I love my mother’s Italian hands -always cooking- busy & industrious-her curved squat thumbs- peeling garlic/chopping up herbs and vegetables grown in the garden. As a child I helped and watched and ate: spring broccoli barely cooked with some garlic & olive oil salt & lemon remains one of my favourite foods. As she grew older she would keep saying to me how did you learn to cook so well? I don’t understand, where does it come from? I would answer in different ways- your example was inspiring-your Italian food taught me that only a few ingredients well cooked, can be amazing: that less is more. I would say how much I loved the fact she cooked Egyptian food, she was brought up in Alexandria, as well as learning to cook English food from scratch and to bake so well, especially cakes and puddings. And how this amazing cultural mix, in the 50’s & early 60’s, on a secluded farm, shaped my life. But my answers never seemed to satisfy her question, because she kept on asking it over and over again. I told her how travelling and eating out at the many diverse cafes and restaurants in London & reading cookery books, had all taught me a lot about cooking. And then there was the influnce of Turkish & Libyan friends whose food was as delicious as it was interesting. And of course most obviously cooking itself taught me. But still the same question. It started to rankle. Her persistance. My inability to come up with an answer. Now, I started to ask questions. Did my love of cooking have another source? Where did it come from?
As an adopted child, an interest in origins is somehow inbuilt. Jeanette Winterson, writes in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? “adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you.” Neither do the questions which Winterson says for an adopted child “mark the very beginning of our lives”. Could I really have inherited a love of cooking? And who from? Logically, I knew that it was in all the answers I’d given my mother and what I should be doing was trying to find out why, in a sense, she was asking the question in the first place and refusing all the answers. In reality I couldn’t be that objective and instead saw it as a lack of faith and I became defensive. I wanted her to stop, enough. I don’t have the answer. And that’s when she started to talk about the fact she had never taught me how to cook. Italian mothers, she said, teach their daughters to cook. They pass on what they know: their recipes & their skills. Suddenly my mother’s guilt was palpable and I understood why my answers never satisfied her. Several years after my mother’s death I have begun making and selling preserves. When I go to sell at Frome’s artisan market I take her worn but sharp bone handle knife with me and use it to cut slices of delicious fruit cheese for customers. I miss her terribly.
Louise Bourgeois is an artist whose work and writings I regularly re-read and return to. I especially like her early sculptures which she made as a way of exorcising the homesickness she experienced when she moved to New York from France.