Pie carts and pumpkins

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Yours truly started writing record reviews and music pieces for a New Zealand “underground” freebie rag while about halfway through high school.

Soon after, I started interviewing music folk for the same publication and moved into the newspaper game on a professional basis.

Since then, for several newspapers and various music/entertainment publications in two countries and for 20 years on Melbourne public radio station PBS, I have conducted hundreds – maybe thousands (who’s counting?) – of interviews and written countless reviews and feature stories.

The music passion burns as brightly as ever, but has very, very happily become a more or less private obsession, shared with just a handful of like-minded souls in Melbourne and, online, in the US. I pay for all my music these days and love doing so.

Nevertheless, for most of my life the pleading, spinning, cajoling requests, letters, phone calls, gifts and bribes from PRs, record and film companies, big stars and desperate artists of all kinds has been a ubiquitous part of my life.

Thus it was a strange thing indeed to find myself on the other side of the neverending cycle of those desperately desiring media oxygen and those in a position to provide it.

Consider The Sauce was about 30 posts old when I decided there was enough heft and substance on our blog showing what we were about to go looking for some publicity.

After some research, I fired off numerous emails – including links to Consider The Sauce – to the editors or chiefs of staff of numerous suburban press mastheads.

A little while later, those efforts paid dividends.

The message passed from editor to chief of staff to reporter.

The journo in this case was a capable woman named Anthea Cannon, who has since become a colleague of mine at the Geelong Advertiser.

After picking up Bennie from school one day, we met Anthea and a photographer at La Morenita.

Over coffee and sweeties, I delivered my spiel.

It took a couple of weeks for Anthea’s endeavours to hit the street, during which time I wondered if I’d said too much, been too candid, if the reporter would convey my words accurately, if I’d cringe at the results and live to regret being such a blabbermouth.

An unfamiliar feeling indeed for me, with the shoe firmly on the other foot!

Anthea’s efforts resulted in a wonderful two-page spread in the Maribyrnong Leader featuring not just Bennie and I and our blog but also the wonderful Footscray Food Blog and even a nice piece about a baklava baking class undertaken by Anthea herself at Yarraville Community Centre.

But to my mortification, I learned that I had indeed been a little impolitic – all my own big fault, as Anthea a had scrupulously reported exactly what I’d said!

There it was, right next a photo of father and son, and near the end of the story about our foodie efforts:

“I grew up in New Zealand in a mono-culture, Mum was such a bad cook but she didn’t know any better,” Kenny said.

I waited a few days before phoning my mum in New Zealand.

After even fewer pleasantries than usual, I asked: “Did you read that?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I’ve just been telling my neighbours, ‘My son’s told a newspaper that I’m a lousy cook’.”

And then, to my relief, we had a good laugh about it.

For the truth is, we’d discussed the childhoods of myself and my sister, and the food and cooking we grew up with, several times before.

A visit to the Kiwi-influenced vibe of Yoyo’s Milkbar in Sunshine got me thinking along those lines again.

The childhoods in question took place in the 1960s and mid-’70s before the Weir siblings went off into the wide world.

They took place in the deep south of the South Island, in Dunedin, a city that was once a successful gold-fuelled burg that was even then feeling the chill winds of a changing world as its once vibrant industrial landscape faded to dust.

Dunedin has since found its feet as a university, tourism, heritage town, one in which I’m sure I would find immeasurable delight.

At the time of my departure in 1977, though, I could barely wait to get the hell out – even if that was for reasons much more musical, social and cultural than anything edible.

Those childhoods took place in a country that, unlike the very clever Australians across the ditch, had kept a very tight and whitebread rein on post-World War II immigration.

There was no large-scale intake of people from Greece, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon and other Mediterranean and European nations.

There was no olive oil or garlic or flat-leaf continental parsley or pita bread or takeaway souvlaki.

So it was indeed a mono-culture, and even more so in the nether regions of the South Island.

From primary school days, I can recall just a single Maori classmate; from high school days, a single Chinese classmate (more about him and his family later on).

In our home, any discussion about fibre was likely to focus on the various kinds of rope or fishing gear that went with summers of boating and water skiing. Though Weetbix was one of the breakfast options.

Any meat – and there was a LOT of meat – that was pink at the centre would’ve been deemed undercooked or even raw.

There was a lot rabbit, my dad and his younger brother being partial to shooting the loathed critters in the hill country outside Dunedin and in the wild, beautuful landscapes of Central Otago.

We only ever had them, though, as stew or – later on – in a sort of rather tough and chewy pan-fried version.

With slow-cooking and marinating skills being unknown, it was accepted without question that only the very youngest of rabbits were cookable or even edible.

Many years later, when my dad, John Henry Weir, visited me in Melbourne he was astonished almost beyond words to discover at Victoria Market that a medium-sized rabbit cost more than a small one, and a large rabbit more again.

His eyes almost popped out of his head when he saw hares were being sold!

Curry meant, of course, “curry powder” from a small bottle or tin.

We only had it two ways that I can recall – currried mince and curried sausages with heaps of thinly sliced onions and lots of sultanas.

Gosh!

Irony: Many, many years later a real-deal Indian establishment opened up right next door to the family furniture store in Dunedin’s CBD.  This may have even been the city’s first.

I’m inclined to remember that salad meant only one thing – finely sliced iceberg lettuce with rich homemade mayo, sliced tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs.

In truth, though, there was another kind of salad that was rolled out for larger gatherings – one of sliced tomatoes, cucumber and onion, not just dressed in malt vinegar but SWIMMING in it. No – DROWNED in it! No olive oil, remember?

The fruit situation was a huge winner.

How I miss cox’s orange apples!

We had tree tomatoes stewed or fresh on toast with honey – before they were renamed tamarilloes.

We had fresh chinese gooseberries on pavlovas – before they were renamed kiwifruit.

Even now son and mum, on a rare visit by father and son to New Zealand, both delight in revisiting the pleasures of stewed gooseberries.

The peaches and other stone fruit from the Central Otago orchards were outstanding, either fresh or as jam.

Through factors way out of our control, the cooking may have been grim but the baking was – and is – spectacular.

Old-school cookies, cakes, slices, the aforementioned pavs – all to die for.

We may have been geographically challenged, but we had chocolatey afghan biscuits, each topped with a sliver of walnut; we had belgian biscuits, too, heavily cinnamon-scented halves with jam filling and topped with pink icing. Delicious beyond words!

Vegetables of all kinds were routinely boiled to mush.

To this day, that practice produces an instinctive gag reaction in me when it comes to pumpkin.

Mum to me about 10 years ago: “Kenneth, you haven’t touched your pumpkin.”

Me: “Mum, I’m 45 and I’m allowed to eat what I damn well please!”

(More laughter …)

The roast spuds and parsnips were always bloody good, though!

Spaghetti, of course, came from a can, though I have vague recall of a baked casserole-like dish that involved real spaghetti and mince.

More often than not peas, too, came from cans, as did asparagus – more gag reflex!

Mushrooms could not be bought, but were plentiful and easily had in season on picking outings. In those days, they were sole delight of our father before my sister, then I, succumbed to their charms. They were only ever pan-fried in butter.

Happily, fish was a staple – flounder, blue cod, trout and more, all caught by our own hands.

I cannot recall any other way of cooking them than pan-frying, although we did eat a lot of boiled smoked fish. An under-rated delicacy that does, however, pong the house up!

Eating out? Weird, wonderful, whacky and – so it seems now – somewhat surreal …

Fish and chips were a regular, mostly sourced from the neighbourhood F&C joint a few blocks away.

This was run by the Chan family, whose son Raymond was a high-school classmate.

He was one of the brainy ones – they call them geeks these days – and seemed destined for medicine or science or a Nobel Prize or some such.

I find it staggering, then, to know the he has since become a big shot in the wine world and even has a flash website to promote his activities.

I have no recall whatsoever of the Chan fish and chips – wrapped in paper, of course, there being no cardboard trays – other than the family ritual involved, so have no way of knowing how they’d rate when compared to the flash and fresh versions found around Melbourne today.

The Chans also purveyed Chinese food of a kind, which only became part of our family landscape in high school years. My recollection is of starchy sauces in dishes with the rice already mixed in and served in tin foil takeaway containers.

I can still vividly recall the giddy joy of discovering unimaginably exotic and flavoursome black bean sauce when I lobbed into Wellington for a stay of several years in the early ’80s.

The Chan family later, long after I had split, opened a more formal Chinese restaurant across the road, but in that they were actually late on the scene.

There were places such as the Nanking Cafe around for yonks, but they never featured for our family.

Only later, in teenage years in which beer became a factor, did such eateries enter my picture – and it wasn’t for Chinese food!

No, these places always had an alternate, Western menu to which me and my mates gravitated.

Steak and chips, for sure, with an entree of thinly sliced sandwich bread, buttered, folded in half and doused with worcestershire sauce.

I suspect in smaller towns around New Zealand and Australia it remains possible even today to order steak and chips from the local Chinese.

Dunedin did have quite a lively scene of old-school non-espresso coffee houses.

I recall many visits to one in particular with mother and sister.

It was on the main drag, downstairs and cave-like.

It was called the Little Hut and served up delicious cheese rolls. Using the same bread as the Chinese joints, they’d stuff it with really cheesy cheese, roll it up, grill/toast it, slather it with butter. Very good they were!

More special occasions were spent getting on the trough at an upstairs place, also on the main drag, called the Savoy. Of course, we had no idea just how unoriginal the name was. My recollection is of food no better or less stodgy than what we had at home.

And then there were the mighty pie carts!

From what I’ve been able to discover there may be a few survivors of this phenomena in New Zealand and maybe even Australia, but mostly I suspect franchise places with late-night hours have done for them.

Even smaller towns such as Alexandra had their own pie carts.

I’d love to know more about pie carts, which were overwhelmingly converted buses, although I’m sure there were variations.

When did they start and why? Were pie carts ever a staple of countries other than Australia and New Zealand?

I suspect their beginnings and prosperity may have had something to do with the notorious six o’clock swill and the need for commercial travellers and single men to find cheap feeds somehow.

Pie carts may’ve sold such exotica as burgers or fish and chips, but what they ALWAYS sold was pea, pie ‘n’ pud – a pie topped with mashed spuds and mushy peas.

What happened next?

KFC and then McDonalds hit town.

Kenny and then his sister, Judith, left.

One of these days Bennie and I will return to Dunedin just for the momentous fun of it.

From what I can tell it’s pretty cool place, but where once there was a pie cart or two now there will Subway outlets.

Some things are universal.

2 thoughts on “Pie carts and pumpkins

  1. interesting post – I actually visiting dunedin overnight a few years back but can’t remember any food except the cadbury factory – my childhood wasn’t too different in food – we had spag bol a lot but I also had tinned spaghetti and curried sausages quite enough – lots of fish and chips but our town was too small for a pie cart

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    • Thanks for reading, Johanna! Too small for a pie cart? Gosh! I’m surprised Dunedin still has a Cadbury’s factory. Mostly, I’m led to believe, these days it’s wall to wall students, cafes and heritage buildings. Could be cool could drive one batshit crazy, depending on which side you gots out of bed etc etc.

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