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Saturday, 22 October 2011

Food memories from the 1980s (Τροφικές αναμνήσεις από την δεκαετία του 1980)

In a few hours from now, the Rugby World Cup 2011 is going to be won by New Zealand. I was never a follower of the game (and this should come as no surprise: Kiwis who like vegetarian food are generally not rugby fans), but I feel that I can make an exception this time, like I did with the EURO 2004 for Greece. I still remember the words in Maori for the standard version of the Haka - it's a bit like Πάτερ ημών: once learnt, never forgotten. But I also notice that the Haka has changed in form, the beer has a different name, Buzz-o-Bumble has stopped humming and nobody sings the Chesdale cheese song any more. TG for Buzzy Bee; some things are timeless.

In my blog, when I talk about my mother's cooking, I always make a point of saying she cooked only Greek (and predominantly Cretan) dishes. She cooked mainly from the Greek taste spectrum using whatever supplies she found in New Zealand, and in those days, there was a lot of fresh unprocessed produce available (there still is these days, but a lot more is processed before the consumers buys it). But Kiwi food also came into our home. It was impossible for it not to; after all, we lived in New Zealand, shopped from the local stores, and made great use of the New World supermarket.

Contact with the locals
Generally speaking, my parents lacked contact with New Zealanders on an informal non-work-related basis. Kiwis were their former employers, their fish-and-chip-shop customers, the people they dealt with at public institutes, as well as their neighbours. But they were not the people my parents socialised with in their spare time. They rarely entered their houses. The truth is that they had very little idea what non-Greek New Zealand citizens ate in their homes. Even in my own case, I rarely socialised with other New Zealanders in a way that involved home-cooked meals. Up until the time I left the country, I had been living at home, and had just finished my unversity studies. The 1980s fashion in meals among my age group - the period when I would have started to socialise without my family - was to eat out:
"Prior to my departure for Europe, New Zealand had not been a mecca for gourmets. My experience of the return home [in 1980], in that regard at least, confounded me. In the space of a few short years, New Zealand had ceased to be the virtually restaurant-less food wilderness of my recollection, and we had become instead a nation of diners-out" (Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine*, 1999, Godwit).
I recall a couple of chicken-in-the-bag meals cooked by an acquaintance and a friend's mother, but that's about it. My non-Greek dining experiences in New Zealand usually consisted of a meal out at a Chinese restaurant.

hania st wellington new zealand
What did Kiwis know about Greek food back then? In the 1960s-1970s, there were still many first-generation Greeks raising second-generation Greeks. The Greeks were known as a well-established minority: they clustered around their church, they kept themselves to themselves, mainly in family groups, and they were involved in the food trade - but not necessarily selling Greek food! They were selling sandwiches, Kiwi pies, cakes and biscuits in milk bars and cafes, while a good number owned fish and chip shops. By the 1980s, Greek migration to New Zealand had come to a halt and the Greeks of New Zealand had become upwardly mobile, moving out of traditional Greek suburbs into newer districts, but still generally clustering together. In Wellington, there were never more than two or three Greek restaurants operating at any one time. The other way that Greek food became known to the non-Greeks was through the Greek community's Greek festival, held annually near the Greek Orthodox church in Wellington. A cookbook was produced by some members, sold mainly among the community; the recipes all have a very Greek base to them, but they could be made with ingredients commonly available in New Zealand. Greek-New Zealand relations were also very good: Hania became sister city to Wellington and Battle of Crete commemorations were held there every year.

Convenience
The main difference between the Greek and Kiwi food we ate at home was that the former was cooked from scratch, while the latter came in the form of prepared ready-to-eat food. Greek food covered the whole gamma of meals while Kiwi food mainly consisted of sweets and beverages. Some things were bought as pantry staples (eg New Zealand honey), while others substituted for the 'real' thing (Chesdale cheddar cheese, since there was no graviera, and Bell Tea, since there was no malotira, neither of which I had any idea about before I came to Greece). Then there was convenience food (my parents really liked Maggi chicken-noodle and tomato soup packets) and we all indulged in tea biscuits (Griffins Super Wine and gingernuts biscuits); there was always something very Kiwi in our kitchen.

1980s New Zealand food
But there is a void in my knowledge of Kiwi food, which is very hard to fill. It's over and done with, something I can't go back to now. Even if I were to return to New Zealand on holiday, I wouldn't be able to experience 1980s New Zealand food. According to Wikipedia, the Kiwiana dishes that my classmates might have been eating in the 1980s in their homes are now viewed as old-fashioned! Life has changed, the population mix is different, things have moved on, and people are eating different food now compared to what they used to be eating. There's no point googling new zealand food/cuisine/recipes. The food of the mid-1800s historic settlers (when New Zealand was first settled) is a far cry from what was available nearly one-and-a-half centuries later: pressed beef, boiled mutton, stewed opposum, sheep's head broth, pigeon pie, stewed peaches, rhubarb pie, followed by macaroni cheese (apparently, a savoury dish was often served in formal dinners in Victorian times) were all appreciated in 1880, but had probably all fallen out of favour a century later.  

fish shopIf I were able to ask my parents now what they thought New Zealanders ate back then, I wonder what they would say: probably something like they ate fish and chips, of course! My parents (along with many other Greeks) owned a fish and chip shop for about 15 years, throughout the 1980s, after which the fish and chip shop trade declined with the advent of new forms of eating out, and new standards in food hygiene. It was also at this time that butchers disappeared due to the blossoming supermarket trade. That surely had an impact on what people cooked at home; the supermarket offered packaged ready-to-cook cuts, not hunks of lamb-on-the-bone meat that the consumer had to process in order to turn it into a meal. At any rate, barbecued meat was a significant part of both cuisines: the Greeks might have marinated the meat differently from the non-Greeks, but it was a common concept in most cultural groups in New Zealand. Salads flavoured with the bottled dressings of the globalised market were also the norm in Greek-Kiwi households. 

Greek food businesses
Greeks' idea, in those early years of Greek migration to New Zealand, of what the rest of society ate in their homes after work or at the weekends would have come from their knowledge of the food businesses of the area. The concept of sharing home-cooked food as a pot luck meal was a common one, but this would still have been done within one's own cultural group, or at someone's workplace - this is where most first-generation Greeks might have had the chance to get a glimpse into someone else's food world. Steak bars and restaurants in the fine-dining range were common, but not often frequented by them: they involved a more formal atmosphere and higher prices. I remember going out to a fancy restaurant that had just opened up close to where we lived with my parents (which we had booked, of course - another novel concept). My mother was appalled to find that most of the main meals consisted mainly of meat and boiled vegetables, with side servings of cold rice and separate salad bowls consisting of roughly torn lettuce leaves. Her response could only have been expected: I could have made this at home. Needless to say, we never went out for dinner again.

Greeks formed a large part of the food trade up until the 1980s, after which the newer migrants came along and took their place (predominantly Asians, as well as Turks). Apart from the fish and chip shops, Greeks also owned takeaway shops and cafe bars (described in Zisis Blades' Wellington's Hellenic Mile, 2005) where you could pick up a sandwich, meat-based pie, cake, or biscuit, along with a cup of  tea or coffee. Greek mothers would have made similar sandwiches for their kids to take to school, or maybe given them money for a pie from the school's tuck shop. But at home, they would probably have made Greek-style cakes and biscuits, the main exceptions being banana cake and pavlova, two very Kiwi sweets that the Greeks incorporated in their own range of dishes. Concerning drinks, instant coffee and the tea-bag ruled. The above-mentioned could possibly form a concept of common Greek-Kiwi food up until the 1980s.

New Zealand cooks and cookbooks
Thank goodness for cookbooks. Even back then, I was an avid collector; apart from those I borrowed from the Wellington Public Library (my favorite haunt), I also bought old and new ones. Going through the remnants of my collection (I couldn't cart it all with me), I find a few gems that could give me an insight into what the people around me might have been preparing and eating in their own homes. A staple found in nearly every Kiwi home is the iconic Edmonds Cookery Book (1983). This is still my bible for Kiwi sweets and biscuits. If I have any doubt, I could also use it to boil an egg, cook a roast, or prepare a classic Kiwi bacon and egg pie. Owning an Edmonds cookbook was a sign of independence - most Kiwis buy or are given a copy as soon as they 'go flatting' (ie move out of the family environment and live independently). Emphasis has always been placed on independence as a defining attribute of the Kiwi personality; the English nobility who had emigrated to the New World realised just how difficult it was to make anyone a servant there - early wealthy settlers had to manage without maids:
"Maori people did not take naturally to the notion of serving others in a subordinate capacity... White settlers ... very quickly gave up on Maori as a primary source of domestic service. But it came as an even bigger shock to these colonists wealthy enough to employ servants to discover that the working-class immigrants to whom they looked for their cooks and housemaids had not come to the new country to serve them" Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine, 1999, Godwit).
Having no servants naturally had an effect on the cuisine: if settlers (notice how they are not called 'migrants', when in fact, that's what they were!) had to do their own cooking for lack of servants, they probably had to learn how to cook, since they had had servants doing that for them up to now. But there were also other chores to do apart from cooking, hence the need to simplify meal preparations. Elaborate meals were probably served only on special occasions:
 "The farmers' ordinary came to be the standard by which all private family cooking was judged: plain food in abundance. But alongside this, there developed a tradition of social cooking which had no equivalent in the English cuisine (although it was an adaptation of it), and which seems to have been unique to colonial societies such as Australia and New Zealand" (Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine, 1999, Godwit). 
I also own a copy of the New Zealand Women's Weekly Cookbook (1971), described on the web as "good old-fashioned wholesome cooking", which includes recipes like coleslaw, shepherd's pie and home-made marmalade, along with a Kiwi delicacy called whitebait fritters. It also features the rise in popularity of foreign cuisine, like pizza and lasagne, as well as Asian-inspired recipes like chicken pineapple stir fry. Tucked away in this book, I found photocopies from a course I took part in during the mid-80s: Indian and Sri Lankan cookery - ethnic cuisine was definitely the 'in' thing back then.

For an idea of ready-to-eat processed food, a calorie counter is useful as it often lists branded items. I'm still in possession of my New Zealand calorie counter (1982): KFC and McDonalds burgers are listed in it, as well as milk, bread and biscuit labels. Coincidentally, our occasional junk food treat was KFC or McDonalds, since we couldn't treat ourselves to fish and chips, as owners of such an outlet. Souvlaki didn't really take off in Wellington until the Turks got it going, in the late 1980s.

The "celebrity cooks" of the day were maternal-looking Delia-Smith-like lasses: Alison Holst (she's still going, joined by her son) and Lois Daish immediately come to mind. They had weekly columns in the Dominion, the Evening Post (no longer in existence) and the Listener. Anne Doornekamp was also a regular columnist with vegetarian posts (see below). From the few yellowed clippings that I've kept of the above-mentioned dames' writing, the recipes seem to range from comfort meals to ethnic dishes to ways with novel ingredients, like tofu, carob and creme fraiche.

Vegetarianism was growing in popularity in the 1980s at the same time that butchers were closing. My copy of the AMRITA cookbook (1984), published by the homonymous vegetarian restaurant, is actually my most-stained cookbook, because it turned out to be the handiest during fasting periods in the Greek Orthodox church; it contained a number of vegan recipes that I perceived as making our meals more interesting, since we cut out milk, cheese and butter. Among my favorite recipes are the date and walnut loaf and the apple cake; I also gave the vegan tofu loaf a go (the comment on the recipe page says: made this - got to be pretty desperate!). The rising interest in vegetariansim among the well-travelled alternative-lifestyler Kiwi was also epitomised by the instant success of the iconic Mount Vic Cafe, which operated in an old Victorian house in what is now considered one of the most expensive real estate regions of the city. The VUW student newspaper was also publishing recipes for cheap, easy-to-prepare flatter's fare which was often vegetarian-based (I even transported a few of those clipping too - I really must do a clearance soon): rice salad, tomato walnut casserole, easy bread and banana cake could easily make a complete meal. Students really did have so much more time to cook back then, because we were getting a student allowance as university students...

None of the above, in my opinion, really tells me what true New Zealand food was all about. New Zealand is generally known around the world for its meat, butter, shellfish and other fresh food. Norma Cameron's New Zealand's Best (1986) summarises this notion well in her introduction:
"I hope this collection of recipes will... show New Zealand and overseas cooks how to prepare simple, elegant meals using New Zealand's finest foods, inspire cooks to combine flavours and ingredients in new, imaginative dishes, and promote the New Zealand tradition of cooking with fresh, wholesome foods." (Norma Cameron, "New Zealand's Best", 1986)
The book's chapter headings reveal in simple terms what are considered New Zealand food products: "Vegetables, Seafood, Dairy Foods, Lamb, Cooking with Wine, Venison, Fruit". The recipes in this book represent culinary creativity: Mussel Chowder, Lamb Sate, Tamarillo Mousse. This, for me, characterises my own mother's use of New Zealand food - she was generally able to find the products she needed in their most unprocessed form, in order to be able to cook according to her own culinary traditions. New Zealand was, after all, "a land almost flowing with milk and honey... in which the ingredients of a potentially great cuisine are freshly ready to hand" (Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine, 1999, Godwit).

For a truly authentic Kiwi taste, my mind always goes back to the range of very tasty biscuits, cakes and slices that I very fondly recall eating in the warmth and comfort of the various cafes in Wellington that I used to frequent; I count ginger crunch, afghans, and gingernuts among my favorites. It should come as no surprise that Kiwis like their baked treats: eggs and butter were always plentiful since the early days of colonisation: 
"... New Zealanders, like the Scots, think that baking is the better part of cookery, and spend their ingenuity, exhaust their interest, on cakes, and pastries and ebullient, vast cream sponges." (Eric Linklater, a Scotsman, on visiting New Zealand in 1951, quoted by Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine, 1999, Godwit).
According to Wikipedia, home-baking is the main element of the New Zealand-based cuisine that Kiwis haven't done away with. It's reassuring to know I will still be able to find these tasty sweets.

The second millenium
When I went back to New Zealand for a short visit, the cafe culture noticeably dominated the food scene, like it does now. Dining out, takeaway meals and easy-to-assemble dishes for eating literally anywhere were all considered the norm in the laid-back culture of Kiwidom. My favorite purchases from that trip were: 1) a 2004 New Zealand Home Diary containing one recipe per week: Quick Blini with Smoked Salmon and Horseradish Cream, Pork Passaround Kebabs, and a classic recipe for Scones, among other useful information like stain removal, weights conversion, etc; and 2) Off the Eaten Track (1999?), a beautiful coffee-table book that provides 'recipes' for the perfect packed lunch according to the place where you're going to have it, with simple creative picnic ideas like, for example, Akatarawa Paradise: "bread from Pandoro's, avocado, hummus, sprouts, tomatoes, bubbly, towel and togs**". The opening line of the book is:
I see a shrub divaricate. To honour it I masticate Jackson dekker Munday
The picnic lunches are combined with the superbly photographed scenic attractions of the city of Wellington. That book, to me, summarises the true spirit of New Zealand food: eating fresh local products in any combination, wherever you find yourself at the time. Bliss.

The "new technologies of the kitchen and hearth" coupled with "the internationalisation of the food production and supply" (Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine, 1999, Godwit) are now what dominates New Zealand cuisine, a case of "anything goes", reflected in the cultural mix in combination with global trends, which can't be avoided. In fact, it feels strange to me that I've retreated somewhat by immersion into a predominantly historically-based mono-culinary society. That's Greece for you: always going against the tide - and always getting away with it.

* I used the first edition of this book - the 2008 edition has a different cover.
** togs: the down-under word for 'swimming costume'


UPDATE: New Zealand 8, France 7: that was a close shave!

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