In my last post I asked you to share a favorite family food memory. I received this response from new friend and frequent Lettuce Eat Kale commenter Julie Cleeland Nicholls, a fellow Australian living in Singapore. I met Julie through my oldest friend in the whole wide world Jane Rogers, who was wise enough to say yes when I asked her whether she wanted to be my best mate in second grade.
Julie wrote this homage to her father and his food on the second anniversary of his death. I’m sure you’ll agree it is a lovely remembrance of a man and his meals.
It is an honor and a pleasure to publish it here as the very first guest post on Lettuce Eat Kale.
I’ve retained the Australian spellings in Julie’s prose. A couple of cultural references explained: A magpie, for those who may not know, is a noisy black-and-white bird native to Oz. Max Brenner is an over-the-top chocolate shop originating Down Under.
Julie grew up in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, Australia. Her father, Peter Robert Cleeland was an Australian Labour Party politician, a doting dad, and an awesome cook, an unusual feat for an Aussie bloke of his generation.
“I miss my Dad every single day,” Julie tells me. Read on to learn why.
Dad’s Kitchen Song
Special Guest Post by Julie Cleeland Nicholls
When I reach back for memories, I invariably remember food…It’s the food itself, the taste of things shared and, most often, the meals the dead used to prepare…Death has its particular relationship with food. It is, by its nature, symbolic and metaphysical. The dead are beyond succour and hospitality. We eat, and particularly drink, in remembrance. – A. A. Gill
Dad never cooked for us when we were little; that was Mum’s province. From the vantage point of later years, after Dad revealed himself as a talented cook, this division of labour seems odd, because Mum disliked cooking.
After a hard day teaching, she’d hastily direct her children to assemble strange concoctions with some very borderline ingredients indeed. “Just cut that green bit off the chicken, Julie,” she’d say. “It’ll be fine when it’s cooked.” Mum’s approach combined a breezy tendency to scoff at use-by dates, and bursts of desperate creativity, resulting in memorable dishes like her infamous sausage and curry casserole. I eat now at the dodgiest roadside stalls around the world without fear of illness and attribute this to my early food experiences at my mother’s hands.
When my Dad set up home for himself at a later stage in his life, he took to cooking, discovered he was good at it, and realized he liked it. And he shared that discovery with me. Now some of the warmest memories I have of him are in the kitchen. The soundtrack to these memories is provided by Dad himself, singing loudly and with emphasis, “As I WANder along through the hills, MAG-gie, where once the roses BLOOMED.” He didn’t know any of the other lyrics, so he’d just repeat, pause, and then hum the rest of the tune while he chopped, sauteed and basted. We called it “Dad’s Kitchen Song” and it was always a harbinger that good things were on their way.
What would Dad cook?
- Lush winter soups with a rusty silk wash of paprika and spices skimming the surface.
- Sweet roast spring lamb with root vegetables: “I love parsnips; not everyone does. I don’t know why not. They’re so earthy. Here, Jule – smell this,” and he’d present a specimen he was peeling so I could share his pleasure in its good, raw scent.
- Wonderfully fragrant Thai curries. He fussed about finding authentic ingredients, tracking down bitter little pea aubergines and grinding his own spices. He experimented with frozen, imported kaffir lime leaves before he and his wife Jan decided to grow their own. They tracked down a nursery in New South Wales that grew kaffir lime trees and on their next trip to Sydney to visit me, they spent the better part of a day driving to the outer Western Suburbs to buy a tree. Successfully transported back to Melbourne and nurtured it in a sheltered corner of their windy garden till the leaves were ready to harvest whenever they needed.
- Dad’s Christmas specialty was a whole salmon poached with sliced lemons picked that morning from his garden tree, and big handfuls of dill, coriander, and any other fresh herbs that took his fancy. It was the centrepiece of the family lunch – enough to feed his and Jan’s blended families, their spouses, and growing numbers of grandchildren. The salmon was moist, cool and light on the days when it was a sunny celebration; and when the Melbourne Christmas weather turned grumpy and unseasonal, its slick and melting texture was a fine consolation for the spattering rain outside. Dad would stand watchfully over the hooded barbeque, wine glass in hand, making sure the fish was cooking perfectly. At the same time, he managed to remain front and centre of every passing conversation going on around him; the perfect example of a holiday multitasker.
For Dad, a meal wasn’t complete without a vigorous debate going on at the same time; words, food, wine, and ideas were the ingredients he most valued at a family feast.
On the first Christmas after his death, my husband Andrew agreed to supervise the salmon, following Dad’s bit-of-this-splash-of-that recipe as well as he could. The pressure was extreme, and Andrew admitted to some feelings of fishy inadequacy in the lead-up. But with advice, input, and cheerleading from the rest of the family the task was accomplished.
We ate the Christmas salmon as we’d always done – with just one great and terrible difference: The creator of the dish was missing from around the family table.
I learned respect for the ingredients that make up a meal from Dad. He loved markets, frequently shopping at Preston Market in the northern suburb of Melbourne, where he’d grown up. In addition to debating every green-grocer and deli owner who’d engage in repartee with him, he took deep delight in the smells, sounds, and sights of Melbourne at its most multicultural.
From the second-generation Australian shopkeepers selling Italian, Greek, and Turkish foods; to first-generation arrivals from India, Vietnam, Africa, and the Middle East, he’d talk about how wonderful it was to shop in a place where the cultures, languages and cuisines of the world came together to take part in the everyday yet transformative miracle of choosing, preparing, and serving good food.
The last meal I shared at my father’s table was not cooked by him. In the final days of his swift and fatal six-month illness he couldn’t walk and had increasing trouble moving his arms. He was sensitive and proud about not being able to eat with ease, so we carefully didn’t watch him as he painstakingly maneuvered the sushi that Andrew and I had brought over for lunch. With the meal, we opened bottle after bottle of red wine from his “cellar” – really just a converted corner of the laundry.
He joked that his goal was to finish every bottle before motor neurone disease had its inexorable way with him. That became one of the few life goals that Dad didn’t fulfill. We’re still drinking wine from his cellar two years later.
After the sushi, I opened a box of hand-made chocolates from Max Brenner to have with coffee. I’d included each of his favourite flavours, and was rewarded by his smile. He managed to eat a couple then, and I hope more after we left.
There’s a photo taken from that day, I’m standing behind my Dad’s chair with my arms around him after we finished our meal. I’m smiling too brightly, and Dad’s eyes are their usual beautiful, denim blue but his smile is tired. Even the simple act of sharing lunch had exhausted him. On the empty plate in front of Dad is a smear of soy from his sushi, and you can just see the corner of the chocolate box, still a quarter full.
For Dad, the art of selecting, cooking, and sharing food was an extension of his enthusiastic, generous, and big-hearted personality. As with everything he did, he expected acclaim and extravagant compliments to be showered on him as he presented his meals. But the results of his efforts were always shared with such hospitality and joy that this demand for approval was simply part of his incomparable charm.
The praise was always given to him, unstintingly, sincerely, and with love. I hope that made him as happy as his kitchen songs made us.
In memory of Peter Cleeland, May 31, 1938 – September 16, 2007