Home cooking in post WW2 Australia
Home Cooking in the Fahey household.
Warren Fahey sings ‘Paper Bag Cooking’ with Marcus Holden: Piano, Bass, Clarinet, Viola, Trumpet. Clare O’Meara: Violin. Garry Steel: Accordion.
Paper Bag Cooking.
A comic song that has tickled my sense of humour for many years. Bon vivant and writer Leo Schofield first brought it to my attention when he asked whether I knew the rest of the words. The song proved to be very elusive and even indefinable Google searches still produce ‘no result’. I did manage to record bits and pieces of the song until, in 2004, I found the complete words published in an Australian songster circa 1910. It is a parody of the Beggar’s Opera.
My mother was one of those infuriating souls who had an answer for nearly everything. “What’s for dinner?” had standard responses, “Possum guts and billygoat’s tails.” Or “A duck under the table.” Dessert was always “A Piece Pie – a piece of this and a piece of that.” Asking about meal times was equally useless, “When are we going to eat?” I’d question despite knowing the answer of either “Half past a freckle.” or “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
I learnt about folklore at the kitchen table in Pasadena Street, Ramsgate, although I didn’t know what the word meant at that stage of my life. The kitchen was always the family meeting place and, growing up before television, it was the centre of the house. We shelled peas together – nine peas in a pod meant good luck – tailed beans, peeled spuds and vigorously beat eggs.
Our kitchen was fairly typical of the nineteen fifties – laminex benches, linoleum floor, electric stove and a not-so-Silent Knight refrigerator than rumbled and sighed through life. In the late fifties, Mom threw out the heavy cast iron cookware and bought a range of lightweight aluminium saucepans despite rumours that the aluminium would seep out and gradually kill us all. I was more scared of tripe and lamb’s fry. We also had some special cooking appliances including a jaffle iron, a toasting contraption which was totally useless unless you had an open fire, an egg poaching thing and a fondue set which, I recall, we only ever used once with my mother dubbing it ‘totally useless’. The one new invention that ruled supreme was the Sunbeam Frypan and mum worked it overtime claiming it the best thing since sliced bread, although we rarely ever had sliced bread in the cupboard as she preferred high-top Vienna loaves and, whenever we could get into town, a dark rye with caraway seeds.
I wish I could take you through a tour of our refrigerator. My mother, a terrific cook, kept it so chocker I suspect that’s why it had breathing problems. There seemed to be an unwritten routine in her food production that guaranteed its replenishment. Saturday was baking day when she made two cakes, biscuits and two puddings, usually lemon rice and milk custard with nutmeg. I was the willing slave responsible for whipping the mixes and, of course, tasting the gooey, sweet batter before it was poured into the trays. I was also the washer-upper and putter away. I quite liked doing both jobs and can only imagine it was my escape from mowing and trimming the lawn, which I despised.
Mum was a clipper of recipes, mainly from the Women’s Weekly and Woman’s Day. She would sit at the table at night saying, “Hmm, this looks good, or “You’ll like this one.” There were not many cookbooks available in those days and the ones that didn’t really suit the Australian table. Cookery editors Jean Hatfield and her younger sister, Margaret Fulton, changed all that and so did the meals on our table. Stews turned into casseroles, vegetables stopped being boiled to death and new dishes like beef stroganoff and lasagne started to appear regularly. Some dishes came to my mother from her family, especially from her father, Sid Phillips, who was a deft hand in the kitchen, especially on the weekly fish fry-up. Mom’s favourite dish was a hefty black walnut flavoured beef stew and I can still imagine the aroma of its slow cooking.
Dad never cooked but he nearly always did the washing up after the evening meal. We would share stories, sing and recite poetry as pots, pans, plates and cutlery went flying back to their allocated homes. After cleaning up it was time to listen to the wireless and challenge our wits against the first contestant on Bob Dyer’s Pick –A-Box or laugh at the silliness of Life With Dexter as the show’s star, Willie Fennell, rolled out corny jokes. My favourite of all was a comedian named Ward Leopold who had a razor sharp wit and a sense of the ridiculousness in his ‘Here’s Hooey’ monologues.
When television finally arrived in the Fahey household we strictly rationed our viewing like war coupons. We were allowed to have dinner in front of the television on one-week night and there we sat with our food arranged on individual trays. We still talked all the way through the programs. Sunday night was always a casual meal in our house and usually scrambled eggs on toast or a baked bean jaffle. In winter the toast was cooked on the grill attached to the Cosy kerosene heater that blazed in the corner of the lounge room. Sunday evenings were taken up with Disneyland and the weekly dramatic play. If we were lucky a bar of Small’s dark family chocolate and a bag of peanuts in their shell would miraculously appear.
Takeaways were unheard of in those days unless you counted fish and chips. The one exception was, of course, Chinese food. Our local Chinese was a ten-minute drive to Rockdale where we had to line up holding our own saucepans and pyrex dishes to receive the brightly coloured, usually over-salted and over-sweet dishes. Takeaway containers were unknown and Tupperware hadn’t arrived in Ramsgate. When Tuppaware finally landed, sold through home Tupperware parties, our cupboards became full of the strangest containers in all shapes and sizes. There was a Tuppaware for anything edible and even one for my school lunch. Somehow the lids always went west, never to be seen again.
The arrival of television struck a deep blow to radio and the weekly women’s magazines. Mum became a fan of the Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr. Little was she to imagine I would eventually become one of his producers as I supervised his live-on-air commercials for the new, improved Sunbeam Frypans – remember Graham cooking a lump of Marfac gooey oil in the frypan?
No recipe was too difficult for my mother. She also approached the oven and stove top with the same carefree approach as Graham Kerr, without the glass of wine. As a kid our weekly regime, and it was fairly held to, ran like this> Monday – a bubble and squeak type of meatloaf made from the leftovers from the weekend roast, Tuesday – sausages, mash and green vegetables (usually fresh peas), Wednesday – casserole of either lamb chops, rabbit or veal, Thursday – grilled steak or lamb chops, Friday – fish and chips, either home-cooked or bought, Saturday – macaroni or, since this was baking day, a pie. Sunday was baked dinner which in those days meant the midday meal. The evening was scrambled eggs. As Margaret Fulton and Graham Kerr wheeled their magic the dishes on the table changed in name and flavour. Garlic and herbs penetrated more exotic cuts of meat, new vegetables were introduced including broccoli and eggplant, heavy pastry crusts gave way to quiche and paper-thin filo pastries. Pasta and lentils appeared regularly and, generally, we ate more flavoursome food and healthier too.