My Aunty Lydia - Who Inspired me in the Kitchen

Oh, her bread rolls were sensational.  Waking up on a Sunday morning with the fragrance of warm bread filling the house hold was a tummy rumbling ecstasy.  She would stuff them with egg and mayonnaise, cheese and tomato, ham and her home made chutney, and wrapped in grease proof paper, they were placed in the bag with our beach towels and swimsuits.

Oh Aunty Lydia. I am so grateful. 

You were not my real Aunty, but you were in every way -  but blood.  You became the best friend of my Mom, who came by ship from England after WW2, a pale skinned auburn haired mother of one, starved of peace, sunshine and food. You were African born and exotic, a beauty with black hair.  It dawned on me decades later that you possibly never went into the sun not so much to protect your ivory skin, but from a fear of it 'browning' - that your perhaps Malaysian or Coloured history was kept a secret, and you lived with a fear of being 'found out' as 'not European', and reclassified.   But that is another story.   You were a mother of two little children, and despite your disparate backgrounds, became acquainted at the Baby Health Centre, after giving birth - you with your third, and my Mom with her second - me.  That friendship blossomed and it spanned sixty years, whilst you lived thousands of miles apart, on two different continents, and kept alive with holidays, phone calls and letters. I remember always the excitement when a letter arrived in your distinctive writing and my mother would read and re-read all the news.   Your household news was headlines in our household, and my mother spoke of your family and your children as if they were her own, with the same proprietorial understanding and knowledge of each one of them..  She was in awe of your expertise as a maker of wedding dresses, your dining room which was never a dining room, but the home of your sewing machine, and around those walls hung the most exquisite garments of lace and satin and embroidery.  Your sewing machine was the background music to our nights as we slept, two to a bed with your kids when we came on holiday to Cape Town.  Sometimes I would wake to go to the toilet, and there you would be in the middle of the night, stitching away, once surrounded by thousands of sequins, which further enhanced your magic in my eyes.  Your eyes narrowed and you would pretend to be angry and send me back to bed, but I knew I was your favourite and you always hugged me first.  You taught my mother feminine things, like how to arch her eyebrows, you shared your perfume and your lipstick, you introduced her to a world she had never known.  She was awed by so much, and after the shortages of everything in war time England, of your femininity, pretty clothes, shoes and earrings.   You made her several dresses, I remember a bright red ballgown, with a satin bodice and a tulle skirt of ballerina length, which stood out in a wide circle around her legs (she had great legs, and a photo of them had once graced the side of a van selling stockings).  It had a strip of diamantes across one shoulder, and a bow at the waist, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen when she walked out with my Dad in his tuxedo, with you and Uncle Les, to a dance. I remember another which she is wearing in a photograph just after my brother Ian was born, slim fitting navy blue, with a wide square collar, edged with white lace, elegant and restrained.

My mother was smart in other ways.   She could change the oil in a car, she was strong and could lift and carry like a man, she scrubbed and washed and cleaned and ironed, whilst you had always had 'servants' to help in the household.   She knew about 'doing without', she never wasted anything, she knew how to feed her family with half an onion and two ounces of mince, whilst you were grew up with what she regarded as 'abundance'. You cooked with herbs and spices and things she had never even heard of.  When she disembarked the ship on arrival in Cape Town, she was so staggered by the plentiful bounty she saw, she bought a leg of lamb, a dozen eggs, a pound of butter, and a loaf of bread, cooked the lamb and eggs in the 'lodgings' my Dad had found, and they ate the lot in one sitting. She never got over how 'lucky' she was, we were, to have so much food to eat, and she was renowned for her generosity as a host, her desire to feed people was a way of showing her love (and one of mine, today) - yet she remained in her own words, a 'plain' cook.  Her meals in her new country were meat, potatoes and three vegetables, yet she soon developed her skills and became 'famous' for her light scones, mince pies and delectable sausage rolls.  It was you, Aunty Lydia, some decades later, who finally convinced her that garlic was not poisonous, she may actually enjoy it, and thereafter she used it liberally in just about everything (except her scones).

So you were a great influence on her in so many ways.   And she was certainly the greatest influence in my life.  But - it was you who influenced my love of cooking from a very early age.   You made not only bread and rolls,  but sweet fragrant fish cakes, pots of what we were yet to learn were part of your (possibly) Malaysian childhood, called 'curry', Afrikaans dishes like bobotie made with minced mutton, sultanas and a kind of custard, tomato bredie, sosaties, snoek (a salted fish), meatballs in sauce and braised and roasted meats, boerewors, (a South African sausage) fish cakes, bean soup, chutneys, jams, custard, apple cake, pumpkin fritters dusted with sugar, rice pudding, and dozens of other delights.  

When at your home, I sat next to my Uncle Les, your husband, at the head of the table and sometimes after dinner, I would climb on to his lap.  He worked on Cape Town's docks, and was a muscled brown man who often wore a snowy white pair of overalls, a man with a proud and loving heart, who kissed my head and hair.  He made jokes about the 'hearts above my head' for an imaginary romantic relationship between your son, Michael and I.  This was a reference to a popular cartoon strip at that time,  'Henry' - who always had hearts above his head for the love interest in his life.  This embarrassed Michael and I no end, as we considered each other a cousin, yet I still rather fancied him. Uncle Les did believe, I think, that one day Michael and I would marry, and I would become his daughter for real.  He was so proud of his own kids and loved them fiercely, yet seldom showed much affection towards them.  He was generous with his  love and affection with me, and I sat somewhat righteously in this privileged position.

I remember that kitchen, with its blue swirly formica top table, a large window above the sink which looked up to Table Mountain on one side, and on the other, another window which framed a big fig tree which we would climb and stuff our bellies full of the sweet fruit.  You would yell out "Wash your hands!  Dinner's ready!" and there would be a dash to the table, where you would be dishing up.   We always said grace, and Uncle Les would ask each of us kids about our day, ending his sentences with a gruff "Hey?!" as if he were angry.  Even then, I thought he pretended to be angry, for his manner with me was so loving.  But you and your children were afraid of his temper.  After dinner, you and Uncle Les would retire to the lounge and listen to the radio, and have a couple of 'spots' (gin and tonic for you and a brandy for him).  Us kids would clear the table, in an orderly manner, as well rehearsed as a dance, with each of us alternating chores.  There was never an argument about who did what.   

One time, we got into serious trouble with you.  You and Uncle Les went out, one night and left Denise, about 16, Michael about 13, and Michelle and I, about 10.  Always fair, you made up four small plates with potato crisps and a few lollies, and a piece of chocolate., plus a glass of Oros cordial each.  You were very clear about 'This is ALL you should have whilst we are gone'. Somehow, from somewhere, Michael produced a piece of bubble gum - absolutely FORBIDDEN by both sets of parents, which he chewed happily, blowing large bubbles, showing off his freedom, flouting the rules.  Then the unthinkable happened - and somehow one of those bubbles burst on my calf, and stuck like tar.  No matter what we did we could not remove it.  We even resorted to the decidedly dangerous practise of trying to scrape it off with a bread knife, to no avail.  I was in considerable pain and quite tearful by the time you and Uncle Les returned home, the hairs on my leg caught up in pink tar, a few scratches inflicted by the bread knife, but mostly, fear of being in BIG TROUBLE. There was an almighty explosion, and we were all blasted with your considerable fury, whacked on the backsides and sent to bed.  Except me, who sat there weeping, playing the victim to great effect, having the pink tar removed by your cool, manicured hands.  

I remember your house as well as if it were our own, it felt like I belonged there.   A large lounge area and a big verandah which looked down over Table Bay and the block of flats opposite where we lived in much more humble accommodation. Three bedrooms.  THREE bedrooms!  This was the height of luxury and abundance for me.   A dining room, used as I said, for your remarkable dress making.   A walled back yard on the skirts of Table Mountain, with a wash line strung between two poles, and a wildly growing plant which Elizabeth, your maid, would cut and boil and feed to us when we had a cough.  And a bathroom -  plus a separate toilet!  That bathroom was the source of much competition in our young lives.  The first child to wake would screech "First in the bath tonight!", followed by whoever was woken up by that screech, shouting "Second in the bath tonight!" - and the third soul need not even speak, for it was their misfortune to be LAST in the bath tonight.  Let me explain.  You would fill the bathtub with hot water, and the lucky "first" would bath first, followed by the not quite so lucky "second", and the unfortunate "third" would inherit the somewhat scummy, lukewarm water.  Michele and I were considered a pair, so if we were "first" there had already been two bodies washed in that tub, before "second" arrived.  So "last" in the tub already had three bodies washed in that water.  Water, heat, electricity and the culture of being prudent and saving money was a way of life then.  I cannot imagine anything like this happening today and it makes me smile.

Sometimes on a Friday after dinner, Uncle Les would load us all into his car.  His CAR.  He had a CAR! He would drive us into the city of Cape Town, and drive around the fountains, the gardens, the shopping centre, past the big railway station, sometimes as far as Sea Point, checking out the lights of the city.  He would buy us all ice creams, and the conversation would focus on who was having what flavour and the merits of each.  We would drive up Long Street on our way back home, past the indoor baths and St. Mary's Church, where we all went to school.  Sunday's were reserved for the beach or to Sea Point Pavilion, and us kids often went by bus.  We had to catch two different buses to get there, and I realise how much freedom we were given then, compared to kids today.  You rarely came, Aunty Lydia, as you always looked after your skin, but on one occasion you and Uncle Les took us to Camps Bay Beach for the day, laden with towels, umbrellas, picnic baskets and drinks.  You were covered head to toe with a hat and towels - no sunscreen back then - and found a tree or a shady spot to sit.  I never saw you even put a toe in the water, you could not swim, and Uncle Les never joined us.  It was right at the end of a long, happy day, when us kids begged to be allowed to go back in for one last swim and you agreed and began to pack up.  The four of us were just knee deep in water, when a very strong current towed us out to sea, and within seconds, we were swept into a whirlpool.   It was the scariest thing that had ever happened in my ten years.   We were in a giant washing machine, being sucked down in one moment, and ejected upwards the next, I felt arms and legs and feet and a head under my feet, and on each ejection, would gasp for air, and scrabble desperately to gain purchase on a large rock, only to be sucked back down again.  It was only minutes, but the longest time of my life.  The life guards had already left for the day, and people on the beach came running to our assistance, one man was a retired lifesaver, and if not for he and another woman, we may well have all drowned.   We made headlines in the Cape Argus the next day.  You my poor Aunt were terrified of having to explain to my own parents, in Northern Rhodesia, about what had happened to their daughter on holiday.

But now I am rambling, I must end this - I have people to feed for an early dinner!

I want to tell you that yesterday I spent a whole day in my kitchen. Whilst I cook our meals every day, there are times when I like to indulge myself and I spend hours 'cooking up a storm'.  I play the music that you and my parents liked - and I do too - music from the thirties, forties and fifties.  I place a photo of my Mom and Dad photo on the kitchen bench and I chat to them, and Gerald pours me a large gin and tonic, made the way you and my Mom liked it.  That is my Happy Place. 

I know you will be interested to know that yesterday I made beef and bean soup, a lamb biryani, a roast chicken and all the trimmings, and a banana and sultana cake.

You - and my Mom - were the people who inspired me, who made me understand the connection of food with a loving, generous heart.  I think of you often, and I am very grateful for the lessons, the memories and the love.





Sandra GroomComment