First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

A letter to my mother from another time

TGIFOOD

GASTROTURF

A letter to my mother from another time

Yorkshire puddings, made to Betty Jackman’s (and Molly Benson’s) recipe. From Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau). (Photo by Myburgh du Plessis)

The world was changing again when you left me in 1996. You couldn’t imagine how it’s changed since then. And let’s not even mention the past year. Actually, let’s. It’s pertinent.

 

The author supports Isabelo, chef Margot Janse’s charity which feeds school children every day. Please support them here.

Dear mom,

How are you? I am fine. Remember that? The way you taught me to write to Molly when I was seven. We corresponded for decades, me in Oranjemund and later Cape Town, my favourite cousin in Quaker Lane, Liversedge, West Yorkshire, living in the house that was her mum Aunty Marian’s where you and dad had your farewell before leaving for southern Africa in 1952, just before the queen was crowned. Then in 1987 I finally went to England and met Molly, but not the queen. And suddenly all the cousins and uncles and aunts I had heard about were real and right in front of me, telling me stories, and Molly even showing me how to make Yorkshire puddings, properly. Exactly the way you had shown me.

Funny how I took to dad’s family more when I went to Yorkshire. Yours were a bit distant. Aunty Sally was, well, she could barely see any more so I couldn’t really expect her to engage could I? Her husband was morose and grumpy. Uncle Bert. Herbert. But Granville! I loved him. Dad’s middle brother but my pet uncle. I met Charlie too, who I realised instantly was the eldest one, the teetotaller (in dad’s family!) and the one who looked most like dad only with much thicker hair and bushy eyebrows. He gave me his 45-years watch they’d given him at the rope factory when he retired. It was stolen in Cape Town a few years later. I never told them that.

Funny that you named me after Charlie. Well, dad did, you insisted on Anthony. I’m glad you got your way. Though, given a choice, I’d have opted for Granville. Anyway. I named a character in one of my plays after Granville. I write plays now, mom.

This has always been my favourite photo of you, in the Land Army in Wales, early 1940s. (Photographer unknown)

I met your elder brother, I’ve forgotten his name. He was posh and academic. I remember you adored him. He seemed very nice but I never heard from anyone on your side of the family again when I went back home. I think they thought me common, too working class. I don’t mind, I mean they hardly knew you, the girl whose dad sent her to an orphanage because he’d already brought up ten children.

Oh, I wrote a book. You’re in it. 🙂 (That’s an emoji by the way, long story.) You would have loved it, I think. I wrote about you in the early chapters, just like I told you I would when I was little, that one day I would write about you in a book. You sitting on the suitcase in the dirt road in December 1952 next to the unpainted house with hard ground and no fence, next to a desert, saying to dad take me home, I’m not going in. I wrote about dad too but I don’t think he’d like what I wrote. Anyway, maybe he and I will have to sort all that out one day, if there is something else out there … I always wonder about that. I sometimes “talk” to you and dad late at night, in the whisky mellow. I imagine what I would say to you if you were there and I could tell you things and ask you things. I’m always wanting to ask you things, especially when I’m cooking, which I do all the time these days.

I sort of “talk” to Phillip. I went back to Oranjemund in 2018 and went to his grave. It’s so little, mom. Just this narrow, short grave with a six-year-old boy in it. Just nearby is Brent Olckers’ grave. Remember, he lived down the road with his alcoholic mother and died of leukaemia when he was nine? We used to play together but not much. Then the whole school had to traipse to the cemetery in the desert outside town and line up and watch his coffin lowered and sing Abide With Me. I’ve hated the hymn ever since that day, it reeks of death and misery. When I got home I felt that I should cry so I squeezed out a tear and you and dad both looked at me in the lounge and said “crocodile tears”. I denied it but you were right. I didn’t understand how dulled I felt, rather than emotional. Maybe it was because my big brother was buried right near where I was standing and I was trying to understand who he was and why I felt I didn’t know him, seeing that I was only two when he died.

Oh and I went back to our old house. No fruit trees, no flowers, no grass, it’s a barren wasteland. Somebody ripped it all out. Except the palm tree you planted. It’s four storeys high.

Phillip and Pat with me in the middle, in the Company’s Garden. Must have been circa early 1958, soon before Phillip died. What was dad thinking, making him wear his Oranjemund school blazer on holiday in Cape Town? (Photo: Cyril Jackman)

At the cemetery I saw that Brent’s mother’s grave is in the next row from Phillip’s. She killed herself only a few months after he died, do you remember? And Phillip no longer feels remote from me, mom. But I do feel guilty that he’s gone and I’m here. Everything I’ve seen and done, he hasn’t. Nothing, ever since the day everything stopped for him.

Anyway, moving on. Mom, you won’t believe how much cooking I’m doing these days. I photograph all my dishes with my iPhone camera and edit them on the phone and in Photoshop… Dad would have been amazed, he was so good with a camera. I don’t use my actual camera at all. Things like that are called ‘old school’ now. What we call a “phone” now isn’t like a phone at all. We can even make video calls to each other. When you died, cellphones had just come in. No, was that the following year. Those big black brick-like ones? Everything is email and googling now. Just ways of communicating things instantly, really, no matter where anyone is. There’s no need to write letters any more. I can write my stories in the Karoo and press a button on my laptop and they’re published, just like that, for anyone in the entire world to see, in a flash. I can press a button in my study in Cradock and Susan in Yorkshire can open it right away and read it. Imagine. And the TVs, they’re huge and flat and can be stuck on walls. You’d have liked that with your eyesight and thick lenses.

It’s been a while, mom. I thought of you while I was in the kitchen last night, making a fish pie. I cook every day, sometimes two or three or even four dishes in one day. They’re published on a website … it’s not print, like the old newspapers, though you still get them.

I often think about you and dad when I cook. If I make mashed potato, I scrape the empty pan with a fork (you always mashed it with a fork as well as the masher, remember?) and eat the scraps like you used to. Scrape scrape, and that rosy smile of yours and your cornflower blue eyes flashing at me, and I’d want some. I did that last night after making the mash for the fish pie, with milk and a knob of butter like you showed me.

These days when I write about you and dad it’s usually about the things I remember you both cooking. It used to be mostly you, but then I started to remember the occasional dishes dad would make. I’m still building up the courage to try to make his Melton Mowbray pork pies. It’s funny how things come back to you when you put your head down and write. Your kingklip batter, still the best. Your chips! Rebs calls them “Dad’s chips” but it’s yours, just like you showed me. Your meat and potato pie and Bisto gravy with mashed potato. Or Brono if they were out of Bisto at the shop. Bisto! I’d love to be able to cook for you now, mom. I roast bones to make stock, before making a sauce for a roast. No Bisto in sight. Ridiculous, hey? But that’s the thing. I cook everything from scratch now, thanks to this pandemic.

Oh, there’s a pandemic… Millions of people all over the world, sort of like the 1918-20 ’flu but much bigger. We’re supposed to get our vaccinations this month. You wouldn’t know me. I’m three years older than Dad was when he died. I have long silver hair, tied in a ponytail to keep it out of my eyes. Also because of the pandemic and not wanting to get too near to a hairdresser. We have to keep a social distance and sanitise our hands all the time. We all wear masks.

The lockdown has changed my life and my career and given me great confidence in my cooking. When it began (everyone was restricted to their homes for several months so that we wouldn’t all catch the virus from each other) I started publishing recipes every day for people to cook while locked down, and ‘every day’ means five new recipes a week or 20-odd a month, and it’s over a year now, so the lockdown has forced me to make so many things I normally wouldn’t. I’ve written about 250 new recipes by now, and every one has to be different. Cakes, bakes, ice creams, bread, roasts, oh and Parkin (yes, I made Yorkshire Parkin!), even Welsh Rarebit. Oh and Hot Cross Buns, your favourite, made from scratch, and no, not from a packet mix. Oh and lamb! I cook lamb all the time, but you could have guessed that. Roast beef too now and then, roast chicken often, and yes, I do sometimes make Yorkshire puddings and there’s even your recipe for it in my book, more or less, with a bit of help from Molly. But you wouldn’t like the chickens we get now, they’re full of water and the skin doesn’t crisp unless you buy a free range one. It’s a long story, mom.

Oh, and every week I write a Throwback Thursday recipe, because being in lockdown got everybody cooking and everyone became all nostalgic like me and there’s a great renewed interest in the old things and ways. So I do an old recipe. I even did your sage and onion stuffing, but I added wine. I’ll be doing your lemon fridge tart one of these days.

Anyway. Molly is in a home now, Susan tells me. Susan is occasionally in touch because Molly can’t be. She can’t speak at all, but Susan says it’s clear that she is mentally sharp and understands what’s being said to her. She just can’t get all mouthy back like she always did. Can’t imagine our Molly not having a lot to say. I want to go and see her when this lockdown is finally over. We can’t even travel from country to country. And I’ll stand in front of Molly and I’ll say hello Mol, it’s me, Tony, how are you? I am fine. And give her a big hug and she’ll flinch because she never liked hugs. When she flinches, I’ll know she’s all right, inside, and I’ll give her my book, and maybe she’ll be able to read it, I don’t know, otherwise I’ll ask a staff member or Susan to read it to her and show her the pictures.

I’m pretty sure she’ll think the Yorkshire puddings in the book look too small, because the cook for the photoshoot thought I meant small muffin tins when she read the recipe. I meant the big ones, so they’d be all puffed up, like proper Yorkshire Yorkshire puddings. Actually, maybe I’ll ask them not to show her that page.

Got to go now, mom. Happy Mother’s Day. It’s 2021. Can you imagine? Dad would be 101, you’d be 97. Love you. xxx. DM/TGIFood

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected]

Our Thank God It’s Food newsletter is sent to subscribers every Friday at 6pm, and published on the TGIFood platform on Daily Maverick. It’s all about great reads on the themes of food and life. Subscribe here.

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 3

  • I did wonder what they were, some new kind of vetkoek waiting for a filling. The good old people of Yorkshire are spinning. My mother was a magician in the kitchen, could turn just about everything into gruel.

  • What a lovely foodie Mother’s Day memoir. So enjoyed the read. Has me thinking how many memories, good ones, have a food focus.
    Oh, and am so liking the throwback Thursdays ‘reminders’. Thanks.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted