I learned to cook watching my mother. I watched as she peeled apples – their coils of green skin dangling until they dropped, never breaking, into a pile on the bench – chopped artfully through stalks of celery, kneaded lumps of shiny dough for shortbread, pinched the edges of apple pies and forced biscuit mix through her cookie cutter – one of the many new gadgets she had in her 1950s kitchen.

I progressed from observing her to making my own pies and biscuits with the left over bits of pastry or biscuit dough; adding jam, brushing my creations with egg wash and sprinkling them with sugar and baking them along with what ever she had made. At last I graduated to cooking from recipes in The Australian Women’s Weekly, Miss Drake, and my mother’s hand-written folder of recipes. I had control of our Sunbeam mix master and I understood creaming, mixing beating and rubbing-in and cleaning up as I went.

My mother had a folder of recipes, all hand written and named: Nan’s chocolate cake, Nana Adams’ rock buns, Enid’s sponge. She also had a PWMU cookbook and a copy of Miss Drake’s Cookbook, both very plain looking books but both were part of our family. I loved reading these books, matching the ingredients they listed with what we had in the cupboard and baking cakes and biscuits from them. My mother has always used Miss Drake’s shortbread recipe, 1 lb butter, 8 oz castor sugar, 1 ½ lbs flour, 4 oz rice flour, even though she tells me that her recipe came to her down the paternal line from her Scottish forebears. At some point mum has cut out and pasted Miss Drake’s recipe into her book of handwritten recipes.

Each year I make quince jelly from my CWA Cookery Book and Household Hints, This thirty-sixth edition was reprinted and converted from imperial to metric measurements to both bring it up to date and keep it in high regard. In the foreword, Western Australia’s state president in 1973 assured readers that “with the adaptability of women, the use of metric measures will be accomplished with ease and this edition will be as popular as ever”. Mary Shearer, the 1974 state president added, “we have accepted the challenges of the past and will continue to do so”. I love it that this book is bigger and says more about its readers than a typical recipe book. This book tells a story about the women who produced and used it. They had talents beyond the kitchen. They made butter and cheddar cheese, they could whip up a feather pillow, wash a fleece, make a door mat from a tyre tube and remove even the most stubborn stains with cleaning products they made, make their own soap for the kitchen, laundry and bathroom, cure colds in fowls and whip up food for calves.

The quince jelly recipe yields shimmering jelly and deep rust-red whole quinces that are delicious served warm with a dollop of cream. The instructions are simple. There no tedious, difficult and off-putting peeling and coring of quinces: just rub the fluff off 8 large or 12 medium quinces and put them uncut into the preserving pan with four litres of cold water and 2¼ kilograms of sugar. Then boil together for four hours. You will know when the jelly has reached the setting stage (most old recipes omit this vital piece of information) as the jelly will go “into a lot of small bubbles”. Once this happens, strain the jelly off into jars.

And how about this recipe for Curry Powder? It’s from Cookery Around the World, a wonderfully aspirational cookbook compiled by the Associated Country Women of The World in 1950. This was a cookbook with a purpose. Imbedded in its recipes, is the aim to prevent any more world wars. I will get to that but first the curry recipe. This was an “emergency” recipe, for camp fire cooking but it contains coriander seeds fried; chillies fried; saffron; Bengal gram; poppy seeds; cinnamon, cardamom and cloves; mustard; pepper; cumin seed fried; fenningre [sic fenugreek] fried; sugar, salt, ginger, garlic and gingilee oil. The dried ingredients are ground fine and the ingredients are mixed and seasoned with some curry leaves bottled and kept air-tight.

So here is a little bit of history and a stunning example of activism starting in the kitchen. The Associated Country Women of the World was an international organization linking country women around the world. Its aim was to build international good will and understanding. This book, published in 1950, was to be a common bond of friendship with the world. President Mrs Ruth Sayre wrote in the foreword, “Country women have always exchanged recipes with their neighbours,” and in this spirit of international friendship and continued world piece, recipes were collected, tested, selected and reproduced from six million women in 25 member countries and compiled into a small green laminate spiral bound cook book and sold to country women through their associations.

I cook the Black Walnut Cake on page 91. The page is heavily splodged and the recipe is marked in pencil with a purposeful cross and a tick. It is from the U.S.A and has shortening, sugar, walnuts, flour, baking powder, eggs milk and vanilla. When I make it, I imagine a CWA meeting where everyone brings a plate. The woman who made this cake announces proudly, “It’s an American recipe”. In 1950 Australian women embraced everything American.

I wonder if any one ever mixed up the curry powder. I think it wasn’t until 1976 when Charmaine Soloman blew us away with her Complete Asian Cookbook. I still reach for it whenever I want to cook Asian. Her Kukul Mas Curry (Chicken Curry) is the best curry rich with spices and coconut milk. Soloman was happy to explain previously unknown ingredients, or to let us leave out ingredients then not in our pantries. She suggested alternatives – lemon rind in place of lemon grass and red paprika to give the curry its traditional red colour in the place of chillies. “In Sri Lanka”, she wrote, “the colour is achieved by using 30 red chillies!”

I love the bits of folded paper that fall out of old cookbooks. Clippings from newspapers with recipes that might one day be cooked, hand written recipes, scraps of paper used as bookmarks. They remind me that that another person used this book, cooked these recipes. Each one tells a story about a person, another time and a place. Even though I can never know the story, or the person or the place the marginalia reminds me that they were there and this trace of them is a reminder. From the marginalia in Australian Cookery of Today Illustrated c. 1930 I know that the woman who owned this book seldom cooked from it. Instead she cooked from the recipes she hand wrote in its blank pages or from recipes written out on pieces of paper that she slipped inside its pages. Her hand written recipe for Baked Rhubarb is a delicious combination of rhubarb and bread and butter, baked together and served with lashings of double cream.

She progressed to more adventurous recipes. At some stage she was introduced to Chinese cooking She has copied out a recipe for fried rice. And from the look of it and her detailed instructions on cooking rice, cutting red peppers and chopping vegetables into precise lengths this was a new and challenging culinary adventure.

Recently I bought a damaged copy of Cassells Dictionary of Cooking c.1880 for $20 at my local op-shop. The woman in charge told me she appreciated the value of the book and would have taken it herself but she only had new cookbooks. Her kitchen was modern and they suited her décor better than the older books she sorted though each day. It has almost nine thousand recipes, in alphabetical order, numerous engravings and full-page coloured plates. A previous owner has marked a page with a now fragile, yellowing, torn piece of newspaper. I am sure it was to mark a recipe for Apricot Cream. This recipe is so delicious I long for Apricot season:

Apricot Cream Take a dozen and a half ripe apricots: pare, stone and halve them and place them in a saucepan with a cup full of sugar dissolved in a cup full of water. Let them simmer until they are reduced to a pulp, when they must be pressed through a fine sieve and put aside to cool. Boil a pint and a half (750 mls ) of new milk or cream with three tablespoons of sugar. Let it cool after boiling then put into it eight yolks of eggs well beaten. Put this into a jug, which must be placed in a saucepan of boiling water, which must be stirred one way until it thickens. Add one ounce and half of isinglass (substitute gelatin) which has been boiled in a little water and when the cream is cold mix the apricot with it. Pour into a well- oiled mold, and keep it in a cool place.

The most delicious recipe for ginger bread fell out of an old Mrs Beeton Cookbook that I found in a skip on our street. I add dates to the recipe and when it is cooked and cool, I butter it generously. If I make Quiche Lorraine, I use the recipe from Oh, for a French wife. Its buttery richness is so delicious that I forget for just one meal that fat is not my worst enemy. When figs are plentiful I preserve them in a syrup flavoured with preserved ginger and vinegar and from my first ever cookery book, The Australian and New Zealand Complete Book of Cookery, given to me by my mother in 1973 when I left home and moved into my first shared house.