23 March 2008

Bitter Heart. Sweet Chutney.

e·piph·a·ny (ĭ-pĭf'ə-nē) Pronunciation Key

  1. Epiphany

    1. A Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.

    2. January 6, on which this feast is traditionally observed.

    3. A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.

    4. A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization: "I experienced an epiphany, a spiritual flash that would change the way I viewed myself" (Frank Maier).

  2. A revelatory manifestation of a divine being.

    1. A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.

    2. A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization: "I experienced an epiphany, a spiritual flash that would change the way I viewed myself" (Frank Maier).

[Middle English epiphanie, from Old French, from Late Latin epiphania, from Greek epiphaneia, manifestation, from epiphainesthai, to appear : epi-, forth; see epi- + phainein, phan-, to show; see bhā-1 in Indo-European roots.]

The tomato felt slippery as I lifted it from the water. As I shed its skin the flesh felt as warm and soft as a child’s. I dug my fingers into the fruit, squeezing out the seeds and tossing it into a pot with the others, landing atop diced apples and onions.

I thought of my maternal grandmother - Nana. In the time I knew her she had a sharp, nasty tongue. She never failed to slice me to the quick with her mean contempt. Grandpa and I had spent our days hiding from her in the garden and the shed.

Of Scottish descent, she was raised first in Robinvale in the north west of Victoria, then in Australia's Wimmera district. She referred to it as ‘Da Wim-RA!’. A head strong and recalcitrant child surrounded by doting brothers, her father had tired of her wilfulness and sent her to work on his brother’s farm. Her mother was - according to my mum - a big, buxom, scary brute of a woman with a light cool hand for pastry making. I heard nothing of my great grandfather.

In her lifetime Nana had worked in a factory, on a farm, been a Baker, a Hairdresser and a Podiatrist. She was a hard working and enterprising woman with a harshness, brought on by God knows what. I wondered how we could be related.

Her cooking was atrocious and she had an eating disorder that exacerbated her cantankerousness. But she could bake. Her traditional Australian cakes and biscuits that were trundled out with pride at the local Bowling Club, moved people to massage her ego, until eventually her relentless incivility had her black listed.

For me however, it was her tomato chutney that I loved best.

In her bulimic moments she would gorge herself on pastries and cakes and when she finally lost her marbles and was confined to a high care nursing home, I would bring her French pastries and sweets, watching her smear cream on her face as she devoured them. One day when I arrived on a visit, she was dressing her hair with candy as though they were jewels.

I never learnt the chutney recipe. When it came time for her to make it I was always scuttled from the house to harvest and deliver the tomatoes to the kitchen. Then herded out again from under her feet.

She never shared her secrets. Whenever anyone asked for a recipe for a cake, a biscuit or her chutney, she would cheerfully oblige, deliberately leaving things out. No one was ever going to steal her thunder.

Her recipe for Chutney died with her. At her funeral I cried my heart out with relief and for the sadness welling in her younger brother, who gently stroked her casket. He was the last of his generation. Now, all his siblings had gone to God.

We ate cakes at her wake and tiny sandwiches. Juggling a cup of tea and finger food, my pockets stuffed with wet tissues, I could just hear her besmirching the quality of the catering as not being up to her exacting standards.

Sugar, dry mustard, curry powder, mixed spice, allspice. A generous slosh of Jerez Sherry vinegar follows. Some plain white vinegar too. I throw in cardamom seeds, cloves and some ground coriander. On a roll I add fresh Bay leaves to the chutney in progress.

The lid of the pressure cooker locks into place and I leave it alone to do its work. My head is full of bees. I want to scratch my eyes out. I have no sense of smell or taste. An upper respiratory infection clouds my mind and I curl up on the couch under an Alpaca blanket. The hiss of the valve on the saucepan is like my endlessly streaming nose and crackling ears. In my dreams Nana mocks me.

Later, when I release the pressure valve on the pot and remove the lid, my face fills with dewy moisture. The chutney is shaping up. After a stir, I leave it to cook away on a gentle flame while I return to the comfort of my fluffy blanket.

Disturbing me from my reverie Mr Stickyfingers asks what spice is it that he can smell? I rattle off ingredients, read from various recipes in books and gleaned online. I tell him that I am trying to recreate a flavour but then stop dead in my tracks. If he could smell it, then I must have over seasoned it. Shit! Unconsciously Nana had got her way again.

To Nana, nothing I ever did was right. I was useless. The laziest person she’d ever met. Fat, ugly and just plain useless. She was a racist and eventually renounced me one Christmas, saying that I ‘wasn’t her grandchild’ on the grounds that I wasn't white. We weren’t to see my maternal grandparents again for years. Skinned and squeezed dry, I too was cast to my fate.

The scar she left on my psyche helped forge a path to my becoming an over achiever. I always go too hard. I put myself on the line for my convictions and stoically face the resentment it brings from others. I am tenacious to the point of ridiculousness and I put unnecessary pressure on myself. Then I burn out.

As I left the house to get more tomatoes to correct the flavour of the chutney, the planets must have changed position. Enroute to the market, my own valve suddenly released. A dial turned in my head and I abruptly stopped myself.

The chutney could wait until I was over the bug and my palate was back to normal. If I couldn't fix it, that was ok too. No problem, I could try again. The pressure was off and it would stay that way from now on.

Sweet. Sour. Spicy. But not bitter.


purple goddess said...

**inserts bowing icon**

Change "racism" for "Adoption" and you have my life.

So SO hearing you, darl.

Anonymous said...

Sticky, I really enjoyed that snapshot into your childhood. Dont let that old vinegar tits have the last word, stuff her recipe, move on & make your own bestest chutney!

Y said...

Great post. I usually love what you write, but never know what to comment, so I don't.. But this time I am because I just wanted you to know that I enjoyed reading it :)

stickyfingers said...

Thanks guys - I post these occasional personal accounts with trepidation. After they're posted I think - "oh no, what have I done? I'm going to bore people with this", so it's comforting to have your reassurance.

Y - I may not comment often on your blog, but I live vicariously through your baking.

Lucy said...

Not boring at all.

Broke my heart in fact.

Lovely, as always.

A.C. said...

Wow, stumbled onto this through FB... wonderful entry... what I love most about food blogs is the stories that accompany the food... your chutney looks wonderful dear, and the memory of your Nana is a great spicy sour sweet inspiration...

stickyfingers said...

Thank you Corinne for your very kind words. I'm slowly realising through my blogging that most of the food I cook is connected to the various relationships I've had with family and friends in my life. I hope you'll stop by again.