If it weren’t for my mom, this blog would not have been possible. OK, there is the obvious “if she had never given birth to me…” argument, but that’s not what I mean. If you think about it, this blog depends almost entirely on two things: a love of writing English and a love of food. And if there are two topics on which my mother was an expert, these would be them.
My mom always said that I loved English so much because I was in utero when she was doing her Honours degree in English literature and attended all her classes in this capacity. For whatever reason, I have always been a language kind of girl (as opposed to, say, physics!!). As my parents are both Afrikaans mother tongue speakers, I grew up in an Afrikaans house, speaking only Afrikaans. I started learning English when I wanted to play with the little girl who lived next door and who happened to be English, and by age 6 or so, I was perfectly bilingual. My parents decided to send me to an English-medium school as they felt English was an international language in a way that Afrikaans could never be, and so at age 5 I had to be interviewed by the scary school inspector to check my English proficiency. (In the bad old days, children were not allowed to attend a school where instruction was not in their mother tongue…!). Luckily I convinced him that I could string a sentence together and thus started my 12 years of English-medium education and a life-long love affair with the language. I remember getting English poetry homework and my mom and I reading things out of our poetry textbook together. While other kids were whining about how boring poetry was, I was falling in love with the simplicity of DH Lawrence, the cleverness of TS Eliot and the sheer brilliance of Roger McGough – and everything in between!! And always writing, writing, writing… I have been writing for fun since I was 10 and started keeping a diary (makes for fascinating reading now, but we won’t go into that!!), and since moving to the UK I have adapted the diary to make up a weekly 5 page newsletter to be e-mailed to fmaily and friends. Once again, this was largely as a result of my mother, who was in South Africa and wanted to know EVERYTHING that I was up to in London. So typing a newsletter/diary to her regularly seemed the easiest thing to do. And when I realised that the thing people liked most in my newsletters was the food commentary & recipes, I thought what the hell, time to start a food blog!
My mom was also my gateway into the fabulous world of food. As a little girl I was always fascinated by her big index book of recipes, some carefully copied out by hand, others stuffed in on the scraps of paper on which they had been scribbled. I remember that the very first thing she taught me to make on my own was scones – a beautifully simple recipe that I made at school friends’ houses, aged 10, and still make to this day. When we really wanted to treat my mom, my brother and I would get up extra early on a Sunday, make scones, whip cream and serve her and my dad breakfast in bed and feel inordinately proud of ourselves. As I have mentioned in previous posts, she was very tolerant of my childhood kitchen antics and allowed me to make toffee apples and crispy crackolets (as they appear in My Learn To Cook Book – basically chocolate cornflake clusters…) regardless of the havoc this would wreak in the kitchen. I seem to remember her cooking and baking her way through my childhood – fudge, coconut ice, cheese olives, milkshakes, peanut butter cookies, birthday cakes shaped like animals or insects… oh yes, and “proper” food too!! And my brother and I were always there to lick pots, pans and utensils. The older I got, the more I helped and every Christmas we had a legendary “cook-in” where we would spend a day just making goodies for the festive season. I remember many a night sitting at the kitchen table while she cooked, just talking and setting the world to rights. I never imagined how much I would learn about cooking just by sitting and watching!!
My mom was also big on eating out. She took my brother and me to eat at the Wimpy (fast food joint) from when we were really young, in the hope that this would train us to behave ourselves when we went out to good restaurants. Mostly, it worked – my bother no longer crawls under the table and I no longer want to steal the tomato-shaped ketchup bottles! My mom just adored eating out and unlike many mothers who leave their offspring at home when dining in fine restaurants, her ambition was to bring my brother and me along as soon as possible. Some of my most memorable meals out have been with my mom. The night we went to Chagall’s in Pretoria and had quenelle of fig and pigeon breasts. The night we were snubbed by an Austrian waiter at a smart restaurant in Vienna, had a glass of wine, walked out and ended up at an Italian restaurant drinking far too much Frascati and giggling ourselves silly. The night in Cape Town when we went to the restaurant at the Le Vendome Hotel and I had the best Caesar salad I’ve ever eaten. More often that not, we would either order the same thing or share dishes – we always joked that we could quite easily order for each other and get the choices spot-on. When she had to adopt a low-protein diet because of kidney problems, she saw this not as a disaster but as an excuse to get up close and personal with the vegetable platters of all the local restaurants. She always adored smoked salmon – in a salad, with poached or scrambled eggs, on a rosti or just on its own with brown bread. And when she went onto dialysis and suddenly had to incorporate more protein into her diet, she loved chateaubriand above all else.
Today was my mom’s 67th birthday. It was also the first birthday that I will not be able to celebrate with her in any way. The ravages of a genetic kidney disease stole my mentor, dinner date, travelling companion and best friend from me last October. It is one of my greatest regrets that she did not live to see this blog as I know she would have loved it. But even though she did not see it, her spirit infuses every word.
Happy birthday, Mamma. This one’s for you.