This week the local supermarket had pork forequarter cutlets on special for $3 a kg. How cheap is that! Would you know how to cook pork forequarter cutlets? I’ve never cooked them before, but thanks to lessons learned from my mum, I didn’t have any difficulty in working out a way to cook them that made them both tender, and tasty.
Have you heard the saying, ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’? Well, as far as cooking went, my mum could do almost exactly that. She could take the humblest of ingredients, and turn them into a very palatable, nutritious meal. In fact, my mum was pretty darned amazing at a lot of things that involved living on ‘the smell of an oily rag’ – another saying mum was fond of.
I knew mum’s story while she lived, but I never appreciated it then. I had to grow a little myself before I could appreciate, and feel proud of how she dealt with what life threw at her, and how her difficult life helped shape me.
One thing mum appears to have passed on to most of her children is the ability to take a few cheap, basic ingredients and turn them into a decent meal. Most times, we don’t have to look up a recipe, it’s as if we we’ve been born knowing what to do with a tough cut of meat, or how to get some flavour and nutrition out of a knuckle joint that most people would discard. Perhaps we were born to it, after all, we come from good old fashioned Comfort stock. Gladys Comfort was our mum, and this is her story.
Mum’s parents emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand, early in their married life. I know very little about my grandparents apart from that they were £10 poms, and I know one of them was born in Old Kent Road. I noticed that on either a birth or death certificate at some stage.
Mum was one of nine children, a twin, and all but one of her siblings were girls. Her twin sister was tall, slim and dark. Mum was short, chubby and fair. I gather there was a considerable amount of jealousy as they grew up, with Aunty Dorry being the popular, good looking one of the two – or at least that’s how mum saw it. Her confidence and self esteem remained low throughout her life.
My oldest brother Lindsay (now deceased) arrived in 1945, the last year of the 2nd world war. Mum wasn’t married, and I gather his biological father was an American sailor.
The war ended, leaving a shortage of men. A short, chubby woman with an illegitimate child had limited options. I’d like to be able to say mum beat the odds, and found a loving relationship in spite of her circumstances. But mums story isn’t the happy ever after fairy tale life that happens in Catherine Cookson novels.
Mum did marry. A ‘shell shocked’ farmer from the isolated west coast of NZs South Island needed a housekeeper, and mum needed a husband. A win/win for them both – or was it a lose/lose. I’ll never know. I gather they had little love for each other. Never-the-less, five children followed within the next 8 – 9 years. I was the youngest of their union.
Mum was widowed when I was only a few months old. A second marriage followed. Id like to say this one came about from undying love, but again – no such fairy tale. My step-father was certainly no prince, nor a knight in shining armour. He was a drunk, and mum was a lonely widow with six young children. I gather the shame of the illegitimate child had left a lasting legacy, and mums siblings offered little in the way of friendship or support after she was widowed. I gather friends were also nowhere to be seen. There was no birth control in 1956, and – well I guess you can work out the circumstances that prompted this next marriage. My younger sister arrived considerably less than nine months after the marriage took place.
I think there were government created opportunities at the time to get people into their own houses. By the time I was five, mum and my stepfather, Roy, had moved into a newly built three bedroomed, one bathroomed house. Along with the house came automatic life insurance that would ensure the mortgage was paid off in the event of death. All that was needed was for the insurance papers to be signed and returned. They never were.
Roy, died two years later. Mum now had seven young children, a new house on a 1/4 acre block, and a huge mortgage.
The world had moved on after the 2nd world war, and the general population was starting to become comparatively affluent. People that had been living frugally since the Great Depression no longer needed to be so thrifty. A move away from ‘real food’ was beginning. Packaged, and tinned foods were hitting the market, making housewive’s lives easier. However, these new foods cost more money than a widow with seven hungry mouths to feed could afford. Mum continued to cook the way her mother before her had cooked during the Great Depession.
And that’s why when I was growing up and my friends were eating a lot of modern meals based on packaged or canned goods, I was eating meals based on fresh vegetables picked from mums home grown vegetable garden. We always had some sort of animal protein, usually in the form of mutton, mince, offal, or in some cases just a soup bone.
We ate well. These are some of the things I grew up eating but my friends did not:
Lambs hearts, with liver and onions (I loved the hearts, but hated the liver. I love it now)
pigs head brawn
pigs hocks (used as a base for a hearty soup)
baked rice puddings (no carnation canned rice pudding for us)
bread ‘n butter pudding (something most housewives were happy to move away from).
A lot of women would have turned to drink in circumstances as difficult as mum found herself in. I rarely saw mum touch a drop. Instead she put her energy and love into her garden, and her children. She sewed our dresses, and knitted our jumpers. She stitched warm, woollen, patchwork quilts for our beds, and she planted and tended a massive vegetable garden to put fresh greens on our plates. She kept chooks for eggs, and she killed and plucked chickens for our Christmas dinner. And when all that was done, she planted flowers, lots and lots of flowers.
When I stayed over at friend’s houses, it was clear our humble, crowded house lacked the nice carpets and modern furniture most people were enjoying. However, that wasn’t what I noticed most. What stood out to me mostly were their bland meals, and their garden, or should I say lack of a garden.
Mum wasn’t academic, and offered little encouragement for education. It took me many years to realise she taught us non-academic things, things that have mattered to mankind over and above anything academic since the year dot. Survival! Should there ever be a total collapse to the world as we know it, it’s the life skills that mum taught me that will help me and mine survive.
She wasn’t demonstrative either. I was never welcomed home with a hug or a kiss, Her welcome, although not in the manner of physical contact, was there, clearly evident for all to see. Her welcome came in the form of pretty, scented flowers surrounding our house and the smell of something cooking in the oven. A kiss on the cheek at bedtime was never forthcoming. Her love instead shone brightly from the multi coloured, warm, woollen, patchwork quilt under which I snuggled at night.
You were no academic mum, that’s for sure, but you taught us well. I wished I could have told you that in your living years, mum – I’m so very, very proud to say I come from ‘Good old Comfort’ stock!