Last night my sister and I talked about our mother’s deteriorating memory. My sister had watched her baking earlier in the day.
“She weighed out all of the ingredients and put each one into a bowl and labelled it with its contents; sugar, flour, butter, but then she wandered around the kitchen with a puzzled expression saying, ‘cocoa, cocoa, cocoa’.” She was making a self saucing chocolate pudding. She still loves cooking.
Since I have been denied access (see my previous post) I asked my sister if she was still baking shortbread. My sister said that she was but that the current batch was a bit overcooked.
Last year – when I had access – I used her shortbread as a gauge of how she was doing. I wrote a story …
Mum brought a small container of her Shortbread with her.
“He loves my Shortbread,” she told me in the car as we drove there for her 2.00 o’clock appointment. “He says it’s even better than his mother’s.”
She hadn’t liked diagnosis the specialist had given her and wanted to stop taking the medication he had prescribed, and so we were going to see her GP, who happened to be from Glasgow, for a referral to a ‘Melbourne specialist’ for a second opinion.
“I just forget people’s names,” she said. “Everyone does that. Even dad. My memory is fine. I write everything down and I underline it in red.”
She had a point: she had remembered my husband’s birthday when even his own children had forgotten it. The week before she asked for my help by sharing her problem with me.
“Dad doesn’t understand, but you will,” she said, “I have always believed that if you’re sick, you should see a Melbourne specialist.”
And then she told me, once again, why it was necessary to see a Melbourne specialist. The story, which was closely connected to her father’s illness in the late 1930s, was now so familiar, through her repeated telling of it, that I knew it by heart, but I feigned interest: I knew it was important to gain her trust. He had seen two Geelong specialists about his back problem but it continued to bother him. Then he went to Melbourne and saw a specialist there and his back problem was fixed. For her, this memory was written in indelible ink. The family suffered enormously during his long stay in hospital. Meals were not provided then, so they took food for him every day and the Chinese man who delivered vegetables to their house gave them credit until he was able to return to work as a pattern maker. This story was somehow linked to his eventual success as McDonald and Dadds, a business name stamped into a small brass plate and attached to most of the wool-classing tables in wool sheds throughout the Western District of Victoria.
“ ‘He’s got limping sickness,’ I would tell people if they asked me. I must have been about four years old.” And then she would laugh at her childhood recollection.
Her GP confirmed what I already suspected. She had Alzheimer’s and it was normal for her to be angry with the doctor who had delivered her this diagnosis. But he referred her to a Melbourne specialist any way, thanked her for the Shortbread and asked if she wanted the container back.
Mum always made Shortbread. She was Scottish, or at least her father’s father’s father was. She wasn’t sure where the recipe came from but she thought it must have come from her father’s family: They were the Scottish ones. Her father’s mother was from Kinross in Scotland. Her father’s family, the McDonalds were from Talisker, on the Isle of Skye. Her mother, my grandmother, was no cook. She made hats and intelligent conversation, and we knew very little about her genealogy. The recipe was not from her mother’s lineage.
The recipe mum used had been cut and pasted into a book of mostly handwritten recipes, and looked remarkably like it had come from Mrs Drake’s Home Cookery: Revised and Enlarged by Miss Dorothy M. Giles. Her copy had disappeared from her kitchen about the same time she started to make more exotic cakes and biscuits, like Linzertorte, Pecan Squares and Chocolate Brownies from The Silver Palate Cookbook. I made a note to check it in the copy of Mrs Drake’s that I had been given, and sure enough there it was, on the top of page 179 of the 13th Edition, “Shortbread (large quantity — makes 8 Rounds” along with “Stuffed Monkeys”, “Nut Biscuits”, “Bubble Bread” and “Biscuit Mixture Suitable for Using in Biscuit Forcer” (Giles c 1945: 179).
Shortbread—large quantity—makes 8 rounds
1 lb butter, 8 oz castor sugar, 1 ½ lbs flour, 4 oz rice flour
Asked why her Shortbread was always so good, she answered, with out pausing to think, “The secret is to have the butter soft by letting it get to room temperature.”
“That’s why it was always easier to make it in the summer.”
In my memory, it was always hot in the house when Mum did her Christmas Shortbread baking. Mum always filled the tins with Shortbread for Christmas, making it in rounds, batches of it. On hot days Mum only lit the wood stove if she had to. Until a cool change blew in, we ate salads passionfruit jelly, or roasts cooked in the Sunbeam Frypan. But Shortbread making required the stove and so it was lit early in the morning and allowed to go out when the last batch was baked. The soft hot butter held its shape and the balls of unbaked dough were covered with a buttery sheen. Every so often Mum would stop for a moment and with the corner of her apron, would away beads of perspiration that gathered on her face.
She sifted the plain flour and rice flour into a big bowl, added the sugar then rubbed in the soft butter. Then she plonked it on to her marble slab and gathered the mass together in a lump and worked it into a smooth ball. Her cooking was tactile. Once worked into a ball, she pated it gently, as you do a baby’s bottom. “You knead it until it comes into a lovely soft smooth lump,” she said. “The secret is the butter. It has to be good butter and soft. The trick is the kneading.” Then she cut it into sections and shaped each one into a smaller ball — her hands, still skilful, confident and strong.
To make the rounds she took each lump of dough and worked it into a ball, then with a rolling pin she flattened it out, rolling from the centre to the edge, picking up the dough and turning it to roll again. Once it was the right thickness and diameter she patted around its edges with her hands, neatening it to make a perfect circle.
Then she sectioned it into eight perfect triangles with a knife, cutting down into the surface but, like making a wish in a birthday cake, never cutting it through to her marble board underneath. She used a fork dipped in flour to prick each one all over and finally, to give the round a distinctive edge, she pressed the back of the fork all around its circumference.
She always made a large quantity, doubling her recipe, and so the rounds were baked in batches — a process that would take all morning. Baking trays ready, greased and floured, she slid the egg-lifter underneath each round, picked it up and pushed it gently onto the tray with the other marked circles, careful to keep its shape and making sure there was room for it to expand slightly. She knew exactly when it was cooked, by the its straw colour and a particular smell that filled the kitchen at exactly the moment when the pointy end was still soft and the fork-marked edge was slightly darker, firm and crisp. But, just in case, she always set the timer on the stove: its shrill BRRRRRRRING is a noise I always associate with that smell and the taste of hot buttery soft Shortbread straight from the oven.
“ When you are of Scottish decent,” she said with pride as she pulled each perfect batch from the oven, “you just know when they are cooked.”
Once they had cooled, the Shortbread rounds easily broke into their triangles, and she packed them into tins and jars and stashed them in the pantry. Then, the pantry cupboard always had a jar full — an old Bushell’s coffee jar — along side cake tins containing the last of a chocolate cake, or a batch of raspberry slices, some burnt butter biscuits and maybe hedgehog or boiled fruit cake. Now, when I go to the pantry cupboard, it seems smaller, shabbier, not as deep or as wide and nowhere near as full and inviting as I remember it. But there is always a jar of homemade Shortbread.
We all knew there was something wrong, ages before the diagnosis. First she stopped sewing, then she stopped knitting the brightly coloured socks we all loved to get from her — not because of her worsening arthritis — but because she struggled to understand the pattern when she got to the heel. But she kept making Shortbread: a batch every week. Shortbread was the thing — a fine thread — that linked her to who she had been. It was the recipe that she knew so well that she kept baking it, to re-assure herself that there was nothing wrong with her that a Melbourne specialist couldn’t fix. Her Shortbread was a way to keep an eye on her without her ever knowing, as her memory slipped away.