Of spices and Sunday lunch

vintage family

This morning my father died. It was not an unexpected death, nor a tragic one. It was the end of a painful journey for him, both physical and emotional, ultimately healing the cancer and the broken heart. I had made peace with the very complicated relationship we had and believe that he had too. But sitting on my bed full of tears and halfway across the continent from my grieving siblings, I felt helpless and bereft.

Then life intervened quite literally and a space suddenly opened up at a cookery class I’d planned to sign up for later. I put my grief on my back and escaped. None of the other students knew me, so I was free from sympathetic questions. The Punjabi food was vaguely familiar from Indian restaurants, but I had never attempted to cook it. I entered a world far-removed from lonely mourning, tumbling into a festival celebrating goddesses and women and their feminine power. The kitchen was warm with celebration, encouragement and patience, as well as with the rich aromas and colours of coriander and cumin, chillies and chickpeas, ghee and fenugreek. As we rolled dough, stirred curries and delved into treasure-chest spice boxes, Ritika wove stories of cooking with her family, the women creating an assembly line to make puri for festivals, the particular timing of the addition of spices, her father such a stickler for perfection. As we finally sat down to share the paneer in its rich gravy, the warm bread somehow magicked from ordinary flour and water, and the spicy chickpeas, I realised that instead of being a complete escape, the cookery class was a reminder of the continuity of life.

In a her chapter “Funeral Feast” in the magnificent Feast, Nigella Lawson comments that, “Any food is a vital reminder that life goes on, that living is important. This isn’t brutal: it’s the greatest respect you can pay to the dead.” The food eaten at funerals and commemorations of the dead not only marks and honours the life of the deceased, but also reminds us that those who are left behind are connected by this life force. And, of course, food reminds us of the dead through memories: of eating together, preparing food together, favourite foods, recipes.

As a parent, my father veered, physically and emotionally, from utterly absent to intensely, angrily, passionately present. I have few memories of him behaving in the way Ladybird readers expect of a parent. There are no family snaps on the front lawn, no blustery holiday photos, no family woodworking projects. In fact, I am hard pressed to find a picture of him with any of his children at all. But one abiding memory I have is of him cooking Sunday lunch. It was always roast chicken, roast potatoes, rice and gravy, with mashed green beans and mixed salad, chopped into minute slivers. He would spend the whole morning in the kitchen, usually in his deplorable underwear, dirtying every pot and surface, getting redder in the face and more and more annoyed with the children, and occasional dog, wandering in an out. Finally, he would present the lunch to us, then hover around the table like a bad-tempered stork as we ate it, demanding compliments for his cooking and pressing the despised Pope’s nose on a favoured child. It was both our favourite meal of the week and a weekly ordeal, which embodies the kind of conflicted feelings my father evoked.

Roast chicken remains my comfort food and I serve it to my family often; still, my siblings and I vowed never to allow the hallowed tradition of Sunday lunch to darken our doors. Perhaps, though, this Sunday, far from home, I will prepare a traditional Sunday lunch, and serve it in memory of my dad. Godspeed, old man.





Remembering Girlie

My mother is probably the last person who remembers Great-Grandma. Within another generation, she will simply become a footnote in history, appearing only in the last few existing copies of the History of the Guest Family Vol. II 1916-1937 – and whatever remains of this blog. Can a life disappear within a couple of generations? Or does something remain in the traditions of her descendants, in the way they roast their chicken or make their pastry? Can the essence of a person remain alive through recipes?

According to the History of the Guest Family, Esther “Girlie” Davis Lucas was born in Kimberley, then part of the Cape Colony, on 27 April 1884, the eldest daughter of James and Alice Lucas. It seems a genteel, middle-class upbringing – Alice Lucas had very long hair and her crowning glory was brushed 100 times each day by either her ladies’ maid or one of her daughters. I can imagine mother and daughters busy baking the kitchen and supervising the cook.

This gentle world was rudely interrupted by what has been called the Second War of Independence, the Second Boer War, the Anglo-Boer War, or, most recently, the South African War. In 1899, the Boer forces besieged Kimberley, a British stronghold. According to the History, the Lucas family, like many others, “endured terrible privations, especially during the latter part of the siege when provisions were scarce and 70 lb. shells were bursting in the streets of Kimberley, necessitating the citizens living down the mines, burrows and “dug-outs”. The siege was relieved after 124 days, with residents of Kimberley resorting to eating horse meat, aloes and soup from soup kitchens.

Girlie was confirmed on 12 April 1902 by the Bishop of Bloemfontein, as befitting a granddaughter of the Davises, missionaries from Somerset in England. (On the other hand, Cousin Johnnie Lucas, family legend has it, gambled away his gold mine and all that is left is a pendant containing some of the ore.) She was educated, at Kimberley Public School and St Michael’s High School and became a teacher in a very small, poor school, where pupils would come to school dirty and hungry. I doubt they left the school that way, such was her compassionate nature.

On 5 September 1905, Girlie married her cousin, Harold Herman Guest, second son of Herbert Melville Guest and Lucy Charlotte Lucas Guest, who was James Lucas’s sister. They were married at St. Peter’s Church, Klerksdorp. The History of the Guest Family gives details of the wedding:

“The bridesmaids were: Miss Gladys Muriel Lucy guest (sister of the bridegroom), Miss Bertha Puckrin and Miss Daphne Lucas (sister of the bride). Ivor Arthur Melville Guest (brother of the bridegroom) was best man and Ernest Lucas Guest and Oliver Basil Guest (brothers of the bridegroom) were the groomsmen. The ceremony was performed by the Ven. Archdeacon A. Roberts assisted by the Rev. G.T. Miller, M.A. Mr H.M. Guest (uncle) [and then father-in-law] gave away the bride.”

Girlie and Herman wedding

Photographs of the wedding show a shy young lady with fresh flowers in her hair, but don’t do justice to the beautiful figure she had.  She used to tell her granddaughter very proudly that when she got married she had a 20 or 22 inch waist (the story varied) and it was natural, not thanks to corsets. (So now I know where I inherited my small waist.) Later photographs show that she developed quite a matronly figure, but my mother knew her as a frail old lady, who looked as if she could be blown away by a gust of wind.

Her aunt/mother-in-law Lucy Charlotte would have welcomed her into Klerksdorp society. The History describes Lucy as “the life of the community” who “always took a prominent part in … any way calculated to benefit the town and people.” Lucy Charlotte “took a delight in providing recreation and pleasure for the young people”: tennis parties, Sunday School picnics, At Homes come to mind. No doubt Girlie joined her and her daughters in church work, as well as the Ladies Benevolent Society and the Loyal Women’s Guild, both of which Lucy Charlotte was president.

Tragedy struck in 1909. In 1907, Girlie had had twin daughters, Alice Mary and Muriel Lucy. In February 1909, Muriel was hospitalised with meningitis, and died on the 7th. Alice was at home and in the care of a nanny, but also contracted an illness – then described as convulsions caused by teething. By 9 February, she too was dead. My mother, who only knew Girlie as an old lady, remembers that she was never able to talk about her twin girls without tears welling up in her eyes – she felt that if she had spent more time with Alice, rather than being with the very sick Muriel in hospital, Alice would not have died. The girls’ obituary describes how “a gloom was cast over the whole town” at the unexpected deaths and the joint funeral. The locket containing hair from each twin is still a family heirloom.

Some years later, Girlie had two more children, Gladys May, and Harold James Melville, my grandfather and slowly returned to Klerksdorp society, and her leading positions in the church and community. She was very involved in hockey, and became president of the Western Transvaal Ladies Hockey Union and vice-president of the South African Ladies Hockey Union. Apart from running the newspaper, The Klerksdorp Record, and his stationery and book publishing business, her husband was conductor of the Klerksdorp Orchestral Society, member of the Klerksdorp School Board, a church warden, and Mayor for a term. As the wife of such a prominent man, Girlie would have had to entertain regularly.

Girlie became known as a marvellous hostess, cook and baker. A friend of the family once made her a beautiful pastry board with the words, “Many hands make light work, few hands make light pastry” etched onto it. She also made jams and pickles, as was to be expected of a housewife in those days. My grandfather always spoke, with great nostalgia, of her aspics and brawns. My mother still remembers eating a pear tart which melted in her mouth. No doubt her cook book holds many of these secrets.

Her tea parties were legendary – as an elderly woman, Girlie still had a group of ladies who visited her regularly and would sit and take tea and chat away about the “good old days”, reminiscing about those tea parties. By the time her granddaughter was a teenager in the 1960s, Girlie was stuck in an age that was long past because she would tell her that when she was older, she would send out cards to say what day she was “at home” and then would receive visitors. By then, she was only making tea and hot buttered toast.

Girlie suffered from Parkinson’s disease and was bedridden for last years of her life. Esther Davis Lucas Guest died in 1961, aged 76. She is still fondly remembered.

Tasty – a History of the Book


In my years as a university lecturer, I was enthralled by the academic field referred to as Book History, or the History of the Book.  This is not to be confused with literary history, the study of literature or textual analysis. The big difference is that Book History includes a focus on the book itself in its physicality: the cover, the paper, the print, the illustrations. Then there is the publishing history: when, where, how and by whom was it published? How many books were sold? How much did they cost? Who were the readers? What was its impact? I was tantalised by thinking about how I could explore Great-grandmother’s cookbook with Book History in mind. What questions would it raise?

This fascination with books runs in my blood: great-grandmother Girlie married into a family of printers, publishers, booksellers and journalists: her husband, Harold Herman, took over the business from his father, Harold Melville, who, in turn, had learnt the trade from his father, Herbert, a printer from Kidderminster in England, who emigrated to South Africa in 1862. I can imagine her asking Herman to bring home a notebook for her to record her collection of recipes, many of which are still stuffed in the back of the book, recorded on bits of paper, backs of envelopes and even on a bridge scoresheet! Was this an attempt to save paper or the serendipitous collection of recipes wherever she was?

The book itself is a simple, soft-cover school exercise book, measuring 18 x 23 cm. The original cover is blue, with The Tudor exercise book and a space for Name, Class, School and Date to be filled in. It was printed by Dirk Pens, of Potchefstroom, near Klerksdorp. Were they a common supplier to the Guests? Was it a free sample they received? What happened to Dirk and his business?

Instead of a simple exercise book, the cookbook is ingeniously covered with beige coarse linen which has been folded and tacked together to make a sturdy book. However, Girlie was a domestic artist not only in the kitchen: the cover is brightly embroidered with a garden scene, with the word Tasty emblazoned across at an angle.  The hollyhocks and bonnetted lady are reminiscent of the 1930s crinoline lady pattern. In her delightful book The Gentle Art of Domesticity, Jane Brocket (2008:166) describes this highly stylised icon appearing on tablecloths, aprons, tea cosies and tray cloths. While Girlie did not use the original transfer design, she was working within a popular and fashionable tradition. She uses gloriously riotous shades of pink and bright green, as well as a patch to applique the lady’s dress and combines several embroidery stitches. This creativity is a testament to a past age, where the homemade and handmade was the norm. I find this kind of work a great treasure in the history of women’s domestic art, and great loss in a mass-produced, sterile, flaw-free world.

The paper inside still shows the faded pink margin and faint blue lines. And across it meanders the careless scrawl of an inkpen. Girlie’s handwriting is a little challenging to decipher – here my years of marking students’ work give me an advantage. I wonder if she was left-handed – my grandfather was, although he was taught to write with his right hand at school by having his left hand tied behind his back. My eldest son, living in another, freer, age, turned out to be left-handed as well, revealed not through writing, but the desire to feed himself. This brings us full circle from Book History and back to food!

Perhaps there is still an academic lurking inside me and yearning to write about domestic artists and homemade books? For the moment, the recipes themselves beckon with the appealing first section entitled “Biscuits”, Cocoanut.



Mother’s Day memories

Mother’s Day always raises a slight ache within me, that I never knew either of my grandmothers. However, I was blessed with my wonderful maternal grandfather who lived with us all my life. Jimmy Guest, affectionately known by the Afrikaans “Oupa”, was a white-bearded Father Christmas figure,  gentle, wise, generous, endlessly patient and a magnificent storyteller.  The stories he told at bedtime were an Enid Blytonesque series, based on a family of bears who lived in the Green Forest and centered around a mischievous cub named Johnny Bear. My siblings and I thrilled to the tales of Sergeant Creamer, the polar bear police officer, and the villains (mostly goblins) who lived in the Dark and Evil Forest. Most stories were mild and charming, including summer swims, campfires and minor heroics. The most ghastly, which still chills me to this day, ended with an ursine priest, complete with shining crucifix, performing an exorcism in the Darkest and Most Evil Forest. But what was central to the stories was the image of Mother Bear in her tree kitchen, producing a stream of lemonades and chocolate cakes and delightful pies.  I wonder if Mother Bear wasn’t based on my grandfather’s own mother, Esther Davis Lucas Guest, the Great-grandmother whose cookbook is the inspiration for this blog. I remember Oupa and my mother reminiscing about “Muzzie”, a formidable sounding pillar of Klerksdorp society in the interwar years, and eating Sunday puddings from her recipes. My beloved grandfather died when I was 16 and left a massive lacuna in our family and my identity within it.  But this year’s Mother’s Day conversation with my own mother sparked off a whole new set of questions and a precious trickle, then flood, of memories of Muzzie, and my rediscovery of a great-grandmother: a teacher; a survivor of the Anglo-Boer War; a mother who lost two children; a mayor’s wife who hosted At Homes; a legendary baker of pies; a gifted needleworker; a frail old lady with Parkinson’s. Instead of ending Mother’s Day 2018 with my usual sense of loss of a female history, this year has been particularly poignant, with an awareness of memory  linking three physically and geographically distant women and reviving a thread of heritage that can be woven into a richer family tapestry.

The Great-grandmother’s cookbook project

Moving to a new country at the age of 45 is a challenge. Following my husband’s job to Nairobi, Kenya, I felt as if I’d lost my home, my history, my family, my friends and my job in one fell swoop. Without the defining identities of daughter, sister, friend, lecturer, editor, and having suffered an inexplicable and terrifying heart attack, I had to create – or at least rediscover –  my identity.

The upside of all of these losses, I consoled myself, was that I would have time on my hands to do all the things the aforementioned identities never allowed – I would exercise, nap and eat healthily; I would explore my cupboard full of wool, fabric, and blank needlepoint; I would write inspiringly, and, perhaps, I vaguely considered, pick up my research on the history of recipe books I had dabbled in before the marking took over.

Instead, after the chaos of the move and settling boys at new schools, I was poleaxed by both exhaustion and my empty schedule: my body was complaining loudly, and with a much longer school day for my boys, a magnificently efficient housekeeper,  and no marking or deadlines, I proceeded to fill it in time-honoured fashion of sleeping, reading, and baking.

It took nine months for boredom to emerge, and, close at its newborn heels, a small, whimpering creature named creativity. I unpacked my cupboard and finished a patchwork quilt that had been waiting for a decade. I churned out tapestry cushions. I upcycled dull clothes. I read my collection of vintage recipe books and baked even more. My perceptive teenager suggested a longer project, as I was clearly unfocussed. On our first trip home, my mother, perhaps in cahoots with said teenager, dumped a book and a pile of cuttings in my lap and said, “Here is a project for you.”


The project turned out to be my great-grandmother’s handwritten recipe book, including cuttings she had taken from before the Great War, through to the swinging sixties. It is a feast of a book, with recipes from friends included, along with notes on how many socks she had knitted for the war effort. My passions for cooking and baking were aroused, faced with delights such as “General Smuts cookies”. My editorial inclinations were titillated by the challenges of conversions to the metric system, and my historian side by the need to preserve this precious piece of family and domestic history for later generations.

This blog aims to share my journey though this perfect project, which speaks to so many aspects of my identity, as well as the recipes, history and family secrets it will reveal.