Last year I made a decision to throw my life into chaos. I quit my job. I packed up my apartment. I sold my clothes and my car. I got on a plane from Melbourne, Australia, to New York City with one suitcase containing a few items of clothing, some tattered books, my laptop and my phone. And I left my family behind. I left my mother behind. She had done a similar thing to my grandmother when she was around the same age that I am, moving to Australia from Israel. It seems traditions run far in my family. But despite being separated by over 2000 miles, the one thing that continues to bind me to my home and my mum is cooking. Just like it had bound my mother to hers.
My mum, Kathy, was a nurse when I was growing up, so she would run off to the job, rush home to pick up my twin sister and me at school, and then cook us dinner. She taught my dad how to cook when she had to work night shifts (and he makes a mean schnitzel), but from an early age I remember our house being filled with the delicious aromas of her cooking and baking. The frying onions and garlic. The lure of of chocolate biscuits. My sister and I would stare into the glass window of our old oven and watch as the chocolate chips turned into liquid pools of cocoa. Mum tricked us into eating fish for the first time by telling us that the fish balls were in fact meatballs. I have loved fish ever since. And I have never forgiven her for the prank.
Her role model in the kitchen was her mother, who gave her a Hungarian cookbook called…Cook Book. The kitchen was a place of peace and serenity for her, and cooking was a way to pass on generations of traditions. Cooking wasn’t about fulfilling a traditional gender role for her; she found it empowering and enjoyable, rather than a chore. She was calm in the kitchen, and whenever we made mistakes, she would talk about the joy of the learning process, insisting that we never give up. There was always laughter in her kitchen and, once I was grown and working in the field, a lot of talk about politics. Whenever I felt down about anything, I could come home to the kitchen, get lost in cooking with Mum, and eat a home-cooked meal made with love. It would always lift my spirits.
Since moving to New York, I have introduced friends to a favorite dessert named after the ballerina Anna Pavlova. Pavlova is traditionally eaten at Christmas in Australia and New Zealand, but really you can eat it anytime (including for breakfast!). Nothing reminds me more of baking with my mum than pavlova. One time my mother made it for her nursing colleagues. It must have been a scorching hot summer day in Melbourne, as somehow ants got into the pavlova while it was resting in the pantry—no doubt attracted to the sugar. She didn’t realize what had happened until she had served the dish at work, but her friends said it was delicious. She never told them that it had extra protein.
While baking pavlova, my mum would sing The Pretenders’ song “2000 Miles” at the top of her lungs, and I wondered if she was thinking of her mother, 2000 miles away. The lyrics deal with grief, loss, and love, but ultimately celebrate the people in your life. My mother was, of course, both excited and devastated when I moved to the United States—worried that we would be less close, as she had become with her mother when she moved to the other side of the world. But I got my sense of independence from her, hearing stories of her adventures around the world, daydreaming and inventing imaginary places to run off to. We Facetime and text every day. And even though we may be separated by more than 2000 miles, cooking continues to bind us.
Alexandra Devitt has ten years of experience in political communications and social justice activism in Australia and the United States. She served as a media advisor and speechwriter for the first Australian Jewish MP, as well as a parliamentary and media advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer of Australia. She is currently the director of communications for the Anne Frank Center USA in New York City. She has a somewhat unhealthy obsession with the TV series “The West Wing.” She can be found @allycat721.
6 egg whites
5 oz. superfine sugar
2 T. balsamic vinegar
2 t. corn flour or cornstarch
1/2 c. cocoa powder
5 oz. dark chocolate (smashed to pieces)
1 T. dark chocolate, grated
1 c. heavy cream
1 pt. strawberries
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Whisk egg whites until they form soft peaks, adding the sugar as you whisk.
Add balsamic vinegar and cornmeal (the mixture will have a marshmallow texture).
Mix in cocoa and dark chocolate.
Place mixture into a round cake tin and bake for 45 minutes.
Whip cream and spread over the meringue.
Top with strawberries and remaining dark chocolate.