Reconstitution of the past is a delicate pleasure of which one should not be deprived.
– Elizabeth David, French Provincial Cooking (Michael Joseph, 1960)
‘NOW IN OUR early sixties, it is more nostalgia than new experiences,’ a friend said recently as she headed to a Mondo Rock concert. Is nostalgia the main companion of old age? I wondered as I pulled apart radicchio leaves, sliced some figs and stirred together a balsamic vinegar dressing. Perhaps for music, I thought, but not so much for food.
Nostalgia is often twinned with sentimentality, but many Baby Boomers I know, particularly of Anglo-Celtic descent, have an uneasy relationship with the food of their childhoods. Any discussion is ironically underpinned with acknowledgement that we deliberately left the corned beef and fairy bread behind to chase what we thought was a cosmopolitan sophistication. Yet our deep sensory memories of discovering the world through touch and sight and taste remain. Our early food memories are embedded in a deep place in our psyche – and, when we think about our childhood, at the centre of our myth-making and romanticisation.
When I was a child, my mother, Gillian, presided over a square kitchen, large enough for a table and four chairs, and separated from the rest of the house by a hallway. From this kitchen came roasts, casseroles, puddings, fresh fruit and seasonal vegetables. Gillian prepared pork chops with potatoes, cornflake biscuits, pancakes with lemon and sugar, corn-beef fritters, cauliflower with white sauce, ham and salad with beetroot, a Dolly Varden cake for my birthday and a football one for the boys.
Yet I left behind many of these dishes in my childhood. As the ’60s changed to the ’70s and ’80s, Gillian’s cooking shifted. The Schauer Australian Cookery Book gave way to Margaret Fulton, and grills and chops to avocados and zucchinis as our collective food culture changed focus from the British Isles to the Mediterranean. Before the days of cheap international travel, many of these dishes were simulacrums of dishes from other countries, such as curried prawns made with Keen’s curry powder and spaghetti carbonara rich with bacon and cream. Luckily for my mother, the accepted standards of her childhood dropped away. She no longer had to spend Sunday cooking cakes and biscuits for the week, and serving meat with every meal was no longer mandatory.
As my brothers and I grew older, the variety of foods we were exposed to as children opened pathways to others. The Keen’s curry powder gave way to an exploration of cardamom, cumin and turmeric. The childish slurping of spaghetti led to Bologna and tagliatelle bolognese eaten in a laneway near the market. While Italian cooking became my touchstone, my brothers went in different directions. For my older brother, Bruce, it was French food. He stayed with me for a while, and would begin to cook each meal by tossing a slab of butter into the pan. ‘Not butter,’ I’d scream from the couch, ‘olive oil.’ He’d give a half smile and toss in the chicken pieces (skin on) to fry. My younger brother, Ian, has a totally different flavour palette. Diagnosed with coeliac disease as a boy, in his adult life he turned to Asian food – duck curry, stir-fries, chicken satay. He doesn’t much bother with flour substitutes to try to emulate the foods he can no longer eat, but keeps it simple and fresh.
As an adult looking back, the kitchen was a place of nurturing and sensual pleasure, particularly as the burden of food preparation did not sit with us. I am sure after a day at work, the kitchen was probably the last place my mother wanted to be, catering to the needs of young children. She’d peel off her stockings, put on a loose dress, pour herself a scotch and start chopping, while we lay on the carpet watching Hogan’s Heroes.
This was an era where the expectations of housewifery were still projected onto young girls. At the age of ten I was happy to get the Illustrated Teach Yourself Cookery book from my grandmother for my birthday. The book was aimed at young girls who liked to help Mother in the kitchen, with sections on keeping the kitchen clean and how to wash dishes and pans. I had no intention of adopting the philosophy of the book, which was to be a ‘good girl’ and help Mother with tea. I just wanted more. And the ‘more’ that I wanted were sweets. I turned to the chapter on ‘Baking for Tea’, which provided instructions on how ‘to serve, light, well-cooked, appetising dainties’. The implication of the word ‘serve’ was that this food was for others, and the page was illustrated with a young girl, wearing a frilled white apron, her plaits neatly tied up with blue ribbons, stirring a batter. I see her proudly setting the tea table as her brothers and sisters eagerly await her dainties.
My baking had no such altruistic intent. Despite the constant supply of cakes and biscuits being pulled out of the oven by my mother, my sweet tooth was not sated. I soon mastered cupcakes, Monte Carlo biscuits and chocolate cake, as well as toffee and fudge. With Illustrated Teach Yourself Cookery featuring family favourites such as boiled salted meat, stewed mince and steamed meat pudding, my brothers should be forever grateful I stuck to the sweetie section of the book.So we have my mother in the kitchen meeting the norms of 1960s womanhood, while I, as a Baby Boomer, am already subverting them by my refusal to be a good girl.
Brisbane in the ’60s was a long way from any sense of food experimentation or faddism. We ate what our parents and grandparents had eaten and the generations before them, though with some regional differences. We were taught in primary school that the subtropics were hot and sweaty – short, dry winters; long, hot, summers – and the food we ate, to a certain extent, reflected this reality. David Malouf wrote in A First Place (Random House, 2014) of the diminution of a regional consciousness in Australia and the assumption that our sense of place is consistent across the country. He pointed out ‘the states have produced very different social forms, different political forms as well, and so far as climate and landscape are concerned, Australia is not one place’. Much of what is received wisdom and food nostalgia in Australia has been dominated by the southern states, where the more temperate climate meant a sharp distinction between summer into autumn and then winter.
An earlier visitor identified this ‘maladaption’ of Australians to their climate. In his 1893 book The Art of Living in Australia, Philip E Musket, then living in Sydney, was an early exponent of the Mediterranean diet. He identified that:
The Australian people [have] never yet realised their semi-tropical environment. It would naturally be supposed that [this would have] exercised an irresistible effect on their mode of living. But, on the contrary, the type of Australian dwelling-house, the clothing of the Australian people and, what is more significant than anything else, their food habits, prove incontestably that they have never recognised the semi-tropical nature of their climate.[i]
Come north, Dr Muskett! For even in 1893 you could have witnessed Australia’s first vernacular architecture with houses poised high on stilts to let the breeze flow underneath, and surrounded by deep verandas to shade the interior from the ravages of the subtropical sun. Early European settlers in Queensland had to accommodate the distinctly non-European climate more rapidly than the temperate south. So perhaps it can be argued that there is a small case for Queensland exceptionalism. There was still a reliance on flour and meat and tea, but the house on stilts and the Queensland nut tree in the backyard signalled an earlier adaption to the realities of the Australian climate than the closely built suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne. This adaptation included a lighter and flimsier architecture laid over the landscape to open up to the outside world to capture any passing breeze, and the cutting back of a lush and evergreen foliage to create some kind of suburban order.
In hot and humid Brisbane, this adaption was often found in the backyard or over the neighbour’s fence. As children, we hopped those fences and foraged on the way to and from school. In summer, the passionfruit vine covered our side fence, and the fruit was pulled warm off the plant. Loquat trees fruited in winter during those few weeks when jumpers were pulled out of the bottom drawer. Sour, sour – then one day just sweet enough. Purple mouths and fingers during the mulberry season followed by windfalls of Queensland nuts (never called macadamias) collected up and taken home to be smashed with a hammer on the concrete path. Stringy and sweet mangoes showered footpaths in summer, but the neighbour’s pawpaw tree was just too high for the little hands of childhood to reach. Skill was needed to be a successful forager: you had to know when the loquat skin was shiny enough that it had moved from being sour to the sweet sour of its ripeness, and how to rattle a Queensland nut to check it was ready to crack.
As well as the bounty of the neighbourhood, there was the bounty of the sea. A Sunday drive would see us at Moreton Bay to pick up a couple of mud crabs or sweet little prawns and oysters. The oysters were sold in little glass jars at the fish shop along with mullet, whiting and garfish. Fish was local, and the only salmon I knew was tinned. I’d never heard of barramundi. Now in Brisbane, it is pretty impossible to get a bay prawn but easy to pick some up from the estuaries of Vietnam, thawed for your convenience.
Despite the plenty in the bay and the backyard, a subtropical climate is not one of great seasonality. There is no dramatic dropping of leaves in autumn or green shoots to mark the start of spring, and this sets up a different rhythm of life. Brisbane is green and leafy all year around without what Elizabeth David described as ‘the delicate climatic line dividing the vegetables and salads and fruit of spring from those of summer’.[ii] Such delicacy does not exist under bright winter skies where tomatoes grow on my balcony all year round.
But this was my childhood food, and even in the ’60s that shared culture was far from universal. It was a time when other stories and origin myths were created. These Anglo-Celtic Australian stories were augmented by the stories from postwar European migration. If the Baby Boomer narrative is one of shrugging off the meanness of British cooking to embrace an urban sophistication, European migrant coming-of-age stories were about their struggle to maintain their food heritage in a land where olive oil was bought at the chemist and squid used as bait. The Anglo-Celtic Baby Boomers get to be nostalgic about Vegemite sandwiches for lunch and chunks of cheese and cocktail onions on toothpicks; migrant communities celebrate their rich traditions and describe their transition from schoolyard jibes at their ‘funny’ lunches to mainstream valorisation of their food traditions.
These broader stories now inform and enrich our lives, but childhood is always seen through the wrong end of the telescope. The broader view drops away and all that’s left are the small moments lodged in the memory and reinforced by the listing and telling – pawpaw with orange juice, mud crab, crumbed chops, chocolate cake. As we remember our childhood we remember our food and we remember our mothers in the kitchen, wooden spoon in hand, stirring, stirring.
The loss of our childhood way of eating is not mourned, as it might be in first generation migrant families, but treated with a mixture of nostalgia, irony and humour. There is a fondness there, but tinged with a knowingness about how limited and provincial was the ‘baking for tea’ approach, which was washed away through migration and exposure to cuisines through affordable international travel. Childhood food has been incorporated into our lives and now becomes part of a continuum – roast beef, beef rendang, pho, bistecca alla fiorentina. The epochal and the ephemeral are brought together, meal by meal.
IF WE CAN only drum up a partial or ironic nostalgia about the food of our childhood, where does that leave the flood of Baby Boomers feeling their way into retirement? As a ‘semi-retiree’ I have joined the tables of those with the leisure time to linger over a morning coffee at New Farm Deli. It is crowded and loud, and from when it opens at 6 am to when it closes, it is always full. Elderly men come in for their macchiato and, in rapid Italian, swap insults with owner Vince. Vince and Maria have owned the deli for decades, and from serving the local Italian community the deli has spread to draw people in from across the city.
My latest obsession is the freshly made focaccia. Baked every morning, it comes with a crisp crust, spiked with salt and oregano, but is chewy in the middle. The thing with Italian food is that these obsessions are circular. Since I tasted fresh focaccia in Genoa, I search again and again for that texture and taste. The desire to repeat a pleasure never ends. The connection between food, memory and emotion seems to be hardwired. Remembrance and repetition are integral to that ‘delicate pleasure’ of reconstituting the past of which Elizabeth David writes.
MFK Fisher is the Ur-writer of this kind of gentle remembrance. She looked deeply into the eye of the oyster and reported back. Describing in The Gastronomical Me a dish of peas grown in her garden in Switzerland shows the simplicity and joy held forever in that moment:
Mother and I would shell them, and then on a little fire of shavings I’d cook them perhaps four or five minutes in a heavy casserole, swirling them in butter and their own steam. We’d eat them with little cold pullets cooked in Vevey, and good bread and the thin wine of the coast that lay about us.
She captured the ‘peaness’ of the experience, the freshness of the cool mountain air and the sense of good company – all of which will never come again. Food forms the most fleeting of memories, yet can be re-savoured at will. Your food life is a map unto yourself. There is shared history and commonalities with others, but the carefully curated food library in your mind is yours alone.
I am afraid, as I sit with my coffee and focaccia at New Farm Deli, I am burnishing my Baby Boomer cosmopolitanism. I recognise it as a traditional café, because I have been to similar cafes in Italy. I enjoy the slight temporal jolt of the people milling around speaking Italian, as well as the generosity of Italian hospitality and the pride in the quality of the food. And each morning I get to re-savour that experience for the price of a caffè latte.
Of course, the older you are the more of the past you have to reconstitute.
Food remains one of the great sensual pleasures of old age. Dining out and cooking old favourites, or recipes from newly gifted cookbooks, remains a connection to the pleasures of the world past or experiences still ahead. As our teeth drop out and our tastebuds die off we may be pushed more into reconstituting the delicate pleasure of meals past rather than meals to come.
A tea-dipped Madeleine, anyone?
[i]Muskett, quoted in Newton, John. 2018. The getting og Garlic: Australian food from bland to brilliant, with recipes old and new. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing. P. 116.
[ii]Elizabeth David quoted in Jones, Steve and Taylor, Ben 2001. ‘Food Writing and Cultures: the case of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson’. European Journal of cultural Studies. May.