Heart cuisine

Manning Clark House is a national scholarly and cultural organisation based in the former home of historian Manning Clark and his wife Dymphna, in Canberra.

In the eyrie of the Robin Boyd-designed house in Tasmania Circle, Forrest, Manning Clark wrote his monumental six-volume A History of Australia, while Dymphna managed the day-to-day care of their house, garden and children. After her husband’s death in 1991, Dymphna resumed her career as a linguist and translator that she had set aside when she married Clark in England in 1939, when he was studying at Oxford.

In one of the great Australian stories of late-life intellectual flowering, Dymphna published, in 1994, an exhaustively researched translation into English of The New Holland Journal 1833–34, by the Austrian diplomat and botanist Baron Charles von Hugel.

Dymphna was a woman with an uncommon gift for the common touch. In retrospect she reminds me of no-one more than of my own grandmother, to whom she bore an uncanny physical resemblance; yet they were from vastly different worlds. My grandmother was a poorly educated, semi-literate farmer’s wife whose world was restricted mostly to the few hundred acres that she and my grandfather farmed; Dymphna completed honours at Melbourne University, where her father, Augustin Lodewyckx, was head of Germanic languages. She was fluent in eight languages and could ‘get by’ in another four.

One thing they shared, however—in addition to their physical resemblance—was a love of good, simple, healthy, tasty food; and, even more than that, the sharing of it with others—in my grandmother’s case mostly family, but in Dymphna’s case a wide circle of friends and colleagues extending well beyond the family to include such influential Australians as Patrick White, Sidney Nolan, David Campbell and Barry Humphries.

The spirit in which Dymphna delivered food to the Clark table was perpetuated last year through a series of 11 dinners at Manning Clark House, Continuing the Great Conversations, whose featured speakers included Justice Michael Kirby, Bishop Pat Power, Janet Holmes a Court, Peter Sculthorpe and Helen Garner. Among the many wholesome and hearty recipes in Food for Thought are some from those dinners, which will continue this year in Canberra, as well as in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Adelaide.

For those who, like me, were lucky enough to share a meal at Dymphna’s table, Food for Thought at Manning Clark House will evoke special memories of a special woman and a special time. For those who were never there physically, the book will be the next best thing.

Editors Sandy Forbes and Janet Reeves were inspired to put the book together after they read a column in The Canberra Times by Susan Parsons which included an interview with Sebastian Clark, eldest of the Clark children, about some of the meal preparations that had taken place in the family kitchen. The column mentioned Dymphna’s cookbooks and the recipes tucked inside them.

‘This piqued our interest and inspired in us a deep admiration for a woman neither of us had met,’ Forbes and Reeves write in the preface. ‘At first we recognised our own mothers—frugal, adept, always there with the answers …’

The editors have produced a marvellous book that is filled with recipes by Dymphna and many of her friends, as well as fascinating asides and snippets of information which evoke the ambience of Manning Clark House.

Through it all runs a palpable sense of Dymphna’s graciousness and hospitality. A grand example of just how comfortable guests were made to feel, even in situations that would appear to be destined for disaster, is conveyed in the anecdote by Rosamund Dalziell about her meal at Dymphna’s table, accompanied by her daughter, who at the time had a pet rabbit. On the menu, of course, was baked rabbit!

The tact with which that situation was salvaged offers a rare insight into Dymphna’s practical genius, just as the book as a whole offers the rare treat of a glimpse into Dymphna’s kitchen, which is so beautifully rendered in Peter Freeman’s drawing that graces the book’s cover.

This book provides plenty of food for thought, and more: Dymphna’s cuisine was deeper than haute, it was heart.     

Food for Thought at Manning Clark House, edited by Sandy Forbes and Janet Reeves.
Manning Clark House, 2005. isbn 0 958 16341 3, rrp $20

Robert Hefner is the assistant editor of Eureka Street. To order this book, write to Manning Clark House, 11 Tasmania Circle Forrest, ACT, PO Box 3096, Manuka, ACT 2603, phone (02) 6295 9433, or email manningclark@ozemail.com.au



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