My mother had (or probably still has) a cookbook the occupies a very special place in my heart, a small, unassuming volume bound in faded blue that promised to teach you “basic recipes for cooking and baking“. This is the book that helped me to make my first, tentative steps in the kitchen.
Now, this must have been printed sometime at the beginning of the 1950s. Much to the chagrin of her neighbours Germany, who had started the war, was rather better off than the countries who had to go through all the trouble of winning it. That does not mean that all that loot from the war or the Wirtschaftswunder money trickled down evenly on everyone, and so this cookbook focused mostly on the art of making a lot from very little.
Even so the authors had realized that even in scarce times one needs a little luxury, and so the book included a chapter devoted to cakes, cookies and biscuits. One recipe that that particularly caught my Imagination was the for a Hefezopf, a type of yeast pastry rather resembling a challah bread. This was not by itself a complicated thing, but it did look wonderfully festive with the braiding, topped with flakes of sliced almonds and a layer of only slightly melted crystal sugar. You can tell how good it looked because while the book had only picture in blurry, black-and-white picture I yet remember it crisply and colourfully. That’s how good it looked.
I never had actually tried to make the thing for fear to fall short of all the imagined greatness, but when it was time to impress Siobhan with my prowess in the kitchen I decided that nothing else could possibly be good enough for her. It came out rather well, even if I say so myself; the only thing is that the original recipe was supposed to server a family of ten, and I forgot to scale it down for the occasion. Siobhan’s eyes grew wide when I unwrapped my giant loaf (which may sound rather like an off-color double entendre, but it was really just cake), and from the lower echelons of the kitchen floor a little black nose hopefully sniffed in my general direction.
It is not that I did not try my hand in romantic gestures; once I had learned to spell her first name I scoured the internet for examples of famous Siobhans’, and finally found, in an antiquarian bookshop, a biography of Irish actress Siobhán McKenna. Siobhan looked at the book and “Oh, I think I was named after her”, she said (apparently my mother-in-law had been a big fan). And that was about the last time she mentioned the book. The loaf however is something she remember fondly for years to come. “I was amazed how big it was,” she would say (still talking about pastry). The three of us munched on Hefezopf for the next two weeks or so.
Mostly we did so in front of the television while watching episodes of Red Dwarf on DVD. Science Fiction sitcom is not exactly a big genre in Germany, and never before had I anybody to share this particular infatuation with. And as Siobhan said, I was the first person in Germany she had met who even knew that the show existed. It’s not like she is a big science fiction fan – quite the opposite, she finds my penchant for spaceships and far-away stars rather strange – but she liked the bantering between Craig Charles and Chris Barrie (bantering is not something Germans usually do), and the rather physical humour. That is another thing Siobhan and I have in common – after all we met when were were late in our thirties, and had both amassed unnecessary large amounts of highbrow culture in our respective CVs. So we both felt entitled to set poststructuralism and medieval hagiography and whatnot aside, and enjoy watching a rastafari slob guzzle down messy vindaloos, in space, while being joined by a hologram of his dead, neurotic superior in the department of chicken soup dispenser maintenance. And then she would proceed with some insightful remark on art, or literature, or fashion or economy or any other topic that she had just dived into as a part of her freelance teaching job.
That was the fun of it, that she did not stop to be cultivated, but that to her culture was not a means to elevate herself above others, but something to enjoy and share with others. She even managed to drag me off to art exhibitions that by myself I would neither have attended nor appreciated. I remember a display of depictions of Our Virgin Mary that under her scrutiny revealed much more insight into medieval psychology than those old painters could have possibly had themselves. And then it was back to humour, because there was one more test I had to take.
“Do you know Eddie Izzard,” she asked innocently. I had no clue, and did not quite understand, what she was talking about, but this was not the time to admit ignorance on anything she deemed important.
“Sure, I love lizards,” I said, “especially chameleons. Isn’t it amazing how they become almost invisible against the background?”. Siobhan looked at me in a funny way and popped in a DVD. Out on the screen strutted, in twelve inch heels, a man in dress and heavy makeup who ejaculated an incessant stream of syllables while he impersonated successively God (a.k.a. James Mason), Henry VIII, Sean Connery and Darth Vader. Men do not like to admit they have been talking out of their arse, so I turned around with a flourish, pointed at the painted chatterbox on the screen and exclaimed, “What did I say? You hardly see him at all!”.
Well, maybe this is not exactly how things happened, even if from now on I will remember it that way. It is true however that she looked at me attentively from the side, and when I nearly choked with laughter at the joke about original sin (“Father forgive me, I poked a badger with a spoon”) she nodded approvingly. “He is extremely funny,” she said, “and without any racism, or sexism, or malice”. Which was a very typical thing for Siobhan to say, and I was glad that I had passed the test.
It’s not that we see eye to eye on everything. I don’t think she understands my infatuation with science fiction, or my habit of fiddling around to assemble small bits of technology that I could much easier buy in a shop (or do without). But then, that became part of the secret of a successful marriage, that we have enough in common to understand each other without talking, and are different enough to always have something to talk about.
But at the end of the day what really brought us together was not culture, or humour, or even pastry. It was the shared affection for somebody who was, if at all possible, even more craving for love than the both of us. And so we spent most of our time together walking in circles, watching the dog hopping around, the dog watching us walking around, all the three of us engaged in the long, but pleasantly entertaining process of becoming familiar with each other.