When my grandparents Natale and Elizabeth immigrated from Barile, a small village in the province of Basilicata in Italy in the late 50s to Australia, they hoped that their eldest daughter, my mum Maria, would become a doctor or a lawyer and make money for the family.
But, from as early as I can remember, probably even well before I was born, my mum spent most of her time in the kitchen and was the happiest when she cooked and experimented with her own recipes.
Mum told me that straight out of school, she took on random office jobs and when she eventually saved enough money, and even though she wasn't a trained chef, she took the leap of faith and opened her first Italian café, called Kafé Kara in the early 90s in Hobart.
While at the time there wasn't much of a foodie scene, for 10 years she successfully served breakfast and lunch to her loyal clientele, they also opened an Italian fine dining restaurant close by, called Sugo.
Despite having worked in her eateries' kitchens all day, she would come home and cook for her family. Homemade meals were actually her favourite thing to prepare.
My mum's biggest passion was being a chef, but being in our home kitchen with her kids made her happier. Yet, a year after I was born, she decided to sell the café and when I turned six, she also let go of the restaurant.
She wanted to spend more time with my older brother Fabian and me, and of course, spoil us regularly with her food. Dinner in our household was naturally our favourite time of the day. There was always a lot of excitement and anticipation about what we would eat.
Mum always prepared something different and she'd often make it a surprise. She also made every effort to cook herself despite our cries to let us help her. Her determination was probably her defining trait. Also, a trait I'm often told I have too.
Memories of cooking with mum
The greatest memories I have are captured in photos of me in the kitchen cooking with mum.
My strongest memories are of sitting on the kitchen bench next to a mixer covered in flour while helping her make the Christmas cake every year. I would always find myself sitting on the kitchen floor with a bowl and a wooden spoon mixing the filling, which was quite hard to do due to its density, but I kept on stirring if it meant I could be there with her.
I have always wanted to be like my mum. When I was younger, I wanted to be a chef. As I grew up, I changed that direction, but I still really enjoy cooking. However, I don't particularly like following recipes and that was something mum would rarely do. She never followed a recipe or wrote anything down.
When mum was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, she started a catering business from home. She supplied desserts for cafes, mostly little French pastries called canelé. Focusing on what she loved the most helped her through challenging times and kept her spirits up.
Her passion for cooking never changed, not even through relentless cancer treatment. She and my dad Rolfe never let our family life change following her diagnosis until her passing in 2016.
"Cooking and eating with family and friends has been the most important tool for me to deal with my grief."
As she became terminally ill, I knew it was time to start writing down her recipes. What we ate at home was special, that only she knew how to make.
To achieve that, I didn't want to make it a sad activity and sit her down and be like: "What are your recipes?" Instead, I randomly went around asking her: "How do you make that?" and she would just tell me while doing something else. I have numerous scraps of papers that I keep close to me. Out of all of them, the one that I would be pretty upset about if I were to lose it would be her recipe for tiramisu.
Making mum's tiramisu
My mum's family and friends loved her tiramisu. They had always asked for her to make it for our seasonal food gatherings. Each time the seasons change, we gather at each other's homes for lunch, and the tiramisu was without fail the dish my mum would make. We would relish just those four times a year.
I didn't realise how important this dessert was until mum was no longer with us. At our first seasonal lunch after her passing, I made tiramisu to keep up the tradition and create a sense of normality. But everyone became emotional once they saw it, and it was then that I realised the impact of her dessert. It was a bittersweet moment.
Our mealtime conversations have kept the family together
Cooking and eating, has always been a key part of our family's dynamic.
Mealtimes are never a short affair in our household; we take our time with it. Every bite is accompanied by chat. Especially during my mum's treatment. It helped keep our tight family bond.
My parents were adamant that my brother and I know everything about mum's condition. It was always: "This is what's affecting our family, and this is what we are going to do as a family."
Now that I'm heavily involved with cancer charity Canteen, I've found research that shows that when kids know exactly what's going on with their parents who are experiencing cancer, they have significantly lower stress.
Since mums passing, not much has changed in our home kitchen. We decided to continue life as normal. We take turns in cooking old and new recipes, and we always allow for time when we eat, like we did with mum. As the youngest in the family, I find that sitting around the table with my family, especially with my dad, is the best time to keep our close bond.
Cooking and eating with family and friends has been the most important tool for me to deal with my grief.
If you or a young person you know needs support through their cancer journey, please check out canteenconnect.org.
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