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13/09/2011

Cooking and Eating the Past: Reflections on Food and Memories

Nicoletta Demetriou

I grew up in a place where everything – and I mean absolutely everything, from welcoming a new baby into the world to saying goodbye to someone going into the other world – is marked by some sort of eating ritual. What’s more, I was born into a family where cooking was neither only a necessity nor simply a pastime, and where it most certainly wasn’t a chore. Cooking – or, more accurately, feeding us – was, and remains, my mum’s raison d’être, what defines her as a loving and nurturing mother. Still, I hadn’t quite grasped the effect that cooking and eating has had for me in reconstructing my past, its centrality to my very being, until very recently. Last year, as I began to write my short pieces for biography class, week in, week out, I noticed that food, cooking, and eating kept creeping into my narrative again and again. When I was asked to write my first ever memory, it was to do with food:

I am four years old. My mother has gone to her driving lesson, and I’m left in the care of my grandmother. She is 75 years old, dressed in a black robe and black headscarf in the village fashion, can neither read nor write, and only speaks her village’s dialect. It’s mid-morning, so she prepares breakfast for both of us. In the middle of her small room is a green gas heater, and on its surface she toasts sliced bread and black olives. That’s our breakfast: toasted white bread with margarine, and toasted black, salty olives. On her cooker my grandmother prepares a cup of Turkish coffee for her, sweetened with two sugars. When the coffee is ready, she puts it in her little coffee cup, and carefully spills a little in the saucer. She hands the saucer to me, so that I, too, can have a sip of coffee, just like her.1

Months later, in autobiography class, I was asked to reconstruct an early memory. Food again:

My two older sisters are arguing in the kitchen. I don’t like it. My mum has just brought a shopping bag with crisps and juice. My sisters keep arguing, I can’t remember what about. I take a packet of crisps – a Mr Chips red packet, salt flavour – and some juice – Pip juice, grape flavour, in a small white plastic cup with purple letters, sealed with aluminium foil. The juice is nice, but I remember the flavour of the plastic rather than that of the juice. I go out in the garden, and sit alone in a quiet corner, so that I can enjoy my crisps and juice without my sisters shouting. It’s an autumn morning, and although it’s a bit cold, the sun is shining. At some point the shouting stops, and my mum realises that I’m no longer in the kitchen. She rushes out shouting my name. She sees me sitting in my corner in the garden, enjoying my snack without a care in the world. She goes back in and gets the camera, and captures the moment for eternity. And so here I am, twenty-six years later still sitting in the garden in my blue velvet dress, smiling while I enjoy my Mr Chips crisps and my Pip grape juice.2

A few weeks after that I was asked to write down my first food memory. Well, where shall I begin? It seems that most of my childhood memories are connected to food, cooking, eating, to kitchen sounds and smells. I remember my grandmother frying meat marinated in sweet red wine, or manically hitting an octopus in our yard to break its fibres before cooking it; I remember those huge Christmas lunches (I have 33 first cousins alone) with the endless array of dishes arranged on every available space in the kitchen; I remember my mum cooking early in the morning, and me waking up to the smell of cinnamon and mint coming from the kitchen; I remember the flaounes, the Cypriot Easter cakes, hot out of the oven every year on Good Saturday morning, and all women in my neighbourhood proudly displaying their cakes to their neighbours; I remember these same women’s blackened fingers in early summer, when they were all peeling fresh, soft walnuts to boil in water over days and preserve in thick syrup for that wonderful glyko tou koutaliou (‘spoon sweet’); I remember deadly hot afternoons sipping ice-cold rose water with sugar, into which floated a piece of mahallepi, a rice flour paste; and I remember kollyfa, boiled wheat served with pomegranate, sesame seeds, blanched almonds and raisins, brought to us by our neighbours late on Saturday afternoons, right before Vespers, when the neighbourhood folk remembered their dead. Where shall I begin?

* * *

The most famous recipe in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is, without doubt, that of ‘the food of Paradise’ – the hashish fudge, ‘which anyone could whip up on a rainy day’.3 Yet of all of Toklas’s recipes, the one that confirmed itself as truly enduring is that of the book itself: the cookbook-slash-memoir has proven to be an inimitable hit. The word ‘cookbook’ may well appear on the book’s cover, however Toklas’s book is much less that and much more a memoir. The stories she writes about travelling around France with Gertrude Stein, having lunch or dinner with all manner of people at all kinds of places, and tasting or cooking all sorts of delicacies (or peculiarities, depending on one’s palatal preferences) are the real heart of her narrative. And that’s what’s kept the book on bookshop shelves for the last fifty-something years, not the recipes. Even if Toklas’s recipes might have once tempted cooks and food lovers to try them out in their kitchens, I can’t imagine anyone today injecting a cognac-and-orange marinade into ‘a simple leg of mutton’ with a surgical syringe for a week and then serving it with ‘2 tablespoons of the blood of a hare’,4 nor cooking ‘2 dozen plucked larks’,5 nor roasting the ‘saddle of [a] young boar’.6 And frankly, I can’t imagine anyone now buying this black-and-white book for its recipes, when there are hundreds of cookbooks with mouthwatering colour photos out there, which require no ‘murder’ to be committed in the kitchen before the cooking can begin.7 In The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook the recipes are there to complete the picture, not to create it.

Partly, I suppose, [the book] was written as an escape from the narrow diet and monotony of illness, and I daresay nostalgia for old days and old ways and for remembered health and enjoyment lent special lustre to dishes and menus barred from an invalid table, but hovering dream-like in invalid memory. 8

Reading Toklas’s ‘mingling of recipe and reminiscence’,9 I wonder how much of it was written as nostalgia not ‘for old days and old ways’, but for her beloved Gertrude, the time they spent together and the trips they took, and as a way to bring her back. ‘Gertrude Stein said … Gertrude Stein requested … I told Gertrude Stein … Gertrude Stein and I … ’ If the friends Toklas reminisces about are the spices of her book, Gertrude Stein is undoubtedly its salt and pepper.

* * *

Much has been said and written on the nurturing side of cooking, on how feeding people is a way to show our care and love. But if cooking is connected to nurturing, then eating is certainly connected to sharing: sharing time, sharing a meal, a kitchen, our life. Nothing could help us reconstruct our past more successfully than thinking about time shared with others around a table, seeing, smelling and tasting food.

Molly Wizenberg was thinking something along these lines when she decided to set up her food blog, Orangette, shortly after her father had died of cancer. She was trying to make sense of her past, enjoy her present, and bring her loved ones closer to her.

When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It’s also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.10

Every time I open a bottle of sweet red wine to pour over some pork, my dead grandmother of twenty years comes back from her grave. And every time I bake my Cypriot Easter cakes in London, no matter how grey and rainy outside, the smell of cheese and mint and raisins turns the inside of my flat into a glorious Mediterranean spring. If I want to bring my friends from Thessaloniki a little bit closer, nothing does it better than if I fry their favourite potatoes with crushed coriander seeds. And never can I bake a banana cake or knead dough and not remember my gloomy year in Vienna, where the lack of flatmates, a boyfriend and a TV taught me that the best way to pass a lonely night is to bake to your heart’s content.

As a teenager, what seemed to me as my mum’s obsession with cooking drove me mad. Why couldn’t she just leave the kitchen, sit down and relax like the rest of us? It took me many years to realise that that was her way of showing her love day in, day out, and I’m only now beginning to appreciate that her marking every important and not-soimportant occasion in our family life with a shared meal is what now helps me put the memories of my past together.

Similarly, the memory of my grandmother is so vivid in me, despite the fact that I shared with her only the first twelve years of my life, partly because of what she cooked for me, what she fed me, and how her kitchen smelled. And that’s how she got to be the protagonist of my first food memory:

Sweet red wine is inextricably linked to my grandmother and hence my childhood. No meat could be fried if it was not previously soaked in sweet red wine. As I cook in my London flat, annoyed that I can’t get sweet red wine here, I remember my grandmother’s fried pork chops that were almost caramelised when fried, kolokasi, a type of sweet potato that changed its colour from white to brown after being soaked in sweet wine with meat, little cubes of pork again soaked in wine and cooked with dried coriander seeds …11

If cooking defined my mother and grandmother, what defined me for many years – as the youngest and most rebellious daughter – was my crusade to prove that I was not my mother. I managed to trick almost everyone – even myself – but a great big smiling realisation was lurking about, waiting to laugh at my face, serving me a dish of cold revenge. ‘Hey you’, it finally asked, ‘how do you show your loved ones that you love them? How do you mark important occasions that you want them to remember for years and years to come?’ ‘Well’, I stumbled, ‘I … cook.’

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