Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Teaching Love By Hand

(Today's guest post is by Tracy Lockley, an Australian writer, school teacher and mum. As she teachers her toddler daughter to cook, Tracy's words remind us of the value of love, family traditions, working as a team and learning by doing... or, if you're too small to do, then at least learning by watching.)

This afternoon, Mckenzie and I made a steamed pudding together. It was the perfect day for it – cold, grey, rainy with wind howling in off the Southern Ocean – the perfect time for a mother and daughter to engage in the time-honoured transfer of knowledge that isn’t in a book or on the internet.

I know she’s only two and a bit, but I also know that I never really cooked until after I left home. The kitchen was my mother’s domain. Although my father cooked from time to time and I baked endless chocolate cakes to avoid having to write lines for forgetting to take my books to class, my mother cooked most efficiently alone.

I would sit on the kitchen counter and read poetry to her while she cooked and she would narrate what she was doing, only occasionally requiring me to hold a pan while she scooped the contents into a bowl, or stir the gravy while she added stock. The rest of the time, I watched, and read, and learned. In this way I learned not recipes, but what food looks like, smells like, what the texture feels like as it progresses from raw ingredients towards the table.

This afternoon, as I worked around Mckenzie’s fluffy little head, helping her hold the beater, showing her how to cup the egg in her hand and how to time that sharp little blow with the back of the knife, I realised how much knowledge is contained in the simple act of making a steamed pudding.

Yes, there was a good description on the internet of how to tie the foil over the bowl, and that the bowl should be greased, but nothing about making a pleat in the foil to conduct the moisture away, how to make two straps of foil that intersect at the bottom of the bowl to ease the finished pudding out onto the plate, nothing about lining the bottom of the bowl with paper-thin slices of lemon, or dipping them in sugar so that they taste like marmalade or how to overlay them in a beautiful pattern like scales on a fish.

All this knowledge is contained in me. It exists, dormant, while I am driving on the freeway, teaching, sleeping, skydiving, but it is always there. It was planted there over a hundred chilly evenings, watching the smile on my mother’s face as she lifted the bowl off the pudding and said “Dad loves this” and many Christmases when either my mother or my grandmother would call on me to supply the pressure of one finger (oh hallowed moment!) as they secured the string on the pudding bowl before committing it to the water, followed by the patient tending of the pudding, topping up the water until it was done.

Over the years I have added my own variations and discoveries and of course, none of it is written down. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I will have to wait a few years before Mckenzie is old enough to supply that finger pressure on the string. It takes two women to do it. The string came off today when time came to lift the pudding from the pot. On your own, you just can’t do it.

In an age when many women’s cooking skills go as far as heating microwave dinners, I wonder whether Mckenzie will grow to love food in this way, not just as nourishment for the body, not just as a list of
ingredients and instructions, but as communal enterprise, and the communication of love from the cook to those she (or he) cooks for, and from generation to generation. Her apprenticeship has started. She touches and tastes freely at every stage of the process (“Mmm… taste like egg”) and delights in her handiwork when the finished product appears, but still asks “Where come from?”

In part, she’s right. A cake is more than its ingredients. There’s a kind of magic that happens and there are spells that bind generations together. I would like to think that one day, in another kitchen, far, far from now, another woman, maybe Mckenzie, or maybe her daughter will work patiently around a little head, teaching things that aren’t written down, but written on the heart.

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