Coconut Tarts & Christmas
I often speak about baking as a means of uniting people; so often our special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, christenings, are punctuated by a cake, and the pivotal moment of such occasions the sharing of the cake, chatting as we enjoy eating together. This is especially true of Christmas time.
Every family no doubt has their own Christmas traditions, particularly where food is concerned. Mince pies and Christmas pudding are often a staple, however there are certainly individual quirks that mark each of our festive periods as unique. In my family, this was always my Nan’s coconut tarts. They were simple. rustic, and comforting; sweet pastry, raspberry jam and creamy coconut.
Sadly, this year we lost my Nan after a brave battle with cancer. This is our first Christmas without her, and without her signature coconut tarts. I have spoken of my Nan as the person who first ignited my passion for baking and who educated me about the joys of home cooking. Moreover, it is my Nan who has unknowingly taught me of the strong associations we make between food and emotion, our food memories involuntarily evoking recollections of people, events and the seasons. I cannot think of Christmas without thinking of coconut tarts, and vice versa.
In the Autumn, as the weather began to get colder and the leaves fell from the trees, the very reality that we would be facing a Christmas without Nan and her coconut tarts began to dawn on us all. This was exacerbated by the approach of what would have been my Nan’s 88th birthday. Not being sure how to mark the day, we decided to have a family meal at home, and I would make a cake; Nan’s favourite was always ginger cake. It was an odd sensation, baking a birthday cake for my Nan though I knew that she wouldn’t be able to share in the enjoyment of eating it, and yet it felt natural, the cake more serving to unite my family in celebration of her life instead of our then usual grief.
So we had our cake, and we shared our happy of memories of Nan. It was a strange, but cathartic evening that I believe brought closure to us all. Then came the time to store the left over ginger cake. In order to keep the cake at its best, I pulled out one of my cake tins, appropriately labelled with a ‘Betty’s’ logo from the cookery school in Harrogate, but also the name of my Nan. When I opened the tin, there were a few pieces of scrunched up parchment paper, which hastily I removed; and then froze. At the bottom of the tin, sitting alone and perfectly preserved, was one of Nan’s coconut tarts from the previous year. It was mesmerising; that feeling of seeing something that you never even dared dream to see again. There was a lot of excitement, my parents were teary eyed and my Auntie even contemplated eating it! Thankfully, I rescued it before this could happen. The coconut tart now sits in a glass Kilner jar and will travel with me from kitchen to kitchen. It reminds me of where my love for baking began, and the sheer power of food memory. It was my much needed pre-Christmas miracle.
With this in mind, I wrote the poem below about the absence of my Nan at Christmas. I am by no means a poet, but I appreciate the ability of writing, much like baking, to bring release. The poem may seem morose, but it has been a healing process for me to write and to remember her, as well as dealing with a very new sort of Christmas. I hope you will be able to share in the poem’s emotion if you are without someone you love this festive season.
And the Christmas cards keep coming.
Redirected, from your address
to your unchanging home in our heads,
Fragile though they are,
Burned, un-soothed by the bitter winter ice,
Because you don’t need our help anymore
Down the frosty path to the car, to go home.
I wonder after the senders.
In their high festivities, writing their well wishes.
No doubt cosy, content;
Unaware that their biro bound blessings
Will never reach you.
Instinctively, I too wrote your name
On my Christmas present list. A flash of
Lindor chocolates, Dove and The People’s Friend annual
Ignited and then quashed,
in an instant.
And for the first time,
there won’t be any coconut tarts this Christmas.
Their absent sweetness, warmth, a void
kindred to your empty seat at the dinner table.
And only the children will spill their gravy this year,
Whilst you watch from the wall, with Grandad
On your wedding day.
But we’ll do our best,
To smile, to laugh, to remember
Your smile, your laugh, and your memory
At Christmas, and everyday of the New Year.
Being without you,
being with us always.