Recipes are passports
Recipe for Nan Peterkin's spicy butternut soup
This is Part 1 of a Weekly Dispatch. Part two follows in two days.
Did you notice, the last time you were here, the large, orange, cloth-covered notebook in my kitchen? It leans wonkily against our microwave and doesn’t close properly, as it is thickly stuffed with our family’s favourite recipes. I have a rule: nothing goes into the orange notebook unless we’ve made it many times, and everybody in the family approves. I bet you have several books like this.
Inside the book are recipes printed from websites and blogs, glued into the pages complete with oil spatters and sugar crusts, earning their place after many a happy family meal. There are old recipes in my mother’s handwriting - Nanna’s salmon rissoles that were the ultimate comfort food of my childhood, and the chicken-five-spice-stir-fry that was the ultimate comfort food of my mother’s childhood - recipes I’ve copied in myself, and recipes that friends have carefully written out for me.
There are handwritten notes on top of some of the recipes, written in Madeleine’s careful, childish hand. “This is the best cake,” she affirms on one page. And, “these biscuits are even better when they’re chocolate,” and “this is our favourite steak.” One day she will assume stewardship of the orange book, and continue to fill it with recipes of her own, so the notes she makes now are letters and reminders to her future self.
I read somewhere that recipes, shared from one person to another, were something in between a magic potion, and a passport to a different way of living.
Isn’t that lovely? What a beautiful way to capture the magic in the mundane, the reason why something so simple, so domestic and prosaic, as a recipe for tuna casserole or chocolate brownies, can mean so much.
I firmly believe that shared recipes are more than food memories alone. It is not only the nostalgia of the taste - a meal that transports us, in one bite, back to a different time, place, or company - that gives them value. Recipes also represent the passing on of wisdom. A “this is how we do it” act of generosity that for hundreds of years was shared from person to person, inside the kitchen.
When I started researching our project together, I discovered that the writing of recipes only really gained popularity after the world opened up. In the Victorian era, a suddenly much more mobile population could no longer rely on access to older generations in the kitchen to share their knowledge and wisdom. What many people did gain access to, however, was literacy. I’d never thought of that before !
And so, the habit of writing down cooking instructions began. Written recipes became a conduit for flavours, food traditions and long-held knowledge to travel from one person’s kitchen, across oceans and through time, to the dining table of another.
But you and I know that in reality, the true value of a shared recipe is not actually about a means for "getting the best food.” Instead, a recipe is the key that unlocks a deeper story.
When I write out my recipe for pumpkin soup and give it to you, for example, I hope you enjoy it but I’m aware that it might not be the best pumpkin soup you’ll ever taste. Taste is subjective, after all, and - as we already know - deeply nostalgic. So whether you prefer the addition of orange rind, coconut milk, or curry powder to your soup will be as much about you and your stories as it is about me and my recipe.
But this pumpkin soup recipe was given to me by our friend Nan Peterkin, after she invited me and Scott to dinner in her home, not long after we’d moved to Melbourne. I thought the soup she served us was delicious and asked if she’d give me the recipe.
That recipe has become the story of my loneliness in a new city, and the way that Nan’s soup and kindness lifted that loneliness ever-so-slightly.
Nan was a full generation older than us, a friend of a friend, and I’d previously thought her to be somewhat… austere, and cold. But during the course of that dinner, while she ladled out fragrant soup and hot, crusty buns at her dining table, Nan revealed her softer side. I was pregnant with Madeleine at the time, and there was a motherliness to the interest and affection she showed me that I hadn’t known I was craving until that meal, being so far away from my own mother and all my friends.
Nan passed away a few years ago and when I follow her pumpkin soup recipe now, it takes me back to the way I felt all those years ago, being pregnant and moving to a new city where I had no community. And it reminds me of how a hot meal and a friendly smile helped me understand that there were still hands that would hold my own, even in all the uncertainty.
I like to think that now, when you make the pumpkin soup recipe I share in this letter, it will mean more to you than it might have done a few paragraphs earlier. Because you know, now, that I’m not only giving you taste, I’m giving you a piece of my story, and a piece of Nan’s story too.
And maybe the soup recipe will weave its way into your story as well. From Nan’s kitchen, to mine, to yours.
Nan Peterkin’s spicy butternut soup
3 tbsp butter or oil
2 onions, chopped
2 potatoes, diced
2 cups diced butternut squash
1 granny smith apple, peeled & chopped
2 tbsp curry powder
pinch ground nutmeg
3 cups chicken stock
grated rind & juice of 1 orange
parsley / coriander, if desired
cream, if desired
sea salt & ground pepper, to taste
Melt the butter (or heat the oil) in a saucepan, and sauté the onions until soft. Add the squash, potatoes and apple, sauté for five minutes. Add curry powder and nutmeg, stir well.
Add stock, orange rind, and juice. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes until the squash, potatoes and apple are tender.
Cool, then purée until smooth. Add parsley/coriander and/or cream if desired. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve hot or cold.
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