Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Women’s Weekly Chinese Cooking Class Cookbook Dinner Party

Women’s Weekly Chinese Cooking Class Cookbook Dinner Party

Was I sitting on the floor cross legged as small children seem to be able to do so easily?  I can smell the stale dust in the yellow shag pile carpet. My hands pull on the tufts as I peek around the door jamb. Chaotic conversation mixed with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass echo into the hallway. We four kids are supposed to be downstairs in the rumpus room playing nicely of course.  We were probably playing hide and seek but since I’m the youngest and therefore the smallest I can hide too well and the others give up before they find me. They don’t really want to play in the first place but only do it to keep me quiet.

I like to hide in mum’s sewing cupboard. I can tuck my legs in close and squeeze in beside the machine, pulling fabric on top to camouflage myself. My fingers slide in between the mission brown louver doors and pull them shut. The rough unfinished wood rubs against my back but I want to win so force myself to sit still, listening for the seeker. I’m not strong enough or quick enough or clever enough to win most games against my older siblings. Hide and seek is my trump card. If only I can stop my bladder from bursting, I’m definitely going to win this one.

It takes me too long to realize that they’re no longer looking for me but in my sister’s room busy with something else. No point going in to complain. I race to the toilet and almost make it in time. I take off my now wet knickers, scrunch them in my hand and leap upstairs to my bedroom. I shove them to the bottom of my laundry basket and grab a dry pair. Only then I tip-toe across the faux tile print lino towards the cacophony.

Shrieking laughter, clinking of tableware and swaying rhythms draw me closer. I want to be a part of this scene. Mums and dads from the other houses in our little court. I play with their children every day and have spent time in their houses but they look different now. They act different now. The mums have shiny lipstick and dangly earrings. The dads wear neat trousers and casual check shirts. My mum wears her jewelry and dad has put his Old Spice aftershave on. My parents look and smell different.

Before the grownups all arrived, I got to help mum and dad prepare. Dad went to the shopping centre this morning to buy all the exotic ingredients he needed for their Chinese banquet tonight. The Women’s Weekly Chinese Cooking Class Cookbook is great because it has photos of all the weird food he needs. The baby corn, water chestnuts and bean shoots all canned in weak brine. Soy sauce just like the local Chinese restaurant has on the tables. Ginger, not a dry dust but a gnarled light brown slightly withered lump. Dad even went to Box Hill last week to the large Asian warehouse and bought these small blue and white bowls and the odd ceramic spoons with the flat bottoms.

The recipe book gets propped up in the clear plastic stand which lives just a little too close to the electric fry pan. Splatters of a brown sauce are wiped off with the tea towel he always has flung over his shoulder when he is cooking.  As I’ve grown older I see many of his traits in myself. Not only the tea towel at hand but also dishes must be done and the kitchen clean before I can even begin to assemble my mis-en-place.

I can see the book in my mind even now – a rich red cover, gold lettering and a plate of meat and vegetables in a glossy thickened sauce. I don’t know if it was sweet ‘n’ sour pork, beef with black bean or chicken with cashew nut but there would certainly have been a dish of fried rice with those tiny prawns. San Choy Bow was definitely on the menu that evening also. I can see myself declaring that I’m up to the task of gently peeling apart the layers of iceberg lettuce for the cups. I probably wasn’t. Dessert was most likely tinned lychees in syrup with ice cream. Deep fried ice cream was reserved for dining out only.

The dining suite is pulled out from up against the window where it usually rests unused. Black stained wood, with black leather slung seats and ornate brass fasteners. It would not look out of place on the set of Game of Thrones. The good silver cutlery is unearthed from its resting place opposite and polishing begins. A cruet set (long before I know this is what it is called), large serving spoons, the cocktail shaker and glasses. They always serve Brandy Alexanders for the women on arrival and I’m lucky enough to get to shake the ground nutmeg from the Masterfoods spice jar. I’m even allowed to have some of the peanuts form the carved wooden bowl if I promise to chew them thoroughly so I don’t choke.

I don’t know if I was quick enough to leave my spying post before one of the adults came around the corner. I probably left of my own volition. My childhood stamina wasn’t much. One time, in a fit of anger I swore I was going to punish my parents by staying up all night. I’m sure I caved long before midnight.  Bored I would have retreated to my room and snuggled down deep under my sheets. The animals in their boat traversing the rainbow over the jungle below. I t was probably a version of Noah’s ark. I could never figure out where one picture started and the other one finished.

The next morning dishes would be stacked neatly on the side of the sink for washing.  Lingering smells of strange sauces and weird spices. We kids were full of our natural morning energy even if our parents weren’t. Morning sun shining in on the table and its detritus. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Tea rose

Tea Rose

I can still see it now - a large, proper china tea cup sitting on its saucer ever so gently shaking in her grasp. Her thin, spindly fingers are absent-mindedly caressing the flowers which encircle the cup. Interlaced folds of delicate petals surround the tight bud, blossoming, spilling outwards to unravel in an ordered chaos. Slightly shiny, crepe-like skin, so sheer I can see her veins. There is a small side table nestled up against the armchair but she is so focused on her tale that I think she has forgotten she is even holding the tea cup.

It is a day like any other in our house. My two young daughters are running around the garden picking flowers, chasing butterflies or something equally bucolic. I am pottering around my kitchen, baking biscuits for school lunches and getting a head-start on the week’s meals. The sun is streaming in the long windows, filtered through the over-hanging trees making it a place I’m very content to be.

It is through the kitchen door at the side of the house that people entered. In fact, when new people came to the house and approached the front door, they were stranded there for quite some minutes before we knew anyone was there. The wires to the front doorbell didn’t lead anywhere useful so it never rang even if someone managed to find the button.

The house had been extended multiple times over its almost one hundred year history, more than fifty of those with one couple, so that its direction and focus had changed. With almost more hallways than rooms, the concept of good design had been bypassed as rooms were added one by one to accommodate the many guests.

It is her firm rasping knock on the window, by the back door, that draws my attention. I hadn’t been expecting any visitors. Drying my hands on my apron, I shuffle to the back door. It is the weekend and I’m wearing weekend at home appropriate clothing. She isn’t.

‘Hello?’ I say upon forcibly sliding the reluctant door along its tracks.

‘Hello there.’ I’m sure she would have introduced herself but more than ten years later I have no recollection of her name. For the purposes of neat story-telling I could have called her Rose but there’s no indication that was her name. I do, however, still remember being slightly mesmerized by her appearance.

Multiple strands of pearls hang down from her neck, nestling into her rich velvet scarf. Layers of clothing in dark, gemstone tones jar at the bright sun in which she stands, leaning heavily on a walking cane. For a few moments we watch each other. I am wondering where, or rather when, she has come from. No doubt, she is sorting through her memory files trying to reconcile the many times she had stood at this door to be ushered in by her dear friend of many years – Nina. Not today though.

Although she knew the house had been sold, my strange face is still a disappointment.   I don’t even have a chance to invite her inside. However, I can see her now, stepping past me and into the kitchen as she explains how many years she has been visiting here. Not pausing in either the kitchen or the dining room, she steps deliberately and determinedly, her 90 year plus body onwards, so I have nothing else to do but follow.

As we arrive in the lounge room, she looks up and after a few moments, smiles. I can only imagine this room hasn’t really changed too much. The cherry wood panels that lines its walls, the large fireplace and mantle taking up an entire corner have not changed; only the furniture and its arrangement. Standing beside her, I can only wonder what she sees. I take the opportunity to offer her the armchair, its commanding position ideal to survey her domain.

Like a lady in waiting, I offer her some tea. She nods her approval and I disappear back into the kitchen to fossick for the supplies required – teapot, creamer, leaf tea, tea cup and saucer, a small plate of biscuits luckily still warm from the oven. As the electric kettle slowly boils, I wonder who is this woman seated in my lounge room.

Returning triumphant with my tray of tea supplies, I‘m unsure where to start but it turns out that doesn’t matter as I’m not the one directing things here now.

‘I have been coming here for many, many years, you know.’

I didn’t know but had figured out already my role as silent adoring audience.

‘Yes, I’ve known Nina and Clem since the early days. Stanhope was always such an exciting place. The Russian Ballet would always visit when they were in town. The parties they would have,’ she pauses and then points out through the west window. ‘Out there, under the cherry trees looking over Eltham. Tables laden with all sorts of food, they would play music and have outrageous arguments. So much life, so much laughter.  I never saw Nina smile so much as she did then.‘ Her own smile slowly fades.

I hand her the cup of tea which is not so full that she will spill it with her trembling hands. I don’t want to interrupt her but I want to know who she is and what is she doing here in my house. Hopefully, we will get to that at some point.

‘How did you come to know Nina?’ I ask trying to steer the conversation somewhat.

‘My first husband and I moved in to the street behind ten years or so after the war. We knew everyone in the street back then.  Stanhope used to be quite a large estate. It stretched all the way down the hill to the railway line. Being academics they never really had any money so they would sell off a block here and there when they needed to. I can still picture them running down the hill to the station to catch the train into Melbourne University where they both worked. The driver would blow the horn giving them time to race down. Nina was head of Russian Studies and Clem edited the literary journal Meanjin.‘

She looks down at her left hand as if noticing for the first time that she is holding a cup of tea. I offer her a biscuit but she declines with a slight wave of her right hand. I feel obliged to take one as though that is the reason I presented them in the first place.  Squealing, the girls are a blur as they run past the windows.

‘Nina couldn’t have any children of her own but she would host birthday parties for the neighbours’ children.  She loved having children around. She would be very happy to know that there is a family living here now.’

‘We’ve only been here a few weeks but we really like it here,’ I say trying to assuage any concerns she has. I bring the side table a bit further in front to make it easy for her to place her tea down. She pays it no heed.

We both sit in silence and I think how to explain to this woman what I already know. I have met Nina in my own way. I could feel her over my shoulder, keeping an eye on me. “Just watching, darlink. Just watching.”

 Nina was short with her long hair pulled back tightly in a bun. Always smartly dressed, she enjoys the company of me and my daughters. At times, she sits in the corner of the kitchen on the low wooden bench next to the girls as they attack their afternoon snacks. In fact, both of them love the life and energy we brought to the house.

 Nina became ill and with her strength ebbing day by day, she soon never left her bed. Clem would sit near her bedside reading as Nina dozed. She was grateful for the exciting lives full of love and laughter that she and Clem had shared. Sadly, too soon, she passed away.

 Clem couldn’t cope with the great weight of sadness he felt at this enormous loss. He drank more and more whiskey from his favourite crystal low ball to help blur reality but upon waking each morning, the house was still cold and empty without her. Not too long after, Clem moved out and died months later. His colour had been gradually draining out of him without his Nina around.

I understand that our family moving in, with all the noise and light that a family with two young girls bring with them, stirred Clem and Nina.

It is only a few seconds between the sound of the back door slamming and my six and eight year old daughters bounding into the room, puffing and laughing. The spell is broken. My guest straightens up, placing her tea cup roughly on the table and starts her ascent out of the chair. I go to assist and get stuck not knowing how to help so stand beside watching.

Picking up the teapot, cups and tray, I resume my role and follow her to the back door. She knows the way.  I say goodbye as she disappears down the path and around the corner. I look down and see her still full cup of cold tea, untouched.

Food as love.

If you’ve ever read  The Five Languages of Love book, or done one of those flippant Facebook quizzes, you’ve probably heard of the concept that we fall into particular camps regarding how we express our love for another – romantic or otherwise. Inconveniently, we also use this filter to perceive the actions of others as loving or not. If you’re curious, feel free to do an online search for the relevant terms and discover if you do perceive the actions of others as loving, and I will use the term nurturing as well. The fun bit is seeing if you and your partner, if you have one, view things the same way. I’m betting you don’t.

One of the main ways I demonstrate my love towards someone is to cook for them. Food is and has always been a big part of my life so this isn’t exactly surprising. I recall being sixteen and cooking a dish which at the time was not only a favourite of mine but also I considered being fairly cutting edge. Please bear in mind it was the 1980’s.

There was this guy I was trying to impress and hopefully get further along the baseball diamond scenario with (first base, second base – you with me?).  I even had two versions of this winner dish. The classic version was pan fried chicken breast fillet with a bacon and avocado cream sauce. I know, told you it would be classic. My alternative version was pasta with a chicken, bacon, avocado and cream sauce. Even now as I type these words, I cringe at the thought of dry stringy chicken meat (which I’m sure it was with the fear of food poisoning looming over my head), hard cooked nubs of bacon and under-ripe soapy tasting avocado in a too sweet creamy bath.

I can’t remember his name only that my parents had gone away to their beach house for the weekend and the coast was clear. I can picture a pimply face, short dark hair and him leaning against the kitchen bench whilst I tried to win him over with my kitchen confidence. The wine was Mateus rose – that classic semi-sweet from Portugal. I won’t reveal how well my efforts were received as my mum might read this.

A really beautiful part of the school that my children attended was the rosters that were set up when the class had a new mother. Healthy meals were provided that would nourish the family of the new baby. It was a Steiner school that my children attended so many dietary variations such as vegetarian, allium/dairy/gluten-free and so on had to be respected.

Only a few years ago, one gentleman I had started dating was quite strict on only consuming free range meats and had been lamenting the dearth of smallgoods that fit with his self-imposed parameters. My local organic store stocked a wide selection so I gathered salamis, sliced cured products and sausages into a bouquet complete with tissue paper wrapping. Again, decorum will prevent me from delving into precisely how grateful he was but I’m sure you can figure it out.

What I’m saying is nourishing people with food is one significant way that I show how I care. Of course, I do like compliments and affirmations of I love you but if I cook for you, it’s because I love you. The next bit is figuring out how other people are saying it to me.