Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Oranges at Nanna's House

As long as I can remember, my Nanna had an orange at breakfast.

I still cut my oranges the way Nanna did: she would cut both ends off with a serrated knife, then cut the orange into 8 crescents, and the crescents didn’t have annoying pointy ends.

Obviously Nanna left a far greater legacy than her orange cutting technique.

It’s not really about the orange.

I remember sitting in Nanna’s kitchen after staying the night at her house, any number of times.

I can see her sitting opposite me in that kitchen, daintily eating her breakfast. An orange, a slice of toast with Anchovette paste, and a little pot of tea.

And I remember her voice. It’s been 25 years since I saw her, but I can still hear her voice.

After breakfast she would probably say “Ah, that was just nice”, or she would say “That’ll keep the wolves away”.

There are lots more snippets from that house that I can see and hear in my mind. It doesn’t sound significant, I know, but I’m so glad I still have that.

photo credit: orange pyramid via photopin (license)

Napkin ... and a slice of cake

When the fun and games were over, there was still something to look forward to after a birthday party – the ceremonial departure with a piece of birthday cake wrapped in a paper napkin. And lollies too … mercilessly exposed to the elements in a little cardboard basket.  

Some things change, but some things stay the same.

As the mother of primary school children I can guarantee that children’s birthday parties still have the same appeal as they did when I was in primary school in the 70s. For the birthday girl or boy, and for the guests, a birthday party is still just as exciting as it ever was.

When I was a girl, most birthday parties were after school. I would race home, put on my ‘going out’ clothes, and walk or ride my bike to the party.

We ate fairy bread, butterfly cakes, cocktail frankfurts, party pies and sausage rolls, washed down with cordial. Not much of that has changed.

Presents were often duplicated – some common gifts were Avon bubble bath or talc, a block of Cadbury chocolate, or a $2 note. And here’s something that kind of annoys me these days: a lot of parties are at venues, and the presents are taken home unopened like a great pile of mystery loot. I guess it annoys me because my kids get so excited about wrapping the present, making a card and proudly handing it over, and then it just gets added to the stash.

But the stand-out difference between the parties I went to as a child and the parties I take my children to?

The games.

There must be somebody, one person, somewhere in the world who at some point started the whole thing about every child winning a prize! When I find that person, I will wrap them in 23 layers paper, and after each layer I will deliver a sharp painful blow to a different part of their body.

The whole ‘every child wins a prize’ thing is a logistical nightmare. Once upon a time the host could just turn their back when a parcel was being passed around and stop the music when they felt like it. Now, you have to sneakily make sure the music stops at just the right time, every time, while pretending not to look, AND remember who hasn’t unwrapped a prize layer yet.

At my daughter’s 6th birthday party I actually had a child approach me to complain about their prize. For real. My eyes rolled a full 360 degrees and then practically fell out of their sockets.

I don’t need to tell you that back in the day, there was one winner per game. And you took your prize – it might be a mintie, or if you were lucky it might be one of those little tin party clicker things – and you were happy with your prize. You didn’t try to negotiate a different prize. And if you didn’t win a prize, tough luck.

And then you said “Thanks for having me Mrs So-and-so”, you took your little basket of lollies, and your piece of birthday cake wrapped in a napkin, and you went home.

That wasn’t supposed to turn into a rant. Glad I got it off my chest though.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Media: Sesame Street Food

I remember the first day Sesame Street aired on Australian TV. I was five. Mum had flagged it for our viewing pleasure, and when we sat down on that first morning we were not disappointed. It was entertaining, amusing, and somewhat educational.

And in my little culturally homogenous world, the American content was tantalising.

Somehow ‘cookies’ and ‘cupcakes’ were much more fascinating than ‘biscuits’ and ‘patty cakes’. The ‘pickles’ they had with their ‘burgers’ were not the same as the ‘pickles’ we made with a bumper choko crop. And it took me a while to figure out that the ‘jelly’ on their ‘peanut butter and jelly sandwiches’ was not the same ‘jelly’ we ate with our ice cream.

One of my favourite segments on Sesame Street was a counting backwards and forwards segment, featuring the number of the day. At the end of the segment a clumsy baker would bring out a platter laden with baked goods, announce what they were in a grand proclamation, and then fall down the stairs. He baked some wonderful things, most of them sounding very exotic to me:
1 wedding cake
2 chocolate cream pies
3 birthday cakes
4 root beer floats
5 fancy fruit cakes
6 strawberry shortcakes
7 pumpkin pies
8 raspberry pudding desserts
9 coconut custard pies
10 chocolate layer cakes
And these lavish (to me) items ended up all over the baker and the floor after a spectacular roll down the stairs. You just can’t go wrong with that kind of humour for little kids. My brother and I called that part of the segment ‘Bung Smucky’. Lord knows why we came up with those exact words, but if you say them slowly and loudly they do encapsulate the baker’s grand announcement of his product before his dramatic fall down the stairs.

Times have certainly changed. There are so many other media platforms available to kids. My 8 and 9 year olds are great YouTube fans. Some of the stuff on there is crap, but some of it is really, really good.

My daughter, in particular, watches quite a lot of creative material, but the ones I often watch over her shoulder are instructional pieces involving the most amazing sweet-making and decorating.

Anyway a few weeks ago, Easter Monday I think, I awoke to the distinct sound of a project being undertaken in the kitchen. A project involving a YouTube instructional video about using spare easter eggs  to make a popular American snack called a ‘s’more’. Originating as a campfire snack, a ‘s’more’ consists of warm toasted marshmallows and a layer of chocolate placed between graham crackers.
The key word here is ‘graham’, a specific style of biscuit sold in America, a bit like a sweeter version of a shredded wheat biscuit, but really there is no equivalent here. Unfortunately my children only picked up on the word ‘cracker’ so they were using savoury rice crackers. And planning to put them in the microwave with chocolate and marshmallows.

It’s a good thing I got out of bed when I did. Wouldn’t want to waste those easter eggs. Or the savoury rice crackers for that matter. 

photo credit: cookie-monster via photopin (license)

Friday, 24 April 2015

Lollies in a White Paper Bag

There was a certain protocol involved in buying lollies at a corner shop. And if you didn’t see the shop-owner’s eyes roll back in their head at least once, you weren’t doing it properly.

It went a little bit like this:

“Ummm, I’ll have one of those, aaaaaaannndd one of those, no actually I’ll have one of those instead…..and one of those…” 

There is no way you could leave the decision up to the shop-owner. One time I did that, and ended up with a stack of stupid barley sugar sticks and fruit cocktails in my little white paper bag. Never again.

Our closest corner shops were about 5 or 6 blocks away, two of them in the same street. When I was really little we referred to one of them as ‘the Shirley shop’, then ‘the dopey shop’ and the other one was ‘the silver shop’. I’m not sure why. ‘The silver shop’ wasn’t silver. I think ‘the Shirley shop’ was owned by Shirley, who may then have sold it to some people we didn’t like as much as Shirley. That’s the only explanation I can think of.

At any rate, we didn’t buy that many lollies there when I was little. They were the shops we called into in the car, to get petrol or just pick something up. In high school sometimes we’d pop in there on the way to school on our bikes, but that’s about it.

My ‘10 cents worth of mixed lollies’ purchases, at least the ones I remember, were in Taree, when I stayed with my grandparents. They had a shop around the corner, and my grandmother would sometimes give me 5 cents or 10 cents, and let me walk around to the shop. We also bought lollies at the pool, standing up on a wooden platform in our wet swimming costumes, tapping on top of the glass lolly case to indicate our selections.

The decision-making process involved in the purchase of ‘mixed lollies’ was quite daunting. How do you choose between black cats, teeth, cobbers, clinkers, freckles, caramel buds, milk bottles, snakes, musk sticks, chicos, witchetty grubs, and jelly babies? And then there were larger items to factor in: you could opt for a Choo-Choo Bar, a Redskin, a Whizz Fizz, or a mini-pack of Juicy Fruit, but that meant foregoing some of the smaller items. Hmmmm. No wonder we drove those shopkeepers crazy.

There were also even larger purchases falling under a special category. Cough, cough. Remember Irish Moss, SOS Cough Drops, Throaties and Butter Menthol? Cough lollies my arse, the operative word being ‘lollies’!   

I’m always tempted when I see any kind of ‘Olde World Lolly Shop’. I don’t know why, but I keep hoping I’ll encounter one with a glass case containing loose lollies, and white paper bags ready to be filled to the brim with my favourites. But that never happens. Just jars of boiled lollies, and cellophane packages of over-priced no-name chocolates. I guess those days of mixed lollies are gone.

Do you have sweet sweet memories? (See what I did there?) What were your favourites?

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Kids' Books: Food in the 'Little House' Series

One day when Pa Ingalls was working his perfect-dad bum off in the blazing sun of the prairie, Laura took him a jug of ice-cold water, with a little surprise in it. Ginger. That’s right. Ma Ingalls had flavoured that water with a little scrap of ginger so Pa could slake his thirst with an edgy little treat.

I know what would happen if one of my kids took that ginger water out to their dad on a hot day, and it might begin with WTF! But Pa Ingalls was tickled pink with his ginger water treat, and his eyes were twinkling as he pressed on with the ploughing or stacking hay or whatever he was doing on that hot day on the prairie. I think about that every time I’m grating ginger. Weird, I know.  

Food features prominently in all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work. The ‘Little House’ series was based on the lives of Laura Ingalls’ family in the late nineteenth century. Farmers in the American mid-West pioneer country, their relationship with Mother Nature was frequently at odds.

Although they were often hungry, Laura’s focus was rarely on the shortage of food. Rather, she celebrated the food they had. Laura made a couple of boiled potatoes sound like an absolute feast. And when a rare treat found its way into the house the whole family practically exploded with excitement.

Unlike the hale and hearty characters on the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ TV show, the real-life Ingalls family would have had good reason to doubt the wisdom of Pa’s ‘Go West, young man’ pioneer dream. ‘The Long Winter’ (the fifth book in the series) describes how close the family (and the whole town) came to complete starvation when eight months of relentless blizzards cut off all food sources except a dwindling supply of seed wheat. This is the only book in the series where the focus shifts to their lack of food, rather than celebrating what they had.

Prior to their Westward-ho adventures (and misadventures) the Ingalls family were quite cosily ensconced in the ‘big woods’ of Wisconsin. ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ has a completely different feel to the rest of the series. They weren’t rich, but they were secure. And they were surrounded by nearby family.

I was about seven or eight years old when I read ‘Little House in the Big Woods’, and I was sufficiently inspired by an event in the book to fix myself a bit of an Ingalls family sweet treat. In the book, the extended Ingalls clan had gathered together to tap Maple sap from their maple trees, and then process the sap to make maple sugar, syrup and a bit of candy. The womenfolk were busy boiling their maple syrup, while each child fetched a dish of clean snow from outside. The boiling syrup was trickled onto the snow to harden into candy.

This seemed like a pretty good idea to me. We didn’t have any maple trees, or any maple products, or any snow for that matter, but I figured I could freeze some honey to achieve the same result.

The scientific flaws in my plan did not escape my mother, and she put the brakes on the whole project before it even began.

Or so she thought.

I wasn’t really a sneaky child, but in this instance I was hell-bent on making that snow-candy. Since the honey experiment was off the table, I mixed up a thick paste of Milo and water at my earliest opportunity, blobbed it onto a Tupperware lid, and put it in the freezer.

Don’t bother trying this at home – it doesn’t work.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Jaffas at the Movies

Do you associate Jaffas with movies? I do, which is really funny because I don’t ever remember eating them at the movies.

There was an old tradition of rolling Jaffas down the aisle in movie theatres. I knew about it but I never actually did it myself, nor did I see it happen. Sometimes I wonder if it is one of those urban legends. Maybe it happened a few times and then everybody talked it up. And why was it Jaffas, not Kool Mints or Kool Fruits?  

The movie theatre in my hometown - the Saraton Theatre – was built in 1926. It is heritage listed, and one of the very few original country theatres still operating. During its long history, the Saraton has closed its doors for extended periods on several occasions for various reasons, including (but not limited to) fires, flood and extensive refurbishment. Perhaps the longest period of closure was when the doors closed in the mid 60s and re-opened at the end of 1982. That’s right – for the eighteen years I lived in Grafton that movie theatre was open for one year. Impeccable timing.

Fortunately we had a drive-in theatre.

When we were quite young, going to the drive-in meant wearing your pyjamas and falling asleep in the car.

As we hit high school, the idea of multiple fully-grown people watching a movie from the back seat of the car with your parents’ heads in front of you was not terribly appealing to either generation, so we made other arrangements. Usually one lucky parent would drive a few giggling girls, who then took off like scalded cats, leaving the parent in the car. See, notice I’m saying parent singular here, because at this stage I’m pretty sure the dads all opted to stay home.

There was a seating area in front of the refreshments kiosk. Our parents probably wondered what we got up to in those seats, but had they spent any time with the ‘Drive-In Man’, sovereign of that domain, they wouldn’t have worried one iota. Not too much untoward went on under his watch, except for maybe standing up and busting a few Village People moves during ‘Can’t Stop the Music’.  

Sometimes we would take folding chairs and find a spot far enough away from the cars and people to enable us to have a chat and a few laughs without disturbing anyone. I remember one night sitting out in mid-winter temperatures with my friend V. We laughed ourselves stupid that night, shivering, teeth chattering while we watched ‘The Blue Lagoon’, but we stayed out in the cold for the whole movie. And we would have eaten a choc-top out in those wintery elements too.

But not Jaffas

Did you roll Jaffas down the aisle at the movies? Was it really a thing?

Jaffas pic source: Andynahman

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Ice Cream at Wooli

The older woman looked up sternly as the young girl and boy approached the counter of her general store. Filled with the importance of their task they were slightly daunted by her brusque demeanour, but went about their business bravely.

A copy of the local newspaper had been put aside for their family, so they politely requested it. “And…”

The woman bristled behind her glass countertop. The ‘and’ was sure to involve dropping to her haunches to fill a small paper bag with lollies chosen excruciatingly slowly one at a time, if not standing with an ice cream scoop poised mid-air while they decided which flavour they would like in their cone.

“… two single tutti-frutti ice creams please.”

With business transacted a lot more swiftly than the woman had anticipated (apart from the apparent tedium of filling two cones with ice cream) the children stepped back out into the late afternoon sun, clutching their purchases.

Gingerly they picked their way along Main Street, past the familiar beach cottages and the tiny school. Past the caravan park – filled to the brim with school holiday tenants. Past the black telephone with its bewildering A and B buttons.

To the girl and boy the journey home from the little general store always seemed longer. The landmark water tower near their beach house never seemed to get much closer until they were almost home.

When the yawning, rickety entrance finally welcomed them they were ushered through a dark canopy of trees leading to the back of the long beach cottage.

Squashed frangipani blossoms squelched under their feet near an old wooden out-house. The shower room and laundry were down the back too. Even in daylight that huge laundry - with its old washing copper and so many dark, damp nooks and crannies - was not a place they chose to linger, so the girl and boy gathered speed on the sloping, sandy path.

Soon Mum would start cooking fish and chips. Fresh fish they had caught in the river or off the rocky wall that afternoon. Bream, whiting, flathead. Or maybe some snapper their father had caught at sea that morning. There would never be any fish and chips as good as those.

There would undoubtedly be better ice creams, though. In other places. Much better. 

But only the general store tutti-frutti cones would hold the memories of those January days.  

Monday, 13 April 2015

Hunting and Gathering in the Neighbourhood

In my childhood neighbourhood there was a pecan nut tree. When the mood took us we jumped on our bikes, took a spin to the tree and threw some pecan nuts in a container. We couldn’t eat them at the tree because the shells were too hard. We took them home, sat under the house and cracked them with a hammer.

This was probably not the best way to go about things. It was pretty tedious and we were lucky if we ever got a piece of nut without shell fragments embedded in it, or dirt from the cement. I often think about that when I’m handing over a king’s ransom at the shops for pecan nuts. If I could have my time over again with that tree I’d do a much better job, that’s for sure. 

We lived on the edge of town, so there were lots of paddocks nearby. When it rained, mushrooms popped up everywhere, ripe for the picking. I hated mushrooms. I don’t mind them so much now, as long as they are not the main event, or the hero of the dish, so to speak.

Anyway, the grown-ups liked mushrooms, so we picked them.  In particular, one of my teachers absolutely loved mushrooms. He must have talked about it a fair bit because apparently I took it upon myself to use the idea for a composition I wrote at school in Grade 4. I found this the other day in a box of old photos, and it was odd to think I wrote it at the same age my daughter is now.

I'm so glad I still have this composition, even though it's a strange story. It takes me right back to that classroom in 1975 with the most demanding but entertaining and engaging teacher you could ever encounter. He was larger than life. He was my favourite teacher. And he was the MC at my 21st birthday many years later. 

photo credit: Mushroom Season via photopin (license)

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Gastronomy, Molecular - Heston Blumenthal

When Heston first appeared on my radar a few years ago I was quite enthralled. His work was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was quirky and fascinating. But then he kept popping up everywhere and I started wishing he would go back to his chemistry lab and stop sprouting his hocus-pocus about gels and foams and making tiny balls out of every stupid single ingredient.

I think the absolute turning point for me came when a Masterchef contestant, (a fan of Heston’s - aren’t they all?) decided, in the midst of a challenge, to make a foam out of mozzarella. Because that’s the edgy thing to do in the middle of a nationally televised cooking competition, throw some cheese into a bloody whipping syphon! And then, when that didn’t seem to work, he attacked it with a blow torch. Nope, that didn’t work either. OK now I can’t totally blame that kind of misadventure totally on Heston’s influence, because that particular contestant also boasted that he had once eaten the still-beating heart of a slain cobra, so his menu inclinations were probably never anywhere close to mainstream.

Nevertheless, I do wish Heston would keep the hell away from Masterchef. Every year after we go through ‘Heston Week’ on Masterchef it takes quite a while for the contestants to settle down. For weeks, they keep throwing things into liquid nitrogen or putting their ingredients through seventeen different processes to achieve ‘perfection’, which apparently means tasting like the complete opposite of the original ingredient.

Heston perplexes me. I guess it’s because he has made a lot of money popularising something in which not many people can afford to participate. And I also find it fascinating that his whole shtick is based on a multisensory experience, yet most of his fans only get to experience it with their eyes. For me his brand of cooking definitely has shades of ‘The Emporer’s New Clothes’. I’d be more likely to classify it as art or theatre, rather than cooking.

Fortunately for Heston, there are clearly many people who don’t share my opinion of his work. This year Melbourne’s Crown Casino is playing host to Heston’s The Fat Duck restaurant for six months. 90,000 people entered a ballot for the 14,000 seats available at The Fat Duck Melbourne between February and August. The successful 14,000 diners are handing over $525 per person (as well as $200-$1,150 per person should they choose to avail themselves of the perfectly matched wines) for a seventeen-course, four and a half hour, multisensory experience of a lifetime. Scalpers were asking up to $1000 for just a ticket, not counting the food and drink price.

In the broader context, Heston is making his fans happy – those who are wealthy enough to sample his ‘cooking’, and those who are happy to watch him on television. He is providing employment, entertainment, and using local produce for his projects. And at the end of the day, I guess he’s not selling drugs or breaking anyone’s bones to make his fortune – that’s always a plus.

So what’s your opinion about Heston Blumenthal and his work? And please feel free to disagree with my fairly one-sided assault. Is it all hipsterish food knobbery? Or is Heston an enterprising talent who has created a new sub-genre or sub-industry and added extra value to the food industry and the food media world? Or maybe a bit of both?

Heston Blumenthal image attribution: Brian Minkoff- London Pixels (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Frozen Meat ... and a thief in our midst.

*Warning: This post contains at least two things we did in the olden days and survived, but wouldn’t do now*

We had the biggest freezer you would ever wish to see - so big that it was housed downstairs in the laundry. It often contained half a cow and a whole coop full of chickens, as well as ice cream and other staples. 

When the half-cows arrived our family would gather at the dining room table to organise the various cuts of meat into plastic bags, suck the air out of the bags, seal them and label them with a big texta before placing them in the freezer.

In mild weather our frozen meat for dinner was thawed out on the back verandah - commonly done in the olden days without our meat playing host to an impressive colony of bacteria like it might today.

One day, the unthinkable happened. Our frozen steak was stolen from its thawing perch!

We were shocked and bewildered. The crime rate in our friendly neighbourhood had just rocketed above its usual zero. Who could it be? We knew all of our neighbours, so they were ruled out immediately. Was it a transient thief, or a professional burglar?

I slept uneasily that night, envisaging a shadowy figure with a mask and a gun, lurking around our house, perhaps searching for the mother-load of frozen meat in the laundry.

The next day we left a frozen chook in the usual thawing place, hoping our thief would not return. But he did return…and this time he didn’t succeed.

It turns out the frozen chook was a lot harder for our thief to fit in his mouth, and as he tried to take hold of it, the rock-hard chook rolled down the back stairs making enough noise to alert Mrs C, our babysitter.

The thief was a big black dog!

After that incident we stopped thawing our meat outdoors. The black dog, however, became a frequent scapegoat when other items went missing. Apparently he had quite a sweet tooth, and was quite partial to the chocolate flavoured portion of the Neapolitan ice cream.

He was never apprehended, and remained at large for many years. 

photo credit: Angus Steaks - Riverstone Winery via photopin (license)

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Eggs on Sunday Night

Like most people, I’ve eaten a few eggs in my time, so you’d be wondering how eggs could generate any specific memory. I guess this particular memory is based on a period of time when eggs featured prominently on the menu at our place for dinner (not breakfast, which, in my opinion, is where they belong) on a certain day of the week.

Sunday was golf day for my parents. They played golf in the afternoon and stayed out  for dinner, so our baby sitter, Mrs C, looked after us. Sunday night dinner was boiled eggs. Occasionally chicken noodle soup, but usually boiled eggs. With toast.

Every week we had to break out the lanterns and pitchforks to campaign for two eggs each instead of one. Every single week. But apart from that, the eggs were not the main event of that day. They were just there.

Most of the day was business as usual – playing with our neighbourhood friends. Sometimes my brother and I played a game of Monopoly with Mrs C (she always used the ‘iron’ token because she did so much ironing, quite the character Mrs C). But late in the afternoon, don’t worry about the eggs, the real feast was on TV.

I should point out here that this was the 70s and we lived in a country town with only the ABC and one regional network available to us, so there were slim pickings available on TV. And there was no way to record anything. When your favourite programs were on TV you made sure not to miss them.

Our Sunday afternoon pre-dinner TV sessions were bursting at the seams with these classics:

The Banana Splits
The Arabian Nights
Danger Island “Uh-oh Chongo!”
The Three Musketeers

And my favourites:

The Cattanooga Cats “oh no it’s Chessie the autograph hound”

It’s the Wolf – “It’s the woolluf, it’s the woolluf”. That’s who it is alright Lambsy. It’s not a stranger, it’s Mildew Wolf!

Motormouse and Autocat – Boy howdy, chi-cory, the hapless Autocat always ended up with Motormouse’s tyreprint on his face.

Around the World in 79 days – an around the world race between Phineus Fogg and the nasty Crumden, in the quest for £1 million.

Those Sunday afternoons were the best. 

photo credit: The Big Egg Hunt via photopin (license)
photo credit: Hanna Barbera Hollywood Star via photopin (license)

Monday, 6 April 2015

Darrell Lea Flashback

This is a strange post. I can tell you that before I've even written it.

Did you ever have one of those weird moments when you smelled  something and it took you hurtling back to some place in the past? Well this one is like that, but it’s a double whammy.

A couple of weeks ago I was shopping. I must have been surrounded by Easter eggs or something because as I walked along I got this great whiff of confectionery and it smelt exactly like a Darrell Lea shop. OK, there was no Darrell Lea product around but I just got this really distinct sense of being inside a Darrell Lea shop.

But it doesn’t end there. Oh no. Barely two seconds later I was  flooded with memories of the week I stayed in a caravan in Woolgoolga with my Nanna (Dad’s mother) when I was 11 years old. All that from a whiff of chocolate.

So strictly speaking I’m not talking about Darrell Lea today. I’m talking about that week in Woolgoolga and trying to figure out why it all came flooding back after all these years.  

The Woolgoolga trip. I was in Grade 6, and had taken a week off school to join Nanna on her holiday. It rained most of the week so, apart from a few walks, we mainly hung out in the caravan like girlfriends, drinking tea, eating a few Scotch Finger Biscuits, reading and crocheting. But even though we spent a fair bit of time lolling around the caravan that week, it was quite well organised lolling, because Nanna was a great fan of routines.

During that week, Nanna and I took ourselves on an excursion to Coffs Harbour to do some shopping.  I decided to buy some gifts to take home for my family. Between us, Nanna and I selected for my father a Mills and Boon novel. It was called ‘Peppertree Bay’ or something like that. Oh, for the love of God, what were we thinking? My dad would sooner poke his own eyes out than read a Mills and Boon novel.

I’m getting very close to a breakthrough here. Whilst I don’t remember specifically what we bought for Mum or my brother, I know we bought a gift for one or both of them (or perhaps another inappropriate gift for Dad) at… you guessed it… Darrell Lea!

You see, we didn’t have a Darrell Lea shop in Grafton, so when venturing out of town it was not uncommon to seek out a jar of those tiny pillow-shaped boiled sweets, or some that special soft licorice, or a bit of Rocklea Road as a special treat for yourself or someone else. Actually Coconut Ice is coming to mind – maybe I bought that for Mum, or maybe I’m just fancying myself as a bit of a psychic now.

Anyway, the mystery is solved, and I wrapped myself up in that flashback of Woolgoolga for as long as it lasted. Have you ever had a strange flashback generated by a specific smell?

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Canteen/Tuckshop Food Then and Now

As a parent of primary school children I need to report that in the decades between when I was at primary school in the 70s, and now, one thing hasn’t changed at all - canteen food is still the holy grail.

My kids get a lunch order from the canteen on the last day of term only. Really I’m just making sure the canteen owner doesn’t run out of silver. I’m very kind like that. Someone needs to put the silver coins back into the economy. And it takes a lot of silver coins to pay for a lunch order these days!

Apart from the one lunch order per term my kids are allowed to use their pocket money for snacks at the canteen, if they want to. I’m not crazy about it, but it’s their choice, and besides, I don’t really pay them much anyway, compared to canteen prices.

What is it about canteen/tuckshop food that is so appealing decade after decade?  I think it’s a combination of
a) access to food/drink you don’t have every day and
b) a child’s first experience of independent financial activity.

To back up my theory I recently surveyed a group of two children, and came up with some interesting results.

Apparently it is all about visiting the pointy end of the food pyramid. When asked what is so appealing about buying food from the canteen, one respondent said “It’s so we can have junk food.” The second respondent appeared to confirm this, saying “Well Mum, they have apples there, but nobody buys them.”

Further questioned about the concept of being able to take the responsibility of buying something independently without a parent present, my respondents shrugged their shoulders. “Well, maybe it’s good to buy it yourself because nobody can tell you to buy an apple instead of chips.” The second respondent nodded “Yeah”.

Maybe they are right. If I asked you what comes to mind first when you think of canteen food from your own school days, what would it be? For me, there is no doubt:

The pie.

I have never ever tasted a pie as good as our school pies in primary school. Every winter there was nothing more intoxicating than the smell of those pies from the canteen. And for the lucky recipients at lunchtime, they lived up to their promise. I was allowed to have one pie very winter, and it was such an event. Twenty two cents would be wrapped in a scrap of paper with the order scribbled on it, and at lunch time that pie would arrive in a crisp white and green paper bag. Ambrosia.

The other item I coveted from the canteen was a coffee bun. It was a finger bun with pink icing, and lashings of butter. They were 12 cents. I don’t know why they were called coffee buns at our canteen, and I’ve never hear them referred to as anything but finger buns since then, but they were so good.

I also remember what my teachers ordered for themselves every day. Mrs P always ate a chocolate Paddle Pop after lunch. She carefully removed the wrapper and laid it flat on her palm to catch the drips. I tried that myself but it was fairly tedious. And Mrs M would buy a five cent packet of peanuts every day and eat them on playground duty. Round and round the playground she would stalk, barking reprimands at misbehaving students, all the while pecking at that bag of peanuts. Probably not something that would happen today, I’d wager.

Do you have fond memories of canteen/tuckshop food? What was your favourite?

And one more thing. Can anyone explain why I can remember the exact prices of canteen items from primary school when I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning?

photo credit: My Happy Pie Technique via photopin (license)

Friday, 3 April 2015

Blancmange: Nancy's Desserts

I’m fairly sure every spoonful of blancmange I’ve ever eaten was in Taree, the NSW town where we visited my maternal grandparents during school holidays. Nowhere else.

The picture above is a fancy rabbit-moulded blancmange. I’m not sure why, but throughout history, blancmanges were often in rabbit form, maybe because in the middle ages the earliest blancmanges were actually savoury, not sweet. Anyway, I don’t recall any of the rabbit mould nonsense at my grandmother’s house. Her desserts were set in a bowl and scooped straight out of there.  

We called my grandmother Nancy. Actually that was her real name. I started the whole calling her by her Christian name thing, apparently, when I was a toddler, and it stuck. She was never grandma or nanna to us.

Anyway, Nancy was born in the middle of World War One, so she lived through those lean times in Australia’s history when people did the best they could with what they had. She often served up the kind of meals that we didn’t have at home. Most of it was really tasty, hearty, old-fashioned food, but every now and then she’d throw in a few zingers like steak and kidney pie that I struggled with.

Fortunately for us, Nancy also had an entire artillery of thrifty desserts. Apart from blancmange, she made flummery, lemon sago, and tapioca pudding. Google has the details if you've never heard of these. The flummery was my favourite. And you could always count on some rhubarb finding its way up from the garden too. These were Nancy foods. I can’t imagine them existing in anyone else’s house. They were hers.

Here is a picture of my grandparents in 1939 (before I met them) strolling along George Street in Sydney. They look like they’ve just been spotted by the paparazzi, don’t they?

And here they are again, a few decades down the track.

Nancy was the type of grandmother who, when you were leaving the house, would always ask “Have you got a cardigan? And a handkerchief?” She would even ask the grown-ups, supposedly as a joke, but I think she really wanted to know. She worried about things like that.

The biscuit tin was always full of her home-made biscuits (not that we were allowed to have too many). If visitors appeared on the horizon she would rustle up a tea cake or something equally simple but delicious. They had so many friends, they really did. Climbing in the windows.

Nancy remembered the important people in my little childish life, not just teachers or whatever - she remembered my friends, and she talked about them like they were important to her too. That's what Nancy was like.

So that’s B for Blancmange. And flummery. And all of the other Nancy foods.

Blancemange photo credit: 16th February 2014 via photopin (license)

Thursday, 2 April 2015

After Dinner Mints: Mum's Dinner Parties in the 70s

An after dinner mint. Specifically a Red Tulip after dinner mint. You’re looking at the length of this blog post and wondering how the hell can anyone have that much to say about an after dinner mint, aren’t you?  OK, well it’s not so much about the after dinner mint – it’s about the memories I associate with it.

In the 70s my parents held dinner parties, mainly for their fellow teachers or golf friends. My brother and I were allowed to mingle briefly with the guests, nibbling on smoked oysters and cheese, before we were packed off to bed, safe in the knowledge that mum had already stashed away a couple of after dinner mints for us to eat the next day. Never under-estimate the allure of such a treat back in the days when treats were not easy to come by. It was a little bit of magic.

The other wonderful thing about those dinner parties was the way everything looked. It was so perfect. The good crockery, the good cutlery, and fresh flowers from the garden. Candlelight danced on silverware, crystal or glassware, which had been polished to within an inch of its life. If ever a 70s dinner party mood could be created in an elevated brick and fibro home on the outskirts of a country town my mother could do it.

The guests enjoyed on-trend dishes like gazpacho, vol au vents, prawn cocktail, creamy stroganoff and pavlova. The ladies sipped on a Brandy Crusta, Starwine or Sparkling Rhinegold while the men drank beer. And then of course they ate their allocation of after dinner mints with coffee.

As dawn broke the next morning my brother and I were fast out of the blocks to claim our after dinner mints. Amidst the debris of the previous night's magic, the simple thrill of liberating those wafer-thin mint-filled chocolates from their dark brown paper pockets is one of those innocent childhood memories I have never forgotten.