When my parents married in Hong Kong in 1967 my Chinese mother didn’t even know how to boil an egg. Brought up in a middle class Chinese family she had grown up with a cook. My father, a white Australian, grew up with an English mother who cooked all the family meals, a typical meal being ham and cabbage boiled until they were roughly the same colour, followed by a rib-sticking suet pudding covered in slimy, lumpy custard. This experience entrenched in him a life-long hatred of what he derisively calls “English stodge”.
My father expected my mother to do all the cooking, but wanted to ensure meal times were not the dreaded taste bud stifling tribulations of his youth. Perhaps this explains his rather unromantic wedding gift to my mother of the entire set of Time-Life Foods of the World cook book series. The Time-Life books are a series of dual cook books, each set of two covering either a different region or country in the world. They are amazingly comprehensive for the era, in which they were published (the late '60s), detailing food from regions ranging from Caribbean to Middle Eastern to Austrian cooking. The main book in each set discusses the food culture of the assigned country or region, colourfully illustrated with vibrant pictures; the second, smaller book, is a straightforward recipe book.
By the time I was born my father had dragged my unsuspecting mother and two sisters to the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG) where my mother had cooked her way through the entire Time-Life series and become a talented and prolific cook. She employed a house girl to do the house work and clean up after her cooking and we kids – Jackie, Jo and I spent our time racing around outside working up the ravenous appetites only fresh air and nature can induce.
Each day Mum would cook us breakfast then would spend the day baking bread, making cheese, icecream, yoghurt, boiled sweets, doughnuts and an assortment of cakes and biscuits – all dictated by we three overindulged children. We would bring friends home from school for afternoon tea each day expecting her to produce a feast of at least three different kinds of Time-Life inspired goodies –American brownies and cheesecake, Viennese pastries and strudels and French éclairs – something she did time and time again without showing the slightest sign of ill humour, except once when one forthright guest requested a doggy bag. It was only at the age of 8 did it dawn on me that my popularity at school had more to do with mother’s culinary abilities than my sparkling personality.
After gorging ourselves on this afternoon tea one of us would be allowed to chose a three course dinner from a Time-Life cook book. I was banned from this privilege after once selecting fondue three times in a row – the combination of the oil, cheese and chocolate courses proving too much for everyone except me.
Often we children collaborated, depending on which phase we were going through. When Jo made friends with a Russian girl at school, we ate a lot of borscht, stroganoff and spiced honey cake. When we found out our favourite comic book hero Asterix the Gaul was actually French our mother was persuaded to cook complicated sauces we liked the look of in the Cooking of Provincial France edition. Sometimes, if we felt mother might be homesick, based on the fact there was a photograph of a woman who looked vaguely like our mother in the Cooking of China edition, we would choose dishes from this book; although its lack of suitable cakes and puddings was a great mark against it. The Cooking of the Middle East was popular as we got to eat with our hands as the sheikhs in the photos did, and we loved the colour of The Cooking of the Caribbean Islands. On weekends there were always cocktail parties and dinners at ours, our neighbours who traveled being the most popular guests as they would be able to import ingredients unheard of in our remote part of the world.
My father’s contract in PNG finished when I was eight and we moved to Australia where there was no hired help. Even worse my mother started to work a 9-5 job. It was a nasty shock for us kids. No more afternoon tea parties, three course meals were relegated to weekends and Mum decided what the family would eat each night, depending on what she’d managed to grab from the local supermarket that day. The Time-Life cook books were stored away in the garage, a sad reminder of the glory days when our senses of smell, taste and sight were constantly stimulated by our mother’s remarkable concoctions.
My sisters and I soon became accustomed to the bland flavours of Australian suburban fare. Breakfast was cereal or toast, lunch was Vegemite sandwiches made with shop-bought white bread, afternoon tea was rubbery pikelets scavenged at a friend’s place. Our family dinner was usually something a little more interesting than the meat and three vege eaten by our average neighbour. We’d get curry, stir fried vegies, Spanish pork chops or Irish stew, recipes mum remembered from her cook books. But we always looked forward to the weekends when the good old days would return - although sometimes instead of getting mum’s old cooking back, we’d have to go to neighbourhood barbeques where we would eat the traditional Australian burnt lamb chops and steak accompanied by lettuce and tomato salads.
Despite the lack of stimulating cuisine we three girls settled into our schools and the neighbourhood and the ways of suburban Australia, which is why when our parents announced my father had won a contract to work in Pakistan and we would all be moving there soon, we were less than thrilled. Leaving our friends and worse, the hard fought acceptance we had finally gained in this place seemed most unfair and we cried, whinged, sulked and argued with our parents, begging to stay and using every form of emotional blackmail our devious little minds could summon. My parents were taken aback by our reaction, very nearly relenting, until our mother came back with her own secret weapon. The Cooking of India (which included Pakistan) was rescued from the garage and for a few weeks she seduced us all with almond and sultana jeweled pilaf, fragrant curries, succulent tandoori chicken, soft chewy chapati and puree breads and sickly sweet milk and nut desserts. By the end of her campaign, the three of us decided that Pakistan wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Today my sisters and I are grown up, we finally understand our mother has a personality and is not just a walking larder, and we laugh about our childhood eccentricities - but swear we want to indulge our own children in a similar way. What we don’t laugh about is who will get our mother’s Time-Life cook book collection. Mum brought up her will one day and asked if there was anything special any of us wanted, a fracas ensued when we realized we all wanted the same thing – her Time-Life cook book series. Negotiations are still continuing but right now it looks like I’m getting the European countries and may yet have rights to the Middle East. I’m planning an offensive next week when I see Mum. If I play my cards right I may be able to get Russia too.