author of Coming Home
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Newcastle, NSW and moved to Nimbin, which was a sleepy little dairy town in those days; like living in a storybook, everybody knew everybody and the chemist gave all visiting children an ‘iced vovo’ each time they popped in. We then moved to Tamworth, where I started school before zooming back to Sydney for a short spell before finally settling into Sydney, all this before I was six. We lived in western Sydney where I went to Northmead public and high schools.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I wanted to be a dress designer from the time I was old enough to want to be anything, I was offered a place at East Sydney Tech’s Dress Design school where I dreamt of making children’s clothes. This however was not on the syllabus. At 18 I felt disillusioned and disappointed at the outcome from my brief time at East Sydney. My ambitions relating to my professional life took a back seat to disco dancing, travel and a few good love affairs, until around 30 when I became more serious about cooking. I met and married an American in my mid-thirties and started another adventure in food and life in the USA.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I was pretty sure some of the big issues like sexual equality, poverty, starvation and harmony between human kind would be in better shape than they actually are, I guess my optimism was age appropriate.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
~Living in the USA was one of my best experiences, I met amazing people, worked really hard and learnt lessons that changed the way I see the world and my place in it.
~ Becoming a parent, it’s a joy and a privilege as well as being just plain hard sometimes. My natural desire to nurture and create is expressed both in my life as a mother and in my world as a professional cook.
~ The introduction of genetic modification in foods has caused me to realise as a professional cook it’s essential to take a stand against this technology and influence of others where I can. I believe all food professionals have a duty to educate themselves on this and use all their influence to steer people away from mass produced foods that support it and choose products grown using time honoured methods. I oppose GM foods and companies like Monsanto, we need to keep our eyes open as it’s creeping into Australia, just look at the Canola oil industry.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? Aren’t they obsolete?
No, many of us will us never stop wanting to hold, touch, feel and read old fashioned paper books no matter how convenient electronic media options are (and they have their place). The act of writing is a tangible way to order thoughts, consolidate ideas, share information and express yourself, who wouldn’t want to write a book if given the opportunity?
My book is called Coming Home; it’s a collection of recipes and stories gathered from my childhood days starting at my Nana’s house and moving through my life as I grew up in a family that are passionate and generous about sharing food in a very honest and humble way. I think my book offers the opportunity to celebrate the joy that can be found in the simplicity of everyday life.
(Publisher’s blurb – Cathy’s food philosophy is simple: to cook well, you need a generous heart. In Coming Home she pays tribute to the people that have inspired and shaped this belief – her much-loved nana, whose kitchen all too often resembled a ‘wonderfully messy jam factory’, the unsung heroes of the neighbourhood garden fete with their limitless donations of sponge cakes and knitted babies’ bonnets, and her parents, who taught her that honest, heartfelt cooking is the key to a truly memorable meal.
Along the way, Cathy shares more than 80 recipes, from comforting breakfasts such as crumpets with orange blossom honey and whipped lavender butter, to special-occasion dishes such as baked lamb saddle with feta, beetroot and mint salad, and gravlax on zucchini pancakes. There are also handmade accessories to delight and inspire, including patchwork potholders, adorable egg cosies and a stylish shopping bag.
This warm-hearted, whimsical book celebrates the comfort to be found in coming home and the food that makes us glad to be there.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
That it’s not okay for us to keep expecting more when it means others have less. Share and help create balance.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I love the Obamas, they are a breath of fresh air and they seem very real and they danced on Ellen. I admire Catherine Hamlin, because if I get to come back and have another life I’d like to be a midwife. Catherine has changed many lives with her work with African women who have suffered with fistulas.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Most are personal in that they relate to qualities in myself that I want to improve to be a better functioning person. I think this is where everything begins, I can have high hopes and good intentions for a better world, but I won’t get far if I react negatively to every little thing that confronts me in my daily life. This is a lifetime process and whilst I engage in this I set myself external goals that give me the opportunity to put the former into practice.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Write about what has meaning for you and enjoy the process.
Cathy, thank you for playing.
Free recipe from Coming Home by Cathy Armstrong, Kim’s Caramel Pie, page 186.
This is an irresistible sugar hit that we ate to mark many special occasions as we grew up. Mum made it recently when my brother, Kim, visited and it still remains a firm favourite. It’s very rich so a dainty slice should suffice. You may want to top it with some lightly whipped cream.
1 free-range egg
25 g unsalted butter
3/4 cup (185 g) caster sugar
1 1/2 cups (135 g) desiccated coconut
1 cup (120 g) chopped walnuts
1 1/2 cups (330 g) dark brown sugar
40 g unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup (35 g) plain flour
4 free-range egg yolks
1 1/2 cups (375 ml) pouring cream
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
4 free-range egg whites
225 g caster sugar
- Preheat the oven to 180°C. For the pie base, place all of the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until combined. Press the mixture evenly into the base and side of a 22 cm quiche pan or ceramic pie dish. Bake for 15–20 minutes or until golden.
- To make the caramel filling, place the sugar, butter and flour in a heavy-based saucepan and cook gently over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until the sugar dissolves. Whisk together the egg yolks, cream and vanilla essence, then add this to the sugar mixture. Heat gently, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to the boil, then reduce the heat and continue cooking, stirring constantly, for 4 minutes. Pour the filling over the pie base and set aside at room temperature.
- To make the meringue, place the egg whites and sugar in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water (making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water). Stir to dissolve the sugar. Remove the bowl from the heat and use an electric mixer to whisk the meringue mixture at high speed for 8 minutes or until it is thick and glossy. Spread the meringue topping over the caramel filling.
- Bake the pie for 20–25 minutes or until the meringue topping is crisp.
A Cordial Welcome
Cooking to me is kindness. I think that struck me at an early age when Nana took me along to her street stalls. I was very taken with the courteous chitchat and all the old ladies falling over one another to be helpful. As they carefully arranged their jars of jam and cakes on the table outside the Community Hall and helped the eager customers clustered around the table to decide whether to buy chutney or pickles, the jam sponge or the pikelets, I could feel that generosity was present. They used what they had and shared what remained, calling by each other’s doors with baskets filled with cut flowers, lemons, quinces or chokoes (some items more prized than others). And if the recipient happened to be out, a small kind note would be left with the delivery.
Sharing these humble harvests tied the little communities together in a sweet and personal way. It also enabled Nana and her friends to see each year in and out in harmony with the seasons and nature’s gifts.
The snapshots of these times that I will share with you have been stored in my memory, while the recipes have been recorded over the years in notebooks, scrapbooks and diaries. I have brought them together to become the story of Coming Home.
Coming home. I like this phrase because it can mean literally returning to where you live, or just returning. The connotations are comfort and familiarity; nothing too grand. After all, I am a cook, not a chef, and this is reflected in my food. The motivation and the reward for my desire to cook is the same: to create belonging.
I come from a family of generous people. They are down to earth and quick to dismiss any praise, insisting they are ordinary. They do however make a huge effort to engage positively with life and share what they have. This is the kindness I speak of.
My father is a passionate gardener; he framed the various homes we grew up in with beautiful flowerbeds and splendid trees. He taught us the names of all the flowers that grew in our gardens, which we could cross-reference by studying the floral motifs that decorated our china teacups or were embroidered on our table linens or printed on our dresses.
Mum is passionate about cooking. We rarely visited restaurants; instead, we had dinner parties on Saturday nights with an evolving group of friends and acquaintances. Preparation for these events involved the entire day and all of the family’s efforts to get the house in order. I loved these occasions because they were such a departure from the well-worn routine of our weeknights. And for Mum, they provided an opportunity to sail off into little culinary expeditions that everyday family cooking could not provide.
These experiences, combined with my visits to Nana’s house, have given me some brilliantly coloured snapshots I call ‘food moments’, where the memory of the food eaten is secondary only to the feeling of belonging that came from sharing it. As an adult, this feeling is something I feel compelled to return to, and I do this by creating my own food moments.
After I left school, I was offered a place in the Dress Design Course at East Sydney College, but I quickly learned my plan to create children’s clothes was not part of the syllabus. I drifted into the professional food world without even thinking about it. In hindsight, this was entirely logical and completely unsurprising.
Previously I had spent a summer picking peaches in an orchard in Dural, where the camaraderie that blossomed amongst the workers (and certainly not the owners) was compelling. So perhaps it was no great surprise that when a friend called to ask for assistance at a café in an antique market, I responded in the affirmative. This is where the next part of my food journey began, amongst the Spode teapots and Coalport dinner sets I longed to have, for sale in the cabinets that surrounded me.
With each simple job I secured in kitchens, I learnt a little more – enough to make me want to continue. Each place was invariably staffed by a mix of bright characters that I could not have invented, who became family and made the late nights of endless pot-scrubbing worthwhile.
In 1990 I travelled to the USA to live in Ohio, and I married a chef from Cincinnati. Together we created a multi-award-winning bistro-style restaurant, called Boca, in a dynamic neighbourhood close to the city. It was home to an eclectic mix of artists, university professors, young families and crack dealers, with the odd white supremacist thrown in. Surprisingly, there was an amazing sense of community, and small businesses like ours were encouraged as part of the push for revitalisation.
One of my good friends from Australia said to me before I left for the States, ‘America is even more like the movies than you can imagine it to be.’ For me, this was very true. I found myself living in one of Norman Rockwell’s pictures – passing the little lemonade stand at the corner of our street, gathering on the verandah of a friend’s open house and taking turns on the porch swing, watching young lovers dawdle the streets eating their melting ice-cream cones. It took me a little while but I fell in love with Ohio. I found the goodness I was so attracted to that came from kitchens and gardens. Summer was a joyous opportunity to grow and share tomatoes, corn, basil and baby lettuces, and bunches of flowers such as zinnias and celosia. We would often be presented with baskets of home-grown herbs and produce at Boca, which we then used on our menu. I remember one very busy Saturday night, a friend who had a farm on some land at Indian Hill (I loved the names of the places) stopped by with a crate of baby vegetables. We were so occupied with service that we didn’t pay much attention. Later that night we walked out into the courtyard, which was lit by a huge silver moon.
During her brief visit, our farmer friend had filled every empty jar she could find with cockscomb in beautiful colours – palest sour green, bright crimson, golden yellow and faded orange. It was spectacular and there again was the kindness that kept telling me kitchens, food and gardens and all things related to them were the best places to be.
I am very grateful I have earned my living using my hands to work with nature’s gifts. I feel cooking is a very honest way to earn your keep. I also believe there is a huge amount of wisdom to be learnt and shared from the kitchen, and the opportunities for deep friendship are abundant.
I sometimes catch myself feeling as if I have lived many lifetimes in sculleries (perhaps that’s why I was so drawn to them). Pondering that feeling of familiarity is another coming home, or returning. And in the world of upstairs and downstairs, I will always maintain that downstairs is far more interesting.
I have now cooked professionally for just over thirty years. Like my parents, my preferred method of socialising is dinner parties. While I play around with new recipes, gaining inspiration from Mother Nature’s garden, I realise I always return to the thing my parents were so good at: making a home that generates an essential sense of belonging by opening the doors wide for new friends and old to come and share food moments, however simple they may be.
This book celebrates the comfort to be found in coming home and the food that makes us glad to be there.