Another day, another piece of happy, thanks to the Press Christchurch Writers Festival. It’s Wednesday afternoon, and I’m heading home full of summer pudding and chocolate chip torte, thinking not What’s for Pudding (Alexa Johnston’s most recent recipe book), but what’s for tea. Whatever it turns out to be, it doesn’t have a hope of matching the roll-call of dishes we’ve just all been discussing.
Lemon delicious, golden syrup steamed pudding, jam roly-poly, rhubarb crumble – all names guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye and a rumble to the tummy. There’s bucket-loads of nostalgia in the room, although there are also ambivalent sounds when some of the more contentious puddings are mentioned. Seems that junket, flummery and blancmange carry fewer happy memories for some, and Alexa floats her theory that those who attended boarding school and who were fed lots of institutional milk and egg-style puddings were so traumatised by the experience that even the mention of rice pudding turns them slightly green.
Chair Kate Fraser notes that when she was at boarding school, they had ‘pudding’ during the week, but ‘dessert’ at the weekends, and asks Alexa what the difference IS between the two. None, says Alexa – she believes the word ‘dessert’ is an American affectation supposed to make pudding sound more sophisticated and exotic. She also notes that there is truly nothing better in the world than “a pudding made with love by your mother”.
Alexa has brought with her a selection of her favourite Canterbury cookbooks, which range in era from the 1920s right through to modern ones, and explains how she has chosen the recipes for this most recent book. She sees herself not as an inventor of recipes, but as a transmitter of wisdom, and after (very unscientifically) interviewing a bunch of people, she gathered a list of dishes, then set about finding the best recipe for each pudding. Turns out that writing a cook book is much more about statistics and spreadsheets than I’d imagined, although each recipe is thoroughly road-tested – a necessary evil when some of the instructions in older books are simply a list of ingredients followed by the words “combine as usual”. Older recipe books assumed knowledge because everyone DID actually know, so it can be quite hard to tease out methods and get the right result.
The session is glorious, the book a thing of beauty, the audience buy-in 150%, and Alexa and Kate are both great speakers. Alexa’s background as art curator and Kate’s long-standing career as foodie writer and author combine to make a great afternoon’s entertainment. I am happy and full, and have a new determination to go home and sort out all my cookbooks and revisit old family favourites, leaving you with the best quote of the afternoon:
If someone makes your favourite pudding for you, you can be pretty sure they love you.