Why Learning to Cook is about More than Cooking
Nan called today. It was a nice surprise; she doesn’t often.
After perfunctory pandemic-related chit-chat, I asked her how she had been passing her time. She told me that today she’d made forty spring rolls and that she was planning to share them with relatives who live nearby.
Nan’s spring rolls are famous in the family. Oversized, golden brown, and served with a sauce that’s adjusted to white Australian taste, the recipe originally came from a Women’s Weekly magazine in the 1960s. She still has the recipe with her, cut from the magazine and pasted into a bulging leather-bound book with her other favourites, the image now so faded that the spring rolls look grey.
Not that she’d need to consult the recipe anymore. Over the years, she’s made these plump, crunchy beauties distinctly her own and perfected her technique. They have become comfort food for the family — an afternoon snack that she brings out on overflowing trays when we all come together.
“Now remind me,” she said, “when you next come up to visit, I want to show you how to roll them. That way when I’m gone — I mean, when I head to the place upstairs — you’ll know how to do it for yourself.”
A little water splashed the back of my eyes. It wasn’t just sad to hear that she had been thinking of her own mortality (that was nothing new — nan has been putting money in her funeral kitty for at least two decades). I just found it unbearably touching that she had given thought and decided that this was something she wanted to pass on before she goes: a humble skill, a little fragment of embodied knowledge that she had accumulated over the course of her time on earth.
The technique for rolling a spring roll might not be complicated — spreading out some filling, a careful tuck and fold — but it’s not something you can easily master just by reading about it in a recipe book (the standard way of learning before the advent of YouTube chefs). No, cooking skills are best learnt in the physical presence of one’s teacher; and the teacher is typically a beloved family member.
To pass on an embodied skill is to leave an intangible cultural legacy — to create a living connection between acts past, present and future. And in the case of cooking skills, of course, you eat the fruits of your labour — such that the passage of skills also creates a continuity of enjoyable experiences, of nostalgia, of memories happy and sad.
But I don’t ask my nan why she wants to teach me — and not only because to do so would be rude. I suspect that as is the case for most craftspeople, if I had asked, she couldn’t tell me. The affective dimension of inter-generational skills transfer isn’t something that can be told — it can only be felt with the heart.
I don’t know when I’ll next come up to visit. Nan and I are separated by a state border that the pandemic has closed down. But when I do, learning to fold spring rolls will be at the top of my agenda.