When I had to write and deliver the eulogy at my father’s funeral nearly a year ago, I remember starting off by listing the things for which my father probably wanted to be remembered. He was a complicated and, in some ways, a vain man who would have listed his achievements as being a medical specialist; owning dozens of exotic cars over his lifetime; having a “perfect driving record” (a matter of some debate! ;o)); or surviving two wives and fathering six children. As soon as I had written this list down, I was immediately struck by how few of these things I imagined would be the things that his family and friends would best remember him by. At the time, I was not even sure what I myself would remember him by – I was just trying to focus on getting through the day of the funeral and the scattering of the ashes.
To be honest, by father and I disagreed on more things than we agreed on. Unlike my mother, from whom I might as well have been cloned, my father and I simply did not see eye to eye on things, and to make matters worse, he came from a generation that did not really encourage dissent and lively debate from offspring. He was a crotchety “my way or the highway” kinda guy to the end, rather than a benign old chap that people assume we all turn into when we hit our eighties. As I stood in the church delivering my eulogy, I could easily describe how my father wanted to be remembered – but I was struggling to picture how I would actually remember him. The fact is that it takes a while for your mind to process the painful realities of somebody’s passing and to start re-connecting old memories of them as they were in their prime, not them as they lay in a hospital bed. It was the same with my mom: it took a long time for the memory of her hooked up to a dialysis machine to fade, and for what I call memories of the “real” Mamma to resurface.
But I was unprepared for the almost physical reaction a few weeks ago when I was waiting for a train and a chap walked past whistling enthusiastically but tunelessly under his breath. While he was alive, my father’s tuneless whistling used to drive both my mother and myself mad (and my brother, but for different reasons: he can’t whistle hmself!). But suddenly this stranger’s whistling brought back memories of my dad so unexpectedly and vividly as to bring the sharp prick of tears to my eyes. Something that annoyed me so in life and yet so evocative in death. Similarly, I loathed having to listen to the whine of the Grand Prix every Sunday of my life, but now when Nick tunes in to a race, memories of my childhood come flooding back and I am filled with sadness at the thought my father’s obsessive following of a Grand Prix season that he would not live to see the end of.
By contrast, I always knew that a thousand things would remind me of my mother for the rest of my life and I was right: Roger McGough poetry, Chopin nocturnes, Turner paintings, Ferragamo shoes, her dark chocolate mousse. But once again, it’s the unexpected and quirky things that take me by surprise and bring back memories when I least anticipate. She loved chunky rings and as she walked up the stairs at home, you could hear the soft clunk that her ring made on the wooden bannister. Hearing that sound on a London Underground staircase last week made me snap my head round in surprise, fully expecting to see Mamma on the staircase behind me. And whenever I change lanes on the freeway, I catch myself trying to do so without any of my tyres clipping the cat’s eye reflectors – which is exactly what Mamma used to do on long car journeys, to our endless delight. And whenever I make soup for dinner on a Sunday night, I think of a thousand Sunday nights at home, having Mamma’s homemade soup for dinner. At the time, I found it incomprehensible (why would you want to have boring old soup every Sunday night for dinner when you could be having, say, hamburgers?) and wished for a change. Now I wish with all my heart I could go back for one Sunday night and have soup that Mamma made, while watching the Grand Prix.
So this one’s for you, mom and dad – I’m still whistling under my breath, I’m still avoiding the cat’s eyes, and I’m still making soup for dinner on a Sunday.
This soup was always my favourite out of my mom’s Sunday night repertoire. It seems unlikely that crunchy, watery, crisp celery will turn into a creamy and comforting soup, but it does – with surprisingly little dairy. Because I had some in the fridge, I added celeriac to this soup, but you could also substitute potatoes which will not give as much flavour, but will also help to make the soup creamy. Serve in bowls with crusty bread, or as pictured, in shot glasses for an amuse bouche, garnished with fresh celery leaves.
CREAM OF CELERY SOUP (serves 4 as a starter)
350g celery stalks (leaves and all), chopped
250g celeriac, peeled and cubed (or substitute potato)
150g leek, green and white parts, thinly sliced
600ml good vegetable stock
120ml single cream
salty and black pepper
thin celery stalks and leaves to garnish
Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Add the chopped vegetables and cook for 3 or 4 minutes until everything is coated in butter and has started to soften. Add the hot stock, bring to a simmer, cover and allow to simmer for about 25 minutes, until the celeriac/potato can be crushed with a fork. Remove from the heat and use an immersion blender to blend the vegetables and stock into a puree. Add more hot stock if necessary to thin to your desired consistency. Stir in the cream, check for seasoning and return to a gentle heat to heat through. Serve warm in shot glasses, garnished with young celery stalks and leaves.
Did you miss our our super-successful Tuscany Plate to Page workshop last October? Well, registrations are open for Plate to Page Somerset to be held in the UK in Spring 2012! Have a look at the programme (I’ll be teaching food writing), details about accommodation, and if it looks like something you’d like to attend, register here – but hurry: places are limited to 12. It would be great to see you there!