This is no pomegranates and cinnamon memoir.
My childhood memories of food are all about broccoli sandwiches, tripe in tomato sauce and home slaughtered chicken. At play lunch I longed for the simplicity of a Vegemite sandwich but had to make do with broccoli on bread.
My first day at school in Australia was in 1978. I was in the 3rd grade. I sat in the playground watching in fascination as out of crisp, brown paper bags, came neat, white sandwich triangles, crust removed, held together by a filmy plastic wrap, the likes of which I’d never seen before. After a tug of war between my stomach and excruciating embarrassment, my stomach won, and I took a tea towel from my bag and unwrapped a large, cold Calzone stuffed with olives, anchovies and salami. Last night’s leftovers for lunch. Around me, eight year old jaws dropped to their knee high white socks. But only for a second. Wits gathered, a chorus of “Yuck! Wog food!” bellowed at me.
Is it any wonder then, that as an adult I have difficulty making anything harder than a reservation for dinner?
Just the act of planning a home cooked meal releases memories that have me scurrying out of the house, and into the nearest restaurant. The mere mention of chicken, for example, catapults me back in time. I am standing in horror watching my mother systematically break the necks of each of our five backyard chooks. Up to that moment, I had thought of them as pets. Fluffy, Silky, Chuckles, Betty and Lolly. But after seeing their headless bodies dunked in boiling water, feathers plucked, and the remaining carcasses gutted, I realised they were soup.
My father only cooked once a month, which for most men of his age and background, would have been once a month too often. He worked in the building industry and on his rostered days off he’d don an apron and spend hours in the kitchen creating his signature dish – slow cooked tripe. I would smell it as soon as I walked into the house after school. And on those days I was delighted that I didn’t have any friends to invite over.
But now in my forties, I’m overcoming my cultural kitchen cringe.
I’m fascinated by my sixty eight year old mother’s ability to pursue the eating habits of the Italian peasantry whilst living in a Sydney suburb. On any given visit to her house I catalogue the variety of food she has sourced locally (read here – foraged, gleaned, bartered, or simply been in the right place at the right time for): kid goat, quails, broad beans, spinach, tomatoes, eggplant, broccoli, fresh ricotta, eggs, lemons and the list goes on. I’m not as enthusiastic however when she mentions that she’s gone mushroom gathering with friends in the forests near Oberon, but I happily eat the apples, picked at farm stops on her way home through the Hawkesbury. I also leave happily loaded down with jars of tomato passata, tubs of frozen minestrone and anything else that I find in her pantry.
This ambivalent food heritage, and the challenge to reduce my ecological footprint, has inspired a quest to develop more sustainable food habits. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
The recent interest in fresh, organic food, sourced from close to home, or from sources that promote fair trade, as well as the development of sustainable farming practices, is part of a civic renaissance in our political and social cultures. I think these can help us to tackle climate change and the world food crisis. Yes, my glass is half full. Each day, through the choices we make about food and about how we spend our time, we create our culture.
And so, taking this as my manifesto, I will finally learn to cook, but I’ll also gratefully accept my mother’s (and anyone else’s) generosity, and eat whatever I’m given. Except for tripe.