Since I tried to make my first ever batch of preserves, at the age of 43, I’ve been musing on how much knowledge my grandmother had that she took to her grave, because I failed to learn it from it.
Sure, when I found myself with a very large pumpkin, home-grown, a feat achieved rather more by good luck than good management, I could look up a recipe for pumpkin chutney on the internet. I could look up the process for sterilising jars, then sterilising their contents, and off I went. But there are aspects of such things that are by far the best learnt from watching and working with an expert. (The onion definitely needs to be chopped small, I learnt, too late…)
And I’ve no doubt that my grandmother was an expert. She lived in a classic Australian house on a quarter-acre block, and the whole of the extensive back yard was devoted to fruits and vegetables. Well into her 70s, she tended that garden, producing an extensive range of produce that she stored and preserved in a wide variety of forms.
Not that I often ate it as a child, although there must have been great quantities of it. But I was taught to regard this lovely, homegrown, almost-zero-food-miles produce as embarassing, laughable even. “Proper” food came out of a supermarket freezer or from a can or bottle. Homegrown was a sign of embarrassing poverty and failure. (And it required skilled labour to process.)
Many other aspects of my grandmother’s life were also a cause for family embarrassment. She almost never threw anything away, and bought very little – the house was furnished with the furniture bought on marriage, and every potentially useful item – string, wrapping paper, bits of wire, were carefully arranged in drawers, available for use whenever required.
This all required thought, organisation, planning, system – things that I failed to learn from her.
Yet now, as I try to live an increasingly “green”, environmentally-friendly life, I’m forced to reinvent the knowledge that was second nature to my grandmother.
I’m trying to cut to almost zero my use of throwaway plastic containers, where it be Chinese takeaway or packaged berries, bottled soups or coffee cups. Yet I doubt my grandmother used in her life as any as I still use in a year, much as I try to cut down.
Whenever she left home, she took a packed lunch wrapped in paper, and a thermos of tea. There might have been a tin or two of soup in the cupboard for emergencies (when she was ill), but basically she cooked everything fresh, from scratch. And if berries weren’t in season on the bush outside, she went to her preserves.
I remember her telling me a story, very late in life, she was probably in her nineties by then, about a pair of scissors she was still using. As I recall the story her sister had been cutting some flowers, and had accidentally left these scissors in the newspaper in which the clippings were thrown on the compost heap. A couple of days later my grandma realised what had happened and rescued the now rusty implements. She soaked them in oil, then sandpapered off the rust, and here there were, perhaps eight decades later, still in effective use.
I was too young then, and perhaps too wrapped in consumer culture, to really grasp what I suspect she was trying to tell me, about more than a pair of scissors: get quality things, treat them with care, and make them last a lifetime.
And yet there’s also a darker, feminist moral in my grandmother’s life – she had made much of it, yet she lived as a virtual slave, her fine cooking, food-growing and preserving going to the service of a husband who treated her very poorly, who dropped his dirty clothes on the floor for her to pick up, and ordered a cooked breakfast every morning.
I certainly would never wish to be using the skills she had, should I be able to reconstruct them, for such a purpose, so as we do return, as we must, to these skills, this careful, preserving lifestyle, there’s something we’ve got to be very careful to do differently than did this early 20th-century generation: these must be skills for everyone to learn, everyone to exercise – men, women, and children too.