In these days of once again looking to conserve and preserve, I often reflect on what has certainly been an interesting journey.
Mine has been a passionate pursuit of culinary delights during my lifetime at home both here in Australia and when traveling extensively abroad, between 1972 and 2012.
As the youngest child in a family of seven born at the end of World War II, one of my earliest recollections is standing in a line holding my mother’s hand while she handed in her pink coloured coupons to literally bring home the bacon, and some butter as well.
Rationing was an integral aspect of life during, and following this devastating global conflict. Australians on the whole however, were not nearly as hard hit as their English counterparts.
The disruption of shipping saw the movement of foodstuffs around the world restricted when Japan entered the conflict in 1942.
To manage the shortages, and in their attempts to control civilian consumption, those in power introduced the rationing system.
Rationing meant a fair share for all, an orderly queue and about being patient and very polite.
In the food line tea was the most precious commodity. Tea leaves were saved and used twice and the left over tea ended up in the ice box to be served as ‘iced tea’ with a twist of lemon.
For those without luxuries like soft drinks or alcohol it seemed entirely amazing. And, when the leaves were discarded onto the garden they helped the passionfruit vine (yum) and the choko vine (yuk) grow well on the wooden fence between us and the neighbours next door.
Cream off the top of the milk delivered each morning was another treat.
I used to have this all the time while my brother was in hospital suffering the effects of polio, but when he came home we all had to make sacrifices to help him.
One of mine was giving up this thick delicious daily treat because we all wanted him to be strong again. There was a bonus too, he and I would save the foil ‘tops’ of the milk and use them to make Xmas decorations.
Interestingly, real coffee was not something I remember as having existed at all in our daily family life. Bushells Tea was it.
My mother did however have a bottle of Bushells coffee and chicory in the cupboard. She used it to flavour cakes or to provide an occasional special drink for my father.
My brother and I were fascinated, but it was a no go zone. It was much later when we found out that at many points in history when coffee has become unavailable, or too costly roasted chicory, acorns, yams and a variety of local grains were used to make a substitute.
This was because for coffee aficionados anything was better than going without coffee at all. The added plus for chicory fanciers was that it contained no caffeine and reputedly produced a more ‘roasted’ flavour than coffee itself.
I did not taste real coffee until, as a young married woman I went to Italy in the early ’70’s. I distinctly remember having my first cup of frothy coffee, sitting on the footpath at a smart cafe on the Via Veneto at Rome.
This in itself for an unworldly girl from a beachside suburb down under, was a revelation and certainly symbolic of going from rationing to riches.
My family grew up with the food my mother learned to cook from her mother as a child, when they lived in the country town of Scone in the mid north of New South Wales.
They were all of English, Irish and Scottish extraction and had learned from their grandmothers, who had learned from their great grandmothers who had migrated to Australia in 1843, 1844. This was when the potato famine in England and Europe was particularly bad.
Indeed my great grandmother’s recipe on my mother’s side for the Christmas pudding has the secret ingredient of cold tea.
The recipe for Christmas Pudding in a cloth has come down through the family until today.
Cooking the pudding in a cloth on Stir up Sunday (last Sunday prior to Advent in the Christian calendar) was the way to go.
After soaking the fruits in brandy for a week at least, the other ingredients would be added, the wet cloth prepared with flour to make a skin and then it was lowered into the copper to boil away for hours and hours.
My mother’s side of the family came to Australia during terrible times of famine in Europe, when potato crops failed.
The cuisine they served was a cross cultural mix of similar styles of food, hot and warming for a cold climate.
Food was always family affair and Sunday lunch the big meal, where many would just turn up to share.
My mother’s specialty was a roast lamb dinner with five veg, followed by apple pie and cream or bread and butter pudding.
Didn’t matter how hot it was here in Australia, tradition prevailed.
It wasn’t about good sense but about retaining a sense of security as well as bonds and ties to those still back home, as they used to say. My job was to gather fresh mint from the garden in the backyard and make the mint sauce.
The lamb was roasted using dripping saved from the Sunday roast the week before and kept in a special tin. For our supper our mother would often use the dripping to make fried bread.
A big baked dinner was the culinary delight our mother served in our living room at Coogee Beach for some of the boys from the English Rugby Team staying nearby. They were on one of their first visits after the war and she was wanting to make sure they felt at home.
After all we were English she would tell us. I was only very small, but distinctly remember one of the players Albert J Pepperell, lifting me up onto his shoulders so I wouldn’t be knocked over in the crush.
Fitting all those huge footie boys into my mother’s living room was quite a feat. Albert used to play rugby with my brother in law John Rupert Mudge, who later went to England to continue his career at the same club in Northumberland.
Albert was a favourite of my mothers, because he ate so heartily and those meals shared were entirely memorable. It was all about flavoursome food, traditionally designed to impart stamina for the men and boys when they came in from working in country fields.
Having Sunday lunch once when I was about eight years old with a young lady who lived next door to us at 26 Carr Street, Coogee Beach for a short time, was a rarified culinary delight moment.
She lived with her guardian, although at the time I was never quite sure what that meant, and later she went away to boarding school so I did not see her again until she was all grown up.
Everyone in that house was very proper and didn’t speak while the meal was served and only after that when spoken to. I was used to this regime, it was the same over at my house.
No one was allowed to speak during meals because my father was a strict disciplinarian of the Victorian school. Family communication in his presence was zero.
Over at their house however, I remember vividly that the bread was taken without butter.
Now I knew that they were rich, I had overheard my parents talking about them, so I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t afford to buy butter.
When I enquired I was told it was not polite to ask, and was even more politely informed that ‘butter Carolyn is only something those who work with their hands require’.
It all seemed very odd to me at the time, because all I knew was that I loved it, especially when it melted into my Nana’s still warm scones.
Boiled fruit cake with pineapple was another favourite, and a great specialty of my Nan.
Dear Nana, as we all called her when we were little, had formerly belonged to the Country Woman’s Association (CWA). She had won awards for her high, light and simply irresistible scones and sponges.
When she came down to the city with her children before the war when my grandfather died, traditions lived on. I can still remember the excitement my brother and I would feel as we got off the tram on a Sunday and came around the corner of Nan’s street at Darlington full of worker’s houses.
There she would be outside her typical Aussie cottage waving to us with her apron on with flour all over her hands from the scones she had just made and popped into her early Kooka oven, hoping we were all coming.
There was no way to let her know either way we were coming as neither household had a phone. I often wonder at it, even now, and how disappointed she must have been when we all didn’t arrive. Living alone can be very sad.
Just popping in without warning to visit family was an expected part of life in fifties Australia.
The culinary delights Nana popped in the oven were enough to motivate us to all be there most Sundays. Sometimes there were three or four families with all my numerous cousins, and we had to spill out into the side passage so that we could fit everyone in.
No one really minded though, and I am sure now that the expectation of the laughter and chatter from all the young people was what kept her going until she was 90, cooking on that old Kooka gas stove in the corner. Well do I remember the day that she singed her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, when it decided to play up.
From when I was about 10 years of age until I was married at 20 I would often go out and stay with Nan and my aunt Ivy, who lived with her. I would stay from Friday afternoon through Monday, when it was back to school or work.
That meant I experienced her delicious cooking more regularly than anyone else in the family. When Aunty Ivy was killed, run over walking the dog at dusk when I was about 14, I went out there to stay with Nan more than often.
The highlight of holiday time was when, with my friends in the street where I lived and my brother, when he was able, we would go down the hill to the Boomerang Cinema near the beach with a bob in hand to buy a ticket, a packet of chips and an ice cream.
Now this was not any ice cream. It was a passionfruit ice cream cone, loaded with my favourite fruit.
Even today when I am staying with dear friends who live in northern NSW, we always head off to Byron Bay to enjoy an ice cream when I am there, because they also enjoyed this phenomenon of our youth, albeit in another place. It has become our culinary delight ‘ritual’.
Being taken to the Cahill sister’s famous Tea Rooms in Sydney for my mother’s birthday in May each year was a huge treat for her and also a family tradition until they closed down.
Especially when my brother came out of hospital and could come too.
He and I had both contracted polio. I was in hospital for 10 months, he for nearly five years.
Our Mum would be so excited for days beforehand, taking her best dress out of the wardrobe to brush it and hang it on the verandah so that it would freshen in the sea air. I would wear my best dress too.
She was an accomplished seamstress my Mum. The dresses I would wear to town, to church and to my Nana’s on Sunday afternoon had a huge hem, which she could let down as I grew.
There was the white voile with the blue sash, my blue paisley with grograin ribbon and/or, the one with the pink polka dots and pink satin sash. It was my favourite and I was photographed wearing it in celebration of my brother coming out of hospital.
For the photograph they made him tuck his crippled left arm behind me and took the calipers off his legs. It was all about keeping up appearances, according to my Mum.
Having a sense of occasion we were taught, was also very important. My mother would wear a hat, a signal to all of us that an outing was indeed expected to be a marvelous event.
The Miss Cahill’s fabulous tea shops were our families special place to go. They were a Sydney fixture for a long time. As an aside, the sisters built a weatherboard home in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, because they were scared of the Japanese coming there during the War.
It was Italian prisoners of war who helped them to build their house Wynella Gardens, where each weekend they would visit from Sydney in a chauffer driven car accompanied by their maid.
With a chain of tea shops all over Sydney they proved there was certainly money to be made in the taking of tea in style.
Then there was the biggest treat of all, one we enjoyed as a special treat once a year. Sitting up grandly for lunch in the Dining Room of Adams Hotel in Pitt Street at Sydney, where my Auntie Ivy was head housekeeper.
I would luckily go there quite often and stay behind the scenes with her in the kitchen and laundry while my mother shopped in the town.
My aunt sat me up in the empty dining room and taught me all about how to set a table, what all the different knives and forks were for and also how care for silver and linen, which was a huge source of pride for her and the other maids.
It was certainly fun helping them and they would also take me into the pantry and give me an Anzac biscuit, which was indeed a true war time ration treat. I can still taste them now. In fact my friend in northern NSW still home bakes them.
She recently gave me some to bring home when I visited. Hers are particularly delicious. Shocking, I ate all six in one sitting.
Eating out unless you were super wealthy, at least up until the time when I was married (1965) in Sydney, was a rare event reserved only for special occasions like a wedding.
It goes without saying that I was completely overwhelmed when a young man I had been dating, took me out to the all new and very fashionable ‘Back of the Moon Room’ at the Oceanic Hotel at Coogee Beach and became my fiancée.
My engagement ring arrived with strawberries for dessert, following a fashionable meal of Chicken Maryland – a leg of roast chicken with a ring of Golden Circle Pineapple from a can on the top served with roast vegetables,
We toasted with a glass of Lindemans Sparkling Porphry Pearl, which was the ultimate of chic and cool to serve with cuisine at Sydney in 1964. It certainly was about ‘making life more enjoyable’
We left feeling very rich indeed.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010-2014