Leah Francis : Finding the Way contents

Diary of a Cookbook

Prominent in my book shelves are several looseleaf folders, one old, worn and dirty, all untidily stuffed with bits of paper of different shapes and thicknesses. They are the recipes I have been collecting since childhood. Each recipe recalls an incident or an impression, so that browsing among them is like looking at photographs or reading a diary.

Here at the front of the oldest, moldiest folder is the first recipe I ever wrote down. The dots are pressed almost flat and the paper feels tired and limp, but it captures a major celebration.

There was to be a wedding in our family and Granny was making the cake. As she measured and mixed, she told me what she was putting in the cake and how to mix it. I, just eight, wrote it all down, dot by dot on my 'frame and brass'. or as most people say, slate and stylus. It was a 'pound cake'. One pound each of brown sugar, butter, flour, raisins, sultanas, and so on, plus some spices and ten eggs. You don't weigh eggs, Granny explained.

Granny's bench was an old piece of wood lying on top of one of the zinc laundry tubs which stood next to the gas copper in our kitchen. I sat at a worn wooden wash stand with a marble top - our kitchen table.

In its brown-paper-lined tin, the cake went into our dangerous old oven. When you turned the tap on, the gas flowed through tiny holes in pipes on each side of the oven floor. You had to make sure all of these gas jets were ignited. If they were not, gas was mixed with air, and might build up, to explode when it finally caught fire. The oven had a heavy metal door which squeaked when it moved. There was no thermostat, of course. You judged the temperature by the intensity of the heat and the brightness of the gas flame.

I sometimes use Granny's recipe for our Christmas cake, proud to be part of a living tradition as I load the ingredients into my electric mixer, and in minutes, not hours, have it baked in my convection-microwave oven. It never tastes as good as Granny's, and I don't think my sons enjoy licking the mixing bowl as much as I did.

When I was nine we were sent home from our 'Institution for the Deaf, the Dumb and the Blind', because the war was on, and the Royal Australian Air Force needed to use our dormitories and classrooms as barracks.

My recipes remind me how exciting it was to be at home. Using a gas gun, I learnt to light the stove. Alone, I experimented with matches, which, though you often burnt your fingers, were much more fun. Not only did they smell and sound interesting, but you didn't have to aim so carefully to ignite the gas.

I wasn't allowed to pour boiling water, or touch the stove while it was alight, but I had joined the local Brownie Pack, and knew about surprising one's elders by doing good deeds in secret. You can't punish a girl for pouring boiling water over the dirty plates in the washing-up dish, drying them and putting them away, in the old solid wood kitchen dresser, however sneaky and disobedient.

Without school, there was plenty of time to gather recipes. I would hear them on the wireless, and, like other housewives, write them down from the announcer's slow dictation.

A favourite programme was 'The Women's Session' from which I have recipes for an eggless cake and butterless biscuits. During the war, butter, eggs, sugar and many other foods, as well as clothing, were rationed. Meals became unwittingly healthier, if less tasty. Here is my first recipe calling for margarine in a pie. Ugh! That nasty war-time margarine!

On a half-sized, cardboard-like sheet of braille paper I find Scottish Shortbread. Old Nanna Park promised to teach me how to make it "after the war", so I made her tell me the recipe right then. You only needed butter, sugar and flour. We had plenty of flour, but very little butter or sugar unless Auntie managed to buy them on the black market, or to barter our ration coupons. Even then, there wasn't enough for shortbread.

Here are some goodies from the tiny 'books' that came in the Mother's Choice flour Granny used. the pages are so crumpled I can hardly read them. Cheese scones, steamed pudding, suet dumplings.

Remember suet? You had to remove all the 'skin' from among the lumps of fat before you rubbed it into the flour. It was said that nothing but suet would do for steamed or boiled puddings.

This recipe for Christmas pudding I helped Auntie make required us to skin the suet. then mix it with the washed fruit and sugar. I was adding the eggs and flour alternately, mixing well after each addition. Crack! The final egg went in. My nostrils quiver yet as I recall the smell! Rotten egg gas, they call the odour of a bad egg, don't then?

That's one pudding that never found its way into a scalded cloth. Instead. our chooks had a feast. What's modern about recycling.

When I was about twelve, the braille library began to send me Our Special. Here's my copy of Candied Orange and Sweet Potato Slices. This and many other recipes amazed me. Australians would not mix fruit with vegetables or meat, except for pork and apple sauce. We didn't mix sweet with savoury, either. How time, migrants and the media have enriched our cuisine.

That reminds me of a column in Our Special called 'Over the Tea Cups'. You don't see many tea cups in the States these days. Did Americans drink more tea in the forties, I wonder.

This neatly kept spring binder heralded the introduction of cooking lessons at our new boarding school after the war. There were no braille text books, so on our frames and brasses we wrote out the recipes before each lesson. With spectacles or good lighting, the rest of the class could have read their recipes from a well printed book. Experts believed, however, that eyes should be rested to conserve sight. If you use it, you'll lose it, they warned. None of those girls uses braille now.

Plain scones are first in this folder. Mine turned out small and hard. The boys played cricket with one, and though they whacked it hard, sending it scudding about, it never even crumbled. To this day, you won't find home-baked scones for afternoon tea at my place. I passionately loved the instigator of that cricket game, and I still thrill at the memory of his first kiss.

Later I did home science at an ordinary high school. My previous lessons were great preparation. I knew how to peel, pour hot liquids and do many things the other girls learnt by demonstration. I continued to braille recipes, but by then I was using a Stainsby writer – a noisy mechanical device, made in England.

My Stainsby was faulty and missed many dots. When we made this recipe for Sharp Steak in class my partner and I couldn't eat ours. It contains many spices. My machine having written 9 instead of 6, 5 instead of 4, and so on, I added too much of things like chile and cayenne. I'm heavy-handed with seasonings, anyway, and our tender palates couldn't tolerate the heat. No matter. I won a man's heart with Sharp Steak, though he took it back.

As for apple jelly, we had to pour the above-boiling liquid into heated jars and cool them slowly. I mustn't have done it properly because on the way home my jar cracked. My notes were transformed into a sticky, unreadable mess. You won't find home-made jelly in my kitchen cupboard, either. Egg custard was another disaster, though the recipe remains. Mine curdled. The teacher obliged me to taste everyone else's custard in case I didn't understand its texture. These days my custard comes out of a carton!

Here's a recipe for duff pudding. It looks like any other steamed pudding, but no. My first fiance thought his mother was a superb cook, and hoped I'd be equally satisfactory. Again with my old frame and brass, I sat at their dining table, copying out recipes for his favourite dishes. I never did make that pudding, however. He cast me aside before I had time, and I've never dared to offer it to the husband I ended up with. He might ask where the recipe came from!

When I started work as a teacher and had an income I moved into a flat. The recipes from this period are more practical and more adventurous. Alcohol actually appears in some.

When I tried this recipe for old fashioned vegetable soup, I added some vegemite, not listed among the ingredients, and put some extra barley in to give the soup "more body". My guests sat down to eat and I gave thanks. We dipped our spoons. There was a brief silence.

"Just as well we thanked God for this soup before we tasted it," exclaimed a valued friend. "We certainly won't be thanking him afterwards!" Too much salty vegemite; too much gluggy barley; not enough water.

"Why don't you follow the recipe," my family moans. It's a good question.

My recipe folders grow fatter, and browsing remains a favourite pastime. When it's time to get the dinner, however, recipes seem irrelevant. I just find things in the cupboard and use my imagination. As for measuring, why dirty an extra cup or spoon?

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