Category Archives: Food & Identity

Southern Fare II


Another installment from Michael Lee West’s southern memoir Consuming Passions on family, identity and recipes ….

Even when I’m all by myself, I never cook alone. My grandparents are dead, along with my father and some favorite aunts …  but my family lives on in their recipes.

I bring Mimi’s chocolate cake to potlucks and Aunt Tempe’s majestic coconut layer cake to holiday parties. I make Aunt Blanche’s pancakes on Sunday morning. The aunts, living or dead, left me with a legacy of food—and the confidence to cook it.

Whenever I’m making biscuits, cutting them out with a child’s jelly glass, I feel my grandmother hovering. She is somewhere over the pot rack, telling me that biscuits are like cats, they don’t take to handling. ‘Am I doing this right?’ I ask her. ‘You’re doing just fine,’ she says. ‘Don’t let me stop you.’

And later …

This recipe was my grandmother’s grandmother’s recipe. Whenever I bake it all my forebears gather in my kitchen. Elizabeth taught Estelle to make this cake, and Estelle taught Mimi, and Mimi taught Ary Jean, and Ary Jean taught Michael Lee, and Micheal Lee taught Trey and Tyler. Every time I break an egg, their spirits guide me. When I stir the batter, I am stirring up these kitchen ghosts. They bolster me; but most of all, they whisper in my ear a split second before the timer buzzes.


Southern Fare


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.”

Kitchen Table Memoirs

I’m not long back from a few days in Christchurch, New Zealand, with the wonderful communities that make up the church formally known as Spreydon, now Southwest. More of that later. On the way home I passed the transit hours (always too many) reading Nick Richardson’s Kitchen Table Memoirs: Shared Stories from Australian Writers.

169621It’s a gathering of very personal reflections centred around life at the table, most commonly kitchen tables but including a few in restaurants and professional kitchens, even a community table shared deep in the Antarctic. It’s a gentle collection, undemanding and easy to read, sometimes funny, occasionally odd, and often moving. Each chapter provides a small insight into the highly personal worlds of domestic memory, family intimacy, regret, longing or the simple comfort that a table can provide. Contributors include comedians Denise Scott and Jean Kittson, writer Helen Garner, food historian Barbara Santich, chef Stefano de Piere and restaurant critic Gemima Cody.

A collection like this could easily slip into shallow sentimentality. The truth of table memories on public view can be lost in a romantic mist more to do with wishful longing than reality. For the most part, this collection avoids the trap. There’s enough reality here to make this a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to appreciate again just how central the kitchen table is to life, no matter how scarred and fragile it might have turned out to be.

Some words worth repeating:

The table was the centre of the family, touched hundreds of thousands of times. Touched and thumped and leant on and slumped on and very occasionally stood on at moments of joy and grief and relief and revelation. Whoopee has been made around it, and war. A normal bag of life’s emotions, and a family’s. … Everything happened at the table. The table was the tablet on which the stories were written in DNA and scuffs and stains. … the table wasn’t just an open book with footnotes and handwritten jottings and the impress and imprint of everyone whose lives had intersected at the table. It was a whole library. A leatherbound, handsewn, copperplate record, with mug rings and ink stains and spit on the corners and all. (Jean Kittson)

In the glorious clusterfuck of our existence, the table was our sanctuary from the greater insanity of the real world. Two square metres of civilisation. … That scored and battered stretch of wood was classroom, courtroom, parliament and temple. It was theatre and restaurant and sometimes zoo. A place where peace was found in the meditative cutting of carrots. Where we learnt the rewards of trusting the unknown by taking a chance on the liver. And where, over a thousand chicken pies, and many more teas, we’d argue the world down to a size and shape that made some sense. (Gemima Cody)

Nick Richardson ed., Kitchen Table Memoirs: Shared Stories from Australian Writers, ABC Books (HarperCollins): Sydney, 2013