The Kindness of Strangers: Kitchen Memoirs
Shonagh Koea (illustrations by Peter Wells)
It wasn’t in her own mother’s kitchen that the young Shonagh found out food could make her happy. Things at home were a bit bleak. But in the house next door it was different. A concert pianist lived there with her husband and children. When the husband had to work late on Fridays, Shonagh used to be invited for dinner. The pianist liked to cook tasty one-dish meals, such as kedgeree moistened with whipped cream and flavoured with tabasco, ginger, sultanas and walnuts, touches that in the 1950s would have given it a bohemian edge. But Shonagh’s joy was about more than just the food. It was the whole occasion – the dimly lit wood-panelled dining room lined with bookshelves, the sublime piano playing and the companionship of two lonely people, the pianist and the girl she called Sho.
She experiences another culinary awakening when she goes to stay for a few days with her mother’s friend Mrs Thom. Breakfast was served on a large oak table prettily set with starched cloth and matching napkin: “She had cut a grapefruit into segments for me with no pith attached to any of the flesh and it was a bright yellow grapefruit that was sweet and delicious.” This was followed by “fresh toast and butter done in curls and a dish of marmalade that was so orange and clear it lay in the dish like a golden eye.”
Koea’s recounting of these childhood culinary epiphanies is brilliant and puts her in the company of food writers such as Elizabeth David and M F K Fisher, whose delight in food also lay dormant until they tasted wonderful dishes away from home.
Mrs Thom’s marmalade made such an impression on Koea that stirring up her own brew becomes a talisman for her. She tells how she often makes a batch of marmalade when she moves into a new house “so that the lovely clear smell of the citrus fruit will permeate every room and somehow make the place mine, like a silent statement of tenure.” After the death of her husband, she invites friends to a weekend breakfast and serves the pianist’s kedgeree with homemade muffins and homemade marmalade, coffee and Buck’s Fizz. Those two recipes, kedgeree and marmalade, guarantee a happy occasion.
Readers of Koea’s novels and short stories will have already discovered that she knows a great deal about food. The strange, strong, sad women who inhabit her stories are often accomplished cooks. In the most recent novel, Yet Another Ghastly Christmas, Evelyn Jarrod contemplates cooking a solitary Christmas dinner of roast chicken stuffed with red peppers and accompanied by new potatoes and a few peas from the garden. On other occasions she prepares dainty sandwiches filled with mushroom paté to serve with drinks, and prepares a perfect lunch of asparagus, ham and fresh bread for a friend. One of my favourite gastronomic scenes in Koea’s fiction is her description of the picnic which concludes The Lonely Margins of the Sea:
You can’t have the same thing to eat every day, you know. You had jam tarts yesterday, only that was bought pastry with raspberry jam. Today it’s home-made, with strawberry. But there’s got to be variety. And we’re running out of jam.
Her descriptions of these simple occasions are exquisite and are surely recounted from experience.
I longed for more of them in the memoir. I wanted to know more about the everyday meals that Koea cooked for her family, as well as how she managed as a solitary diner later on.
Koea’s expertise in the kitchen is also demonstrated by her comment on page 95 that every recipe has a secret. She doesn’t mean a secret ingredient, but some trick about how it is mixed and cooked. The example she gives is Russian shortbread which needs to be undercooked so that it will be moist and retain its characteristic caramel quality. In fact, all her recipes are skilfully written. She follows the proper procedure of listing the ingredients in the order in which they are to be used, and uses ordinary words instead of culinary jargon. I enjoyed her wry asides, such as mentioning that the recipe for ice cream has one disadvantage: “it creates quite a lot of dishes to wash”. As this comment shows, Koea is well aware that cooking isn’t all sweetness and light: see her story of a childhood Christmas dinner that isn’t eaten until well past its best, and her description of her mother’s marmalade results as “stiff, extremely opaque and they sat in the jars with a sort of grimly globular intensity that was almost alarming.”
However, I found her choice of recipes disappointing. Most are sweet things, mainly baking and desserts, and many are rather ordinary examples of their type. As I read them and also cooked a few, I felt they would be frowned on by the accomplished cooks who populate Koea’s novels. Their food is always elegant. Even the recipe for sultana cake, which she describes as a very secret and special recipe, is actually a standard boiled sultana cake, and Thommie’s quick tart resembles a date scone pressed flat. The recipes remind me of the economical recipes that were popular during WWII. These days most cooks would throw in more eggs and butter. The saving grace of some of them is the stories that surround them. Koea demonstrates that recipes don’t arrive out of nowhere. At some point she took the trouble to jot these recipes down and put them somewhere where they could be found later. That is an achievement on its own. And every time she makes them, she is adding to the history.
As the title of the book suggests, strangers have indeed been kind to Koea: the pianist next door, the neighbours across the road who let her use their front porch to swot for School Certificate, the speech therapist who helped her conquer her stutter, her wise New Plymouth doctor, the person who gave her a bunch of pansies. But I’m left wondering about the subtitle, “kitchen memoirs”. This seems to me to be giving the act of cooking more importance than is reflected in the content of the memoir – if you were to leave out most of the 27 recipes.
Koea’s great strength is that she knows, while a meal begins life in the kitchen, this is only part of the story. In this book, as in her fiction, talking about who eats the food and where it is eaten tells a richer tale. On her trip to India, she loved dressing up in the local dress, trousers and tunic, and having her hands and fingernails dyed with henna, and is proud of the beautiful dress with a large soft bow at the waist which she wore to a reception. Back home, the places where meals are eaten are often mentioned, and her own houses, spacious and softly lit and with separate dining rooms, have brought her great happiness. This book is a moving self-portrait of a woman who clothes herself with panache, cherishes the places where she lives as a shell for her tender self, and who sometimes has a wooden spoon in her hand.
Lois Daish is a Wellington food writer.