Family Food Fare and Favourites
Join me as I dig through my memories, and recipes, to rediscover my family’s food “back in the day” and how those food habits have changed over the decades to today’s diverse and multi-cultural cuisines. This is my theme for the 2021 A to Z challenge.
Etiquette isn’t the first thing you might think of when considering food, but of course, how we learn to behave while eating is part of our knowledge base going into adulthood. Even if we’re more casual at times in our own homes, we need to understand the protocol when fine dining, or just out with company.
I’d guess many of us can think back to our childhood and remember being told not to eat and talk at the same time, not to put our elbows on the table and to wait for everyone to sit down, including the cook, before hooking in.
In my home, normal meals were always served at the kitchen table which was laid with properly set cutlery on a freshly ironed and starched tablecloth and with fabric napkins. Once everyone was seated, we said grace before meals[i], and when we had finished the meal, we said grace after meals[ii]. No one left the table until everyone was finished. Because we had a small family there was no requirement for me to be the silent child at the table.
I’m wracking my brain and trying to remember if we had special classes at high school in how to behave at a formal, fine-dining dinner. It seems likely given how many other classes we had to teach us to be young ladies. (it worked for a while!)
The only entertaining my family did was for birthdays or Christmas when my aunt’s family came to have a Christmas-time meal with us. There were probably a few reasons for this – entertaining as we know it today just wasn’t a “thing” in our working-class neighbourhood, dad’s shifts worked against it, dad didn’t do sociability, and the budget probably precluded splashing out. I suppose it’s for this reason that a couple of events stand out in mind across the years: a singalong and probably supper with church friends not far away, and a New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s place down the back street, when I heard the Seekers for the first time.
On the rare occasions when we had a special meal with visitors to the house, the dining table would be set with a white tablecloth, the crystal dishes and bowls brought out, and the best cutlery. We had a memorable moment when Mr Cassmob was invited to his first-time-ever special dinner in my teens. All the best items were on the table including the crystal salt and pepper shakers. Now, Mr Cassmob grew up in the tropics where salt gets damp easily. Without thinking, he just smacked the crystal salt shaker as he would the plastic Saxa salt container at home. Silence prevailed in the shock! Luckily for him, and our relationship, the crystal didn’t shatter.
Electricity, Gas or Slow Combustion Cooking?
In my childhood home we only had gas for cooking. In fact it wasn’t until mum moved into a retirement home that she had to use electricity but since the microwave was her favourite appliance by then, it didn’t pose a major problem.
Conversely, my aunt who lived at Brookfield, used a slow combustion stove and it was she who gave me instructions on how to use it when I was moving to PNG where that would be my introduction to cooking for new-minted husband (we only had power 16 hours a day). The only problem was, she told me to put the heat protectors on the stove plates while Mr Cassmob’s family’s house staff insisted on them being put up on the racks (or was it vice versa?). I only know that Jimmy and I had a standoff over how to do it – how young and naïve was I, not to just let him get on with how he’d been trained?! Mr Cassmob’s mother had grown up in rural Victoria so she knew all about wood stoves and how they worked, and he remembers his grandmother cooking a variety of things in her slow combustion stove fired by mallee roots, while his paternal grandmother used coal briquettes.
I had been wondering if etiquette was the correct word for what I had in mind beyond table manners. Google searches confirmed that it was and shows that it remains an important skill set to learn, and to teach our families. Of course, different countries have different protocols but this link shows what’s optimal in an Aussie setting – just don’t focus on the gross photo at the top.
While I started out using tablecloths, that went by the board fairly quickly, and we mostly used placemats (as did my parents as the decades moved along). These days we’re pretty casual about our eating habits, being empty nesters, but we do have meals at a properly laid table when family or friends visit. Christmas, however, brings out the best tablecloth we bought in Provence, and the napkins plus our favourite serving dishes and some inherited silver dishes etc. Mostly though, I confess to avoiding them when I can, and substitute quickly ironed cloths instead. Call me lazy!
Entertaining was a ritual part of our time in Papua New Guinea, which is partly why Mr Cassmob’s mother was a proficient cook. Each weekend we’d have a full-scale dinner party either at our house, or at a friend’s. It was a great way to learn new menus and acquire new skills. After all, we rarely had the option of going out for meals until we moved to Port Moresby and then it was just easier, and often safer, to stay at home. This focus on formal entertaining dropped away significantly when we returned to Australia and as family life got busier. When we had people over, it was likely to be for afternoon tea (for neighbours) or more informal meals for friends.
After we left Milne Bay, our government houses all had electric stoves, as did our own houses once we returned to Australia. Cooking with gas would be a whole new learning experience for me.
New Food Fare: I hadn’t even seen or heard of eggplant until I worked at the Greek fruit & veg shop. Now one of our favourite meals is Thai Pork and Eggplant from a Spirit House cookbook, and eggplant and apple curry is another. The Spirit House has been one of our favourite special-event restaurants. You can get a few of their recipes here or here.
Did your family entertain a lot? Were there strict rules of etiquette when you were growing up? How was the cooking done in your family…on electric, gas or slow combustion stoves?
[i] “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.” (Preceded and followed by the Sign of the Cross. Also used by some German Lutherans.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_(prayer)
[ii] We give Thee thanks, almighty God, for all Thy benefits, who livest and reignest for ever and ever.
Amen. V. May the Lord grant us His peace. R. And life everlasting. Amen. https://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=2057