Hungry for the good old days

Recently some colleagues and I were discussing food. They were mostly younger than me, and from ethnically diverse parts of Sydney, and they spoke of the food they grew up eating. Lebanese, Italian, Vietnamese, yum cha, festivals, neighbours sharing dishes from their home countries, dumplings for Lunar New Year or sweet sticky baklava; a wonderful array of flavours and textures that made you grateful for just a tiny slice of the many great goods immigration has brought to Australia.

The food I grew up with? Not so much. A statement you'd express literally when served some of the dishes that predominantly featured in the Anglo-Celtic inspired cuisine of Australia in the 1980s, which I grew up eating.
I pretty much hit the "no thanks, I'm full. Really." jackpot when it came to the food I grew up with. My parents were immigrants - from Ireland, a nation noted for its rich literary heritage but where, alas, for centuries we were either being starved, or too drunk from writing to care what we ate. My father was a traditionalist, scared of anything new and rigidly adherent to routine; my mother hated cooking and had marked issues with food. We lived first on the Northern Beaches, then moved south of Newcastle, so the cultural influences at play were pretty much when white met bread. The neighbours would be having a BBQ chook, pasta salad and soft white bread rolls. We would be next door having a BBQ chook, pasta salad and soft white bread rolls.

I'm sure it won't shock any of you to learn the menu prominently featured mashed potato. There was also a heavy rotation of frozen food. We had mashed potatoes and grey, crumbly chicken nuggets; mashed potato and grey, crumbly fish fingers; mashed potatoes and Findus crispy pancakes (I love those and have missed them dearly ever since they were withdrawn from Australia); mashed potatoes and lamb chops; mashed potatoes and - oh god, the PTSD of writing this - lamb's fry, aka liver, which is so revolting that I'll eat most anything today but the smell of makes me flee the room. 

But those were just the meat and potatoes of our diet. For special occasions, in would come to play the crown jewels of white Australian cuisine. When my mother got to cooking, we would enjoy such treats as:

Apricot chicken, involving tinned apricots and French Onion soup mix

Coronation chicken, involving cold BBQ chook, Keens curry powder, and more French Onion soup mix

Shepherd's pie. Possibly more French Onion soup mix; definitely more potato. I had a hard time finding a suitable image for this. All the photos I saw looked golden and enticing, nothing like the grey lumpy dish of my childhood which I have never made since and - unless forced at gunpoint by some bizarre robber who breaks in and forces me to prepare an bland English main course -  will never make as an adult. I'm not curious to see if I could do it better. Shepherd's pie? You and me, we're through.

Worst of all - except for the liver - was ham steaks, cooked under the grill, each served with a pineapple ring on top.

I began to be disturbed by the fact that the ham steaks had the same perfect, round shape as the pineapple, and wondered what weird perfectly round pigs they came from. It was at about this age when I decided I wanted to be a vegetarian. I was told in no uncertain terms that whilst I was under my parents' roof, I would eat such food as they saw fit. It was probably just as well. If the meat we ate was bad, the veggies were even worse. The bland, mushy peas were all I would eat. Other veggies in the rotation were boiled cauliflower in white sauce, the broccoli which was boiled for so long I thought my mother was trying to cleanse it of evil spirits, and god bless and save us the brussles sprouts which thank god only made an appearance at Christmas and ruined more than one due to the arguments they caused over eating them.

Our taste horizons were not expanded at restaurants, either. Going out to eat was less of a thing in those days, and we kind of lived in the middle of nowhere, but there was also the fact that my father was also of the view that children didn't belong in restaurants. There was a local Chinese place, which my parents regarded with suspicion, but which would have at least allowed me to sample such suburban Australian Chinese delicacies as honey chicken. We did get to go to Sizzler and Pizza Hut occasionally, and boy were they an occasion; excited beyond all sense by the wonders of the buffet, the 30 minute car trip home from Sizzler was not a pleasant experience for anyone, and I would spend much time after we finally returned home groaning in a darkened room.

Please don't think, however, that our lives were restricted and wretched. Sometimes we got to go to parties. Or at least, backyard barbecues. For the uninitiated, let me tell you how an Australian backyard barbie works. Unlike in most countries, where it is beholden on the host to provide the utmost hospitality, if you are invited to an Australian backyard barbecue you are expected to bring all your own food and grog. I don't know why, but that's what they do. Most of the time, this means sausages for the kids, cheap steak for the adults, endless onions, and more pasta salad and soft rolls, if not a loaf of Sunblest bread (white, 60% air), which the hostess would remove from the bag to slather each slice in margarine, before returning to the bag.

So what do the hosts provide at a barbecue to deserve the title? Well as well as plastic plates and cutlery and a sliver of space on the barbecue until the alpha male of the group takes the tongs from the host and starts turning everyone's sausages*, they did offer a selection of delicious nibblies.

Welcome to 1980s Australian party food.


Adorably, Coles still sells a platter of old style Australian nibblies. Cubed cheddar cheese, rolled up ham, chopped cabanossi and twiggy sticks. (It's lucky I wasn't a vegetarian or I'd have starved to death). The Coles platter is however missing the pineapple chunks and cocktail onions I remember as being a fixture of party snacks. Whether it was a tupperware party, an 18th birthday or a funeral, I don't think I attended a single gathering of more than 3 people without the jatz and footy franks combo (along with wine coolers for the women, beer for the men, and Cottees cordial or - if we were incredibly lucky - a bottle of actual Coke - for the kids) until I was well into my twenties.

All I can say is thank god Australia matured, I matured and moved to Sydney, and I got to experience a broader range of food. So when I see a Boomer on Facebook yearning for the good old days of White Australia in practice if not in legislation, I think, do you want to go back to the food? But some people do, and that's why Coles knows there's still a market for their twiggy sticks and whatever that dip in the centre is. There's even hipster goat cheese types getting into this stuff for nostalgia. In fact I reckon if you opened a restaurant in Newtown or Fitzroy serving savoury mince, apricot chicken and cabanossi on jatzc crackers, it would do great business for five months until the novelty wore off and you blamed the lockout laws for being forced to close.

You may even be right. People only pretended this food was bearable. When you're a kid, terrible food tastes good. Witness all the children (most of them) who'd rather have Smarties than actual chocolate. They like mild room temperature cured meat, bland cheese and sugary sauces on rice. The adults, well, remember the wine coolers and beer I mentioned earlier? They were drunk. If you think Australians drink a lot now, think back to the 1980s, with 2 KB beers before dinner, wine coolers in foil sacks and no drink driving laws. Everyone was pretty much completely sloshed all the time. Australia spent generations being too drunk to notice they were eating shit food. They were drinking shit grog too, but after the first drink that is a minor matter.

* No pun intended