Memories of Nan's kitchen provide food for thought

It’s funny, when you get to a certain age, what triggers memories. Some days I can barely remember what happened yesterday; other days I am whisked back to my childhood in full technicolour, remembering the smallest detail about the smallest thing.

It’s happened to me a few times lately, and it’s got me to thinking why. Do we reach a point where the past starts to really matter again? When we’re not so caught up in our present, when the demands of raising children and running a house are becoming less, well, demanding? When we don’t need to be so present, do we have time to slip back into the past?

River Cottage head chef Gill Meller's latest book evokes memories of childhood kitchens for Karen Hardy.

River Cottage head chef Gill Meller’s latest book evokes memories of childhood kitchens for Karen Hardy.

I was reading Gill Meller’s gorgeous cookbook the other day, appropriately entitled Time: A Year and a Day in the Kitchen. Meller is a River Cottage chef, and I’ll admit I have something of a crush on him (admittedly I think there’s something about Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as well). Not only is his approach to food comforting and fresh – more about a lifestyle than what’s on the plate – his writing is lyrical and evocative.

Like Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson, Meller’s cookbooks are just as at home if you’re curled up on the couch with a cup of tea, as they are on the kitchen bench, splattered with ingredients. They are books with recipes, a read in their own right.

In the introduction to Time, Meller is describing one of the first homes he can remember, his parent’s first house in Dorset. He talks about thatched roofs and flagstone floors, of a winding grapevine that would fruit in the summer, and of course he talks about the kitchen. An oil-fired Aga on one side, a pine dresser his uncle had made on the other.

“It was my mum and dad’s first home together, but more importantly for me, it was their first kitchen together, and it was in the kitchen that nearly everything of meaning seemed to happen.”

Just reading this paragraph took me back to the first kitchen that meant something to me, that of my maternal grandmother, the indomitable Doris Maude. I kind of feel bad that it wasn’t the kitchen of my childhood home. Sure, I can remember that kitchen in detail: a view from the sink to a lone cherry tree in the backyard whose vibrant pink blossoms would signal the start of spring, the linoleum floors, the metal blue table in the corner that served a variety of purposes, from my mother’s hairdressing needs to Dad’s Saturday afternoons with a radio and a raceguide.

But Meller’s introduction took me straight to Nan’s kitchen, for it was there that food was more important. We’d turn up after school, or on weekends, and there would be a table laden with treats, with her insisting that we eat until we could eat no more. It was where I learned to make scones, where I shelled peas.

Every kitchen in Australia seemed to have these three ceramic flying ducks on the wall in the '70s.

Every kitchen in Australia seemed to have these three ceramic flying ducks on the wall in the ’70s.Credit:Steven Siewert

I’m not keen to paint a picture of a home, or indeed an upbringing, where food played any great role. It wasn’t like that at all – I can’t remember us all sitting around a table as an extended family, sharing a meal. Christmases were shared plates of salad and fried chicken and White Christmas and jelly slice, all eaten off plates on our laps, wherever we managed to find a seat.

But I remember my grandmother’s kitchen. It was very open-plan, quite a modern design for a home built pre-war. While it was tucked into a corner, it wasn’t closed off; you could sit at the dining table and see what she was up to, talk to her while she kneaded dough or chopped onions.

On the left of the dining table was a laminate dresser that housed all sorts of trinkets: crystal bowls and delicate china, family photographs, hand crocheted doilies. On the wall above it were the three ceramic ducks, flying in formation, that seemed to appear in every home between 1967 and 1978.

This memory trip got me to thinking about her whole home: the long bathroom with a large tub and a Dolly Vardon-type cover for the toilet rolls (resplendent with Barbie topper), her high bed with enough blankets to crush a small child, her back porch where she’d hand-wash clothes and we’d help put them through the wringer, the back garden with a gate on the fence where you could escape to the paddock out the back.

I remember her at that back gate once, yelling at me to come back inside the house, and my defiance. I remember her telling me I was an independent little so-and-so, just like my mother – said without much love and just a touch of malice.

I might have been – perhaps I still am – but it surprises me how much independence is still tied to family.

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