MY GRANDMOTHERS WERE bakers of bread and of cakes. My mother and my aunts are bakers. I bake occasionally. This (mostly) matrilineal and intergenerational baking is one that holds the women of my family together. Many recipes have been shared over the years between my mother and her sisters and with her mother and mother-in-law. I have also slowly begun to write down my mother’s recipes. She has homemade cookbooks filled with recipes cut from newspapers and magazines and many written in her own handwriting. I have one of my grandmother’s manuscript recipe books – the recipes are written in my grandmother’s handwriting as well as the script of my mother, the next door neighbour, friends and even my own twelve-year-old’s printing, each letter separate and clear. In 2010 my Aunty Sylvie self-published a cookbook, A Lifetime of Cooking: Compiled with love by Sylvia Harris, for all her family to enjoy. It contained a number of her recipes, photos and memoir snapshots – a gift to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is a record of her daily life and tells stories that acknowledge women’s work and women’s writing. It was also a gift to her sisters, one of whom is my mother, Phyllis. My mother features prominently in the cookbook as a baker and a sister, in recipes and photos – they have shared a life of cooking together. Cooking is one of the strengths of the women in my family. It represents solidarity, the continuity of family across time and place.
My cooking apprenticeship began when I was four or five, maybe earlier. I watched my mother baking cakes and slices, but my earliest memories are of my paternal grandmother baking bread and Anzac biscuits. I sat on a stool or the bench and watched. At that age I was able to stir the flour with the bicarbonate soda and baking powder, an easy job. If a cake or slice was being made I would have been able to lick the bowl. As I got older I was able to break eggs into the mixture, sift the flour, cream the butter and sugar and add other more exotic ingredients depending on the cake or slice being made. My mother or grandmother would have been by my side throughout the exercise, guiding my hands, talking to me about the texture of the ingredients, describing what they should feel like and look like: ‘the creamed butter and sugar should feel like breadcrumbs’, ‘beat the eggs until they are stiff and stick to the beaters’. This knowledge only comes from doing – knowledge and practice that philosopher Lisa Heldke calls ‘thoughtful practice’. It is here where learning to read recipes, cooking and the interrelationship between the recipe and the cook ‘merges the theoretical and the practical’. In this sense, Heldke suggests that foodmaking is a ‘”mentally manual” activity’, or ‘a “theoretically practical” activity’. Such thoughtful practice is implicit to my aunt, my mother and my grandmothers. It has also become implicit in my own foodmaking, although my own practice is perhaps better represented by Luce Giard’s notion of ‘anxious practice’.
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