Another foodie home memory from our Fave Food Memories!
When I was very small, we lived in a Federation house in a street of remarkably similar houses. The street was lined with camphor laurel trees, there were jacarandas everywhere, and roses and nasturtiums were top of the pops in the large gardens. It was wartime, and lots of food was unavailable or very hard to come by – unless of course, you knew someone. I was a favourite at the Moo Cow Milk Bar, and the proprietor used to occasionally slip me my favourite Violet Crumble Bar, swearing me to secrecy.
In most homes, the kitchen and dining rooms were where most people lived- the ‘lounge room’ being kept for special visitors most houses’ interiors were beige and windows kept firmly shut. Not at our place though; windows were flung wide open, as were the front and back doors. We had a Springer spaniel, name of Prince, who would enthusiastically welcome visitors to the front garden and then not let them out, growling and barking with his hackles up. Someone in the house had to be summoned to hold his collar so the hapless visitor could escape.
My Gran was deeply interested in cooking, and her food was truly appalling. She spent most of her time over by an old wooden topped counter, kneading away at her famous pastry which soon, filled with apples and topped with a thick layer of coconut – always burnt black- which would descend, heavy as lead, into our stomachs.
‘Crikey, Mum’, said one of my uncles, who lived with us at the time, before taking off to New Guinea as a war correspondent, ‘the boys up there could use this pastry as ammo.’ Grandma, frowning and grumbling under her breath, kneaded away furiously, floured arms working and a long silver hairpin flying out and landing in the sink.
In spite of food rationing and shortages of lots of things, Gran’s menus were set in stone – rather like that pastry and vegetables in thick white sauce that were served with practically every meal. Sunday lunch was roast lamb, cooked until it was a nice shade of grey, accompanied by three veggies, the peas or beans boiled for hours with bicarb so they turned a virulent green. The only thing that really worked, were the roast potatoes and pumpkin, which were burnt around the edges- deliciously super crisp on the outside and squidgy in the middle.
Sunday nights we always had the leftover grey lamb with watery lettuce, tomatoes, beetroot, and thin slippery cheese cut into strips, and some sort of white runny stuff as a dressing and that apple pie with the burnt coconut. Monday was shepherd’s pie, made with leftover lamb; Tuesday, macaroni cheese; Wednesday, lamb chops usually singed beyond all recognition; Thursday was Gran’s one and only ‘foreign’ night- curried lamb or rabbit hotpot, and everyone tried to be somewhere else on Thursday night.
Friday was fish night, which in our staunchly Protestant household was considered ‘Papist but practical’, since that was the day the fishmonger received fresh supplies for his Catholic flock, who, inextricably to us, were not allowed to eat meat on that day. Saturday was steak and kidney pie with suet pastry, usually requiring the presence of one of the uncles to crowbar the first bit out.
There were always desserts; stewed fruit with custard or junket, or blancmange with a dollop of jam on the top, or ground rice pudding which you had to kind of lever out of the dish, or lemon sago or fruit pies or tarts, or in winter, heavy steamed puddings with treacle or raisins- if you could get them, and something usually went terribly wrong in the kitchen. There’d be lumps in the custard, but none where you expected them- in the sago pudding, which ended up as kind of transparent stodge; or Gran would forget to put sugar in the damson plum pie, so your lips crinkled into tight pleats and your teeth felt gritty. Sometimes you couldn’t pull your spoon out of the blancmange and Mum had to help.
And then there was parsley. Lots and lots of parsley, which Gran was convinced added a ‘festive air’ to our daily meals. It was sprinkled on top of things, bunched at the side of the plate, fanned out between sandwiches, and sometimes even decorating bowls of fruit ‘to add a touch of green’.
“Supposed to be eating, not bloody grazing’ the uncle would mutter, irritably pushing the parsley to the side of his plate.
We had a sort of aunt, who was Gran’s remote cousin and who luckily for us, was a wonderful cook. She would arrive on the doorstep, unannounced, and let us know that she was coming to stay for a while – the ‘while’ often turning into months. My sister and I didn’t like Aunty Di, because she used to present us with religious and moral maxims on slips of paper, and stand over us while we read them. She criticised everything in the house – most particularly the cooking. Within a day or two, she had taken over the kitchen, producing a fair bit of tension and some truly wonderful meals. ‘Every cloud,’ my mother would say, small flakes of feather-light pastry trembling on her lips.
I loved my Gran and forgave her everything – except for that cooking- the memory of which occasionally returns with a slight shudder and a sudden need for a glass or two of vino.