An Open Letter To Margaret Fulton

 

Dear Mrs Fulton,

At our house, we call you Maggie. When it comes to the basics the original and the trustworthy, someone will say “Let’s check with Maggie, she’ll know.” And then out it will come – the trusted Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery.

I first laid my eyes on you in 1985, well not you, but your encyclopedia. In our final weeks of school we were asked to make our way to the library to choose a leaving gift. There are many things in life that I have got completely wrong, there were choices in my youth that showed a distinct lack of forward planning, but not that day Maggie. That day I got it right, I chose you.

My first consultation with you was tuna mornay. It was a perfect beginning, cheap, easy, and time efficient, but most of all it took me back to Thursday nights with my family. Thursday nights in my little country town meant netball practice, followed by Dallas on the telly, and Mum’s tuna mornay. Those days were now gone I was in my first apartment in the city, miles from home, but you took me back there. It was just like Mum’s mornay, just in a different dish. It was perfect.

The second consultation wasn’t so good. An orange meatloaf. Oh, I know, I know, what was I thinking? My girlfriend, who was my flatmate at the time, occasionally reminds me that the only thing worse than facing the orange meatloaf, was the uprising about an hour after dinner. Listening to your dinner guests throw up, is not the perfect end to an evening.

As the years went by my palate became more inquisitive, and a little more brave. I developed a love of asian food. I discovered a refreshing thai dish on a summers day, and the comfort of an indian curry on a cold winters night. I put you to one side while I flirted with the other “flashier” cookbooks. I hid your ripped and torn cover away in the cupboard. With my old school emblem on the front, I was literally too cool for school.

When we arrived in Indonesia I had to learn to share you. I had certain parts of you translated. I stood with Yanti, our forty five year old housekeeper, in the kitchen trying to explain the concept of a pavlova. We separated egg whites, and spooned sugar into the bowl teaspoon by teaspoon, but it was the oven that was letting us down. There were many practice runs, but eventually we perfected it. Yanti and I crouched with our faces peering through the oven door, watching the pavlova rise without burning the peaks. I suggested that maybe this time it was “bagus?” Yanti smiled back with a slow nod “bagus sekali.” It was better than good.

In Malaysia when there was talk of being hospitalized through my nauseous second pregnancy, someone suggested ginger. I swear to this day that it was your gingernut biscuits that got me through the day. I’d go to bed with one on my bedside table knowing that I would need it from the moment my eyes opened in the morning. I still can’t be sure if it was just in my head or just the comfort of something from home,  something home-made that I could trust certainly helped.

It was in Libya that you really came out to shine. On my first trip to the markets I returned to the car in tears explaining that there was NOTHING we could eat. It the heat of the middle of August, I stood sweltering while looking over the tables of carrots the size of my little finger and shriveled up versions of almost unrecognizable produce. I scanned the corner shop for curry pastes and condiments and realized we were going to have to get back to the basics. You kept us alive Maggie. I learnt how to bake that year thanks to you. I read and re-read every piece of information you wrote in that book. I shared you with friends and copied out endless requests for your scones or cakes.

I waited for you to arrive in Canada. It took months for the shipment to land at our door. I was terrified you’d be missing, that someone would take a fancy to you and your expertise. It was your chicken paprika that kept us all warm on those minus twenty days. In Houston it was cheesecake, and now in Qatar your basic tomato sauce has become a staple in our refrigerator. After a trip to the vegetable markets with their father, the children will stand on stools while they take turns at putting the tomatoes into the kitchen aid. Right next to them is you, open, and waiting with instructions.

It was a couple of weeks ago that I actually had a good look at you. After twenty seven years together, the pages most often used, now open by themselves. You are marked, creased and torn, your sleeve has disappeared. You are by far the most loyal, the most loved, the most used in the bookshelf. I look at your splotches of sauces and dobs of cream and smile. On your cover is my old school emblem with a Latin inscription.

Verae Numeresque Modesque Ediscere Vitae.
“To learn the numbers and measures of true life”.

I think back to the headmistress handing me that book. I was not a great scholar, nor a shining example to future students. I was lost, either a late developer or an immature brat – depending on our relationship. I fumbled for a long time, stumbling into each new life experience, not really understanding how the recipe would work or the necessity to follow instructions. I just threw it all in, and hoped for the best. My own concoction of blind faith and optimism.

I made your scones, again. G was out in the garden planting perennials and the sun was shining on a beautiful winter’s day. The children were playing and we had really good music on in the background. It’s taken me all this time to realize it’s not about what I’m going to do, it’s about what I’m doing. It doesn’t have to be all about the end game, it’s the process, it’s adding the ingredients and watching it rise and develop.

Bagus?

Bagus Sekali.

Learning the numbers and measures of life. It’s better than good.

Thank you Maggie, for coming along for the ride. You’ve made it even better than I ever could have imagined.

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