Decades ago I moved into what used to be known as a ‘white bread’ suburb. There were no restaurants when I moved, only a fish and chip shop. Now when I walk around the corner I see Korean, Southern and Northern Chinese, Thai and Italian restaurants as well as the ubiquitous coffee shops with the obligatory smashed avocado breakfast. My how food has evolved in Australia since the 1960s!
I recently asked friends what they remembered of the food of their childhoods. Amusingly they all mentioned the things they hated most — tripe, boiled vegetables, chops overcooked to the texture of leather and assorted bits of offal. Continental’s instant Deb mashed potato came in for a dishonorable mention as did packet gravy.
The days when party food was deemed to be sophisticated if it was secured with a toothpick. Do you remember rolled up sliced Devon stuffed with Deb mash? Or cheese and pickled onions on Jatz crackers held in place with a toothpick?
When cakes were simpler and it was common to have a homemade sponge with fresh cream, maybe passionfruit icing if you were lucky or homemade jam from the backyard fruit trees. Home baking was frequent, not just for special occasions. Munching on warm scones straight from the oven smothered with real butter as soon as they were cool enough to handle was a ritual. None of those assemble and admire towering croquembouche numbers you see on television cooking shows these days. The cakes were probably not social media worthy but they were delicious. There were the less tempting plain jellies and junket.
The Sunday roast tradition was recalled with fondness, which might include Yorkshire puddings if your antecedents were British. My family shared Sunday roast when our relatives came to visit after church, when bread and butter pudding would be baking and the house filled with a sweet spicy aroma. On a bad day the aunt who could not cook to save herself would bring a sago pudding and all the kids would be massively disappointed as she showed it off.
Restaurants were not widespread and families didn’t eat out regularly, only on special occasions. With the arrival of Kentucky Fried Chicken we would drive across three suburbs to collect a bucket of this greasy American dream as a treat. In my Eurasian family we only ate Chinese food in Chinatown where my uncle ran a restaurant, or at the local RSL for family birthdays. The RSL Dining Room where the most sophisticated item on the menu was Chicken Maryland, crumbed deep fried chicken served in a small cane basket lined with a paper doily adorned with chips and a pineapple fritter. As children we would save the leg frill from the drumstick because it was just so fancy and we took it home as a treasured somewhat greasy souvenir.
In the school holidays my beloved favourite aunt would take me into town. We would take the train into the city and my aunty would always buy me some small item at David Jones like a handkerchief, a hair clip or a novelty candle just to spoil me. The highlight of my big day out was being treated to lunch at the Coles cafeteria where, as a kid barely able to see over the counter, I would be allowed to choose from the window display a pre-prepared lunch. I then enjoyed the luxury of choosing a brightly coloured moulded jelly decorated with piped cream on the edge and a cherry on top, a feast for the eyes. It was better than a visit to the Queen who at the time still had her anthem played before the movie at the local cinema.
Chinese take away food became popular then people took their own containers to collect their meals. In order to cook authentic Chinese meals at home it meant my family would drive to Chinatown once a month to source our imported ingredients from the small group of Chinese grocers in the city. My Chinese father wrote a book for Chinese home cooking for Australians and he toured the department store circuit giving cooking demonstrations. His book was reprinted 15 times and is listed in the National Library. Had he been born this century he would be considered an ‘influencer’.
The food of my childhood is remembered with fondness.