I persuaded Terence to make pavlova over Christmas. Partly because I love pavlova — meringue, cream and fresh fruit; it’s hard to go past that — and partly for reasons of nostalgia. Pavlova in the summertime was a family food tradition.
I have many fond memories of my Nanna making pavlova in the summertime in Sydney, especially over the Christmas school 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, 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 1950s kitchen in my grandparents’ brick and fibro home in Sydney’s north-western suburbs. She wears a white cotton apron wrapped around her waist, and beneath it a light floral cotton 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 young. 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. No goat in sight.
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 joy. 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 for me 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 suburbs. (I didn’t mind, because it meant I could play under the sprinkler). But I sense that Nanna is a little exhausted by her effort. Perhaps it’s also her asthma — or maybe the heart condition that will later become apparent.
My Pop returns 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, 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. A gentle giant. He wears khaki King Gee overalls and a white Bonds singlet. And at that moment he enters that kitchen he also wears an enormous 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 lap up the affection. I’m at Nanna’s height now and she hands me back the 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 creamy 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 comedy on TV.
My childhood summers growing up 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 mum and my grandmothers to cook, whether it was peeling veggies for my Nan or helping Baboushka shape pilemeni and vareniki dumplings. Or stuffing snail shells, crumbing schnitzels, rolling sushi, tossing stir-fries, and generally helping out my culinary adventurous mother with any number of exotic ‘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 home in Northmead, with whichever great-aunts and uncles dropped in to extend their Christmas cheers.
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 the 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 night. We never quite knew who would call by, but it didn’t matter, there’d always be an extra plate of food and shot of vodka or three. It was most likely the Russian Orthodox priest or the Russian 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 it was my young uncles’ latest girlfriends or university mates. And, much later, when I went to uni, it would be Terence and one or two friends who we’d drag along for the Russian food, vodka, music, laughter, and — much later in the night — the melancholic tears of my grandparents who never stopped missing their homeland and the family they left there.
My parents were also responsible for creating memorable meals, from sophisticated fondue nights when I got to dress up and my parents’ friends would arrive in floor-length maxi-dresses (the women, of course) and flared trousers and paisley shirts (the blokes), to the crazy barbecues in the backyard involving cold beer, burnt sausages, big bowls of salad, and beautifully bloody steaks. I sipped raspberry cordial.
It wasn’t only about the food. There was always music, stories, and lots of laughs. Although it was the food that would provide the most delicious memories. Whether it was the time we spent together shopping and prepping or cooking and eating, the food bits were the most vivid. It was the stuff that would inspire my passion for eating and drinking, for cooking with my husband, for exploring the cuisines of different countries, and trying to understand people and places through their food.
It was the food and the act of cooking and eating that was an excuse for socialising. It was the meals that brought us together as family and friends. Especially the annual gatherings for occasions like Russian Easter and Christmas.
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 holiday feasts at home that were so memorable. The eating we did on holiday was even more so, whether it was buying fresh seafood at a local fishing co-op in some northern New South Wales or Queensland coastal 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 barbecue area. Always by the water.
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 with Mum in different ways — oysters Kilpatrick, oysters Mornay, or fresh with lemon and vinegar.
I’ll never forget one of the editors of a guidebook publisher Terence and I worked for many years ago telling us that their research had revealed that eating and drinking were the most important activity for travellers — for their readers anyway. We were already taking our restaurant and bar research seriously, but I was pleased to know how important food is to people, especially when they’re on holidays. And that it wasn’t only me and my family who obsessed over food and the rituals of making and eating meals together.
Food not only satisfies basic needs for calories nor strange cravings. It actively takes part in memory formation, from those childhood food memories of dishes associated with the summertime, to fond recollections of family gatherings and celebrations around ancestral dining tables that we’ll cherish forever — long after 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 those childhood food memories 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 piping hot grilled cheese oyster, a throat-numbing shot of vodka to wash down a boiled dumpling, or an enormous piece of fruit-laden pavlova.
I no longer have my Nanna’s pavlova recipe, so we use this variation of Neil Perry’s Passionfruit Pavlova and here in Cambodia we add fresh local mangoes.