With Mother’s Day just around the corner many of us will be planning to spend time with our families; sharing a meal with our mothers at some point that weekend. But really, how often do we talk to our mothers – and if we’re lucky enough our grandmothers – about their lives and our families stories?
There may well be a favourite family dessert we have been enjoying all our lives but how many of us know the origins of that recipe? Why our mothers or grandmothers used to cook it, who gave the recipe to them and why it has become such a family favourite? We may never think of how these stories began. It’s just a fact that this is our family’s cheesecake recipe; or our family always glazes a ham at Christmas time.
Usually by the time we reach an age when we want to know more; when we’d appreciate the wisdom and seek the comfort of the older generation, our grandmothers aren’t here anymore to give it. It was this realisation that gave Laura Clarke and Claire Wallace the inspiration to record grandmothers stories from around the world. The result is the just published, beautiful recipe book My Grandmother’s Kitchen
Both women had recently met and both were at turning points in their lives when the conversation about this joint project began: ‘My grandparents brought me up’, says Laura who lived with them in England from the age of 11. ‘When my grandmother died she left me three things: her engagement ring which I wear every day, her kitchen table which we used on the cover of our book, and her recipe book filled with her handwritten sheets of recipes.’
'A couple of years ago, after my grandfather died, I missed them both horribly. I realised I was working in a job I wasn’t passionate about and thought what am I doing? They didn’t raise me to be unhappy so I quit my job and thought about collating my grandmother’s recipes during my time off work.’
‘It was around this time that we met,’ continues Claire, ‘My grandmother had died many years before Laura’s, when I was only 19. Laura and I were talking about our grandmothers and their cooking and I realised I didn’t have any of her recipes written down at all.’
The conversation moved on from their cooking to a desire for both women to talk to their grandmothers again; to ask their advice about all aspects of their lives. ‘It felt like we realised too late how much they had to teach us,’ says Claire.
‘They had lived such amazing lives already and we have so much to learn from them. I remember my grandmother saying just before she died that she still felt 19 and that it was only when she looked in the mirror she realised differently.’
The concept from the beginning was always to include other grandmothers in their book. ‘It was never to be just about our own grandmothers,’ says Laura, ‘We were both passionate about the importance of grandmothers in the home and how great an influence they can be.’
‘So much importance is placed on youth in today’s world and I remember my grandmother saying to me in her 80s that sometimes she felt invisible. We were inspired to find everyday grandmothers for the book who were inspirational because of the lives they have led bringing up their families.’
This book was always going to be much more than just a collection of recipes from around the world. ‘We wanted to fill the book with the kind of information we knew we’d want from our grandmothers if we’d had more time with them,’ begins Laura, ‘we wanted to share these women’s life stories, we wanted them to pass on their wisdom.’
Both women interviewed the 17 grandmothers and their families for up to four or five hours each. They spent numerous hours cooking with them, spending time with their children and grandchildren, calling them constantly to ask more questions and in all cases Claire and Laura cannot emphasise enough how welcomed they were into each household.
It was a hugely emotional journey for them. ‘These women were so positive,’ says Claire, ‘despite some of the stories they shared. It was a reminder of all the things you don’t ever know are behind a face. You don’t know what anyone has been through and you certainly can’t judge their life journey by looking at someone’s face.’
The most emotional part of this journey for Claire and Laura was the death of one of their grandmothers, Cherie Keetley. Cherie died nearly a year ago and while she didn’t live to see the book’s publication, she loved being a part of its creation.
‘Cooking, like love, should be undertaken with wild abandon’, was a piece of wisdom Cherie shared and after her death her family were so grateful as they realised that without this book they would never have written Cherie’s story down. ‘Her recipes were completely embedded in her head’, laughs Laura.
‘I have notes and notes from cooking with Cherie,’ continues Claire, ‘as she had no idea about measurements cooking purely from instinct. Of course, we needed measurements to write the recipes so there was much laughter and trial and error!’
‘This project was so fulfilling,’ continues Laura, ‘we had no idea of the journey this would take us on and we realised again through Cherie’s death how important it is to capture your own families stories.’
The end result is a beautiful tribute to grandmothers everywhere with a chapter at the end to capture your own family’s story.
‘We wanted every page to be unique,’ says Claire, ‘we wanted it to look like a real grandmother’s recipe book with fingerprints, remarks and drawings by kids, splotches of jam.’
And intertwined within it all: those longed for comforting and inspirational words gained from years of perspective, endurance and experience.
No matter what your age who doesn’t need to be reminded that ‘things seem worse in the moment’ or ‘do not always think about your problems: you will see one day they are not so important’ and, finally, ‘Friends are like elevators. They either take you up or take you down. Hold on to good friends and let go of the rest.’
Recipes not only for food but for lives lived well.
As the seasons in Sydney begin to turn and the weather is cooling down, Laura and Claire thought it would be fitting to share with us a wintry recipe from their book. And a drizzly, cool day like today is the perfect time to try it a warming pumpkin soup...
Rosa Munoz's Pumpkin Soup Serves 6
A friend gave me this recipe many years ago and I have been making it for my family ever since. Over the years I have adapted it and added the nutmeg and coriander. It is a delicious, warming recipe in the winter months.
1 whole Queensland or other pumpkin (it should be approx. 2.5 kg when peeled, deseeded and cubed)
3 medium potatoes
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon oregano chilli flakes to taste
1 teaspoon cumin
1 pinch nutmeg
½ bunch fresh coriander
1 litre cold water or vegetable stock
salt and pepper to season
chives and sour cream to garnish
Start by peeling and deseeding the pumpkin. Cut the flesh into cubes. Then peel and cube the potatoes, thinly slice the onions and roughly chop the garlic. In a medium pot, heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil over a high heat. Add the onion, garlic and coriander and cook until the onion is lightly browned. Add the spices and stir well for about 1 minute. Add 1 litre of cold water or vegetable stock and then the potatoes. Bring to the boil. Turn heat to low, cover pot, and simmer until potatoes are almost cooked. Add the pumpkin and season to taste. Cover and simmer until the pumpkin is cooked. Remove from heat. Remove half the liquid from the pot and put aside in a bowl. With a hand blender, purée the pumpkin mixture and add the reserved liquid until it becomes a soup (thickness to your own preference). Pour into bowls and garnish with chopped chives and a dollop of sour cream.
For more information about Laura Clarke and Claire Wallace, or to buy a copy of the book visit http://www.mygrandmotherskitchen.net/
Their Facebook page also reports on the latest book news and gives you an opportunity to ask questions or contact Laura and Claire direct. Visit www.facebook.com/mygrandmotherskitchen
All photos © Laura Clarke and Claire Wallace