Saturday was hot. A scorcher, one of those days when the sky is ripped open by the sun and a blanket falls on the earth and threatens to suffocate you every time you walk out the door. We pulled out the paddling pool and stretched it over the bleached brown and stalky grass of the back garden and let the hose run until there was water enough in there to wet the bottom half of you if you lay down and nip your ankles if you stood up, and the kids laughed and careened and jumped and threw the glorious stuff over themselves and, and over me. They came inside and dried off, then later, when the neighbours came over they went out and splashed and laughed and did the whole thing over again until the day cooled and we realised it was dinner time, and none of us cared.
Because it was Saturday, and because it had been so hot, and because we’d all laughed until our sides ached there was really only one thing to do for dinner, and we did it. I slipped on my thongs and walked down the road to the corner shop and came home with five dim sims, five potato cakes, five fish bites, two pieces of flake, a couple of pineapple fritters and two dollar’s chips, all wrapped up in white paper, and we opened it up on the lounge room floor and squeezed some tomato sauce around and ate it in front of the telly.
It was good, and I smiled and double-dipped my potato cake and thought to myself, This…THIS is Australia.
I’m far from the first person to realise the association of food with culture. We had lunch with our beautiful Russian friend a few weeks ago and she’d baked Russian delicacies for us all morning, and expressed with so much more than her words how her love of cooking came from her love of her family, and how food represented time together and family meals and recipes passed on from generations, and it happy-sadded me. I was happy because those things are important and need to be kept and valued, and sad because somehow in white suburban Australia we’d missed the importance of this, and embraced chicken nuggets and frozen peas.
However, it wasn’t until I was in the US that I realised that there WAS a food culture deep inside me that was all-Australian. There were no corner shops with dim sims and potato cakes or flake so battered you can barely find the fish inside it. There were no jars of vegemite in people’s pantries (unless I brought them), and when I asked for fish and chips from the menu at a restaurant the waitress asked me how I wanted my potato (CHIPS, woman! Is it not obvious?)…chips (crisps), fries (chips), or baked (what the…?) I ordered a lemon, lime and bitters and she had no idea what I meant, so I ordered a lemonade and she brought me a lemon juice and sugar drink. It was very nice, but there were no bubbles. Things are just different. There are burgers and Mexican food, and more burgers and more Mexican food, with a good amount of pizza thrown in for good measure. Trying to find a salad roll at an airport is like trying to find a kangaroo bounding down the main streets of Sydney.*
It wasn’t bad – well, no worse than ridiculous deep-friend batter masquerading as fish – but it wasn’t MY food. It wasn’t home. I wasn’t homesick, but, in a strange-sense of the word, I was food-sick.
And then my darling Michigan friend found me some Weetbix. Well, Weetabix, the Canadian version (tastes the same. God bless the Canadians!), and she made me a vegemite sandwich, and suddenly everything was okay again, and I felt normal. I’d found myself, centred myself, in food.
And this is why on Saturday walking home with my corner shop takeaway dinner after a scorching December day I felt blissfully and completely at home, and totally and absolutely Australian.
How about you? Have you ever noticed strong associations with food and culture, or mourned the lack of food culture in your childhood? I’d love to hear your stories.
*Actually I found the best salad roll in the entire USA at Dallas airport on my way home, which made me supremely happy. I made the comment to a friend that this may be because Dallas is almost Salad spelled backwards, although this was laughed down. I still believe though.