Handwritten history of two mothers' loving meals


Old recipe book and spoon'The older I become, the more I miss my mother.' So wrote a friend recently. And she is 93. I am not nearly that venerable age, but am old enough to know that the grief and the longing do not go away, but lurk constantly, always ready to inflict the rapier thrust of pain and loss. My mother has been dead 20 years, and still a day never passes without my thinking about her.

Once a daughter loses her mother, there are many forms of 'missing': the flashes of memory, the need for advice that can never come, the futile desire to right wrongs, to name only a few. But above all, once a mother goes, the daughter feels very strongly that there is now no one in the front line of life's battle.

I can't remember when I asked my father to send me Mum's recipe book, and I didn't know why I wanted it, but want it I did. Long before 'lifestyle' became an ambition, most Australian women, Presbyterian or not, had a copy of the standby that was first published in 1904, and remains in print. (I still use my own dilapidated copy here in Greece, and my grandsons eat PWMU Anzacs.) The Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union Cookery Book: the first recipe, appropriately enough, is for porridge.

But most women also had their own compilation: my mother's is contained in a Summit/Lion brand book designed for the purpose. It is labelled 'Recipe Book', and has chapter headings and dog-eared index tabs.

The book is here on my desk now, and I realise, with a shock, that it has been part of my life for 60 years. As small children, my siblings and I were pressed into the work of copying recipes from The Australian Women's Weekly and other founts of culinary wisdom. There were also contributions from friends and relatives, all conscientiously and formally attributed to the donor: Mrs I. M. Stanton, Mrs Unsworth.

Every entry is, of course, handwritten, and I can match the handwriting to the amanuensis quite easily even now: there is my own unformed script and that of my sister, also long dead. My brother's features prominently: 'Mum got me at it when I had my broken leg,' he told me, with a rueful laugh.

The handwriting conjures up the person: my father, who went through a pie-making phase, is there, and so is my grandfather, who contributed 'Fay's Sago'. My aunt Fay, wife of a farmer, was a doughty rural heroine, and I loved her, but there was a limit, and sago was it.

Lord Acton, that mighty English historian of the 19th century, considered that history provides the 'unique opportunity of recording ... the fullness of knowledge'. Certainly the recipe book records the changes of time: my mother's precise script, learned as part of her infant-teacher training, evolved over years into a slapdash scrawl that only the initiated could decipher.

There was also the development from dishes like salmon mornay and shrimp cocktail to Quiche Lorraine and the occasional cautiously phrased Asian recipe. Nothing too adventurous, it has to be admitted.

But the recipe book is a historical document for other reasons, for in it my mother has written out the recipes she learned in my Greek mother-in-law's village kitchen. Yiayia was no slave to any fashion, so her dishes were traditional, and made from whatever was to hand.

She was also illiterate, so my mother had to observe and make notes; she conscientiously retained the Greek titles, so there is the spanokorizo (spinach and rice), the fassolia yiachni (bean and tomato stew) and the melitzanes tiganites (fried eggplant). The book is, in a sense, part of the story of two mothers, who had little in common beyond the fact of motherhood and a basic, necessary domesticity.

Another older friend once told me about being seriously ill. Various people tried to tempt her appetite, but 'all I wanted was my mother's brown bread and butter; she always cut the bread paper-thin, Mum'. All those Jewish mothers, makers of the legendary chicken soup, are so right: there is nothing as healing as food cooked by someone you love. And who loves you: your mother.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website. This Sunday is Mother's Day.

Recipe book image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Mother's Day



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Beautifully expressed Gillian. Youcaptured the essence of a mother well. Food cookred with love for the recipient is certainly a gift to be savoured. Many of us treasure the compiled cook books our mothers left behind . On this mother,'s day lets pray for those precious mothers in impoverished situations, who cannot access food to cook for their children. Give them this day their daily bread.amen

Celia | 07 May 2014  

Thanks Gillian for your mother's cookbook reflections down memory lane. My mother was quite renowned as a good cook in the small country town of our early years and cooked for many a local function; all done on a Courtier wood oven and stove made in Scotland I might add. Her recipes are mainly on bits of paper from a folder my sister grabbed after she died - sadly my sister has since died and so I possess just a few more pages that have filtered down. These I have scanned and stored on computer and sent around for future posterity. However a greater prized possession for me after Mum died was her 'Cook Book of St. Georges Anglican Women's Guild' which contained some of her recipes plus some of other relations, in print. My sister - less religious, and was possibly put off by the 'Anglican bit' I think, which allowed me time to grab this one.

John Whitehead | 07 May 2014  

beautiful to read this, my mother passed away suddenly at only 62. i would always call her for advice or a recipe . only the other day i picked up the phone to ask her her chutney recipe. she loved cooking and alwsys put her heart and soul into all the food she made. especially for my two boys. i will remember to keep her cookbooks close to my heart.

sara | 07 May 2014  

My friend received her mother's recipe book, hand written, augmented with collected recipes from friends and family, written on scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes, treasured over the years for their associated memories. Then my friend learned to use a computer and decided to type up all those recipes and burnt the originals. You can imagine how sad she is now at having lost all those connections.When I give her a copy of a recipe, I write it on whatever paper is to hand, just so that she has a semblance of a 'proper' recipe book once more.

Robyn | 07 May 2014  

Another excellent meditation; you are so right about missing our mothers who did what they could to teach us how to continue the pattern of homemaking even if we faced different challenges.The focus on food and its preparation was central to my mother's generation and it included inviting grandparents and uncles to eat with us at least once a week.The cookery books and saved recipes are such a treasure trove of memories ( In my case a collection of the RNLI cookbooks are well thumbed). I can only hope that my own collection will evoke some of the love in meals that I have prepared. I know there are pictures of them on the computer.

Maggie | 07 May 2014  

Neither my mother nor my wife's mother were known for their cooking - but I can think of none better than my wife. Who cooked for her family from the time she was just in high school and then became a Home Ec. teacher - we met as co-Home Room teachers (Roll call teachers - in those days) on our first day of teaching. She should have had children with whom to forge the kind of connections about which you have written here to-day! I have seen her over the years with the children of friends and nieces and god-children and great nephews - she is both teacher and encourager - marvellous to observe. Though I am sure that some of those children will hold some special memories of her in any case. Zeny & John GILES will be with us this Saturday afternoon! Greece will be literarily strongly with us - and maybe some Greek pastries too? Happy Mothers' Day to you!

Jim KABLE | 07 May 2014  

Oh what memories. I have hand written recipes of my Mother's and still use them to this day.

Kerry | 16 May 2014  

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