One of the things I love about historical fiction is being transported into another time and place. As well as vicariously living a life vastly different from my own, I also enhance my knowledge of historical people and events.
It’s one of the reasons I love flipping through my mother’s recipe book. She bought it soon after she was married in 1954 – a plain brown fabric cover inscribed with ‘Recipes’ and inside a contents page – eight categories from soups, meat game and poultry, to jellies, creams and ices. For some reason omelettes are lumped in with puddings and sweets – perhaps eggs are the common denominator.
Inside the pages are ruled with pale blue lines for the eager cook to write her recipes on. As you can imagine with something so old (perhaps not that old, it’s only a year older than me) and that's been well used over the years, it’s falling to bits – the cover is torn, the pages are discoloured and blotchy where bits of food have sploshed on to them and some of them have come loose.
Cue: the theme from Happy Days
But as soon as I open it, I’m back in the 1950s. An era where women gave up their careers when they married, as my mother did, to concentrate on being the perfect housewife. An era of meat and 3 veg when pork chow mein was considered exotic, listening to the radio and reading The Australian Women’s Weekly, which set the standard for fashion, cooking and everything female, chequered linoleum kitchen floors, aprons worn over waisted dresses with swing skirts, creaming the butter and sugar in the big shiny Mixmaster, the latest in kitchen technology.
My mother professed to not enjoying cooking, but as my father liked to have a hot meal and pudding (as we called it) every night, Mum endeavoured to keep up the standard. Her recipe book is reminiscent of the trajectory of her life. I see her as a young bride on the brink of a new life, determined to get her head around this cooking lark and fill the crisp, pristine pages with interesting recipes to tempt her husband and impress her friends.
Recipes were written out in the correct sections, in her impeccably neat handwriting, and beside each one she wrote the source – the friend or relative, the Women’s Weekly or the ABC radio Women’s Session. The recipes are basic – mock chicken (the real thing was expensive back then), fish mornay, cheese tart and beef casserole. In the sweets arena there was madeira cake, two minute sponge, cornflake biscuits and home-made ice-cream.
Kids – who has time for recipes?
Then after her children arrived – three in four years – it was plain she ran out of time and energy. Recipes were written on pieces of paper – sometimes her handwriting, sometimes other peoples’ that I don’t recognise – and shoved in the book. Other recipes were torn out of newspapers or magazines.
I can imagine her thinking, ‘I’ll just put them in loose for now and when I’ve got a spare moment I’ll copy them into the book.’ But she never did, and the result is that when you open the book, recipes invariably flutter out everywhere.
As we progressed into the 1960s and 70s and in keeping with the times, Mum became more adventurous with her recipes. There are clippings for cold tomato soup, Thai fish cakes and sweet and sour pork. Desserts (no longer called puddings) include liqueur fancies, Yugoslavian Zagreb cake and banana caramel crepes. There’s even a postcard I sent her from my trip to Europe with a photo of the mouth-watering Austrian chocolate cake Sacher Torte on the front and the recipe on the back.
My mother’s Cordon Bleu period
Mum didn’t take the hint and make the Sacher Torte; in fact, I don’t recall her making any of these recipes. However, she did go through a brief Cordon Bleu phase when she attended cooking classes and whipped up exotic meals such as pork and chicken terrine and Charlotte Russe. (Although I think my father secretly yearned for a lamb roast and baked rice pudding).
There are a lot of recipes in the book that I don’t remember Mum making. And I’m glad in the case of oyster soup, chestnut stuffing and the aforementioned mock chicken. And a handwritten dish she called Prawn Pie or Tart or Something. Obviously she never got round to making it to ascertain what it was.
Mum, can you roast a pig?
Mum was also subjected to desperate pleas from me to cook things I’d read about in books. I was an avid fan of the Bobbsey Twins series, by American author Laura Lee Hope. They were two sets of twins who solved mysteries in between getting into lots of mischief. Mrs Bobbsey was forever baking strawberry shortcake and I nagged Mum constantly to bake one for me.
She finally capitulated, and spent hours looking for a recipe and then creating it. After all that, I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I’m sure I was diplomatic enough to tell her it was delicious!
I was also an Enid Blyton fan and the children in some of her stories regularly tucked into a supper of bread and milk. This sounded rather exotic to me; even the idea of supper, which wasn’t on the menu in our house (unless we managed to sneak a bowl of ice-cream while our parents were watching The Ed Sullivan Show).
So I requested a bread and milk supper and Mum obligingly prepared me a bowl of bread sprinkled with sugar, floating in a sea of milk. It was very unappetising and I felt sorry for those children who were forced to eat it and pretend they liked it.
I dare say Mum was hoping I didn’t read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck ate freshly caught catfish, corn dodgers and buttermilk or Lord of the Flies, in which the boys killed and roasted wild pigs.
Every family has their favourite recipes that become traditions. Two of ours are in this recipe book. The first is Fluffy Custard, which was handed down from Mum’s mother. This is essentially melted butter blended with flour, with egg yolks and milk added. When the mixture is smooth, you add sugar and stiffly beaten egg whites. It lives up to its name – wonderfully light and fluffy and very more-ish.
The second is a dessert called Canton. This was given to Mum by a relative, but where she got it from I have no idea, because I have never seen it anywhere else. And why it’s called Canton is also a mystery, because it’s as Chinese as apple pie and custard. It’s simply a sponge cake liberally covered with pink whipped cream and blanched almonds, swimming in a river of chocolate sauce.
It was sinfully rich and we kids would request it as a special treat for our birthdays. It was every man for himself when it came to Canton and whoever got up earliest the next morning raided the fridge and had the leftovers for breakfast. Those were the days, when you had no concept of blood sugar levels!
End of an era
Sadly there were very few recipes added after the 1970s, as Mum went back to work after she and Dad divorced. Her children had left home and she had no-one to cook for but herself. But as she died a few years ago, her recipe book is a treasured heirloom. Perhaps one day, just out of curiosity, I might give the Prawn Pie or Tart or Something a go.
Do you have a recipe book that’s become a family heirloom, or any recipes handed down that have become family favourites? I’d love to read about them; indulge in a bit of nostalgia in the comments box below.
Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.