Though I might be more likely to associate "food treats" with my nana, it's to my mother that I owe my love for cooking. The dedication at the front of my first cookbook reads "For Mum, who always said, Yes, darling, you can help me cook."
It seems I'm not alone. Only last week, a chef divulged to me that his inspiration to become a chef was solely due to his mother's influence. He told me that from a young age, he'd been encouraged to cook alongside her - and this is not the first time I'd heard such a story. Those of us who find joy in the kitchen often say our love of cooking was kindled under the guidance of our mums.
Tessa Kiros in her wonderful book Falling Cloudberries writes "This is how my mother makes herrings ..." and goes on to say that though there are many different ways to prepare herrings, the recipe that remains her favourite, is the one that details the way her mother always did them. You can almost taste the nostalgia in her words. Gordon Ramsay, better known for his furious outbursts, writes tenderly in Gordon Ramsay's Great Escape: "My own love affair with Indian food started when my mother made me my first curry as a child. Granted, mum's inauthentic curries were nothing like what we're used to today - hers were mostly flavoured with curry powder with the occasional handful of sultanas thrown in - but to us the flavours seemed exotic and mesmerising and I was hooked."
I laughed when I read that, because I too am still partial to a curry that has a smattering of sultanas and chopped apple added, because that was the version I grew up with too.
Frank Camorra of Movida, that terrific tapas institution in Melbourne, credits his mother's approach to cooking, which he describes beautifully as being one of "frugal extravagance", to have excited in him his desire to serve delicious food made with the simplest of ingredients. "Mum is a brilliant cook and I remember watching over her shoulder as she made roscos (doughnuts)." No wonder the doughnuts at Movida in Hosier Lane are exceptional - it's a family recipe.
Of course the opposite can be true too - we learn to cook despite our lineage. Take Nigel Slater, one of my all-time favourite cooks. He fell in love with cooking despite the fact that his mother, by her own admission, struggled to find much joy in it at all. In his autobiographical book Toast he writes with a brutal honesty "My mother burns the toast as surely as the sun rises each morning." He goes on to say that his mum never was much of a cook and that their meals "arrived on the table as much by happy accident as by domestic science". Yet he also remembers the happy hours he spent with her in their small kitchen, baking cakes in a temperamental Aga. Vividly, he recalls her saying "Ssh, listen to the cake mixture" and they would both fall silent to listen to the sound of the fruit cake batter falling into the paper-lined tin. More often or not the cake would sink in the middle but you get a sense that these shared moments were as much about being together as the end result.
My own experience couldn't have been more different. My mother seemed infinitely happy when she was in the kitchen and, perhaps as a direct result, she is a marvellous cook. I look back in awe at how she managed to be so calm, consistent and chirpy with five daughters clamouring for attention, all keen to stir this or chop that. There was a time in my life when I stepped into the role of stepmother. Having hungry mouths to feed with alarming regularity, at times the cooking felt relentless and less optional that I might have liked. Worse still, I discovered my tolerance for letting the little darlings help out in the kitchen was sorely missing at first.
I was aghast that I wasn't able to show the patience of my own mother and create opportunities where they would develop a love of food and some solid cooking skills without someone interfering and snapping at them to tidy up properly. I knew that making it a non-stressful and joyful experience was the key, that the kitchen is a great place to learn about risk, success and failure, but I struggled to find the necessary serenity.
I did eventually realise that if I remained encouraging, they blossomed. Even though their cakes didn't always rise and the pikelets were tough and tasted of little else other than their effort, they were still perfect in their eyes. I bit my tongue and remembered that my mother had allowed us to try things out, to fail spectacularly, then without judgment, she would democratically suggest a technique more likely to succeed next time. And that was how I had learned to, not just cook, but to revel in the magic a kitchen can provide.
Though any cooking is good practice for kids, I'm profoundly thankful my mother didn't restrict her teaching just to baking. Instead she encouraged us to tackle full meals, preserves and other recipes of enduring usefulness; lasagne so that we learnt how to make that most versatile of sauces, bechamel; cream puffs so that we would understand, as we undertook the exhausting task of beating the eggs, one by one, into the stiff choux pastry, that good cooking requires perseverance; cottage pie so we understood the value of leftovers as we cranked the handle on the menacing mincer to grind last night's surplus roast lamb.
Seeping into my consciousness, from even as young as five, were my mother's tried and true techniques, habits and shortcuts. As a result even when I cook today, I find myself using the same techniques as my mother and emulating her mannerisms. It's second nature for me when separating eggs, to get every last bit of egg white from the shell using my little finger - that's how you get 13 egg whites from a dozen.
I always opt for a paring knife in favour of a peeler when peeling potatoes. My mother considers peelers a highly extravagant and unnecessary kitchen gadget.
I still on occasion burn a pinch of sugar in the pan first, to ensure a rich dark colour to the gravy, and I've lost count of how often I've used the trick of warming a bowl of butter and sugar in a sink of hot water, to make the creaming process easier.
Those hours spent being mother's little helper provide me with some of my fondest food memories and the beauty of it is that I can conjure them up any time just by taking to my kitchen for the afternoon and whipping up one of the old family favourites. Thanks Mum.
Do you have any fond memories of cooking with mum? Share them with us.