MY mother's youngest sister is married to Aunt Mill's son. Looking at Glennie — successful doctor, bowling champion, bon vivant — you wouldn't say his mother was one of 12 children from rural Wiltshire.
Aunt Mill was a hard worker because that was what survival meant at the time: as a little girl she would be up at 4am to milk the cows — then the day's work would begin.
She applied the same work ethic when she trained as a nurse (Aunt Mill could not speak or understand a word of Afrikaans until the day of her death) and went to Northern Zimbabwe. There she met Uncle Dick, a blacksmith who worked on the railway.
They moved to Zambia, and in the 1970s they lived with us on the farm for three months when Uncle Dick lent a hand during the pressing season.
That's when I got to know her: a tall, thin woman with a sharp face and grey hair, already advancing in age.
A sewing ordeal
While Uncle Dick pressed, Aunt Mill taught my big sister Julia and me, both still in primary school and wilful, to sew. My mother had many virtues but sewing was not one of them. This did not deter her from a firm conviction that her two eldest daughters needed this skill for a well-rounded education.
We went to town and bought enough beautiful dark green velveteen for a church dress for each of us, as well as princess collars with lace edging. Not standard grade sewing at all. And then our ordeal began.
Aunt Mill didn't start with hemming pieces of cloth and stitching exercises. No, she went straight for the target. And we had to keep up, come hell or high water. In her mind, nothing could save us: not youth, because at our age she had already been a seasoned labourer; and not youthful indifference, for she had been through nurse training, which was a combination of army and convent. Tidiness and precision were cornerstones and we would be in big trouble if we didn't adhere to them strictly.
And we were in trouble, time and again. Later, we would hear her in our sleep: “Unpick, unpick!", her voice gradually rising as the word was repeated. And a little finger that would indicate the sin to the beat of her voice.
Two things, or rather three: we mocked Aunt Mill mercilessly behind her back about the “unpicking", as well as about other things. We mimicked the way she pulled a face while saying it. And we giggled uncontrollably, as only girls of that age can. Today my dad remembers Aunt Mill as a kind woman, “and strict with the children, which was good". I see.
Our Sunday dresses were finished, precise and correct, and we mastered a skill in record time that has served us faithfully over the years. From sheer fear, we learned infinitely more than we thought we could, or what a kinder teacher would have managed. Decades later, I still enjoy sewing.
And best of all, Aunt Mill gave our family the gift of a recipe: Aunt Mill's Rice Stew. It's versatile, more forgiving than Aunt Mill was with a crooked seam, and delicious.
No hard-to-find ingredients or mathematical precision are necessary for Aunt Mill's recipe. It's not visually attractive. But when you lift the lid, the flavours will make your mouth water; and when you taste it, you will know you have an old friend and stalwart in this dish.
Aunt Mill's family often made the stew on washing day, when there was no time for lengthy preparations or to jump up every now and then to see if everything was still okay.
Pour a layer of washed rice (preferably basmati or jasmine rice) into a casserole with a tight-fitting lid that can go into the oven. The size of the casserole depends on the number of souls who will sit down for dinner. I use two cups of rice for six people.
Cut a large onion or two into thick slices and pack them on top of the rice. Follow these with a single layer of lamb chops packed tightly against each other, seasoned with salt, freshly ground pepper and a few drops of lemon juice. You can also use chicken thighs or other meat on the bone. The bone adds a lovely flavour to the dish.
Now add stock to the pot, enough for the rice. Depending on the rice you use, you'll need 1 ⅓ cup or a little more per cup of rice. Later on cream is added, but if you don't want to use cream (which will be a pity, because it combines with the fat on the meat to form a delicious golden crust on the bottom of the casserole), then use a little more stock. A rule of thumb is that the liquid should be the measure of a fingertip above the rice. One of my sisters also likes a spoonful of curry with the dish. So, follow your heart.
Put the lid on and place in the oven at an unhurried 170ºC for 90 minutes to two hours, or until the meat is soft and the rice is cooked. Just check once or twice if there is still enough liquid.
When it's almost dinner time, pour a little cream on top. I don't provide a quantity here because one of my sisters uses a whole cup and the skinny one just a little. A sharp, acidic salad, such as tomato salad or a green leaf salad with a sharp vinaigrette, complements the dish well.
Sorry, Aunt Mill
Aunt Mill travelled to England two years after our sewing ordeal to show her grandson to the family. An aneurysm burst on the plane and she died in hospital a day or so later.
The older I become, the more I regret that I never apologised to her, nor thanked her for the dedication with which she taught two wilful little she-cats to sew.
If you eat this dish — no, when you eat the dish, because you'd be a fool not to — please drink to Aunt Mill. May her memory be eternal and blessed. May the angels sew flawless seams.
♦ VWB ♦
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