Wednesday 24 December 2014

Near and Far

Here's what Christmas was like when I was a child in Australia: presents in the morning around our family Christmas tree, then over to our grandparents' house to spend the day with extended family. We would eat too much food (obviously) and get overexcited and have a fantastic time with our cousins. Every year when I was small my Grandma would give us a new swimming costume and we would pull it on gleefully after lunch and spend the afternoon in the pool.

These are my memories, anyway. The only drama I can really recall was how painful it was waiting after lunch for an hour before we were allowed to go in the water. In my memory, I'm perpetually something like eight years old and the day stretches out, clear and perfect. My Grandma had gift-giving superpowers and she would always pile us with a ton of things that we didn't know we needed but were completely fabulous. She gave me a ginormous stuffed toucan, one year, along with the swimming costume and no doubt an entire armful of other things that she bought throughout the year because she thought I would like them. I did like them, of course. She did this for all of us, all of her grandchildren, and we absolutely loved it. Any time anybody talks about how children don't need lots of presents and how it's a terrible mistake to load them with stuff they don't need, I think about my Grandma and I know that they are wrong. It was one of the (many) ways she showed us her love, and she did a great job of it.

I wish I could say that I still have the stuffed toucan, but I don't. I mean, who needs a stuffed toucan, right?

Here's what Christmas is like now that I'm an adult in England: well, nothing like any of that above. We always spend it with J's family, because they are here and so are we. So I'm an entire hemisphere away from my family of origin, every year. I've been folded into someone else's family, someone else's traditions. And while they're nice, they don't feel like mine.

Also it's cold.

Of course there are good things about being here at this time of year. Number one, it's my home now, number two, husband children etcetera, number three winter and Christmas really do go well together. And I find that I forget that some things that feel normal now weren't always part of my Christmas. Bacon-wrapped mini sausages, for example. Yumorama! Why doesn't everybody eat those every day? Cinnamon-scented anything. Love it! Smells like Christmas. And mulled wine, too. Didn't we always do that in Australia? I wonder.  No, it turns out, and that was a terrible mistake, because mulled wine is more delicious than I can possibly explain, and makes winter bearable.

But some things still feel weird. Every year, here, after a gigantic lunch of turkey and brussels sprouts (let's not talk about brussels sprouts - who decided they were a good Christmas tradition?) Jay's family all sit around for a while then reconvene around the table to have cake for tea. And I'm all why are we eating cake for tea? I did the weird mini cabbages and the trifle and so on but I do not want to eat cake for dinner. It just doesn't feel right. But I do it of course, because I'm a guest and hello: manners.

But sometimes, I want to be back in Australia, with the hot weather and the swimming and my own cake-free family Christmas so badly that it feels like a physical pain. Instead I'm here, belonging, but sometimes not quite belonging, still, after fifteen years.

This year, I asked J's mum what I could bring to her house for Christmas. I was thinking maybe a side dish, but no. Cake, she said. Bring some cake for tea. 

Now, it doesn't take much to trigger an existential immigrant crisis in me at any time of year, but December is particularly bad. The cake request definitely brought one on. It kind of summed up every reason that I wanted to be somewhere else, half a world away, wearing a bikini and making summery pina coladas rather than stupid cake. (My family don't actually drink. But I do. So there would be pina coladas if I was there, right? And the bikini is there because in this fantasy I'm tanned and also much thinner). These existential immigrant crises don't happen too often, but when they happen, they really happen. I think that loving me means accepting that once a year (okay, at least once a year) I'm going to totally lose my shizzle over the fact that I'm so far away from my family.

So today it was time to bake a cake, and I was having my crisis. I had no idea what to bake and then thought - I know, I'll make my mother's honey gingerbread loaf. That will make me feel better, if it doesn't make me feel much much worse. I know honey gingerbread doesn't sound that delicious, but believe me, it totally is. We used to eat this all the time, pretty much every time we had visitors, but I hadn't thought about it for years.

I called my mum. Can I have that recipe? I asked, and she said yes, of course, and told me that it had actually been Grandma's recipe, which I hadn't known. Don't forget to line the tin, she told me. If you don't line the tin, you'll lose half the cake when you take it out. Also, it's really hard to tell when it's actually cooked, because the batter is so dark. And that reminds me, don't burn it. It's very easy to burn. And sometimes it overflows the tin. You should definitely do a test batch before you serve it to anybody else. It's very, very easy to mess it up.  Now that I come to think of it, it's not a very good recipe. 

In my memory, I was basically raised on this stuff, and I don't remember my mother ever messing up a batch. Maybe what she meant was that it would be easy for me to mess it up, and hey, that much is probably true.

Jay took the children to the park so that I could get on with the baking. I downloaded the recipe she emailed me and strangely, it didn't look familiar at all. It's hilariously minimalist (bake until cooked? Thanks!) and I don't feel any of the recognition I expected. Surely I made this as a child when we had guests over? On the other hand, maybe not; I wasn't a very helpful child.

I mixed it all together, everything still feeling unfamiliar. Why was there boiling water? I certainly didn't remember that. Even the way of putting it together felt wrong - Australian recipes, like American, use cup measures and I'm now totally used to baking by weight. Don't tell me to lightly pack a half cup of brown sugar, just give me the weight! Why can't everybody just buy a pair of scales? It's so much simpler. But I measured out my cups and as the ingredients combined in the final step, the smell of ground ginger and hot honey smacked me in the face and suddenly there I was, eight years old, my mother making it in the kitchen and the three of us kids hanging around to lick the bowl. Or maybe it would have been my sister making the cake because she was a helpful child. Either way, that was it, this incredibly familiar and nostalgic smell, delicious and painful and happy and sad all in one.

Why am I making this on my own?  I asked myself. My own children were coiled tight with excitement today and were in no fit state to have a mummy-and-me baking session, so that's not what I meant. But why aren't I going to share this with someone else who has memories of eating it as a child? Why can't I do anything with someone who was with me as a child? I put the cake in the oven and my stomach hurt with an intense other-side-of-the-world missing that I can only describe as loneliness.

This is what people don't tell you about a happy childhood: it puts a lot of pressure on your adulthood.

Thing is, I'm under no illusions about what it would be like if I was really back there. My grandmother is no longer alive, and everyone who still is alive is getting old and going crazy, myself included, obviously. It would be hot (way too hot) on Christmas day and I'd be complaining about that, and I wouldn't be in the pool, I'd be in the kitchen. And anyway, that pool is no longer in the family - my grandfather sold the family house after my grandmother died, and he now lives alone on the fifth floor of a retirement complex. Not quite the same.

Perhaps I don't really miss a place. Maybe what I really miss is a time. Maybe what I really want is to be eight years old again, for someone else to be in charge and only to have to worry about what I'm going to do to fill the sixty minutes between turkey and swimming.

I had forgotten how intensely wonderful this cake smells as it's baking. It's got a much more powerful aroma than I remember and the spicy ginger and sugar really do smell like Christmas. My mother never baked this at Christmas but suddenly it smells so appropriate and right for this time of year, here, in a cold climate. The postman comes the door and he's never really spoken to me before but he asks What are you baking? That smells amazing! And I tell him that it's honey gingerbread, and add, unnecessarily, that it's my mother's recipe. It smells great, he says again. Merry Christmas! 

The children come home and Blue - who pretty much hates all food - says what is that yummy smell? It smells like I really want to taste it! 

In that instant I decide that I am going to make this every year from now.

And maybe this is it. Maybe this is how we start our own traditions. Maybe I really will make this every Christmas from here on, and my own daughter in law will have to remember to be polite about that awful cake her husband likes so much.

Or maybe I won't, and we'll have to think of something else.

The cake turned out perfectly, by the way. I made two batches, cooked them for different amounts of time (by accident) and they were both perfectly moist in the middle, spicy and sweet and a little bit caramelised on the outside. I remembered what my mother used to do, before she got into eating healthily, and spread each slice with a smear of salty butter. Despite the spice, both children loved it and it tasted exactly the same as I remember from twenty years ago, and thirty.

doesn't look like much, but smells like what heaven must smell like

And of course, then I realised - maybe as time goes on, I will get to share this with people who remember eating this as children. As my children. It doesn't make the pain of being far away from my family go away, but I think it's going to have to do.


In case you ever want your house to smell like an expensive bakery, here's the recipe.


½ cup honey (or mixture of honey and golden syrup)
½ cup boiling water
½ cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 cup plain flour
½ cup S.R. Flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
3 heaped tsps ground gingerbread
125g (4oz) butter
Grease a loaf tin, and line with paper.
Preheat oven to moderate.

Mix honey and boiling water in large bowl.
Mix in sifted dry ingredients.
Melt the butter and beat into the mixture.

Bake in moderate oven until cooked (seems to take 50-60 minutes).
Test with a skewer.
Turn out on a wire rack to cool.