Thursday, November 30, 2006

Ritual, music, summer (part one)

A few posts ago, I lamented that I would be unable to make the Christmas puddings this year. This would make two years in a row I had missed, for last year we were still in St Louis, and the earnest little beagles at Melbourne airport would never have let them through quarantine. But my father read the blog and thought that this would be something he could help me with. So over the weekend I weighed up the fruit and left it to soak in the beer and brandy, and then two days ago he set to work blanching the almonds and grating the oranges, lemons and carrots (this is a fabulous recipe, with no suet, just butter and piles of fruit), while I measured up the flour and spices. He then stirred the mixture. This was no mean feat, as we made two large puddings, one for Paul's family on Christmas Eve, and one for mine on Christmas Day; and the physical activity of all that grating and stirring would certainly have been a challenge (I have almost complete movement in my arm, but it's still a little weak). But I was pleased to find that with a little encouragement I was able to do something I enjoy, but had thought would be too difficult. It means our family rituals can resume after last year’s abeyance: Glenda will make several dishes of brandy butter (one for Christmas Eve, and one for me to take to my parents); Rod and Trish will bring the customary fresh berries and chocolate dipping sauce. It is a time of such plenty in this country.

Cooking in this way has a strong ritual component that was surely healing for me over the last few days, as the big pots rumbled and steamed in the kitchen. We all stirred the mixture and made a wish, while I debated with Joel the protocols of declaring your wish in public afterwards (we agreed wishes were better kept secret). Watching my father blanch the almonds also took me back to my childhood, learning to cook with my mother and marvelling at the way the hot water could make the milky white nuts slip so easily out of the dirty skins that we could never have peeled away. I also got to use one of my favourite kitchen implements, the tiny grater I keep in the jar with the nutmegs. This is the specific pleasure of precisely the right implement for the job. But there was something else, too: a lingering trace of the exotic quality of spices, and their special requirements and properties (you can throw in an extra handful of apricots or cherries, but you can't mess with half a teaspoon of nutmeg). And a recollection of trying to recall, in other years, a book I read as a child: somewhere, a warm kitchen scene where spices were special and rare, and had to be used carefully because the spice seller wouldn’t be coming to the house for another year. I can’t remember any more than this (how can I possibly hope to recover this book when this is all I can remember of it?), but the kitchen had something of the quality of Marmaduke Scarlett’s kitchen in The Little White Horse. I guess it's too much to hope this rings a bell with anyone?

4 comments:

Ampersand Duck said...

This may sound corny, but it makes me think of the Little House on the Prairie series -- the books, of course, not the tv series. They had a few warm wonderful kitchen scenes.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Hi, &Duck, that's a good guess; and might be worth a look. I certainly would have read those books around the same time (late 60s?). But my very vague memory is of a household that was rather more ... established and quirky in a J.K.Rowling/Mervyn Peake kind of style.

But yes, my whole post is corny. Nothing like Christmas to bring out a few sentimental recollections.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's corny. That first time you mentioned your dad made me catch my breath. I guess that doesn't make it not corny, but it doesn't seem corny to me. Christmas.

As for the story...do you think it was a single book or a collection of stories?

Stephanie Trigg said...

Yeah, I kind of regretted my "corny" as soon as I'd posted this comment. I guess I'm sometimes a little embarrassed about the sheer blessedness of my life as it appears in this blog. And I was very excited to see Ampersand Duck in my comments box... But no, I'm not seeking to disown the emotions of my post.

You know, I'm starting to think this memory is more of a trace of a feeling about a bookish world than an actual text. I can remember thinking of it on other occasions when baking with spices, which makes me think it might well be a condensation of associations and memories. But if it were a text, it would have been a book, not stories, and the world of Elizabeth Goudge, as in the Little White Horse (now reprinted and being made into a movie), is the closest thing I can think of.