Today I had a hankering for crackers with cottage cheese and gherkin, a snack my Ma used to make for my sister and I when we lived in Brisbane. After eating it I realised that she must have been on some kind of diet at the time because it’s not exactly decadent. But I’m a sucker for nostalgia and most of my memories are stuck in the gravitational pull of the food I was eating at the time, meaning I recall some pretty ordinary and sometimes questionable foods very fondly.
Cottage cheese and gherkin makes me think of dusty, prickly Brisbane summer, cicada casings, and swinging on the Hills Hoist when Ma either wasn’t looking or was tethered to the phone (we didn’t have a cordless phone then). In much the same way that Bubble-o-Bill ice creams and greasy fish and chips makes me think of my poor, tortured Dad who always wanted to take us to the beach but usually caved in and took us to the noisy, bleached-out public pool instead. Potato scallops always remind me of the time when we were supposed to be exercising during Friday sports at Queenscliff, instead Anna and I were eating a fried treat so greasy that when I bit one side, a squirt of oil and fat was expelled out the the other. And yet, I still love potato scallops.
When I was very young, before we moved to Sydney when I was 8, I used to spend a lot of time at my grandparents place. I stayed there when I didn’t have daycare, and when I started school I would go there in the afternoons. It was a pretty magical place; they had a backyard like an oasis with weed-free grass and delightfully climbable frangipani tree, but also a foreboding rain forest walk at the side of the house that an over-active imagination prevented me from ever exploring further than where the sun reached. Under the house was Pop’s workshop, the door was a big sliding metal gate, which was an excellent prop when someone had to go to prison during a game, and the roof beams were swaddled in foam to prevent Pop’s towering head from bruising. It smelt like hops and had a fridge dedicated to drinks that rattled with soda cans and home brew bottles. Behind the workshop was an Aladdin’s cave crawl space filled with chicken wire and junk from the sixties.
Inside in the living room and the dining room there was a polyester pelt of beige and white shag carpet on the floor. This was excellent for pretending your toys were hanging out in grass and great for rolling around on in front of the TV (except those couple of days when I had chicken pox, then it was more like torture). In the dining room was an imposing, full-size billiard table with big, rotund legs, it’s solidity I can attest to after having concussed myself several times when trying to scramble out from underneath. There was an organ to play that would kindly hide your mistakes under a synthesized polka beat, a grandfather clock to marvel at and reassure you of it’s existence every hour, beds to nap in, a wealth of books to read and some creepy toys that my Ma played with when she was a wee sprout.
That house was a wonderland. It is also where I have some of my favourite food memories (I hope you had faith I would get there eventually).
- Morning tea – people just don’t do this anymore, it’s a shame. Tea and biscuits are a divine match. We had it every morning out on their sheltered back porch which was dressed in vines and shade-cloth, and accessorised with orchids and bonsai. To be honest, it was usually my breakfast time, but they never judged me.
- Baked potatoes – how did she do it? They were so perfect. If I was asked what I wanted for dinner I would usually just request baked potatoes.
- Chokos – a weird, green, wrinkly vegetable (fruit?) that my Pop used to grow in the backyard. We used to eat it steamed so it was kind of slimy and opaque. I can’t say that I really loved it, but I’ve yet to have anything else like it.
- Apples – my Nan would always cut up some apples for her and I to eat while we watched Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless. She had a way of slicing them where she balanced the knife and the apple in one hand and sort of squeezed them together. Don’t try it at home. I still don’t really enjoy eating apples unless they have been cut up for me. I also have a thing for men named Victor with mustaches and dudes with eye-patches. Go figure.
- Tupperware – well spotted, you’re absolutely right. It’s not a food. But it is relevant because Nan and Pop kept just about everything in some form of tupperware. They even had special jugs for their milk, Nan’s had “Faye Clarence” magic-markered on the side and Pop’s read “Lionel Cliffton”. Incidentally, this is also how I found out my Pop was living a double life and that his first name was NOT Cliff like he told everyone it was. Innocence lost.
- Pastry – Nan made apple pies and jam tarts that will live in my heart (and arteries) as the best ever. She made the pastry but never seemed to be able to roll a sheet big enough to encase the whole pie. They always ended up as a patchwork of pieces stuck together in no particular design. And damn did they taste good.
- Butter and cheese – Pop had his own special cheese that nobody else liked. It was that kind called “strong and bitey”, I tried it once and it burned my esophagus. He also liked to use ‘real’ butter, so while Nan and I were icing our bread with a soft margarine frosting, he was scouring divots into his and filling them with knobs of real, hard butter.
- Candy cupboard – oooooooooooooooooh yeah. A pokey little cupboard in the laundry which had no better use than as a lollie stash. Tupperware filled with powdery mints that dissolved in the center first, chewy Minties, jubes, caramel chocolate eclairs, boiled lollies. And if you weren’t satisfied with that haul, there were always mint slice biscuits in the fridge.
Associating memories with food makes sense, eating is a full sensory experience. But I’m not sure how far back it is plausible to go. While I was at uni, I once ate half a kilo of Chicos in two days. I blamed it on the fact that my mum said she ate them when she was pregnant with me. Is that fair? Can I be held responsible for something that was inflicted upon me when I was just a fetus?
(TL;DR) I have an unusual preoccupation with food. Also, my grandparents are better than yours.