ Justin, 14

‘When I was younger, my mum insisted that we all sit down together at the table for a nice family dinner, and we would talk about how our day went. Sometimes my sister and I would weasel our way into the living room to watch the TV, but not very often. Mum always said we needed to spend quality time together, and so we had to leave our computers and stuff and come to the table. But lately we don’t do it much. My father is working odd hours and my sister has moved out to uni, so often it’s just me and mum. Mum doesn’t like to cook a big meal just for two, so we have leftovers or take-away.’ Lindsay, 13

‘Sometimes my dad and I eat dinner at the same time, in front of the TV, and discuss how the day went or what we are doing on the weekend. But not every night. Even though his girlfriend cooks every night, I have a basketball game some days and before I go I eat out with friend before the game. Or I have practice and I eat when I get home.’ Corey, 16

‘In my house we have to wait until everyone shows up and then we eat. I think most Chinese do it that way. At the table we talk about what happened during the day and have a happy time. Except when my dad and my sister have heated arguments about politics or something. I don’t like it much. Most of the time it’s good though. I think talking to my parents is very important, because they always give me some ideas to help solve my problems, and talking about things makes me feel more comfortable.’ Jonathan, 17

So, what’s dinner time like at your house?

Sex in the Kitchen

Sex in the kitchen is not what it used to be.

For men of my father’s generation, the kitchen stove was a woman’s place and home cooking an almost entirely feminine task. Men did other things. Granted, the kitchen sink was sometimes less gendered territory, but the distance between the tasks of cooking and washing up was vast. Today that distance is considerably shorter.

I am one of six sons. At least four of us are seasoned home cooks. No longer limited to washing up, men have moved from sink to stove in considerable numbers. Indeed, things have changed, but perhaps not as much as we imagine. Research still points to women carrying the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities. That’s certainly so in the kitchen. While men are cooking at home more than they ever have, generally the nature of the cooking they do is different.

As social researcher Rebecca Huntley observes, men are more motivated by cooking as performance and place a higher value on the development of technical skill over the nurturing of those they cook for. It’s true: while the male cook is lauded as the ‘kitchen hero’ on weekends, it is still women who keep the family fed and watered during the week: ‘the deeply gendered distinction between cooking as a vocation—as technical skill—and cooking as a domestic chore—as caring work—holds fast.’

So, while sex in the kitchen may be different to what it once was, it is, according to Huntley, ‘still in the missionary position.’

UnknownRebecca Huntley, Eating Between the Lines: Food and Equality in Australia, Melbourne: Black Inc, 2008, 80.

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Eating with kids

If ever I talk of eating as a spiritual experience, I am inevitably eyed with weary disbelief by parents of young children: ‘Honestly?’ they say, without the need for words, ‘You’ve clearly never been to my house!’

A few years back I came across an essay by Joey Horstman. He makes the same point, though with much more effect. Below is a brief extract from the introduction.

Table Manners

Leah and I don’t eat out anymore. This is not by choice. It is not a matter of taste or health or personal finances. Nor is it a blow against the corporate food industry or a triumph of family values and communion. We don’t eat out for one reason and one reason only: we have kids.

Parent, of course, know immediately what I mean. But my childless friends don’t. “What’s the problem?” they say, for they are unafflicted with little people.

For these people – these happy, carefree souls accustomed to “please pass” and “thank you” – let me explain that a child at a table is a bomb, not a person, and that disarming it requires more energy (and more towels) that it took to have the kid in the first place.

If you think a family meal is relaxing, a time of witty conversation and elegant repose, you are mistaken. You are naïve. You have visions of Norman Rockwell paintings dancing in your head – and you should have them surgically removed.

Eating with children is a fast decent into chaos. It combines the order of a soccer riot with the good will and harmony of a hockey brawl. To parents like me, the real miracle wasn’t that five thousand were fed with a few loaves and some fish, but that some kid in the back row didn’t yell, “YUCK! I hate fish!”

Joey Earl Horstman, ‘Table Manners’ in The Other Side, 33/3, 1997, 52.

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