I have many warm memories of my mum, but the most persistent ones from childhood revolve around the kitchen. We could always ‘have a go’ at baking a cake or making toffee, as long as we cleaned up our mess afterwards, though I can’t say I was always conscientious about the clean-up part. If we didn’t know how to make something, we were steered to the stained orange-red Kitchen Encyclopedia on the kitchen shelf.
Its origins are lost in family history. There’s a vague memory of my mother telling me a lady gave it to her when the family lived in Orange (rural NSW), before I was born, but that could be my own confabulation. There’s an inscription inside the cover to someone that might be a mis-spelling of my mother’s name, from someone I can’t read, but the year is clear; 1959. The book has no date of publication, though it’s published by a London publisher and printed in Czechoslovakia. Interesting, then, the spelling of Encyclopedia.
But why is it important to me? It means Home. It means Saturdays making cakes, checking anxiously to see if they were done, being careful not to burn myself as I took it from the oven. It means turning cakes out on the cooling rack, making cups of tea, and slicing up the cakes while they were still warm. It means sitting in the tiny dining room, looking out into the back yard and savouring warm cake, our dog begging for crumbs and Mum saying how good it was.
It also means constancy. The Kitchen Encyclopedia was a fixture in my house, surviving changes in furniture, wall colour, floor coverings, and china. Before Google, before personal computers (oh yes, I go that far back), it provided the answers to any questions I had in the kitchen. How do you make toffee? How many teaspoons to a tablespoon? How long does a lamb roast of a particular size take to cook? When we won a seafood platter in a raffle, it even came through with how to cook a lobster thermidor.
And then there were the times I’d sit with it in my lap and browse. The first half is a dictionary of cooking terms and methods. I could learn what a woodcock was, or how one could ‘coddle’, or that if I was ever offered a ‘menus droits’ I would prefer to decline (pig’s ears cooked and served as an entrée). The second half consists of recipes, but they’re packed in tightly, three or more to a page, with everything from boiled eggs to chocolate soufflé and jellied eels. When I was a young teenager many of the recipes were hilarious. Many more are now old-fashioned, even exotic.
What makes my copy special, though, are not the recipes but the tangible link with my mother, who we lost nine years ago. Early in my marriage we were visiting and somehow she ended up handing me the Kitchen Encyclopedia.
It helped me through many tight spots. I rarely use it for recipes anymore, but it will always be cherished.