Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Kindness of Strangers: (Kitchen Memoirs)

The Kindness of Strangers: (Kitchen Memoirs) by Shonagh Koea

I have been savouring this wonderful book in which Shonagh Koea's essays about food allow her to discuss many other things about her life, writing, and experiences. Sometimes she is frivolous, sometimes deadly serious; often she makes droll anecdotes out of horrifying things, and finds amusing details even in the saddest parts of her story. Many of the recipes she includes make something good out of unpromising ingredients, and the same goes for her life story: she makes a witty and magnificent tale out of adversity and hardship.

And the recipes are wonderful! Her "Air India" samosas are the best I've ever had.

Here are some samples:

"When I was in High School my mother sometimes used to make marmalade. There were grapefruit trees growing out the back of the house we lived in and they fruited generously, but the fruit was a pale colour, thin-skinned and possibly not suitable for marmalade. She used to mince the fruit using and old metal mincer that screwed on to the kitchen table and I think she added grated carrot to make the mixture more orange. the results were stiff, extremely opaque and they sat in jars with a sort of grimly globular intensity that was almost alarming. I never ate any of it but my mother would spread it dutifully on her toast, saying meanwhile, 'You don't know what you're missing.' In a culinary sense I do not think I missed much, but the point I missed at the time was that there was nothing else for her to do but make the best of what she had and she did so with scant encouragement."

"I have cultivated quite wild and spreading plants so there is an atmosphere of largess and tropical wildness in my garden and through this I walk carefully with a cup of coffee in one hand an a doorstep of homemade bran loaf spread with marmalade in the other, once I tripped on a low-lying leaf of my big flax plant and fell flat on my face, so I have walked through my garden with greater care since then. I had thought, as it was my very own garden, that I would be able to do anything there and be unharmed but this was just a fanciful thought -- I am apt to have such fancies and think that because it is me that everything with be all right. it mostly is but sometimes not, like the time I tripped over the flax leaf."

"If you are a writer people always imagine that what you write is true, particularly if they know you. Of course it is not because fiction is fiction and can be manipulated to make a good story, and truth often has no resolution of horrors and terrors so is useless to place upon a page masquerading as a tale simply because there is not one. The truth is mostly a jumble of unresolved and sometimes very unrelated facts that collide in a meaningless way. People would not pay good money to read it. They have difficulty enough living it, I imagine. After I wrote The Lonely Margins of the Sea I lost count of the number of times people sidled up to me and said, in a hasty aside, 'You can tell me who you stabbed -- I won't tell a soul' The novel was about a woman who had stabbed her married lover and had gone to prison. [...] It was flattering, I suppose, to be considered so dangerous when I cannot, in real life, even dismember a chicken from the supermarket. My carving of meat is so inexpert that once, in the days when I used to make some pretence of having people to dinner, I hacked at a piece of beef with such a blunt knife that the candles fell out of the candlesticks and nearly set fire to the tablecloth."

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