The apotheosis of Stephanie Alexander

A Cook’s Life

by Stephanie Alexander

Lantern, $39.95 hb, 362 pp, 9781921382789

Most present-day Australian chefs (that is to say, cooks who earn a living through their training, practice, and culinary skills) who have written cookbooks are at the same time telling us about themselves. Is it not curious that, in general, cooks repeatedly praise the table for its central role in hospitality, conviviality, generosity, and equality, yet seem so needful of, so greedy for, praise?

Stephanie Alexander has been telling us about her life, through her food, for decades, and has also been telling us over and over again that her mother was a brilliant and creative cook. Mary Burchett’s Through My Kitchen Door: A Discursive Approach to the Pleasures of Eating, With More Than a Hundred Tested Recipes was published by Georgian House in 1960, ‘a complete failure’, according to Mary, but then she was ‘one of the most introverted and socially inept people’ her daughter has ever known.

Alexander declares Mary’s collection of recipes a ‘true picture of the culinary scene as it was then’, though elsewhere there is evidence of Mary being far ahead of her time. Alexander published an edition of her mother’s book in 1997, changing the title to Recipes My Mother Gave Me. ‘My’ and ‘me’ are Alexander’s ingenuous stumbling blocks, often tautological, almost always unnecessary. Alexander currently writes a column about her garden for the Australian magazine, Gourmet Traveller. Ever the arithmetical masochist, this reviewer once counted the use of ‘I’, ‘my’, and ‘me’ in one of these columns and easily ticked off a staggering fifty within eight hundred words.

A memoir, despite its interest in the self, is no excuse for more of the same. Why has Alexander never had an editor courageous enough to cross out the redundant self-qualifiers in her prose? Why hasn’t an editor ever put her foot down and forcefully argued for better writing, something more graceful, more, dare she say, modest?

Elizabeth David, Alexander’s central food-writing hero, was a marvellous, subtle stylist, little given to self-reference. The novelist Julian Barnes deems David to be the best plain food writer there is. Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed (1986, and recently reprinted by Prospect Books) is a lesson in evocation without ego. In contrast, Alexander undermines her genuine achievements and her obvious intelligence through solipsism.

If you are up for it, the answer to this continued lack of editorial courage might be found in a close reading of A Cook’s Life. Alexander’s writing voice is often that of an institutional superintendent, albeit with a rather girlish touch creeping in now and then (chapter headings such as ‘Mum’s Rabbit Pie’, ‘Crabapple Tart & a Squeeze of Calamansi’, ‘Cupcake Memories’). She does admit to the ‘severe tone’ of her first journalistic pieces. Every story in A Cook’s Life is, in one way or another, a story of getting what she wants. Pushing for her schools project, which was to become the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, she reckoned that ‘here was a way to capitalise on my love of good, fresh food and the reputation I had forged over thirty-plus years for integrity, serious intent and single-mindedness in pursuing a dream’.

This indeed was a project worth pursuing. Alexander’s inspiration was Alice Waters’ ground-breaking Edible Schoolyard Project in California. Begun in 2001, the Department of Health and Ageing had by 2007 offered Alexander’s Foundation enough funding to bring nearly two hundred more Australian schools to the project. There are now more than two hundred and fifty primary schools in Australia in which a productive garden is cared for by children under tutelage, the produce used in cookery lessons and brought to the table.

Alexander’s earlier, legitimate claim for universal admiration rests on the recipe collection The Cook’s Companion. Published in 1996, later revised and published in a second edition in 2004, it is a marvel of cross-referencing within an alphabetical framework, the catalogue aria of a born schoolmistress and trained librarian. In A Cook’s Life, Alexander writes of keeping the tone light with ‘more than a touch of whimsy and humour’, but one never thinks of this book as light-hearted. Rather, it is a testament to her didactic personality and dogged work ethic.

So where did these traits come from? Winston Burchett, Alexander’s father, and Winston’s brothers Wilfred (who became the politically involved international journalist) and Clive, grew up on a small dairy farm in Poowong, Victoria. Winston left school at thirteen, but would later open a subscription library in Ballarat. The brothers left Australia by ship in 1936, and upon returning Winston met Mary Bell, an art student who had been in Japan. Winston became deeply politically engaged, joined the Labor Party, and served as parliamentary secretary to the Chifley government in 1945. In 1949, when the Liberal Party under Menzies gained power, Winston turned away from political life, bought land in Rosebud West, and set out to build a caravan park.

 

Cooks-Life-plate-2
Stephanie Alexander

 

Alexander’s compressed portrait of her father is by extension a portrait of hard-working men who were politically of the left in Australia after World War II. He periodically suffered from depression, wrote about his life, read all his life, and died in 2002. Mary, who, according to Stephanie, her eldest child, channelled her visual arts sensibility into the kitchen, must also have worked very hard indeed. She too wrote about her life. One senses in Alexander a strong love, affection, and admiration for her father, but more tangled emotions toward her mother, even though it is surely the introverted Mary whom Alexander wanted to emulate:

I can portion up my life by saying I did ten years in libraries for Dad, thirty-plus years of restaurants for Mum, and more than twenty-five years’ writing for both of them, and now ten years of giving back to the community, which would have greatly pleased my father.

A Cook’s Life is not, and does not, I think, claim to be a memoir of literary merit, but Alexander does insist that writing is as much her forte as cookery. Banalities abound (‘my creative juices were flowing’), and an extreme preoccupation with self leads to an embarrassment of self-congratulation that seems to this reviewer to be only explicable as a form of naïveté. Much of the book is concerned with details of Alexander’s life that are of no interest to the public, home renovation being the most extreme.

There are, however, some very good parts where Alexander records the food she ate and learned about in the 1980s. These chapters will serve archivists well when we upstart cooks settle down and into the post-MasterChef years. Marcella Hazan taught her the little tricks of the best Italian cooking; the Troisgros Brothers in Roanne showed her a different method of making puff pastry. And earlier, a Mr Ferguson of Ferguson’s Bakery in Melbourne told her, ‘Our sponges are made with twelve eggs to a pound of flour – none of those aerators. They’re not as high as some but they’re real.’

When, in 1999, Alexander closed Stephanie’s, the restaurant she opened and named for herself in Hawthorn, one friend wrote an account of the farewell party, and Alexander includes this in A Cook’s Life: ‘Maggie Beer talked of the glory that is Stephanie. “She is world class. And we are the lucky country – she is ours.”’

Towards the close of this book Alexander – now in her seventies, and cataloguing the aches and pains of age – tells us that despite the sum of her travels and endless successes, ‘there are many mornings I wake filled with dread’. Thoreau, in the first essay in Walden, declares that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. There are no exceptions, however fêted or successful we are.

Published in April 2012 no. 340
Gay Bilson

Gay Bilson

Gay Bilson was, for twenty-five years (1973–1998), a restaurateur and cook in Sydney. She has created and directed several events centred on food and community, often for the Adelaide Festival, and was an associate director under Peter Sellars for the 2002 festival, producing programs such as Nourish (feeding patients in a large public hospital) and The Edible Library. In 2004 she directed Eating the City, a large community project created by the Spanish food artist and psychologist Alicia Rios, for the City of Melbourne. As an extension of this project, she recorded oral histories with the communities who took part.

In 2003 Bilson was the recipient of an Asialink residency, spending three months in Sri Lanka studying its food culture. She is the author of Plenty: Digressions on Food (Penguin, 2004). Plenty won the Nita B. Kibble Prize for Women’s Life Writing and was named The Age Book of the Year in 2005. Her most recent book is On Digestion (MUP, 2008), one of a series of essays in MUP’s ‘Little Books on Big Themes’ series. In this extended essay she questions many of the assumptions we make about agriculture, produce, and dining in Australia.

Bilson lives in rural South Australia, believing, with Cicero, that ‘If you have a garden and a library you have everything you need,’ except that, 2000 years later, she would add water and the Internet to these requirements.

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