21 June 2009

The flavor of grass

"Ponder well on this point:
the pleasant hours of our life are all connected by a
more or less tangible link, with some memory of the
Charles Pierre Monselet (1825-1888)

I always think best whilst lying on my back.

In Ben's Balinese villa, Dewi sunk her lithe, oily fingers into the knots in my limbs, massaging away the humdrum of city life. A sense of relief swept over me. In tranquil surrounds, with my eyes closed, I was comfortably numb. A moment of pure stillness held my focus, before a childhood memory bubbled to the surface.

I was of course lying on my back. Around my neck was a daisy chain, and around me bees droned their way across the lawn. In the quiet, I had been transported back to when I was six years old, lying cushioned on the turf of the common that lay behind our house in England.

I recall I was chewing a young shoot of grass. The sweetness of the white of the shoot filled my mouth and as I made my way towards the dark tip, I was totally mesmerized by the complexity of its flavours: sweet, sharp, mellow and then finishing bitter.

Clouds rolled over the sun. Feeling a sudden chill I rolled over and sat up. There she was, waving me over; Auntie Renee or rather Ree-nie as she liked to be called.

Renee was our neighbor. A stout, childless woman with brassy hair and a penchant for bright, floral aprons, who had in her middle age, finally married her childhood sweetheart. When they were young, her beau Bert had gone to war. Renee had married another - one unable to be sent away - an older man. But Bert was constant and would have no other; she his only beloved. He waited for her. And when her husband died, he again patiently courted her.

Standing by the gate at the rear of her house Renee had been watching me amuse myself. We were silently bonded by our shared a secret: we hid Mum's crippling depression, even from Dad.

We said nothing. Taking me inside, my co-conspirator handed me a glass of milk and a Marmite sandwich; thick, sweet white bread, spread thickly with butter and the cloying, tangy-savoury, yeasty, black spread. Just as with the grass, I paused over each bite and dissected the experience - taking in the textures and the complexity of the Marmite, neutralised by the richness of a mouthful of unpasteurised milk. A simple yet reassuring meal for a precocious palate, watched over by a bemused sympathiser.

Next door, mum was fast asleep. On my summer holidays, she spent most of the day unable to rouse herself from her bed. Rising only a couple of hours before Dad came home, she'd fly into a frenzy of activity, tidying the house and preparing dinner.

On school days I would go into her wardrobe and pick out clothes for her, dragging them off hangers and placing them on the bed before climbing up to kiss and hold her until she was roused.

On the worst days I would pull on her outstretched hands to drag her out of bed. Then, she would - as if on auto pilot - boil me an egg and make me a slice of toast, served with a glass of milk, while I put on my school uniform. She held my hand and trudged the short distance to the school gates, expressionless and lost in the quagmire of her confused thoughts.

For many years I detested the thought of boiled eggs and glasses of milk. I couldn't bring myself to have them and by then my nutty professor father had concluded that milk contained too many sugars and would potentially rot my teeth. By the time I was old enough to make my own breakfast, to my relief, the school was given instructions that I was neither to have milk at recess, nor with my typically nasty British school dinners.

The demon that held Mum clenched between its jaws was not to have a name or treatment until she was almost sixty. In its grip she was frail and vulnerable. I rode her illness with resolve. Like being on the front of the most torturous roller coaster, I stoically withheld my anguish for nearly 40 years. But in the face of her personality disorder, Mum triumphed every night with amazing Cantonese, pan-Asian and Fusion food. She gave this skill to me - it is also how I show that I love my closest friends and my own beloved.

The night before Dewi's massage opened the door that led me back to my childhood, I had cooked a meal in our friend's Balinese villa. Guided unconsciously by my inner muse, it was a pan-Asian, it was fusion and I was sharing it with people I loved.

On three long, modern rectangular silver platters sat mahi-mahi barbecued with Sumatran rempah on rice noodles; a cucumber, coriander, shallot, green mango salad with smoked chicken and a light Vietnamese dressing, garnished with crushed peanuts; a salad of the slimmest young green beans, blanched and rolled in sesame oil, tossed with roasted red capsicum and fresh young watercress, and then drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

I owe that skill and the enjoyment of cooking to my mother, who somehow, through the blur of her mental illness was always able to show me her love and appreciation via her creative cookery.

My life has been in many respects like the young grass shoot; sweet and sharp - at times mellow - with a bitter finish. While I would not wish it on others, it has certainly been a character building journey.

And in that magic moment, while being soothed with small expert Asian hands kneading away my pain - lying on my back thinking - I finally understood my 'cooking mojo' and where to locate it.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful and sensitive post. Thank you for writing about it.

Joanne Hay said...

Oh, your post made me cry. I know only a touch of the illness your mother languished in for so many years. But I hadn't thought what my family feel when I travel dangerously close to that place. I hope you keep tasting every last drop of your life, like you did that blade of grass. That way you'll continue building your immunity to depression yourself.

stickyfingers said...

Thank you both for your generous and kind comments. I just re-read the post and my eyes began to smart. Some experiences will probably always be raw despite the resilience I may have developed along the way.

Though Mum is still fragile, she is now very much on an even keel. The sciences of the mind are progressing rapidly and we have a very clever doctor to thank for the cognitive behavioural therapy which instantly kicks in whenever an episode looms on the horizon for her, preventing the downward manic spiral.

It goes to show, there is always hope to counter the shadows.

Maria@TheGourmetChallenge said...

What a beautiful post. I've never eaten grass before, but you're description let me taste every flavour as though I had eaten it myself. Just beautiful, well written.

stickyfingers said...

Thank you Maria