Here are two things I love (among many) about my late mum, gone from us now for more than a decade. Firstly, she was an excellent, intuitive cook.
And … she warmly welcomed my friends over the years, often plying them with meals which were prepared with much love and affection.
In fact, she was a cook ahead of her time, as she produced spaghetti bolognaise – with fresh garlic – in the 1960s, when such foreign food was viewed as strange and exotic. I remember too, on hot summer days, she made wonderfully tasty Spanish Gazpacho – a chilled soup with a tomato base into which was added garlicky bread soaked in a little olive oil, the whole being enhanced with finely chopped peppers and cucumber. Delicious! And watching mum make a Victoria sponge or bake an apple pie was an education in itself. She didn’t weigh or measure the ingredients, but said she could tell the balance was right ‘by feel’. Somehow her sponges always turned out light and airy; her pastry was invariably short and crisp.
Mum had some favourite recipes and she was happy to share them. So it was that her Ratatouille recipe (which owes little to a traditional ratatouille as she did not like the flavour of aubergines) found its way to the recipe file belonging to Stella, one of my friends from school days.
Recently Stella, who has lived in the US for many years with her American husband, mentioned that she often cooked mum’s ratatouille to serve as a side dish with roast chicken and I realised that I did not have the recipe. She kindly scanned and emailed it to me.
Don’t you agree that there is something very special about seeing the handwriting of someone you love after they have passed? Mum’s writing is distinctive with its cursive script, large capitals and extravagant loops and swirls. It is not dull writing, but has a liveliness of form. Even the phrasing of mum’s ratatouille recipe brings her to mind in a lovely way. I can almost hear her as she describes the method. In particular I can picture her expression and her hand movements as she suggests ‘swizzling the oil’. I especially like the instruction to ‘cover with foil and plonk lid on top’ – very emphatic.
Another friend, Sylvie, formerly of New Haw and Taunton, now lives in the Languedoc region of France, where I visited her recently.
“I’ve still got your mum’s fruit cake recipe”, she told me. It’s another one that I didn’t have. Soon afterwards the recipe arrived in the post and once again, I can conjure up something of mum’s character from the writing and composition. Her recipes owe little to a formulaic list of ingredients and processes; they are somehow far more personal. I love her comment about the sugar: 4 1/2ozs is enough unless you have a very sweet tooth which reflects mum’s personal preference too. Equally, the clarification of how to avoid the cherries sinking to the bottom of the mixture personalises the recipe in a way that would not be found in a book. Her exhortation to enjoy happy baking! is typical of mum’s desire to please others.
The exchange of recipes today is far more likely to happen electronically and it is the work of an instant to share a recipe with many; mum’s distribution was undoubtedly more selective and perhaps has added value for that. I wonder how many more of her recipes there are hidden away in people’s files…
Handwriting is as unique as a voice or a fingerprint and there are certain characteristics specific to the way mum wrote things down which are personal to her. Interestingly, when she wrote a shopping list she used the whole sheet (usually the back of an envelope) Rather than writing a sequential list, she would dot words all around the space in seemingly random order. I have never thought about why I do it, but I find I do exactly the same.
Mum’s writing never varied much; her hand was always neat and decisive. She wrote to me often, invariably heading up her letters with a humorous take on her address, such as ‘Sunny Vista’ on a dull winter’s day or ‘Shady Nook’ in midsummer, and she always closed with … Ever your loving mum; indeed she was that, and still is.
There is an intimacy and individuality to handwriting that does not exist in the typed word, however emotive or personal the topic. Handwriting reflects us in a way that is entirely unique. We develop a writing style and voice that expresses our own identity.
I still enjoy writing personal letters, notes and cards as an adjunct to electronic communication. Sadly, the pleasure of handwriting is under-emphasised in today’s world and it would be a pity if this individual skill were to be lost altogether.
I do not need the skills of a graphologist to know that mum’s handwriting echoes her merry personality and exuberance for life and the evidence, in the form of her recipes if nothing else, is indeed precious to keep.