A recipe for Rote Grütze

For my grandmother


I remember standing in your kitchen. The staccato of your movement, crumbling legs no builder would sign off on. I can make some of your dishes. My mother has handed them to me – bastardised versions corroded to suit the Australian palate.

This is the first time you have ever cooked with me. You do not instruct me so much as gesture, flailing hands in weak afternoon sunlight. When I have asked you for your recipes you have told me they are family secrets, chuckling softly as if saying this to your granddaughter is some great joke. But this – this dish is my favourite. So when I ask you to teach me for the tenth time, you say yes. It is Christmas after all.


In this kitchen, we do not speak much. You hold your English like a wounding, have still not forgiven me for times I have teased you for your accent as a child. My sister and I have tried to learn German, she even took night classes. When we try to practise it your acerbic tongue tells us that we are not naturals and, anyway, in this country we speak English. You have tried so hard to fit in here; there is no room for our cultural trespassing. Sometimes I hear you on the phone to your friends, mother tongue spilling out in gorgeous lyrical bursts, and I wonder what freedom means to you.


There is a system for your crockery. There is different china for different occasions; no matter which combination we use to serve things, we are always wrong. You intercept us before the guests can notice, curate the perfect setting.

There is so much pride in this simple act of serving a meal. I imagine you as a young woman here in this foreign place trying to learn a language your children brought home from school. How often you don’t understand the order of things, how you stack gleaming plates and find new ways to create order in small spaces.


I do not know how to cook without a recipe – you don’t even own a measuring jug. You cook by the weight of the bowl, the colour of the jam, the shine of the paste to perfect your sugar ratio. You do not understand how to teach me, and I cannot learn in this way. You watch me grow more flustered with each step, trying to emulate what you have shown me. When we serve the dessert it is inedible. As we scrape it into the bin we are laughing, you tell me maybe I am not cut out for this.


I did not succeed in learning this recipe before you passed away. I didn’t learn to bake those cookies either, and I think I will always be using the wrong china. But I did go to Germany, and your humour finally made sense. I did try to speak German and got told in acerbic tongues I am not a natural, and that they all speak English anyway. I thought you would have liked that. I wish I had spent less of my younger years wanting to be like the other kids, and more learning about you. But I did find a recipe for Rote Grütze on the internet. It even has measurements. Maybe this Christmas, I’ll try it.

This work was supported by a fellowship made possible through the Queensland Arts Showcase Program.

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