I successfully persuaded Terence to make pavlova over Christmas. It was partly because I love pavlova – meringue, cream and fresh fruit, it’s hard to go wrong with that – and partly for reasons of nostalgia. I have so many fond memories of my Nanna making pavlova in the summertime in Sydney, especially over the Christmas holidays, that I wanted to relive that a little bit.
Those childhood memories are so strong that just one look at that crunchy mountain of sugar and egg whites, smothered in freshly whipped cream, with strawberries and kiwi fruit piled on top, and passion-fruit dripping over the edge, brings back an impressionistic flood of faded images, distant sounds, and vivid emotions.
I see Nanna in her compact 1960s kitchen in my grandparents’ fibro and brick home in Sydney’s western suburbs. She wears a floral cotton apron wrapped around her waist, and beneath it a light dress she calls her ‘frock’. Her back is to me as she beats the eggs in a big lemon-coloured ceramic bowl with an old-fashioned, manual hand-mixer. The sunshine is streaming through the window in front of her and it’s warm in that kitchen.
A sheep bleats outside in a vacant yard behind the neighbour’s house. I’m little, maybe eight or nine, and I’m wearing a white sundress with blue and yellow flowers with shoestring straps. I’d have to go outside and climb onto the paling fence, standing on the timber join on my tippy-toes to see the sheep. I also know there is a goat in there but on this particular day when I look out that window all I see is the deep, beautiful blue Sydney sky, and that blinding sun that fills the kitchen with light.
When Nanna’s done, she turns to face me and leans back against the kitchen sink, looking down at me with her sparkling hazel eyes, eyes that were almost always shining with happiness. I note a look of pride on her face as she shows me the stiff peaks before setting the bowl down to hand over the sticky meringue-covered beater to lick clean. My treat.
She lifts her apron up to her face to wipe the beads of perspiration from her brows. Perhaps it’s just the heat. It’s a scorching hot summer, although we always felt the heat more in the ’burbs. (I didn’t mind, because it meant I could play under the sprinkler). But I sense that Nanna is also a little exhausted by her effort. Perhaps it’s also her asthma – or maybe the heart condition that will later become apparent.
My Pop comes into the kitchen from where he’s been working in the vegetable garden in the backyard. He pulls his work-boots off first and leaves them outside beside the doormat. He was on the rotary hoe earlier in the morning, so he’s covered in dirt, as well as sweat, which I see dripping down his forehead, temples, back, and arms. My Pop is a huge man. He’s big and tall, but not really fat. He wears khaki King Gee khaki and a white Bonds singlet. And at that moment he enters that kitchen he also wears a giant smile and glints in his eyes.
My grandfather bends down to kiss my Nanna on the cheek and as he does he dips his finger into the bowl of meringue. “Ken!” she exclaims, reprimanding him, but her feigned anger is part of a game, and he kisses her on the cheek again before stooping down to collect me and pick me up in his arms. Even though I squirm and pretend I’m too big to be picked up, I love the affection. I’m at Nanna’s height now and she hands me a spoon to lick clean. Before I do, I thrust the thing in my pop’s face to give him a go.
Later in the evening, after we finish our roast chicken and potato salad dinner in the dining room and I help my grandmother with the dishes, Nanna will slice colossal pieces of pavlova for each of us, pour herself a small brandy, and we’ll take the plates into the living room, where we’ll tuck into those sweet, crunchy, hills of heaven while we watch a British comedy on the TV.
My childhood summers in Sydney are full of such sweet simple memories, most of them involving food. There was a lot of time spent in the vegetable gardens at both grandparents’ houses, helping to water the plants, pick tomatoes and cucumbers, and eat grapes from the vines.
There was even more time spent in the kitchen, helping my grandmothers or mother to cook, whether it was peeling veggies for my Nan, helping Baboushka shape pilemeni and vareniki dumplings, or stuffing snail shells, crumbing schnitzels, rolling sushi, stirring stir-fries, and generally helping out my more culinary-adventurous Mum with any number of exotic, trendy ‘ethnic’ dishes she experimented with in the 1970s and early ’80s.
And then of course there was the joy of sharing family meals with loved-ones. There were the Christmas roast lunches with Mum, Dad, my aunt and uncle, and handful of cousins at Nan and Pop’s in Northmead, with whichever great-aunts and uncles dropped in on any particular year. We’d join the kitchen table to the dining table, and pull dusty chairs out of the garage, and the big spacious dining room would all of a sudden feel crowded and small, with everyone jammed in together, elbows knocking each-other’s as we ate.
Then there were many years of family gatherings, generally on Sundays for a late lunch, at my Russian grandparents house in Blacktown that always extended well into the evening. We never quite knew who would call in, but it didn’t matter, there’d always be a plate of food and shot of vodka for them. It could be the Russian Orthodox priest or elderly immigrant neighbours my grandparents had befriended on their way to Australia post-World War II or after they arrived when they spent time in DP (‘displaced person’) camps.
Or perhaps my young uncles’ latest girlfriends and university mates would drop by, and, much later, when I also went to uni, it would be Terence and one of our friends who we’d drag along for the Russian food, liquor, music, laughter, and – late into the night – always the melancholic tears of my grandparents who never stopped missing their homeland and relatives they left there.
My parents were also responsible for creating some very memorable meals, from sophisticated fondue nights when I got to dress up and my folks’ friends would arrive in floor-length maxi-dresses (the women, of course) and flared trousers and paisley shirts (the men), to the crazy barbecues in the back yard involving lots of beer, burnt sausages, big bowls of salad, and beautifully bloody steaks. They didn’t give me beer, I swear. I was sipping raspberry cordial.
It wasn’t only about the food of course. There was always music, stories, and lots of laughs. Although it was the food that enabled and provided so many scrumptious recollections, whether it was the time we spent together shopping for it and prepping it to cooking it and eating it, the food was always fantastic. It was the stuff that inspired my passion for eating and drinking, for cooking with my husband, for exploring the cuisines of different countries, and understanding cultures and their peoples through their food.
It was the food and the act of cooking and eating that was an excuse for socialising. It was the food that always brought us together as family and friends. Whether it was the occasional forced gatherings for specific occasions like Russian Easter or Christmas that always ended up being deliciously memorable despite any feelings that it was something that had to be done.
It was the food, always the food that was responsible. It was never: should we spend some time together on Sunday catching up and reminiscing and laughing or crying? No, it was always: come over for Sunday lunch or let’s have a barbecue.
And it wasn’t only the meals at home that were memorable, the ones on holiday were even more so, whether it was buying fresh seafood at a local co-op in a northern New South Wales coast holiday town or, even better, catching our own fish from the beach or boat that we’d then barbecue for dinner in a caravan park or camping area, always by the water.
But some of my most treasured memories involve collecting bucket after bucket of oysters with my Dad from the sandy floor of the lake near where my parents lived, and then preparing them in different ways – oysters Kilpatrick, oysters Mornay, or fresh with lemon and vinegar. It was the Eighties, okay?
I’ll never forget one of the editors of a guidebook publisher we worked with telling me that their research results revealed that eating and drinking were the most important activities for travellers – for their readers anyway. (So, no, it was not Lonely Planet). We already took our restaurant and bar research seriously, so we didn’t need to be told that, but I was pleased that someone had confirmed for me how important food is to people, especially when they’re travelling.
Because food not only satisfies basic needs for calories and strange cravings, it actively takes part in the formation and shaping of food memories, from childhood memories of dishes associated with the summertime, like my own, to recollections of gatherings and celebrations around ancestral dining tables that we’ll cherish forever, long after those loved-ones are gone.
Later, when we’re far away from those we love, whether it’s a distance due to geography or time, we can use food as a trigger, as I did over Christmas, to remind us of times past and treasured memories that might be lost if it wasn’t for a grilled cheese oyster, a shot of vodka to wash down a dumpling, or a piece of pavlova.
P.S. I don’t have my Nanna’s pavlova recipe, so we made a variation of Neil Perry’s Passionfruit Pavlova instead, and added fresh local mangoes.