Friday, August 14, 2009

Memories of our Mothers in the Kitchen

Some of you may have read Michael Pollan's New York Times article, Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch. It's both entertaining and informative and most definitely worth the read.

When Pollan recalls how his mother's cooking was inspired by watching Julia Child on TV, I recalled how I was inspired watching my mother cook.

In rural Australia, we didn't have TV until I was 8-years old and then I don't recall Julia Child's, The French Chef or for that matter, any other cooking show streaming into our living room once the TV did arrive.

I do recall my mother driving the 4-hour round trip to Melbourne, a big city, but by no means a huge city back in the 60's and 70's, to take various cooking classes, and this, despite the fact that she had gone to Emily McPherson's School for Girls where she had majored in home economics and fashion design.

Nevertheless, she took her above-average skill in the kitchen and improved upon it with Italian, French, and eventually Cantonese cooking classes with the Australian-Chinese chef Elizabeth Chong.

Never mind our favorites: Robert Carrier's Italian Lamb Stew and perfectly light, balloon-like cheese souffle and that French delight Cherry Clafoutis, my mother set them aside in favor of her wok.

For my father's 55th birthday, my mother invited 50-plus guests. The night of the party, I recall her--dressed in plunging black evening culottes and dare I say, a cigarette between her fingers--flipping perfectly diced, chopped and cubed food in and out of two woks with extraordinary ease and dexterity while guests gathered about to watch.

She was a show-woman in the kitchen, and Cantonese cooking was the perfect stage.

After the success of my father's birthday-party Cantonese banquet, word spread and local women came clamoring, asking that my mother teach them about the mysteries of Cantonese food and cooking.

Thereafter, I recall coming home from school mid-week to a kitchen full of excited women, standing around watching my mother, holding fort, doing her thing with a Chinese chopper and her woks.

She never quite gave up her love of Cantonese cooking, but when she and my father went to Europe and then Scandinavia in the 70's, her fascination with traditional Swedish breakfast fare usurped for a time, her wok obsession.

I can't say I minded; heading off to school on a belly full of rye flat bread stacked with cheese, ham and jam was far more interesting than Rice Bubbles and milk.

And then of course in the late 70's there was the Greek Period, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. That was inspired by Helen, the South African, Greek exchange student who came to live with us.

My mother's folder of Cantonese recipes and all her recipe books with their notes in the margins have been passed to me from my sister who collected them from my mother's kitchen when she died.

I haven't looked at the books or her notes, because I don't tend to use recipes. And besides, I have a storehouse of vivid memories detailing what and how she cooked because I followed her about, learning by watching and listening, and by being given chores to do to help her create her extraordinary range of gourmet masterpieces, and the simple family meals we ate most evenings.

Perhaps this is why I have little interest in watching the Food Network; nothing can replace the gift of having stood by as a young kid, teenager and young adult, watching the real thing in action: my mother navigate our kitchen with the skill and dazzle of a celebrity chef.

There's a generation of women out there, who like me, have mothers who are the great unsung Julia Child's of the post-war era. Mother's who had natural talent in the kitchen because they learned it from their mothers who learned it from their mothers.

Then somewhere along the way, that skill wasn't passed down any longer. The hectic pace of life got in the way. Women went out of the house to work and lost the time needed to teach their daughters and their sons how to shop for groceries, and then once home, how to prepare those groceries with love and joy.

Yet, as Pollan says in his article, "cooking matters - a lot."

And if Americans are going to undo the damage inflicted by consuming industrially prepared food, then the plan is simple: "Cook it yourself."


Unknown said...

I loved reading about your memories of your mom in the kitchen. How exciting it must have been to be in the kitchen with her! Terri K.

Louise Ross said...

Thanks, Terri. I'm thinking you probably have some very interesting stories teaching cooking to embassy wives in New York, yes?! Perhaps you'd be willing to share one?

Lily Amberg said...

Hello, I am just reading your blog for the first time but I enjoy it. I am currently a senior at CU Boulder and after taking my upper division writing class as "Food and Culture" I kind of discovered that I really liked writing about food. Would you have any suggestions about how to get your foot in the door in food writing? As far as what I would write about, like a certain type, I would think French cuisine because I just spent a year abroad in France and absolutely love their food. Then again I've worked at a catering company for two years so I'm just a foodie in general. Anyways, if you have any suggestions I'd love to hear them! Thanks!

Louise Ross said...

Hi Lily,
I'm so glad you found my blog and that you enjoyed reading it. I've just been to your blog and indeed, it appears you had a fantastic year abroad in France! Why not use your current blog to record the food and food culture of France as you experienced it. I'm sure for your class you'll also be drawing on your year abroad, so this year you may well find you're immersed in remembering the experiences of this last year, in which case, your blog will be the perfect platform to showcase your writing about your reflections. And to start, your blog is the best place for you to write, and write and write. In other words, produce as much content as you can on the subject you love: food and culture. Then find other blogs on similar topics and comment on their blogs. Build your online network of foodie bloggers. Create a facebook page on "food and the food culture of France," and consider twitter as a place to galvanize a following to your blog and FB page. Become the go-to expert on a particular area of food writing, something that you learned in France, perhaps. As you build your blog content, you'll have a library of work to choose from should you decide you'd like to pitch one of your posts as an article idea to a trade publication. There are tons of food magazines out there. Check them out and note their submission policy. And when you feel you have something you want to submit, do it!
Good luck, and look forward to hearing again from you.