Hi! I’m Emma. Never lost for words. Never skip a meal. Have you eaten? I’ll feed you.
That’s me in the corner. (That’s me in the spotlight – not losing my religion, but probably most of my vegetarian fans!) In the background there’s food. It’s a pig on a spit. Standard. I’m about seven and wearing a sassy outfit which I wish I’d kept. Skinny jeans, flats and an ironically daggy T-shirt. I just need a pair of overtly nerdy spectacles.
Pork is celebration food. My parents have just bought a block of land. Eventually they’ll build a house there. For now it’s a place to host weekly picnics with friends. Always entertaining and showing people a good time, that’s how my mum and dad roll. They’re great cooks. Dad makes a Croatian stew, suspended in a huge pot over coals. Čobanac. People hear about it and ask for an invitation. An old man tells me the pasta looks like miniature false teeth. He’s a war hero. I don’t know what that means, but he’s funny. Everyone is happy there, eating.
As I begin writing, one edible association flows into another. My memory is clearly as hungry as its owner.
Mum boils pasta. Rigatoni. I’m really little. It’s one of those first memories. She has no knowledge of the al dente method, we’re not Italian. They simmer gently in a small saucepan, snug and tessellating, like babies in a 1950s hospital nursery. When they’re done, or when she finishes what she’s doing, the water is poured off. Never a colander, just the lid. Immediately they’re doused with butter and a generous sprinkle of regular sugar. It crunches on my teeth when I manage to get one in my mouth, for all its buttery slipperiness. Always eaten out of the saucepan. I’m an only child. There’s no need to share. My mum grows everything. She adeptly cuts and peels veggies holding them in her hand. I’ve never seen her ‘chop’ something on a board. Her favourite food is dry polenta and greek yoghurt. It is not my idea of a good time.
My parents love the outdoors. My dad’s resourceful and can make anything into something new. Like a practical and thrifty MacGyver, he turns some old metal scraps and the motor from a long discarded appliance into a portable rotisserie. This never struck me as unusual. We head to the beach, pop a rabbit on there and fossick for pipis in the water until it’s done. This never seemed unusual either, even though the rabbits were bred in our backyard. As kids, we accept our surroundings. Teenage years hadn’t brought down partitions. I was eight. Pipis are one of dad’s specialties. A marinara of sorts, though he never quite got all the sand out. Google didn’t exist, we didn’t know the tricks. I loved it all the same. My dad and I are culinary kindred spirits, even now. When I was barely walking he’d take me to the rocks and we’d slurp oysters all afternoon in a way that would be unsettling to watch to an outsider. It’s very fuzzy but the memory is so beautiful to me, my hearts hurts a little.
Mum’s specialty is donuts. She’s renowned for them. Egg noodles too. And a perfectly golden yellow chicken broth, all at once an entrée and an elixir for the soul. The cool kids now call it bone broth. She has loads of specialties, actually. Lard chips, for one. Recoil if you will, my birthday parties were renowned through the whole school. People queued to get an invite, as if Kanye was about to speak and you knew it’d be gruesomely good. There were no rockmelon and sultana smiley faces here. We were on board with Big Sugar. If only there had been Instagram. #lardchips No one could figure out how my mum did it. Hand cut potatoes, pork fat and a sprinkle of chicken salt. Seems so obvious now. As time goes on, sorcery is explained but the magic is not lost. I still love them. She even owned a crinkle cutter. After school, we eat dinner at 3:30pm. It’s always in the middle of the table and you help yourself. I was twenty before I learned about ‘plating up’. I was even older when I learned about ‘meat and three veg’.
[A visitor to Australia recently asked me about those ‘three veg’ with a twinkle of enthusiasm. “How is it that they’re prepared? What’s the secret?” If you’re familiar with the thrice veg in question, you’ll appreciate the innocent mockery that was inadvertently made. Peas. Carrot. Potato. Folklore.]
Back to spit roasts! How ubiquitous now and yet, in the early 90s at a school with few migrants, so strange and confronting. Why does it have a face? They ask. Most of our food does. Or did. Dad lays a small tray under the rotating beast and therein collects the oily, salty goodness. Fresh bread on a stick, dunked. I always got first dip. When it’s done, the pig rests against a wall to cool. Kids have the first tug of the crackling. The feeling was communal, always. You don’t buy a whole pig for a weekday meal. We visit the relos overseas and there is more feasting. Here the spit is turned by hand. My dad offers to build an electric one for them but, there’s joy in taking turn to spin the stick. They say no and he builds an outdoor shower instead. You thought I was kidding when I said ‘village’. They rely on well water and there are no shops. It’s 1990. It’s beautiful to me and all my mum’s intricate stories are coming to life. Alpine strawberries. Mountain springs where the water is so cold. Our car breaks down on the way to the airport and a truckdriver gives me his lunch. I don’t remember what it was but I remember being overwhelmed by how delicious it tasted after three hours waiting in the sun. Mum didn’t bring a drink bottle, it’s not like now, 80s parents just winged it.
Primary school, so much time spent with friends. I’m intrigued by things other people’s mums are making. Things that aren’t Croatian seem avant garde. Namely, chilli con carne. With taco shells. My friend’s mum is the epitome of sophistication with her mince and beans. She makes guacamole. She says she worked with the Beatles. She lets us have as many as we want. I couldn’t stop. To the point of impoliteness. Maybe I was adorable? I proudly replicated for my parents. My dad still merrily declares that he can’t stand oregano based on the one occasion. That night they had sauerkraut while I ate twelve tacos. Devour is a word we rarely use correctly, except here. Even now I try to replicate those magical tacos, I think it’s where my obsession with Mexcian food began. While I suspect they actually emerged from some long-discontinued packet mix, the nostalgia spurs me on. I’m getting closer.
Chinese chicken drumsticks with shallots. There’s a dish I made which my parents actually liked. I was twelve and the recipe was from Family Circle. I doubt Chinese people actually make it. I know they don’t. It had soy, mum bought it specially but then started using it. She made three things that were broadly ‘Asian’: a stir fry which simmered on the stove for almost an hour; chicken wings in a honey, soy, ginger sauce with mashed potato and a dish where Maggi two minute noodles played a central role. Authenticity isn’t a concept we use. My cousin coined the term Cro-nese. We jest but these meals are still in high demand in the regular rotation.
High school days and gourmet just wasn’t a thing. Neither was nutrition. Twenty McNuggets polished off with my best friend while on the way to school camp. Like a mum, enjoying a glass of wine on a Friday evening when the kids are in bed. Bags of M&Ms. Doritos to collect the Tazos. KFC crispy strips. As CJ said in the West Wing: you’re young, you could probably digest Tupperware. Coke. So much Coke. How I grimace now, as a mother, thinking about it. How much we loved it at a sleep over. Top deck chocolate cut into squares with a knife and fork while playing some dice game I’ve long forgotten. The teen equivalent of drinking games. It was a small town, there was drinking too.
University and I’m pretending I know how to use chopsticks, like it’s no big deal. Yeah I know what laksa is… still no Google. I hoped for the best, and it was. The best. Dickson Noodle House, cheap and cheerful. If by cheerful you mean an MSG rush. I’m not mad at it, it’s still in my Canberra top ten. Crazy budgeting was mandatory – there was a new outfit to buy at some ridiculously cheap and unethical store, plus an eight dollar jug of booze. Iceberg lettuce, store bought croutons plus a barbecue chicken and a whole bottle of Caesar dressing. No one to judge. Cheese sandwiches every day because they’re cheap. And more McDonalds. A long since deemed pathetic version of Bolognese. Kan Tong. Even a fridge that didn’t quite keep anything cold. We drink the milk quick… with Milo. If we have cash for it. Green cordial.
Travel feeds the soul. Mostly dumplings. The uni student budget allows for much feasting in China. Three weeks. Food that doesn’t show up in a food court servery. Discovering Yunan cuisine and stunned that the Uyghur make cumin lamb on the streets of Beijing. (Studying International Relations didn’t necessarily mean I understood the world.) A night in a Mongolian hut eating entrails. For me, it wasn’t so unsual. (See previous) The wonders of hotpot and my glasses fogging up. Coming home and ordering things that aren’t on the menu. “Yi – shung – ched – ze? Am I saying that right?” Of course not, you’ve just told them to jump in a lake. “Eggplant hotpot with pork and chilli?” Right away, miss! Salt and pepper pork ribs, deep fried duck in lemon sauce. Happy Chinese in all its dungeony glory has to get a mention.
I also did Europe. How are the tomatoes so good there? How? Dad says it’s the lime in the soil. I haven’t heard a better explanation. Feasting on a grand scale. Sangria comes in plastic bottles at the supermarket in Spain. Stinky cheese in France is more potent than here and it reeks on the bus. We blame unwashed socks. In Zagreb they do bread rolls drizzled in salt and they’re better than most other things in life. Again, I ask, how is the bread so good here? My uncle makes toasted sandwiches with what we would call Berliner salami and Kraft Singles. I love them so much because I enjoy his company. I still make them now with a white wine spritzer – a gemischt. Alpine strawberries. Again.
Obsession with cooking develops in my early twenties. My new boyfriend has an apartment in the city and pay TV. I’m transforming into Nigella Lawson while she’s on repeat play. Hosting dinner parties with themed decorations and a four course spread. No one else is doing the same. I’m confused. Maybe they don’t have pay TV? I start growing things, River Cottage is being watched and I’m making everything from scratch. Of course I am, there are no children to worry about. I make that boyfriend go on elaborate picnics. All he wants is to have plain pasta with cheese and pepperoni pizza. We’ve been married nearly a decade now, he still just wants plain pasta with cheese and pepperoni pizza. He’s wonderful. He’s converted me. Sunday night there is just pasta, parmesan, mozzarella, garlic, pepper, wine and Netflix. Nothing else, we’re old and we’re parents now.
Small humans make me want to be super mum. Baby food in all the colours of the rainbow, frozen into little trays. Encouraging them to cook at every opportunity, well before there is appropriate dexterity. I want them to eat meat off the bone and relish the texture. Two kids, sixteen months apart. No big deal. Christenings and birthday parties are my thing, maybe I go a little overboard. Is fifty hours too long to spend on a cake? It is two tiers with an ornate, edible birdcage on top. My three month old will be impressed. Individually wrapped cookies for the guests and macarons that take me several attempts, but no one must know. They’re my main culinary weakness. I quickly learn that, for toddlers, plain pasta is king. A theme presents in our household. We rely on grazing plates so everyone can be appeased. It’s always been my preferred way of eating anyway. European. Much like the spit roast, it’s everywhere now. When I was little, they called it ‘quaint’. “What’s that?” They ask. Now you can buy it at Costco.
Today my joy is in feeding people – whether in ‘true life’, as my preschooler would say, or visually on the interwebs. My eldest daughter is following suit and nothing makes me happier. My husband and I never thought we’d find anyone who loved Mexican food as much as we did, so instead, we created that person. If you could see the way this kid looks at a burrito. At her preschool orientation two years ago, she handed out teddy bear cupcakes, introducing herself and explaining how we’d made them as she went. Someone commented that she was a natural host. For me, she peaked that day at age four. I don’t care if she goes to Harvard now, we’re done. My littlest isn’t a big eater but she keeps asking me to come into class and teach the urchins how to cook things. I’m adding all of these moments to the edible memory pegs. One day they’ll form a chronological recipe book of my life.
Generally speaking, my memory is terrible but I can always recall the eating. Each memory pops up effortlessly and I could keep adding to this post for pages. Names and faces elude me in a way that food never will. Is this gluttony? Avarice? Perhaps. I was never brought up to think so and find the terms confusing and unhealthy. Enjoying food is pure and it’s something we all share. I owe my parents a debt of gratitude for teaching me to entertain and eat with other people as often as possible. If you don’t speak my language, maybe you speak my food?
Where do your food memories take you? It’s a fun exercise, one I hope you’ll try. I also hope you’ll enjoy following my blog. I always take a Photo Before I Eat. Emma x