Can food speak as words of love from a mother? I certainly tried to make this happen.
Anzac Day always has special meaning to our family as we have had so many members serving here and overseas. I try not to let it pass without thinking of what it means to Australians and today as I was listening to a speaker talking about letters sent home by Australian soldiers in previous wars I started to think about the words and messages my son and I used in our emails during his two stints overseas and of how I tried to communicate my love to him.
I remember sitting at an early morning Anzac Day service in Los Angeles, feet in thin soled shoes getting wet from the heavy dew on the grass, pulling a pashmina tight around my shoulders as a shield against the thick early morning fog that hid the gravestones surrounding us. Even the podium a few metres in front of us had swirls of grey mist clinging to its supports. I was still, tense, with hands in my lap, staring at the speaker without listening to his words, absorbed in my effort not to think of what my son might be doing on the other side of the world in Iraq. I looked with unfocussed eyes, beyond the speaker into the grey distance where urban shapes were emerging from shadows. Gradually one shape impinged on my consciousness and it was like being hit in the chest with a fist. A Bunya Pine, that tall untidy tree planted near Australian homesteads to act as a landmark to travellers and those who were lost and now would find their way home. I sat, tears sliding quietly down my cheeks, images of my son flooding my mind, reassuring myself he would be fine. ‘He is trained for this,’ was only temporary reassurance from my husband.
‘Hope the sandpit is treating you kindly. Take care, duck and weave when you have to. Love ya.’ xx Mum
As a mother there really isn’t much you can do when your adult child is serving overseas, other than write or send the odd parcel from home. And if I was lucky I occasionally had a few snatched moments on the phone and then I would pass the information on to our huge extended family voracious for news about G. These conversations were always hit and miss, because you could never return his phone call as his numbers didn’t exist.
‘Hi all, I just spoke with G, he’s good, his normal self, no news really. Work is keeping him busy enough but other than that he was more interested in finding out what is going on at home than talking about his side of things…’ Susie
So write I did, frequently, about nothing in particular, just the news of what our lives were like, about my work, people we were dining with, meals and recipes I cooked, activities with friends and family and places I visited. I tried to make them the most interesting and funny letters I had written. Every time I whinged about no contact, I would think about my Italian Grandmother writing from Proserpine to the family in Piedmont and that it might take 12 weeks from sending to receiving a letter. Italy was so far from Australia that after leaving at 21 years of age, she never saw her parents again. The only time I felt that living in Los Angeles and London was a long way from anywhere was when G told me of his postings.
‘Dear G, I woke up last night and decided that I needed to see you and K for a night before you go away to the other sandpit!!! … Therefore I think we will come home from London for about five days….’ Love ya, xx Mum
His two sisters felt his absence as keenly as I did and wrote as often. We kept each other in the loop which later expanded to include his fiancé. Food of course was an easy topic of conversation.
‘Mumsie, Just for future reference, you might already know (I didn’t), he says bring on nice cereals and antipasto-type goodies, …, and he has a small bar fridge so he can store jars of olives etc, just don’t send cheeses or anything similarly perishable. No other tips for care parcels, just make it edible. Typical, he’s not happy with boring digestives cookies, nah, he wants the fancy deli goods!!’ xx G
However, just because he wasn’t at home, didn’t mean that I wouldn’t occasionally ask him to provide brotherly guidance to a turbulent sister who had issues at work or disappointments in love.
‘Mumsie, Yeah yeah, I spoke to S the other night, usual brotherly thing, all sorted, I should probably give J a call and see how her job is going. I might do that tomorrow. I actually got a couple of little love packages from L and S the other day. These were absolutely great as food was starting to run low out here. It’s not that we ever run out it’s just that you get a very limited choice, not too bad but weird flavours, ie; Ham and onion sandwiches…’ xxG
I was curious about the people he worked with (on both sides), and would raise cultural issues that I had run across when living in the United States, such as the advertisements on television shows and in the Gourmet magazines that I read but got very little information other than…
‘The Americans do take a little getting used to, we’ve got a team working with us and there definitely is a bit of a culture clash, not too bad but it’s the little things. The radio plays ads supporting abstinence and lot’s of happy clappy god fearing stuff. Very bizarre.’ xx G
Desperate for any news at all, I would discuss politics at home and abroad but G was always the mastermind of reticence and self-censorship with a little cynicism creeping in…
‘Yeah life over here for the ordinary person might be better if we left, and I think there will always be conflict where respect is gained through firepower. Only now are we learning, yet again, that modern western democratic ideals cannot be overlayed onto all countries.’
And so I would go into great detail about my life of museums, art galleries, coffee with girlfriends and teaching at a Muslim girls’ school, keeping fit by swimming none of which I am sure he was particularly interested in but perhaps he was, as he did once say he had saved all our correspondence, and he would send me details of his day ….
‘Mumsie, Well I’ve finally got here and am starting to settle in. It’s one hell of a barren place, I don’t think the surface of the moon could look any worse than this, it’s dusty, rocky, mountainous, sandy, windy, and actually quite cold. … There’s supposed to be a ‘coffee shop’ of some description run by the Dutch and a local store run by some international company as well as a weekly local market which everything going to plan I’ll get down there soon enough and check it out.’
We knew he didn’t want or need clothing or books but food was frequently a subject discussed in our emails as he is a terrific cook. So my sister, my daughters and I all sent food parcel after food parcel, including Anzac biscuits and the heaviest fruit-filled cakes I could carry.
‘Dear G, Here is my latest offering. If you don’t need it, use it as currency for something you do. The lady at the post office in LA couldn’t believe how heavy the fruit cake was, but her eyes widened and she smiled in delight, when she made me unwrap its many layers of brown paper and alfoil and smelt its aroma…’
‘Mumsie, One good thing though… the food here is phenomenal, it is without a doubt the best food I have ever eaten during 11 years in the Army. We get T-Bone steak, Eye Fillet steak, curries, fresh Naan, fresh fruit salad, good cereal etc. That being said I’ll never turn down any home cooked goodies (or spicy stuff…).
Cooking the biscuits and cakes let me pour all my love into that food to nurture him and keep him safe. I felt I was contributing. Although after receiving that email, I did wonder if our gifts were redundant…
‘Dear G, Glad to hear the playpit is feeding you well. It sounds as if there is an opportunity for a good barista – what are your entrepreneurial skills like? Perhaps we could dip in chocolate and send you the cockroaches that are said to be hatching in plague numbers in Queensland due to the unseasonal heat. Unseasonal, in November, unlikely.
Today, full of memories of other cakes, after the Anzac service I came home and cooked a fruit cake as a message of love to my children. I found a recipe from my Grandmother, born in 1902, who lost a brother in France in World War 1. Flexible as always, I fiddled with the recipe a little because fruit cakes are like that, using whatever was in my cupboard and fridge. Into a large packet of mixed fruit, I added raisins, chopped apricots, a few figs and some dates. I didn’t have sufficient hazelnuts so I made up the mixture with walnuts and almonds as well. I had plum jam so used that instead of apricot jam.
I poured my love into this cake as if it was my children, I chopped the nuts and crushed their obstacles, added spicy ginger to give warm love to their life and sweetness with home-made plum jam. And as I incorporated the flour with Granny’s old spoon, and gently blended the fruit, I was whisked back to the many times they sat around my bench, licking the bowls, stirring the alcohol into the fruit and always helping to make and eat the fruit cakes for past Christmases, christenings and birthdays. As this cake rose it reminded me how integral baking and cooking is to binding our family together.
Granny Young’s fruitcake
Pre-heat oven to 180ºC. Butter and dust with flour a 25 cm (10 in) round cake tin.
1 cup brown sugar
375g dried fruit
½ cup dried figs, chopped
1½ cups prunes, chopped
1½ cups hazelnuts, skinned and chopped
1¼ cups self-raising flour
1 tablespoon cocoa
1¼ cups plain flour
1½ teaspoons mixed spice
3 tablespoon apricot jam
1 tablespoon instant coffee mixed with 2 tablespoons water
In a mixer, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then mix in the eggs one by one. Sieve together the flours and cocoa and mixed spice. Mix together the fruit and nuts. Add the coffee to the jam, mix together and add to the fruit. Add the flours and fruit in alternate batches to the mixture. If it feels a little dry, just add a small amount of milk to moisten the mixture.
Cook for about 1¼ to 1½ hours and remove when a skewer inserted into the mixture comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin. For additional flavour, trickle a couple of spoonfuls of brandy or rum over the warm surface. (Great for when you send it to an alcohol-free base!).