Sunday, February 10, 2013

Re: Past

Writers have a lot to say about the past. “You can’t go home again.” “The past is a foreign country.” Then there is Proust’s meticulously remembered madeleine.

My mother is adrift on an ebb tide of dementia. If near death experiences are described as traveling towards the light, dementia is a cruel pulling into darkness. 

Once upon a time my mother was fun loving and funny. Now she is petty and resentful. Our visits are full of senseless repetition and unbridgeable silences. Once upon school lunch times she read to me: anything from studies of the Iroquois to Coral Island while I ate peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches. Once upon an Eastertide she would leave rhyming clues to the whereabouts of chocolate eggs at the foot of my bed. 

My mother was an unenthusiastic cook and at bad at it. But I loved it when she made her beef curry, this not too hot, not too bland, just right stew. I would happily have eaten bowls of rice dowsed only in the resulting rich red sauce. 

Where was the recipe? 

My mother had a small suitcase worth of recipe clippings. There were hundreds of them, for pies, cakes, stews, and casseroles not one of which she ever made, but no sign of the curry of times past.

Then I came up on the 18th edition of The Radiation Cookery Book, which includes recipes for Beef Tea, Bread Cheese Cakes and Stewed Eel: take one eel and 1/2 a pint of white or brown sauce . . . It is a charmingly paradoxical book. A guide, it claims to the most modern kitchen craft, with elaborate capitals such as you would find in a medieval manuscript. It is a book that was four years old when my mother was born. Why she kept it, I’ll never know. To the best of my knowledge she never used it, except as a scrapbook for other recipes she never cooked. The curry recipe was taped to the back cover:

2 pounds of stewing beef
1/4 of cooking oil
1 medium onion sliced thin
1 medium apple chopped
1 tblsp curry powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp ginger
28 oz can chopped tomatoes
6 oz can tomato paste
2 tblsps lemon juice
1/2 cup hot water
2 beef bouillon cubes

Trim the beef if necessary. Heat the oil in a dutch oven. Add the onion and apple, cook until the onion is transparent. Lift out the onion and apple and set aside. Add the beef to the pan and brown on all sides. Return the apple and onion to the pan. Add the remaining ingredients. Stir well. Cover and simmer for about two hours. Serve with rice.

Messrs. Wolfe, Hartley and Proust may know a thing or three about the past. I know that though my mother lives, I will never see the mother I loved again. But when I savor that fragrant beef I know one more thing about the past: you can eat it.