Monday, December 12, 2005
Of handwriting and memory
A post at long-toothed hinterland dweller a few days ago on the necessity to get one's recipes organised got me hunting out a precious document on the cookbook shelf: a tiny, battered, falling-apart notebook that my mother kept recipes in. The earliest entries are some household accounts, dated 1956.
After she died in 1999, my dad taught himself to cook, largely out of this book. For a long time I'd get three or four phone calls a week: 'What on EARTH does your mother mean by "fold in the flour"? How much is a scant cup of milk? What the hell is a smidgin?'
After my father remarried last year I took custody of this notebook, for so strongly does it project the aura and presence of my mother that we feared it would freak out his new wife completely. It's full of annotations, alterations and interleavings by my nan, my mum, both of my sisters, me, and now my father.
In it you can trace the shifting patterns of food fashions in Australia over the last 50 years; my own three non-negotiable permanently-on-hand ingredients -- garlic, olive oil and lemon juice -- barely get a look-in, even though my mother was a meticulous and imaginative cook, well ahead of her time. These notebook recipes are from an earlier era, before she started indulging herself in the luxury of buying new cookbooks. Cornflour figures prominently.
Whenever I want to conjure up and commune with my mother -- and Christmas tends to bring this kind of thing on for everyone, I think -- I go not to photographs but to this little book. The sight of her handwriting is a direct blow to the solar plexus; it's not a "nice" thing. It's powerful and spooky, the kind of thing that makes you understand why clairvoyants and psychics often ask for some personal item belonging to the dead or missing person. Handwriting's what Frank Moorhouse would call strong magic, an extension of both the body and the soul. You've got to hope that in the age of keyboards, keypads and voice-recognition software, it won't die out completely. Too much would be lost.