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A Cook's Life - Stephanie Alexander

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Published: 21st March 2012
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With her Cook's Companion front and centre in half a million kitchens, Stephanie Alexander is the very definition of a household name. Each day thousands turn to this 'food Bible' for definitive recipes, encouragement and advice. But before Stephanie Alexander penned a word for the emerging food media – let alone for The Cook's Companion – she had spent decades avidly documenting food experiences.

Shaped by her mother's dedication to good food and her father's love of reading, she trained as a librarian and all the while observed, notated, assessed and re-created the dishes she loved. Her monthly university allowance rarely lasted more than a week – all spent on pan-fried flounder and chestnut Mont Blanc. She was seduced over pain Poîlane while working as an au pair in Paris, and later over ackee and saltfish in London. In 1966, with no formal training and a newborn baby, but brimming with confidence and sheer determination, she opened Jamaica House with her first husband. The personal toll was great and it was eight years until she emerged on the restaurant scene again.

Stephanie's Restaurant has become part of Melbourne food folklore, permanently raising the bar for restaurant dining in Australia. At the time of its opening, in 1976, a salad to most people meant iceberg lettuce, no-one had heard of goat's cheese and ginger came in a tin. Over the next twenty-one years, in order to obtain the best-possible produce, the likes of which she had enjoyed while travelling in Europe, Stephanie championed small local suppliers or grew it herself.

Her indefatigable determination and single-minded vision have influenced – and sometimes intimidated – a generation of chefs, cooks and diners. And now her Kitchen Garden Foundation is inspiring tens of thousands of primary school children across Australia to grow and cook their own food.

A Cook's Life is a very personal account of one woman's uncompromising dedication to good food, of how it shaped her life and changed the eating habits of a nation.

About the Author

Stephanie Alexander is one of Australia's most highly regarded food writers. She has written numerous influential food books, including Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Companion, Cooking and Travelling in South-West France and Kitchen Garden Cooking with Kids.

Introduction

I opened the first page of my mother's unpublished autobiography, The Other Half, and read the first few lines.

As I approach the age of seventy I think it is perhaps time for me to set down the story of my life, making it my project for 1982. But at what point do I begin? I remember the advice that the King of Hearts gave to Alice who asked the same question. 'Begin at the beginning . . . and go on till you come to the end: then stop.' It sounds so succinct and simple, but is it?

What is uncanny is that my own instincts to do something similar have become impossible to resist. At the time of writing these first few lines I have just turned sixty-nine. My mother died at seventy-two. Could it be a fear that my time is about to run out?

I am very disturbed by my loss of short-term memory. I imagine a bowl of melting savoury jelly that I scoop into another container. Bits of it slip between my fingers, in blobs of different sizes, some slipping slowly and others falling quickly with no hope of capture. My memory slips and slides and melts away just like this.

I have kept a collection of notebooks over the years, and in among the shopping lists and the to-do lists are detailed travel notes, and now and then a deeper thought. I wish that I had kept a diary, or been better at keeping letters from friends or lovers. Without them it is the notebooks I rely on to jog my memory. When I reread them the briefest note can take me back to my first glimpse of that tiny square in Paris, or I can see again the whirling dancers at a party on the sand in Tunisia. I can immediately remember the controversy around some important decision, the issues that were important at the time, or the finest details of a memorable dish. But without this written record it would all be a blank.

I also have my souvenirs, which are tangible reminders of some important times in my life and wonderful places I have visited. I can serve cheese on a carved wooden platter I bought in Tahiti, or serve soup in some salt-glazed grès stoneware bowls bought in Paris in the early sixties. I can turn salad leaves in the bowl made from beautifully grained olive wood that was given to me by a disapproving relative on the occasion of my first marriage. Or I can merely admire eggshell-fine teacups from Vietnam and a basket made from corn husks bought in Sonoma County in the United States.

Apart from my notebooks it is a great help to be able to read the unpublished memoirs of both my mother and my father. And I am assisted by memories from my daughters, my sister and brothers, and from the friends who were around at different times when I was younger.

My father was a meticulous archivist and almost every experience in his life is documented. In his autobiography he describes himself as a 'compulsive keeper of records' and I have had many occasions to thank him for it. I can read the scripts of radio broadcasts he gave in the thirties in Ballarat, book reviews he penned at the same time, a political and social history pamphlet entitled Nehru of India, again written sometime in the thirties, as well as day-by-day accounts of his travels. This storehouse of detail is fascinating to my siblings and me but perhaps not to the general reader. He also recorded most of the important family events, along with travelogues of places he and Mum visited, on super 8 film. Later he transferred it all to VHS tapes, believing that the material would be more accessible in this format.

A few years ago I reviewed some of the tapes in preparation for an interview with journalist Peter Thompson for his program Talking Heads. The ABC crew wanted family footage. I idly mentioned to the crew that the original super 8 film reels were in an old vinyl bag at the back of the wardrobe. Their eyes lit up. The super 8 film was found to be in pristine condition and, according to Peter Thompson, provided the best home movies they had ever seen. This precious material has now been transferred to DVD and the original reels kept safe.

Similarly my mother was an early chronicler of her own experiences. She writes that her first published piece appeared in June 1951 in Australian House & Garden, entitled 'I had a little nut tree . . .' and relating her excitement at harvesting and using the first crop from her almond tree, and that she contributed food pieces to one of Australia's earliest food journals, Australian Gourmet. I am struck by how similar my writing style is to hers. Her discursive approach includes a bit of history, a bit of personal anecdote, a bit of travel colour and then rather haphazard instructions. I like to think that my recipe writing is more reliable, but I cannot fault her ability to engage the reader.

I find it fascinating to identify connections between my parents and me. I examine my behaviour or mannerisms and even my health against what seems to have been derived either by nature or nurture from my parents. I keep a running tally and add a certain action or motive or physical failing to one pile or the other. On the Dad pile is my ability to persuade with rhetoric – usually. And a powerful drive to move any project forward. My introversion and introspection fall on the Mum pile, together with a tendency to see the negative side of a proposal before its possibilities. And although I can be melancholy, fortunately I have never been clinically depressed as my father was.

I was dumbstruck by a passage in Mum's memoirs. Before leaving for Japan in 1937 and while still an art student, my mother became convinced that she had discovered an innovative way of teaching art to children that was in direct contradiction to the way it was taught at the time. She needed to find a school that would permit her to try out her theories. Seventy years later I now believe that I have put into practice an innovative way of teaching children all about good, fresh food, and at the start I needed to find a school to put it into practice.

Mum arranged to start her art teaching as soon as she returned from Japan. She did this for a year until she was married. Her central theory was to allow children to express themselves freely using huge sheets of paper, big brushes and pots of bold tempura colour, rather than trying to teach young children adult techniques. 'Just let yourself go' was to be the catch-cry. This idea, while universally followed today, sits oddly with another aspect of my mother's personality. In later years she frequently expressed her suspicion of any behaviour that she regarded as being 'out of control'. And there were occasions when she levelled that criticism at my behaviour.

I can portion up my life by saying I did ten years in libraries for Dad, thirty-plus years of restaurants for Mum, and more than twenty-five years' writing for both of them, and now ten years of giving back to the community, which would have greatly pleased my father.

From Mum I absorbed an awareness and appreciation of culinary diversity and cultural richness. From her also I understand that for a shy person who finds it difficult to shine in a large group, the intimacy of the meal table offers a more comfortable and delicious way of gaining approval and affection and of showing what one could achieve. Slaving away in a restaurant kitchen for more than thirty years does seem a rather extreme way of proving the same thing, however.

I discovered how much enjoyment she received from pattern and shape, landscape and gardens, colour and texture. She often arranged a small still life of a certain vase and a sprig of something from the garden with something surprising – perhaps a treasured souvenir. These little creations were a private pleasure. I know that she was very annoyed when one day, aged about twelve or thirteen, I altered something. She sharply told me, 'When you have your own house, you can arrange your own things.' I was surprised at the time but now understand perfectly. In my bedroom on a small table I arrange and rearrange a clay figure from Mexico with a tiny teacup from Vietnam, a dramatic seed pod from Alice Springs, a smooth bowl from a Japanese potter and many other treasures.

With Dad it was his love of books that influenced me from a very early age. We always had a house full of books, not just a significant collection of early Australian literature but art books, biographies, travel sagas, collections of essays and poetry, and reference books. 'Look it up in the index, Stephanie,' he must have said to me a thousand times. 'What are you reading?' was probably his favourite way to begin a conversation with his children or friends.

Music was my father's other great love and in this area I let him down. Once television arrived, Dad found he had to build a retreat where he could play classical music. We had just one living room, and with four children transfixed by this new medium, he hadn't a hope. It meant that I grew up without music enveloping me each day as it did him and I regret this. The music room was his sanctuary and classical music was such a pleasure to him right up to the end of his life.

I have always felt that an understanding of what has gone before is an essential starting point for those wishing to forge new ground. One of the motives for writing this book is to record the culinary changes I have lived through, hoping that my account may be of interest to the up-and-coming food practitioners of the new millennium.

I have experienced the full flowering of Australia's food culture. In the early fifties, thanks to the culinary curiosity of my mother, my attention was drawn to the 'new' foods introduced by post-war immigrants. Olive oil and sauerkraut, poppy seeds and broccoli, sausage containing squares of fat and blood, real coffee rather than coffee and chicory essence, sheets of seaweed and smelly cheeses all found their way to the family table before I was in my teens. Only when school friends came to visit and to share a meal and expressed wonder and suspicion at what was on offer did I understand how different our nightly fare was from what they were used to.

As a university student I discovered Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market and saw the high-quality and exciting produce sold by the Chinese stallholders. By the late fifties significant numbers of immigrants from Greece and Italy had transformed Carlton and Brunswick and the wholesale and retail markets. Interested shoppers discovered calamari, octopus and mussels, taramasalata and globe artichokes, fresh ricotta, dried salted codfish and tins of olive oil. Small cafés sprang up and wine was served in coffee cups. The civilising of our liquor laws was in the future. Those who were students or grew up in the late fifties or early sixties learnt to appreciate this colourful and delicious food more or less depending on where they lived and how adventurous they were.

By the mid-sixties the flavours of the Mediterranean had become mainstream. And then in 1975, with the fall of Saigon, Melbourne was again transformed. This time it was mountains of green vegetables that astounded and excited, bundles of lemongrass, chillies and coriander, and a seemingly infinite variety of noodles. The young loved this food – its immediacy, its freshness, its relatively low cost – and it too became mainstream, at least in our cities. There have been other waves of migration from the Middle East, from Africa, from India. With every new influx of migrants the food scene has expanded. Now, at the beginning of a new millennium, the food-loving population in Australian cities and regional centres has the world's flavours to choose from.

Not surprisingly, many professional cooks have borrowed and blended, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes less successfully, until the present day where anything goes. You can eat classic French food, you can eat a Greek, Spanish, Lebanese or Italian meal, you can grab a pho or a roasted duck, you can eat a subtle Indian curry or an Afghani meal. Or you can visit one of the current exponents of the new gastronomy and have food that has been prepared in fantastic ways using amazing techniques and revolutionary equipment, and be served dishes where the basic ingredients are hardly recognisable or have been totally transformed. In my opinion, some of these dishes are brilliant, some are unconvincing.

We have come a long way from chops on Monday, sausages on Tuesday, steak on Wednesday, cold cuts on Thursday, fish on Friday, pies on Saturday and a roast on Sunday.

As someone with a public profile, I have been interviewed hundreds of times and I am regularly asked 'What is Australian cuisine?'. The expectation is that this can be summed up in a sentence or two. Of course, the answer is far more complicated, and whole books have been written on the topic. Rarely have commentators wanted to discuss what I believe to be the really special thing about Australian cuisine: the diversity of produce, techniques and traditions available to every cook and derived from our cultural diversity. With almost fifty per cent of the Australian population born elsewhere or having a parent born elsewhere, there are many who have generations of traditional culinary knowledge to influence them. Young professional cooks without such a background have to choose a path to tread and must decide to what extent they will follow, copy, mix or blend.

My friend Helen Murray once described my writing as 'impressionistic' and at the time I wondered if I should take this as a negative comment. I have come to realise that this is indeed an apt description. Despite the melting jelly, with the help of friends and my precious notebooks, I find I can still capture the flavour of the most memorable or significant times, and looked at together they will make some sort of pattern, maybe even offer improved self-knowledge if I dare to be truthful and frank. Writing this memoir has sometimes been uncomfortable as I touch on incidents that are still raw. Sometimes I fear the truth is too painful to expose even to myself. Where necessary I have disguised identities and omitted bits that would hurt others.

Here, then, are my fragments – my memory splashes.

ISBN: 9781921382789
ISBN-10: 1921382783
Audience: General
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 368
Published: 21st March 2012
Dimensions (cm): 23.4 x 15.3  x 3.5
Weight (kg): 0.67