I am aware that in my nostalgic hankerings of my childhood I am guilty of pulling up and polishing just the good bits. The bad bits linger in the dark recesses of my hippocampi. My brain, addicted to the happy times, prefers date and walnut studded Chinese chews to the cabbage and mince dish my Mum called Chow Mein. The kitchen of my childhood was a safe warm place in my sponge with cream and passionfruit icing brain. It was also a place of fear and danger in my dopamine-free boiled cabbage brain.
The kitchen was the family hub. Without a television the kitchen table the place where we congregated, where we ate, where we sat, where we listened, where we played. My best and my worst food memories of my childhood were deposited sitting on the cushioned bench seat where my sisters and I sat each mealtime. This is where I watched Mum peeling apples, mincing left over roast lamb and kneading the dough for shortbread. It was also where I sat terrified after mum had uttered the words, “Just you wait ‘till your father gets home,” watching the clock, dreading my father’s arrival home from work and waiting for him to deliver the the ultimate punishment, the razor strop.
This memoir then is an anti-memoir.
Food historian and writer Bee Wilson describes the wooden spoon as a simple essential kitchen tool, one that technology has not been able to replace. Luce Giard remembers it with just cooked to perfection custard coating its back in her eggy vanilla and sugar scented memory and Irma Rombauer holds hers over a pot of madly simmering jelly to test for the “point of setting” with ong stretched drops of jelly drip languorously from it as she holds it there, waiting.
In our kitchen the wooden spoon was an instrument of terror. My nostalgically remembered mother used hers in the conventional ways mentioned by Bee and Luce and Irma but my angry mother pulled it from the second drawer down and slapped us hard with it, usually for the most minor misdemeanours.
As you drive out of Geelong towards Colac, the turrets and rounded towers of Glastonbury orphanage rise high above the single level brick veneer houses that surround it. I remember it from my childhood in a Dickensian way even ‘though I had not yet discovered David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. In the 1950s it buildings loomed large in the outskirts of Geelong and the children who lived there were ever present in our kitchen. They were frequently used to goad us into eating everything on our plates. “Sit there until you finish it,” or “if you don’t finish it now I will give it to you for lunch and dinner until it is all gone,” or “think about the starving children in India,” and worst of all “if those poor children at Glastonbury could see what was on your plate.” We imagined them, waiflike, grubby, motherless, dressed in rags and hungry and we ate.
But even without them there was one rule, you stayed at the table until dinner was finished or until you had been excused. Once you had finished every green pea you’d be given permission to leave. I would fold my serviette, replace it in its ring holder and scuttle from the bench seat under the table to after dinner freedom.
Breakfast in the summer months was always Kelloggs Corn Flakes or Sanitarium Wheat Bix. We preferred Corn Flakes as there was always a small hard plastic collectable prize deep in the packet. We were never allowed to fish it out but whoever was lucky enough to have it tumble into their bowl got to keep it. Wheat Bix we didn’t like so much. They were a difficult colour to eat. But when milk was poured over them they held their shape and turned into soggy rectangular mass. The edges – where the milk had not penetrated – stayed crunchy and dry. I didn’t mind the malty taste but if you didn’t get the milk right they just sat in your mouth like a malty clot. Hot milk made them even more of a slop of them.
Worse than Wheat Bix was porridge. In winter Mum made a big pot every weekday morning. For the first few out of bed the porridge was delicious. She would leave the pot on the stove to keep warm until we had all helped ourselves to it. The longer it sat the worse it got. By the time I spooned my portion of the porridge into a bowl, it had been simmering in the pot for some time. It was always grey, thick and hard. By the time I spooned my portion of porridge into a bowl the only milk left was completely cream free. I would gladly have given it all to Goldilock’s bears or the orphans at Glastonbury.
My father, always up first, got the best of the porridge and the best of the milk. Dad added oil to the peanut butter to make it go further and water to the tomato sauce to stretch the contents of the bottle but he refused to shake the milk bottle to mix the layer of cream on top with the fat free milk below it. He always got the cream on top of the milk for his porridge except for the mornings the magpies beat him to it and the morning of the milk pyramid.
The milk pyramid was a mystery even the police could not solve. Dad put empty milk bottles out each night and they were replaced with full bottles each morning. Sometimes magpies pecked through the silver seals and drank cream from the top. One morning we woke to find that someone had gathered all of the full milk bottles in the street and made a pyramid of them outside our house. It stood there unbalanced and tentative in a light breeze then toppled over leaving broken glass and milk over the foot path and the drive way. The police came and made notes and each morning for a week we found a milk bottle pyramid outside one of the other houses in the street. And then, it stopped as suddenly as it had started.
On Saturday mornings Dad made melted mouse’s cheese on toast for us. The cheese was aged rind cheddar from the Colac cheese factory. The fat from the cheese melted with the lashings of butter and soaked into the toast underneath and we would be oily fingered begging for just one more slice.
Whilst we sat with our breakfast cereal each weekday morning Mum made sandwiches for us to take to school. She softened butter in a cup, which she sat in hot water whilst she peeled and mashed hard boiled eggs. She always had hay fever in the mornings and she would sneeze all over the buttered bread as she lay it out on the bench. Then she would butter it and sneeze some more, fill it with whatever filling she had decided on for that day (we were never asked) and continue to sneeze. Devilled ham paste, curried egg, walnut celery and cheese, luncheon ham and tomato sauce, Kraft cheddar cheese and vegemite.
The baker always arrived at the back door as she was making our sandwiches out of day old bread. I wished she would make our sandwiches with the fresh bread he delivered. My friend Jenny always had sandwiches made out of fresh bread and pink lemonade cake wrapped in waxed paper in her lunch bag. I had sneezed-in stale bread sandwiches and a banana.
Once a week we were allowed to buy our school lunch from the corner store. For 2/- I would buy a cheese roll, always made with fresh bread, and a chocolate eclair. You would go to the shop order and pay for it on the way to school then collect it at lunchtime. Then one day the shop and the houses around it were pulled down to make way for a Safeway supermarket and carpark.
I think after school was the best time. Kraft cheddar cheese sandwiches made with the fresh bread from the morning and something from the cake or biscuit tin. I could not fault mum’s baking.
But dinner was the most terrifying time of all meals. I could throw the crusts from my sandwiches in the bin at school but at dinner we stayed at the table until excused always with the starving orphans at Glastonbury orphanage on our minds. We always said grace and we always ate everything on the plate. Pudding was the reward for gulping down what I now recognise as over- cooked Brussell sprouts or chunks of kidney in the steak and kidney pie. How I wished for the starving children from Glastonbury to appear. I would gladly offer up my curried sausages or Chow Mien and move on to pudding.
Like many families we had certain foods on certain nights. Roast two-tooth (lamb) was always followed by shepherd’s pie. Mum would feed chunks of left-over lamb through her meat mincer and lay it in the pie dish, cover it with mashed potato and bake it. It was always so dry. Or she cut slices from the leg batter, fry it then serve it with tomato sauce.
Tripe was the worst dish she ever served. You always knew it was coming when the off-white sheets of limp honeycomb shaped stuff appeared on her chopping board. She cut it onto cubes then boiled it – scraping off the grey scum as it gathered on the top of the simmering water. Years later, I ate it in a pub in Carlton. The tripe had been cut into spaghetti like lengths and was served in a putanesca tomato sauce. Delicious as this version was, I still imagine those chewy diamond shaped tripe pieces drenched in white sauce disguised with chopped parsley and Heinz tomato sauce. I wonder now, how did I ever get to pudding when presented with a plate of tripe.
Once we had a guest. Ajaz, visiting from Pakistan, was the most different person I had ever encountered. His skin was brown and he spoke with an accented voice. Ajaz could read our future in the lines on our hands. Mum explained the reason why he only ate the vegetables she cooked: Ajaz could only eat meat at home in Pakistan because the meat was killed in a special way.
My father was an Apexian and so was Ajaz. He was visiting the International Harvester factory in Geelong. The purpose of his visit, my Dad tells me, was to learn how to service machinery. For his last night with us, and to thank us for having him stay, he offered to cook dinner. He wanted to make a chicken curry. He would get a chicken from our neighbours, kill it the way meat was killed in Pakistan and prepare the dish using ingredients he had brought with him. Mum said we had to eat what ever he served. Even she had to eat whatever he served so we were equal on this one. Although not his recipe, I found a Pakistani chicken curry recipe on the Internet:
Chicken curry recipe from Pakistan
1/2 chicken cut into pieces and skinned
shazeera (caraway seeds)
1 onion sliced
1 tomato chopped and cooked slightly
red chilli powder
ginger garlic paste
First fry up spices: shazeera, cardamom, turmeric, coriander powder in oil with the sliced onion. Then cool it and blend with the yoghurt and chopped tomato. Set aside. Fry chilli, garam masala and garlic and ginger paste in oil – just use the same pan then add the chicken pieces and move them around to coat in the spice mix. Then add the onion tomato and yoghurt paste, some water and salt and simmer covered for about 15 minutes. Check after 15 minutes … it should be done when the oil separates and sits on the top and the chicken is tender. Serve in a deep bowl with roti bread or rice.
We kept chickens but we they were for their eggs. Occasionally dad would catch one and chop off its head but mostly they lived a hassle free life in the chook yard scratching away at food scraps and snails and complaining with painful cackles and squarks each time they laid an egg. We never ate them and we hardly ever ate chicken.
This was to be a special dinner and because he intended to kill the chicken, it was nice to know that he would be able to eat it too. Dad and Ajaz chose and collected the chook from our neighbours late in the evening before the dinner. They chose a hen with smooth legs and short spurs and indication that it was young and tender, and carried it home in a hessian bag. (Lucy Drake – the late cooking expert from Swinburne College in Melbourne advises, “When an occasion arises which we wish to mark by a special feast, our minds instantly fix on the various kinds of poultry obtainable. All the average country woman has to do is to choose the finest bird form her very fine flock and straightaway start to prepare it according to the mode most appreciated by her own particular family” (Drake c1940s: 47)).
Whenever dad killed one of our chickens he would sharpen his axe, before he held the chicken’s legs together and settled it on the chopping block. He would then, quickly chop off its head. The silent shock of its death was replaced by our laugher as we watched it run, headless around the yard. This chook had to be Koshered. Dad explained that they couldn’t just chop this chook’s head off … they had to slit its throat and it had to bleed to death. Instead of a quick chop, they would cut its throat with a sharp knife then put her in a hessian bag so that we would not see her bleed to death. When Ajaz slit her neck she got away and flapped down the drive and into the garage, with Dad and Ajaz chasing her ready to throw the hessian bag over her. Hers was a terrifying death. She was flapping and squarking and trying desperately to fly away but instead she trapped herself in the garage, and dripping blood and bashing about in the confined space she perched high on top of a Sunshine biscuit tin with pictures of the smiley face biscuits it once held. She sat there quietly for a moment then ran out of life and fell to the ground. I don’t remember who drew her and plucked her but I remember the dread of the thought of eating her.
Mum could not waive the “eat everything …” rule, but she promised us small helpings. In exchange for this collusion we did have to eat what Ajaz served with out any fuss. Our kitchen was full of smells I had never smelled before and my eyes were burning. The meal was served – rough chunks of meat and bone swimming in heat and fire – the hen perched on the smiley Sunshine biscuit tin before its descent into this firey broth. Even mum would have preferred to scrape the contents of her plate into the chook bucket that lived under the kitchen sink and eat a milder meal.
She suggested we drink water and have a slice of cucumber between each mouthful to lessen the burn but we struggled through it pronouncing it to be delicious. Over time the heat has gone out of the meal but I still see us, our hessian bag, the chicken alive, dying, dead and cooked in a watery turmeric yellow broth. Just this once my Mother conspired with us and endured her strict dinner rules with us. We were in a war zone but for once it felt good to have Mum on our side.
Mum made curried sausages and curried egg sandwiches with Keens Curry paste but never again tried an authentic curry. Here is her recipe:
Mum’s curried sausages
8 BBQ sausages
1 large onion, sliced
1 tablespoon Keens curry powder
1 dessertspoon plain flour
2 cups water
1 tablespoon sultanas
salt and pepper
Place sausages into a pot of boiling water and simmer for five minutes. Cool, de-skin and slice into pieces. Chop the apple, banana and tomato. Melt the dripping in a large frying pan and the onion and the sausages. Lift them out and put in the curry powder and flour salt and stir into the remaining dripping then add the water and stir until it thickens and boils. Add the sausages and onion, banana, apple and tomato and sultanas and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 15-20 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with mashed potato or boiled rice