I have had a very quiet xmas day, nibbling on leftovers, having cups of tea and reading recipes in two cookbooks I got for xmas: “Plenty”, by Yotam Ottolenghi, and “Eat” by my all time favourite food writer, Nigel Slater. I spent most of the day in the kimono I got from my mother. Clearing the room where she died in my house 12 years ago, I found it hanging behind the door and I took it for myself. And from time to time I wear it. Sometimes, getting a glimpse of myself as I pass a mirror, I am startled: imagining her here, wearing it.
I thought about my mother a lot yesterday. My husband found me in the kitchen crying into the stuffing I was making for two fat organic chickens which were on the menu. He wordlessly hugged me, knowing that it is particularly during these holidays that I am reminded of past xmases and family get togethers and happy times with parents, and grandparents even.
And then last night, at the dinner table, my new daughter-in-law quoted someone as saying that one only really becomes a grown up woman when one has cooked an xmas meal for one’s mother. Her mother was here from France, and her father, and her brother too, a very different extended family around this table than the one I had briefly last year.
Today she was going to do exactly that: cook a special meal for her parents, for her mother. I shall ask her how it was for her, and if she feels that she had graduated to grown-up! I think on her menu was a leg of lamb, and roast potatoes: simple but deceptively so. A perfectly cooked leg of lamb, even the perfect roast potato is quite a feat. And her mother is a good cook. I asked her to bring along hummus and baba ganoush for pita, and a chopped salad: my menu had Middle Eastern slant. Her food was made with flair and the confidence of a good cook. My type of guest.
My food was slightly milder in flavour: though I had a very liberal hand with the za’atar I made three jars full to give as gifts the day before. The couscous stuffing was delicious, slightly sweet with apricots and pine nuts and cranberries(the only “traditional” xmas ingredient) and feta, and the beef rib roast was cooked perfectly pink. I had to cook a portion for one guest in the microwave oven: she does not like meat still pink: luckily I remembered before I dished up for her.
My mother would never have cooked this meal: the flavours were too foreign and would have been too strong: garlic, lemon rind, thyme, origano, sumac, cumin. The tahini for the tahini sauce on the roast butternut would not even have been available, even had she developed her culinary nous. No, her food was always more traditional South African, well, Afrikaans South African I should say. Middle class white Afrkaans South African. On xmas there would always be at least three meat courses, often served as cold cuts. Very seldom did she make turkey: my father did not like turkey meat, so there would be chicken with stuffing, and leg of lamb(well done): ditto for whatever beef dish there would be. Or pork shoulder rolled and roasted, or a leg with crisp crackling, or even venison if my father had been hunting earlier in the year. Always roast potatoes if we had a warm meal, otherwise potato salad, and always a mexican rice salad which my father loved. Towards the end of her life when they lived on a farm near Warmbaths, we(her children and my siblings) would almost always go there for the day, bringing a dish: a salad or a pudding or a vegetable dish.
Bringing a side dish was the most I ever cooked for my mother on Xmas. Until she died I never hosted an xmas as an adult for my parents. Maybe that is how it often is: that it remains the mother’s domain. I certainly have been hosting xmases for my sons and their friends/girlfriends/wives over the last couple of years, since they left home, as I did last night.
I woke up this morning remembering what my daughter-in-law had said: and how I never got to cook an xmas meal for my mother. I think I would have loved it. I think she would have loved seeing me in my kitchen, and later at the head of my dinner table set with white candles and pink roses last night and silvery plate chargers, with my sons and my husband and friends and new family.
Such, sigh, is life.