Friendships

I am a bit late today because I met a baby on my Monday. Not just any baby. The baby of a student who has, over the years, stopped being a student and became a friend. T is her second child and is so curious and intelligent. Not even four months, and responding to everyone and laughing when I teased him and happy to be held by me.

While I and T were being happy together, his mother and I chatted. We spoke about a lot of personal things, and about the cultural differences between Indonesian women over 60 and Australian women over 60.

She’d been to a lecture recently and so we also chatted about the bias that means that much research into early trade between SE Asia and northern Australia has been under-reported. The talk was by a scholar whose papers I read. We would both like to see more written about the pre-1600 non-European engagement with the people of the far North of Australia.

By pre-European, I’ve seen more papers about Christian voyages to the north, especially Dutch, Portuguese and British (the British ones were more recent) than about those from all the other cultures that are close, or who have settled or converted land that’s close to Australia. Given that much of Indonesia and Malaysia are now Muslim and given the large influence of Indian cultures on that whole region, this lack of public reporting has led to a vast, vast gap in popular knowledge and understanding.

Also given that the people of far Northern Australia know Muslims and Buddhists and Chinese traders with quite different religion still and they have incorporated this knowledge into their own cultural traditions rather than converting to any of those religions, it’s important in other ways. We talk about different cultures working together or living alongside each other and yet we don’t understand this for not-so-modern Australia.

The conversation moved (of course) to the particular culture of Sulawesi and how it has connected with the Australian continent. This led to beef rendang which, as my friend knows very well, is one of my favourite foods. Decades ago I made kosher beef rendang, just to prove that it could be done. It’s easy to make rendang kosher because it contains no dairy products, but I had to adjust the cooking slightly and the ingredients slightly to allow for the differences in the meat texture and salt levels.

From this we returned to talking about the children. Of course we did. My friend has two utterly gorgeous children and they’re a joy to talk about. Although we did spatter the conversation with why some childless women adore children and why some do not. I think we concluded that everything depends on who the woman is and what our life experiences are, but I’m not certain about this. I don’t think the conversation is done. We are certain that I like children of all ages and am keeping my role as an honorary aunt.

It’s going to be a month or so before we can chat again. As a mother of young children she won’t have time until after Ramadan. After Ramadan and before Pesach: perfect.

Two types of hunger

Way back when I did more things that were political and public, friends and I learned that it’s possible to get through life without hating, without accusations based on little or no evidence, and without destroying the lives of others. We learned, quite simply, how to learn before judging. We talked about folk dance and folk music (in fact, some of us danced and some of us sang), we learned much history to advance our understanding. I can still do some of the dancing (although these days it hurts, physically, which is ironic) and sing some of my favourite songs to myself (not to others beachhead really, I have no voice) and I still learn the history. What I’ve never stopped doing and what I can still do well is cooking. Hunger for food helps feed the equally-important hunger for understanding. Let me introduce you today, then, to four cookbooks that have served me well when I need to remember how complex and wonderful different cultures are and how there are many paths to avoiding hate.

The first book is Christiane Dabdoub Nasser’s Classic Palestinian Cuisine. A friend who is Palestinian Australian said I was missing her cultural background from my book collection, even though I was cooking food that was very similar to her own cuisine. She was right. I had not even begun to understand where her food and foodways were like mine. We talked a lot, and we ate each other’s cooking, which helped, but my library didn’t reflect this at all.

I couldn’t find a Palestinian Australian cookbook. Nasser’s was published in London, though, so it’s close enough for now. By ‘for now’ I mean I need more. One cookbook is not even close to a whole culture. The first cookbook is to open a window and to begin to see through that open window. I begin learning where I make non-rational judgements and where I lack knowledge and understanding, and then the recipes I cook help me break down my issues and to stop applying them to someone else’s culture. It helps me see people, and to stop hiding behind my own biases. It helps me look for what we share and to avoid hate.

I make a variant of Nasser’s potato with rosemary dish for Passover. It’s wonderful. Sadly, there are never leftovers. For dinner tonight, I’m choosing between two different eggplant (aubergine) salads. I’m hungry just thinking about it.

I chose the second book because I needed a cup of coffee. I’ve just finished my cup, and I feel almost awake. Given I’m writing on a hot summer’s day, this is a good thing. Antony Wild’s Coffee: A Dark History is not my favourite history of coffee volume. It was the first I saw when I looked at my shelves. It is, however appropriate for today.

We all carry a lot of half-understood history with us. All our foodstuffs and foodways have their own history and sometimes we know things and we think we know things and… it helps to find works that debunk and reconsider and don’t shy away from the less-good elements of the past.

The history of coffee walks hand-in-hand with empire-building and slavery if you want to focus on one side of its history. Coffee offers so much more than this, however, and I’d not use Wild’s book alone. Coffee helped European political blokes talk to each other through coffee houses from the seventeenth century. It changed the shape of discourse, in fact, in those countries. It shaped that discourse in part of the Middle East. Opening the door to coffee history is to open the door to understanding how even the history of a single type of bean carries with it cultural complexities and is worth understanding.

The last two books are, in my library, a pair. I use them a lot. They’re both by Claudia Roden. Roden does all the things I’ve talked about. She breaks food and foodways down into specific cultures: her volume The Book of Jewish Food is a masterpiece in this way. It doesn’t contain my foodways (there’s a story in that) but it’s given me a basic understanding of how Jewish food and foodways can be interpreted and understood in a wider sense. I can integrate this with my own historical knowledge (and it helps being an ethnohistorian, I admit) and I can talk Jewish food with most people. I have favourite Jewish foodways, and I explore them separately, but I always begin with Roden’s work.

The same thing applies to my learning about the different food and foodways of the Middle East. Her A Book of Middle Eastern Food is the book that began me on this wonderful journey, when I was a teenager. I owned my own copy from the moment I left home. My little paperback is from 1982. Without it, I would not have known enough to ask friends “What should I look for in a cookbook that takes into account your background.” I have hundreds of cookbooks now, but this was one of my first, and I still love it. My copy is battered and much used.

Each note Roden makes about this cuisine or that has sparked research at my end. I find more recipes, look into the culture that owns them, begin to understand the food customs and rules… and remind myself that doing this help me remember, every day, that respect and understanding trump hate. This means, of course, that I need another cookbook. It’s been a very difficult year so far for me as an Australian Jew. My obligation from that (according to the way I see the world) is to understand better other people who are also hurting. I shall watch for cookbooks and recipe websites. This is not the only way I try to understand, but it’s definitely the most fun.

Better Living Through Sauerkraut

I wish I had been taught Chemistry differently. To this day, most of the chemistry I learned in school was as a side-benefit of my biology classes. I loved bio, and survived chemistry (required) and physics (ditto) in order to take the advanced biology class my senior year, wherein a good deal of chemistry was taught in passing, particularly when we were looking at DNA and genetics. But beyond that, Chemistry the subject seemed utterly detached from things I cared about. Okay, some times you just have to buckle down and get through the classes you don’t much care about (I’m looking at you, PE) to get your ticket punched and make your way out of high school. But I think I would have learned more if it had been related to something else. Like food.

Flash forward a few decades to when I gave a lesson in bread-making to my daughter’s second grade class. It’s a perfect basic chemistry lesson for kids: simple enough to be reduced to 7-year-old level, but tied to something familiar (better yet, edible). I just came across the handout I did for the class, which is what put me in mind of it.

And this morning, spurred by an article in NY Times Cooking, I made sauerkraut. It is ridiculously easy: cut up a head of cabbage, put resulting shreds in a bowl, “massage” (the NYT term, not mine) two tablespoons of Kosher salt into the shreds for five minutes, until the cabbage starts to soften, reduce down, and release some liquid. Then pack into jars and stir every couple of hours, to speed fermentation. All the time I was up to my elbows in cabbage I kept wondering 1) is this really going to work? and 2) why does it work. So as soon as I had packed the cabbage into its jars and cleaned up the mayhem that cutting up cabbage produces, I hied me to the internet.

According to the Clemson University website, “Cabbage is converted to sauerkraut due to growth and acid production by a succession of lactic acid bacteria. Salt and limited air creates desirable conditions for the leuconostocs – a group of less acid tolerant lactic acid bacteria that grow better at 60°F to 70°F.” Fortunately for my sauerkraut, the winter temperature of my kitchen is somewhere around 65°. The salt works–as I noted as I worked–to soften and draw juice from the cabbage. As a bonus, it also works to keep undesirable bacteria at bay; you want the desirable bacteria, of course: the leuconostoc lactic acid bacteria that create lactic acid. 

See? Chemistry!

The Clemson site gives a recipe that requires 25 pounds of cabbage and yields 9 quarts. I suspect that once my much more modest batch has fermented fully, it will be something closer to a quart and a half.

All of this reminds me that I need to make a batch of bread and butter pickles. For science!

Not-Christmas and not-weather (mostly, sorta)

At this time of year I hear a lot about snow and sleet and the need for egg nogs to get through winter cold and gloom, and it’s very tempting to counter this with stories of the flooding in Northern Queensland and the heat and the incoming storms. The incoming storms today might mean we have a tolerable weekend, which is very important for those who are having big parties over said weekend. The storms, when they’re over, will be good for me because I am not a summer heat kind of person.

I want to talk about the weather for about two hours, because I’m in the mood for it, but I shall stop here, because I’m so very kind. Also because I would like people to give me merely a paragraph on the state of winter darkness before moving on to more interesting topics in their own writings in this season. If I would like this then I should give you a mere paragraph on summer heat before moving on.

So… let me talk about the weekend. Weekends are always good to talk about.
I’ve been advised to avoid all the places where there are marches for this whole season, because there is often a component of people in those marches who are not entirely safe for anyone Jewish, so I have already done most things for the next week. I do not need to go to shops or near big streets where folks demonstrate politically.

This time of year is mostly a period of intense work for me, with a few really, really nice exceptions. 2023 is classic for me in this regard.

School and university (except for research students who don’t do Christmas) have already finished for the year. Both the calendar year and the academic year, in fact. We’re about to get the annual shutdown of most things. Everyone’s frantically preparing or on a plane to somewhere cool – I mean the latter literally. So many of my friends are heading north into winter.

This year, because I can see friends if we’re all careful (I’m COVID-vulnerable) I will have visits from friends who are on holiday but not headed north. I have chocolate to feed them, in case it’s too hot to cook. Much chocolate will be consumed. I’m thinking of getting some mint and making big jugs of iced tea (without sugar, because Australians are not so big on sweet things, on the whole) but that will have to start next week. I refuse to encounter crowds just for mint.

I celebrate Christmas for the same friends who celebrate my New Year. We’re kinda extended family for each other. I’ve already made sure that two lots of presents and some very nice port is at their place, because while they cook, I will finish a chapter. My personal race with time is that chapter – if I complete it I get the afternoon and evening of 24 December off.

That morning is the last market day in the year and I’m going to the market with one of my friends to make sure we have all the things needed both for the dinner and for the few days after. Me, I’m making sure there are lots of cherries. Cherries are so important for the whole end-of-year period. When I was in Canada for Christmas/New Year people had poinsettias, which weren’t the same at all. Mind you, they also had snow. Which was, of course, exotic.

If the weather is nice, we’ll be outside. If it’s not, we’ll be inside with air monitoring and tiny portable air purifiers. It’s perfectly possible to have nice events with the COVID-vulnerable. We proved it last year and we’re doing it again this. I’m hoping for outside for most of it, however, because a summer day with children is better outdoors. I like the years we go down to the lake and picnic and the black swans come to investigate all the presents, but this year we’re staying home. This means that when I am nicely relaxed and have eaten too much I can wander home and do some work, so that is good, too.

Unlike much of the US, Canberra does a pretty thorough shut-down over Christmas. This means no tradition of Chinese restaurants for anyone Jewish.

What I sometimes do in its stead these days is host an online chat with friends about the Toledoth Yeshuah. 25 December then is a big working day for me, except for an occasional detour via that really interesting by-product of antisemitism. The Toledoth came into being because of other times like this, and it’s interesting to see how we dealt with this stuff (culturally) in times past. So I will be exploring it, but unless anyone asks, I’ll explore it alone. It’s not a comfortable text, nor a comfortable tradition. Hate hurts.

Boxing Day is different. This year it will be my father’s 100th birthday. He died when I was 26, but I miss him and want to celebrate anyhow. I’m just 2 years younger now than he was when he died, which is, I admit, sobering. Friends are coming round to toast him during the day, but only a few friends. I shall watch a really bad comedy he enjoyed, or maybe one of his favourite Doctor Who sequences… I’ll decide on the day.

In my evening, which is morning in Europe and the day before in the US and Canada, I’ll open up a Zoom room where anyone who is at a loose end can drop in and tell bad jokes in honour of my father and generally catch up. If you would like a link to the room, contact me in the next few days and I’ll send it the moment it’s live. Waiting til the last minute means if I am unwell, which happens, I can sneak in some rest and start a bit later. I’m looking at beginning around 8 pm AEST (Australian Eastern Summer Time, which is UTC/GMT+11) and continuing for as long as there are friends who want to hang out.

Let me know if you’d like to be part of anything I do online during this time.

Also, I’d love to know what other people do over the long weekend, if they don’t have a regular Christmas for whatever reason. I’d love to hear about other kinds of Christmas!

Tea time

Today I’m putting together notes for a talk I’m giving this week. I’m giving it from my desk, but most of the people at the other end of my computer will be in China. A talk on tea to China.

This is when I feel like a fraud, but it’s not that at all. I’m talking about tea history and how to prepare for time travel through understanding how tea was brought into Europe and North America. I have Russian silver and a reproduction Dutch cup and a bunch of other things to show and tell.

I used to teach these things and now I’m nervous because I’m giving a talk. Tea to China, I tell myself, is not chutzpah. Tea history includes what Linnaeus knew about the plant, and why there are no teapots prior to a certain date and where beef tea fits in. I intend to detour via portable soup when I talk about beef tea, because they’re related and I have some portable soup right now. I won’t make beef tea, I’m afraid because I have no love for it.

What else shall I talk about? Medieval herbals (briefly) and popular tea literature in the 17th century. What Marco Polo said (or didn’t say) about tea and my guess as to why. Tea substitutes, including during the US Revolutionary War and in the early Australian colonies.

Lots of things.

My aim is to finish most of it today, along with most of my Patreon material. I have 2 other talks to prepare this week, too. This is on top of my regular research, but it’s fun stuff on top of my regular research. As long as I get it done and all ready for the world SF convention, things are good. October is busy, but delightfully so.

I think that this post calls for a cup of tea. I have a rather nice oolong to drink this afternoon. Which reminds me, I haven’t included even a mention of British Malaya and its relationship with oolong into my talk yet. Nor how coffee and tea identity-switched in British at a certain moment. Nor… I should write.

Old hobbies, new joys

I have a new essential oil.

I used to make perfumes as a hobby and every now and again I save up a bit of money and get new fragrances for my bath. No-one around me asks about my perfumes and I think everyone’s forgotten them. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I still love creating fragrances just for me. Not perfumes any more. Scents for my home.

As I change with time, the scents I like change, too. I used to love the sophisticated and the swanky, but now I love to be reminded of the bushwalking I also used to do or for my body to be reminded that it’s fine to put tension and pain aside. It’s hard to bushwalk when walking to the shops is beyond me on most days, but it’s easy to lie back in a hot bath and smell tea tree and lemon myrtle and kunzea. It’s also very good for arthritis, when combined with magnesium salts.

The new essential oil is may chang (litsea cubeb). I mistook it for cubebs when I saw it in the catalogue, but the moment I smelled it, I knew it was perfect for me. Cubebs are one of my favourite peppers for cooking, which is why I bought something I wasn’t sure about. Cubebs is still one of the best peppers for cooking. It is properly peppery and has a delightfully fresh aftertaste. And may chang is perfect with lavender and just a drop of diluted Bulgarian rose for an hour away from the world.

Now I have a favourite cubeb for a scented bath and one for cooking and they’re not related at all. The same applies to mint. My favourite mint for cooking is… most mints. My favourite mint for the bath isn’t a mint at all, it’s a prostanthera, a native Australian plant that smells of mint and just a touch of eucalyptus. When I was a child I had a favourite native mint bush which I always used when I needed mint tea. On the essential oil bottle it says “Bush balm mint” but it is still the perfect mint tea bush from my childhood.

Some of my oils help this illness or that (especially the muscle aches and joint aches that are my everyday), but mostly I like to feel as if I’m in an English country garden, or in the local bush or, in this case, I don’t know where, but the new scent is the best ever.

I also use the oils in teaching writers how to built sensory worlds for their fiction. Or I used to. I developed my scent teaching from my hobby of perfumerie, and taste from my food history background (with some help from a sister who is a wine and olive oil judge). The others were easy once I had techniques that worked to teach two of the senses. I also taught writing family history and personal memoirs, which gave me an excuse to bring home-cooked food and favourite family foods and food memories into play, because they use all the senses. The university I taught at closed most of its outreach courses and so I was suddenly unemployed and I’ve not yet found anyone who wants to learn these things.

It’s a real treat to return to my fragrant past and to remember that just because no-one is interested in learning how to write the senses from me any more, that doesn’t mean I have to lose the cool aspects.

I still look at most novels and analyse the writer’s background from how they use their senses. Australians are my favourite, largely because I am Australian. We love using sight, but also use sound to a degree. It’s quite hard to find an Australian writer of fantasy or science fiction who uses all the senses effectively. Historical fiction writers are more courageous in this, especially the ones who want to communicate the grunge and grime of everyday life. If an Australian writer wants to bring a unique touch to their work, learning methods of incorporating the other senses would do it for so many of them.

I so miss teaching this! It was good for my writing as well. Teaching is very handy for skills maintenance. So, it seems, are hot baths.

The Joy of Past Food

I had such a fine idea for a blogpost for today. Unfortunately my fine idea came at 3 am and I wrote a charming and profoundly meaningful post in my sleep. I’ve spent the whole of today trying to recall it. I’m running out of time, so instead of the charming and profoundly meaningful post, you’re getting an introduction to the book I found on my coffee table. Its spine is held together with packing tape, Its cover is falling off despite the packing tape. It’s basically a blank cookbook for a home cook, with recipes added over time. About half the pages have recipes.

A friend gave it to me the other day, and I haven’t had time to decipher it yet, so everything I say here is a discovery.

It was used over two generations (possibly longer) because there is some copperplate and some italic script. The first newspaper clipping it it has a recipe from Jean Bowring. This means it’s an Australian recipe collection, and the Bowring recipe is from the late 50s or early 60s. The clip itself has no date, but Bowring had her own foodie TV show from 1957-1960. There’s a recipe dated 1940, which is celery seed for rheumatism. These are the only two entries with clear dating.

This is a household collection of the type women have been making since at least the 17th century and I love it. The 1940 recipe is written in a hand that’s a spiky version of one of my aunt’s, which makes me wonder if the writer was a young housewife in the 1940s, since my aunt was born in 1919, and it’s a nicely modern hand.

Let me see what else I can find.

There are no recipes in the soups/fish section or the first pages of the poultry/meat section. The first recipe in the poultry/meat section is the cheesecake recipe from the TV personality. I’ve seen this in other books like this from Australia, and I have a family story that suggests that a lot of the everyday food cooked by Australian women (and occasionally Australian men) were not that complex and required learning techniques rather than following recipes. This somewhat explains why the early pages are so very random.

My cousin Edith, who was a fully-trained doctor, but whose qualifications were not ever accepted in Australia, was a paid nurse in my Great-Aunt Gussie’s (Augusta) household. Gussie and she had a bit of an argument about throwing bones out with meat on them. Vienna had been going through hard times and Australia had not, so it was Edith who pointed out the good food that was being thrown away. This led to that and Gussie accused Edith of not being able to cook. Edith pointed out that she had to leave her cookbook at home when she fled. Gussie said “You don’t need a cookbook to cook dinner.” I was taught both the techniques and how to use cookbooks, so I understood both Edith and my great-aunt when Edith told me about the incident. I have several of Edith’s family recipes in my own little collection, but nothing from Gussie – she lived from 1872 to 1940. Her two children were two of my favourite relatives and Linda, the eldest, lived from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. This explains why I know a bit more about Victorian and Edwardian home cookery than most people born in the 1960s.

More clues and fewer family stories? Let me look past the newspaper clipping. The first handwritten recipes are very Australian. There’s a copha cake recipe. I haven’t seen anything like it in years. It’s a quick cake and perfectly suitable to make in a hurry when friends drop in unexpectedly. It has copha (of course) sugar, egg, self-raising flour and vanilla for flavouring. Nserted next to them are two recipes for plain cakes with butter rather than copha, in the handwriting Melbourne schoolchildren learned in the 1940s. Cakes and more cakes follow, all very straightforward and all cakes I’ve made or very like cakes I’ve made. Also a recipe for Snow Balls given to the owner of the book by Phyllis, The snow balls are sugar, gelatine and boiling water, dipped in a sauce and rolled in coconut. These days we buy them (and by ‘these days’ I go right back to the 1960s) and they’re dipped in chocolate before the coconut. Puddings, patris, cakes – all the standard sweet stuff made for a young family.

There are some older recipes hidden among the really familiar ones. When I was doing research into Georgian recipes, I discovered cooked salad dressing This book not only has one of these, but it describes one of the ingredients as sack. I don’t know if this was copied from an older collection or if it was a family or friend’s recipe, but it’s a nineteenth century salad dressing. It’s possible that the book itself goes back that far, but I don’t think it does. There is also a recipe for growing household potatoes using a kerosene tin, which the handwriting suggests is 1940s or a bit later.

Most of the recipes are written using pencil or fountain pen. The fountain pen work is mixed – ther are amazingly skilled hands and one that is bigger and more random. Every single hand, however, is better than mine. (I still can’t date fountain pen writing as exactly as I used to be able to date Mediveal hands – this is an to my self-esteem.)

Some recipes repeat (snow balls!) and some are annotated by a later, more italic hand. And the recipes are so, so familiar: nutloaf, lemon tarts, mock cream filling, puddings (which are called desserts these days), icecream, shortbread, pumpkin scones, gingerbread, lamingtons, kisses, cream puffs, meringues … and we carried over from the other section into the pudding section, so suddenly the recipes all match the tag on the side. Given that the first recipes after the ‘pudding’ tag are all in older handwriting (that looks as if it might be early 20th century) I suspect that the desserts and cakes overwhelmed their place and walked backwards into the earlier section. I suspect this because the handwriting is a bit more recent in the earlier section.

The page containing recipes for pumpkin and cheese scones is so used that it’s falling out of the book, which is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the fact that I was taught how to make almost all these things as a child in the 1960s. Before I was ten, to be honest. I can still make them, but seldom bother any more. I don’t eat much sweet stuff, and most other people don’t know to demand chocolate fudge cake or strawberry short cake. This means Australian foodways have changed this century and were far more constant for the first 7-8 decades of last century.

This little cookbook is so very well-used. I wonder if it was how children were taught in that family? My mother started keeping a collection of recipes when we would bug her to do our own cooking, so having something like this where you could just say to a child “Don’t burn yourself on the oven” would have been very handy, and would explain the stains.

Suddenly there are fewer spots on each page and the recipes are jam and marmalade. We didn’t use recipes for jam or marmalade (or for most biscuits and some cakes) but these recipes are still familiar. I used to love making fig jam with fresh ginger and one of my favourite jams ever was pear and ginger. This book contains both. I used to love the jam so much, in fact, that I no longer make it. Jam is not diabetic-friendly. In fact, even the thought of making all the best jams is probably not diabetic friendly, so I am closing the book and leaving you to dream of Australian food, which is, I think, mostly from the 1940s and 1950s.

Food memories

While I was thinking about what I should write this week, I began some chicken soup. Boiling chickens are very hard to come by now, and that sent me back in time to four winters ago, when the bushfires kept me indoors and there was no COVID. I was making chicken soup then, too. The post was for BookView Cafe and when they fixed their website, it came down, alas. So… here it is again. It amuses me that despite my whole life changing over four years, I can still be relied upon to make chicken soup in winter. And I still play with time.

 

Today I’m a bit timewarped. My July and August are basically impossible, so I’m spending a freezing July evening pretending it’s an even more freezing evening in later July or maybe a milder evening in August. I hope to be back to writing a few days before I post later in the year: this means you’ll get timely blogposts then. Everything I write today is influenced by today, even if I try to take my mind into the world of two weeks’ time or a month’s time.

My hands are so cold I can’t even type properly. The heater is on and I’m making chicken porridge and chicken soup and still my hands are cold. Midwinter is midwinter is always, always midwinter.

My own chicken soup is my traditional way of getting through midwinter. I bought a cheap boiling chicken (the label proudly proclaims ‘steamer’ but it knows it’s a chook meant for soup) and I put it in the slow cooker with bone left over from my chicken porridge. That and four litres of water will take me through until this time tomorrow. That’s when I’ll add onion. Saturday I add carrot and take half the soup away. On Sunday I buy parsnip and celery from the market, top up the water by a large amount, and finish the soup off.

The soup I take off will have other things added to it, including tiny dumplings. I bought the wrappers yesterday. I’ve got some vegetables and sesame oil and other nice things and will shred the chicken currently working valiantly to make the soup. I’ll mix all this together for my dumplings. That’s lunch every day next week.

The rest of the soup will be a base for dinner. My next six nights’ worth of dinner, though, is that chicken porridge, with the chicken from it and various vegetable dishes on the side. The chicken is already in a bowl with its sauce, and I’ve made some pickled daikon. It’s a substantial meal, but also not too heavy. Full of garlic and warm tastes.

Just making these things has warmed my fingers up somewhat and I now have a big cup of tea, which makes them all kinds of happy. Happy fingers are a good thing when one has a lot of typing to do. Having most of my food cooked before the week is even better. All I need to worry about is more vegie dishes or salads on Sunday and I will be eating well and staying warm and have every change of meeting my deadlines.

This is Australia in winter. We’re at the start of the financial year and we’re impossibly busy and we turn to food. So many people are talking seriously about food right now, and getting their tax papers ready.

During my busy periods, I usually cook from Thursday to Sunday and then spend a few days finishing everything up. This is what happens in many Aussie households. My days are different because my working week is a bit odd and I have little control over when I get to shop, but a lot of my friends cook for the week ahead rather than cook on the day.

What strikes me is how many Australians cook. We are one of the countries that has farmers’ markets and takes fresh ingredients for granted. This need not have been the case. Our distances our so great and our basic cuisine so English that we could have made quite different food choices.

Not everyone cooks here, but those who don’t can be very apologetic. At functions where we ‘bring a plate’ those who bring a plate of their home cooking are seen as doing the right thing and those who’ve picked something up on the way are not bad people so much as people we look at and hope that this means they were busy rather than that they can’t cook.

I once went to a dinner party where someone had ordered the food in. For casual eating we all do that. We love our food, so we love many kinds of food, so it’s fine to order in for casual eating, but not for formal dinners. The host and hostess didn’t mention what they’d done and everyone was happy for the food was delicious.

The trouble our hosts faced that night is that we all ask questions about food. “What’s in this?” and “How do make that?” MasterChef is one of Australia’s favourite TV programs. I was the first person to cause a problem, for our hosts had no idea if a dish had nuts and I have a severe allergy.

“Try it and see,” suggested the host.

“How far is the hospital?” I asked.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Then I won’t, today. It looks good, though.”

A few minutes later the person opposite me said, “This dessert is terrific. Can you share the recipe?”

The whole table was silent. I looked at the person asking. They had worked out that the food was not home made and that there was a recipe. Their child also had a peanut allergy (we’d chatted about it) and they were making a point… politely.

That was years ago, people are more careful about allergies. I get many fewer dinner invitations because a very few people prefer to avoid the whole issue, which is a funny cultural shift.

The other funny cultural shift is how the tendency for those with income to eat out or send for a home delivery or buy premade food from the supermarket make sense of US movies for us. I’ve noticed that the recipes shared on local fora are more often basic recipes, too, because not as may people know how to cook.

Still, a large percentage of Aussies cook. This still informs our foodways. I am not the only one cooking reassuring food this week to get through midwinter.

 

Australia’s early cookbook history

I was going to talk about the World Cup and countries that have played with the haka but… it’s such a big subject. It was such a stupid thing to do. Instead, I’m going to talk about plagiarism by politicians. Well, one bit of plagiarism, by one politician. That will reduce the subject to manageable size.

The book that contains the plagiarism is Australia’s first published cookbook, first printed in 1864. Except that it isn’t. Apparently there is an earlier (1843) printed volume, “The Housewife’s Guide” but the Australian Food Timeline claims that Abbott’s is really the first, as it was compiled entirely in Australia. Here is the article about The Housewife’s Guide. When you finish reading my description of the first recognised-as-Australian cookbook, you can make your own decision about the status of the book and of its politically-inclined author. I agree with the author of this article.

So… back to plagiarism.

Let’s start with an introduction to the author. He was well-known in his day, but remembered only for the cookbook. Edward Abbott was the author. He came to Australia with his family in 1815. He was a grazier, foodie, politician, coroner and apparently tried to raise Tasmanian tigers as pets. He also assaulted the Premier of the State (at that time its own colony) with an umbrella.

The cookbook itself reflects his character. It contains recipes for the infamous “Blow My Skull” punch, another drink called Tears of the Widow of Malabar which contains an inordinate amount of brandy, and also practical recipes such as how to roast wombats and to cook kangaroo brains in emu fat. These are the examples used when modern writers talk about the book.

All this sounds lovely. Perfect food history fodder. Why do I look across at 300 pages of recipes and cry “Plagiarism”? Even today, recipes attract a lower level of copyright than, say, tour guides. Just as long as the writer doesn’t use the exact words and the footnotes and whole passages that describe exotic places… using other peoples’ words. Of course, a politician (even an eccentric one) would not do such a thing.

There are quite a few sections that would be useful to look at (all of them very entertaining), but I’m going to choose the one where I identified the precise book Mr Abbott ‘borrowed’ from. It was part of the volume, and also  issued as a standalone little book by Aboott himself. It’s called, Hebrew Cookery, by An Australian.

Technically, it’s Australia’s first Jewish cookbook. This is, unlike the complete volume being Australia’s first cookbook in general, undoubted. The reason for ‘technically’ is it’s a section of another larger cookbook and that whole section is taken from A Lady’s (Judith Montefiore was the author) The Jewish manual, or, Practical information in Jewish and modern cookery : with a collection of valuable recipes & hints relating to the toilette. 

I appear to be the first person to have mentioned this online (and maybe the first person to spot the plagiarism) but that was some years ago and I didn’t actually publish an article about the discovery because I had other things on my mind and since then a couple of other people have identified that yes, Edward Abbott is a plagiarist. A very distinguished and rather dead plagiarist.

To sum up, parts of  The English and Australian Cookery BookCookery for the Many, as Well as for the “Upper Ten Thousand” are stolen. Whole sections, in fact. The one I know best is the first stolen English Jewish cookbook published for Australians… by a politician. Abbott was not Jewish, for the record.

I identified the plagiarism by trying to work out how Melbourne lost an ingredient in Abbott’s cookbooks and, in the process, I discovered that we never had it. Jewish cooking in London used chorissa as an ingredient, but none of the Sephardi Jews who moved to Melbourne in the 19th century could buy it anywhere. Once I realised that the footnote explaining that one could by chorissa (kosher chorizo) at a kosher butcher was not Australian, but referred to London, it took me about five minutes to find the original book that contained that footnote.

Why was I looking for it? I’m so glad you asked. I did an academic paper (someone at Sydney University really wanted it) in 2007 on my family’s English Jewish heritage. The cookbook that all these wonderful Jewish dishes were stolen from was very close to many of my grandmother’s recipes. She didn’t get them from Abbott, however – they were the family’s London-origin cooking. This might explain why he stole that cookbook. I have yet to find a sensible explanation of why Abbott ‘borrowed’ from books about famous places in the world.

Some of the (supposedly) first Australian cookbook is, indeed, Australian, but the rest of it shows very nicely what books Edward Abbott thought were important and had access to.

The National Library of Australia has online copies of both Abbott’s whole book and the “Hebrew” section that was published separately. I’m letting you know just in case you’ve always wanted a recipe for “Blow My Skull.”

PS I feel I ought to add that Abbott himself acknowledges his source in the smaller publication. he claims that the book was out of print (I’m not convinced it was) and that the wider community needed to taste Jewish cooking. I have this wistful dream that he visited Melbourne and was scolded by my great-great-grandmother.

Seasonal Joy

I was going to write you a 4 July post, but I remembered in time that in the US, it’s still 3 July. In Australia, we’d take the Monday off and make a long, long weekend. But not this week. Not any week until our next public holiday in fact, which, for Canberra, is in October.

Winter is different in Australia. Some people assume I’m referring to the cold or lack thereof (they think that all Australia is too hot, all the time), but in my part of Australia it’s cold. Not as cold as Alaska, but cold enough for big coats and snow. The main reason Canberra doesn’t get much snow is because it’s too dry. The best-known snowfield in the whole country (where there is snow even in summer… in places) is close.

Winter is different because we don’t have time out. We deal with the encroaching dark and we do not celebrate the incoming light. We have no public holidays and the only way to get time off work is if one has children. All my teacher friends are on holiday this week, and most of them are down the coast, where it’s less cold. Anyone not at school (as a student or a teacher) just has to deal.

I used to deal by experimenting with different recipes for mulled wine and mulled wine equivalents. Those recipes covered 700 years of spicing wine and were most excellent at keeping the cold at bay. Friends would visit to help me drink it. I can only drink a few sips these days and, because I’m COVID vulnerable few friends visit, so there will be no hypocras, no sangria, no mulled wine in July.

Instead, I’m making portable soup. Eighteenth century style portable soup, to be precise. The ancestral stock cube. A soup that you can cut with a knife and that has so much gelatin you could use it as a building block.

In fact, I do use the cubes as building blocks. I can make much healthier sausage rolls or meat pies with a much better flavour and at least as good a mouth feel as the same dishes made using suet or duck fat. I can chop up some vegies very finely and have a delightfully warming beef broth in minutes. I can build so many dishes with the portable soup.

This is appropriate, because I’m writing about building blocks this week. The building blocks I’m writing about are the building blocks of story, though, not of food.

The closest to the midwinter delights northern hemisphere folks talk about and what I actually experience is this particular harmony between what I cook and and what I write.

A few people celebrate what they call Christmas in July here. If friends asked me, I’d join them as I do for any other Christmas, but… I’m still Jewish. There is no reason for me to set up a Christmas celebration for myself. And the only Jewish holy days in July this year are fasts.

July in Canberra is a good month for work and a very bad month for most happiness. As I tell everyone every year, be nice to me, for my sarcasm is close to the surface throughout July. Also, be nice to me because I’m cold. We’re in the warm part of the day and it’s not a cold day and the temperature outside is hovering just above 50 degrees F. This is the weather for sarcasm, just as December in the Northern Hemisphere is the season for joy and mirth and gifts.

If anyone wants to give me gifts to make me merry, I’ll not say no. In the meantime, I will create building blocks and hone my sarcasm.