Maudiegirl Esther Kimball’s first husband, Campbell, died on the voyage to Ceylon. Her second, Kimball, succumbed to malaria. She then married Cecilprins and became his tower of strength. This is how Carl Muller describes – for want of a better word – the heroine of Maudiegirl And The Von Bloss Kitchen.
The book continues the story the author began in the award-winning The Jam Fruit Tree, a tale of Burgher life in Sri Lanka. If “heroine” was a slightly inappropriate description of Maudiegirl, then “story” is certainly not a description of this book’s plot. Simply put, the book presents a picture of life within the Burgher community, an island within an island. It illustrates, but does not lead. Read it for an experience, not a journey.
Nominally Dutch, but Sinhalese-speaking, Asian born but with European aspirations, the Burghers are a wholly integrated race apart. The names survive – Van Der Poorten, Caspars etc – but the identity is merely confused. Whose isn’t?
Most of this Burgher family’s life revolves around food and sex, not always in that order. Sustenance and procreation occupy most of the time, with recreation – usually in the form of sex – taking up the rest. Maudiegirl is the pillar of the household, probably of the community. She brings people together, solves problems, disposes wisdom and occasional rebuke via her cooking. She has a recipe for every occasion. Her meals can cure ills, solve problems, offer advice, and her cooking skills are recognised throughout the Von Bloss family, even the community. The cooking’s unfamiliar and complex mix of influences, European, Asian, Dutch, English, Sri Lankan, Indian and American, reflect the community in which they live and its place in the world.
A woman who can’t conceive eat too much fish. Need something stronger. Stewed eel works wonders. Only wonder what. Dunnyboy expose himself in public. Big thing. Worries sisters. Eat pork pie. Daughter need baby. Need hammering. Make plum pudding (dried fruit only, butter a pan, boil or steam for four hours). Problem solved.
Carl Muller’s style is pithy, occasionally playful, often funny, always earthy, sometimes vaguely embarrassing. He sails metaphorically close to winds and occasionally obfuscates via the inclusion of unexplained, un-translated Sinhalese words and phrases. He makes no excuse for this, and invites the interested reader to find a Sinhalese speaker to help translate this world language and explain, and thereby intensify the experience and promote communication between races and cultures. So there!
Maudiegirl And The Von Bloss Kitchen, this part novel, part cookbook, thus records the day-to-day, reflects life and opens a window onto a perhaps unique culture that is in no way special. There is no plot, no obvious sequence of events, only everyday life as it predictably and unpredictably unfolds. It is also a superb cookbook, recording the recipes of an expert cook. And refreshingly, whatever she cooks and in whatever style, no-one ever seems to dislike anything, pick at their food, question its authenticity, count its calories or even mention omega-3. It’s the food of a living culture.