Snapshots of growing up in a kitchen with a couple of moms
I’ve always found baking easier than cooking. The reason is simple: baking has a recipe, which if you follow obediently and patiently will almost always yield the same results. Cooking is a responsive act; a play of tasting and timing and of sensual trust, a dance between elements that, much like painting, come together so that in the end if someone were to point at one specific spot and say, “That! How did you do that?”, you wouldn’t quite have an answer for them.
Being a mom in this world has almost definitely got to be more like cooking than baking but because I am all about drawing the secret recipes from the ovens of the world I am endeavouring to find the recipe to motherhood. Or at least an ingredient or two.
The mother. Our very first source of food in this world. A seemingly random appearing and disappearing set of breasts from which, in the first few weeks of life, we drink our early nourishment. For our most infantile, undeveloped psyche the extremes of these two new realities: the states of being in a blissful milk-drunken satisfaction and on the contrary; the painful hunger of abandonment can cause our baby brains intolerable anxiety.
According to Austrian-born Jewish psychoanalyst (and mother) Melanie Klein, who pioneered early childhood analysis therapy, an early defence mechanism our week-old brain does to deal with this conflict is to split the idea of the mother into two. A “good mother” and a “bad mother”. One which gives and one which takes away the very source of our most basic desire. It is only later in the development of our minds, when perhaps we start to realise the world is infinitely deeper and richer than a milk bar with strange operating hours, that we apparently synthesise both mothers into the notion of one person.
When I first came across this pretty way-out theory I was immediately struck with wonder if baby Alice had the need to split my mommy, Lorraine, into two moms like most others when in my reality I did have two mothers. I grew up with two moms and two dads. In fact I grew up, quite simply with two sets of parents. Allow me to explain…
My mother is an identical twin to my aunty Shelagh. My father also happens to be an identical twin and what happened, in a beautiful interplay of poetic circumstance is that each of my twin parents fell in love with the other. They married. On the same day, in the same dresses and ivory white suits at the City Hall in Pretoria on 3 January 1981. When people find this difficult to understand I make two peace signs with either hand and bring them together in the centre. See? Two of two, met, married and made 4 parents.
I grew up in one household with all my siblings and cousins under one roof. There were 8 children, 4 girls and 4 boys. We lived in a double storey house. The “Upstairs Crybabies” and “Downstairs Teller-onners”, my Uncle Luka affectionately referred to us. We lived as one family, mirrored. We shared all areas of the house: the large garden, the living rooms and a massive, round, pinewood dining table where we ate all meals together but most importantly we shared the kitchen – the nucleus of the household.
Growing up in this very much ‘normal-to-me’ set up meant that I experienced, and still do, a sort of dual parenting. What I received was maybe a stock exchange of parenting where qualities and strengths were traded to compensate and fill in the gaps so that we ended up with this multi-layered tasty stew of “figuring it all out for the first time together” between four people who knew each other very well.
While my father, Anton, and his twin interestingly have gone on to become two quite different individuals in both personality and in quirks of appearance…my mothers have maintained a sort of fused unity of being. In more ways than one.
My mother was always gentler, more softly spoken so that my aunty took on the role of band-aid ripper, tooth-puller or disciplinarian. She was dishing out the lashings of hot sauce on our cussing little tongues or delegating the duties in preparation for big family celebrations. Their synergy of mothering meant 1 + 1 became so much more than 2 mothers. And nowhere in our family life was this felt more so than in the kitchen.
We grew up eating like kings! While my Aunty She waxed the lemon chiffon cake to airy perfection, my mother wordlessly whisked the leftover twelve egg yolks into a velvety custard conclusion. There was this sort of beautiful (counter) balance to every meal. Something so much more than two cooks or chefs working alongside each other in the kitchen but really one mind executing with four arms. A culinary consciousness so collectively fused that often even words weren’t needed to be exchanged. I grew up witnessing beautiful moments in a silent symphony of creating and providing a meal for many over Sunday ražanjs, First Holy Communion lunches, birthday dinners and New Year’s Eve parties.
A bowl of chopped fresh tomatoes would be placed on the counter by one mom’s arm and seamlessly picked up and tossed into the tabouleh by the other’s. It’s as if, at times, one of my moms tasted the tzatziki while stirring together yogurt and shredded cucumber and the other would be prompted to add a bit more salt.
They share the purest form of oneness I have ever witnessed. And if you’re wondering, yes, my dads have it too. But this is not a portrait about unexplainable twin telepathy. Looking back, neither is it a romantic still life about what food I ate at home. Rather it is a genre painting of a busy kitchen. A sunnier version of Velázquez’ “Old Woman Cooking Eggs” or a more chaotic kitchen/scullery-bound Mary Cassatt painting. It is a culinary snapshot of Sorolla’s “Mending the Sail” in which we are instead mending the holes in stretchy sheets of filo pastry making apple strudels from our Great Aunt Lucy’s recipe in the afternoon sunlight. Together.
It is a reflection on an upbringing that was about the makeup of a busy kitchen. And all the living that ends up happening in that space over time. It is an observation of the relationships it baked into my life. The relationships I have to my siblings (each had their own special dish only they prepared best). To my mothers. To my fathers. To food. Food was the communion between the chaos in a large Catholic family of big personalities tossed into one household.
This pondering comes at a time in my life when I am looking to start creating the dynamics of a family household myself, which is maybe the only time that I can truly appreciate how easy my childhood felt. Maybe that is why I still crave home cooked food as an adult. And always will. It is the kind of food made for feeding loved ones and the sneaky glue used for keeping them around. Made in any old simple kitchen, really. Because it is not about the bike.
It might, however, be about the recipe so in ending I’d like to share my own loose cook’s 5 step recipe for creating a doubly lovely kitchen life (even if I plan to be only 1/1 mother using it.)
- Have a big, big (preferably wooden) table somewhere in the kitchen. Rectangular will do, but nothing beats an impractically round table with a lazy susan on top. When I am not using it to prepare meals on, leaning against it drinking tea in mid-afternoon conversation with someone passing by…I can fill it with my favourite people in the world.
- Host big events I don’t have the capacity to really hold. These fill a house to the seams and something about that just feels right. Growing up, we would spill over into the garden and rent tents on almost every family occasion and my mothers have spent the past few years ridding themselves of boxes upon boxes of cutlery in a way some might do with collections of jewellery.
- Celebrate things! My moms never shied away from celebrating things. Scarcely did a child finish school or a first tooth pop out the gums of a baby (cinnamon pancakes for breakfast) without a resulting food based tradition of some kind. I realise now how many of my fondest memories were made from my moms making a big ado about the simple passing of time.
- Always make recipes in pairs. Whatever one recipe calls for in abundance another dish can use the surplus of. The duality of dishes means more food made for more people. More is always more.
- Share the kitchen space. You don’t have to be good at making every meal. You just have to be really good at making your meals. When everyone makes theirs, you eat well seven days a week!
And always (always) go back for seconds – especially if you’re at home.
Shelagh’s Lemon Chiffon Cake
Visual artist, tartist and BAEK zine-maker, Alice Toich likes to keep her hands full of paint, dough or paper cuts in a mutually exclusive manner.