A free-ranging public housing kid in the early 1950s, Mum grew up with a hankering for travel, a desire to see new places and explore new lands. Trapped by her suburban life, she relied on food as her great escape. Hard to do with rationed meals and little money.
When The Lebanese House opened in Melbourne in 1957, Mum finally discovered her alternative to the meat and three veg she’d grown up with. It was like she’d been transported to Beirut, to eat crisp balls of felafel and learn the many ways of the chickpea.
When my parents married in the late 1960s, they had little money, so they built a house on the outskirts of Melbourne’s south-east corridor. The properties were sub-divided orchard land, far from the crowded western suburbs of her childhood. There were no cafes or restaurants. Only horses and cows. To eat felafel she would have to learn to make them herself.
And so she did.
By the time I came along in 1970, Mum had mastered many meals. Watching our nightly episodes of The Goodies and Doctor Who, my brother and I would work our way through rich Indian curries with little circles of condiments, trays of oven-baked kibbeh with chunky hummus, and a lasagne that I still dream of years later. We never ate lamb chops or soggy greens. Dinner parties were large and impressive, and if we were lucky, my brother and I would be the official tasters of chocolate mousse and tiramisu with enough alcohol to make us both giggle.
When I started kinder, Mum made her first new close friend. Franca was born in Sicily and had migrated with her family’s recipes and love of cooking. She taught Mum how to shape tortellini, deep fry crostoli and marinate vegetables picked from the garden. They were frugal meals. Shaped by shared experiences of childhood poverty, they cooked everything from scratch, and we’d all gather around for a laid-out feast.
At Christmas, Mum was the star in the kitchen, passing on her knowledge of colonial English food. There was plum pudding, mince pies and buttery shortbread. The pair of them drinking Brandy Alexanders and competing over who could make the finest gingerbread.
Frustrated by being at home in the outer suburbs, Mum revelled in her ability to cook. Food became her currency, and she guarded her most personal recipes fiercely. Looking back, I think she saw Franca as a rival with skills she could only dream of. They used to make light of the competition between them, but it was always there.
After I had a baby, Mum moved back to the city, perhaps to be closer to us, perhaps because she craved the flavours of something less suburban. We’d meet at the Queen Vic Market and wander the aisles like hard-worn desire lines, stopping at the handful of stalls we visited each week. We became friendly with Michael from the bread shop who would slip us the odd horse tip just before the Cup, the old guys who ran the fishmongers who would explain the freshest catch, and those behind the counter in the Polish deli who laughed at the idea I was named after a jar of Polskie Ogorki pickles called Nova.
When Mum died, Franca spoke at her funeral. She joked that even at the end, Mum had refused to give up the secrets of her chocolate mousse cake. I inherited Mum’s large shambolic book of recipes. Snipped from every imaginable source, there is no sense to their filing—they spill out messily when I open the black folder. The ones I love the most are those written in her scrawling cursive hand. The plum pudding recipe is in there. Shoved towards the back. One of the ingredients listed is a sixpence that she’d managed to find. A tradition started long before Mum was born, and one I’m only sometimes successful in carrying on.
Last year, when Melbourne’s lockdown drove us all back indoors, food became important in my life again. No more endless eating out so many took for granted. Supermarkets sold out of yeast. Sourdough starters were traded on Facebook sites. And our days became one long meal while we looked for some entertainment.
I was caring for my terminally ill partner during lockdown. Our house wasn’t so much filled with sourdough rising, as with other people’s kindnesses. Meals left on our doorstep. A carton of freshly laid eggs from someone’s chickens. A thermos of Negroni to get me through the night. Little tins of homemade biscuits with the ingredients listed on the lid. With each arrival of food, we could pretend we were leaving the house, imagining the warmth of other people’s kitchens, and travelling to new lands. Some days we had so many meals arriving that we could barely keep up with eating them all.
As my partner grew more and more bed-bound, he requested a final culinary path. He wanted a different cuisine each night. Not just anything but specific tastes he’d always loved. Chinese fried rice with cubed sausage and tiny shrimp. Turkish eggplant dip—not my homemade attempt, but one from a restaurant he used to eat at when he was young. Pea and ham soup the way his Mum made it. Beef stroganoff the way I made it. Each night I’d fulfil his order, carrying his food downstairs on a tray. He’d only manage a couple of mouthfuls before declaring himself full, and we’d tick that meal off the list.
After he died, our house was once again groaning with food. And with each delivered dish we felt loved and held by our friends. Our community fed us for weeks. Meals that meant something to them and so meant something to us.
I remember the first night I cooked again. When I felt the grief shift and knew I could manage to make a meal. The Queen Vic Market was within my five-kilometre zone, so I could visit for supplies. I came home and prepared something simple. After we’d eaten, my daughter asked for rice pudding. Just the stovetop kind. The one you stir while the rice slowly softens in the milk. The one my Mum used to make me as a child. The one she used to make my daughter when she stayed over. And the one I now make my kids on cold wintery nights, or nights when they miss their dad, because it tastes like childhood.
Sometime towards the end of last year when lockdown ended, I ventured back into the city. A place I love. A place shaped by food memories of my Mum, of my partner and of the many meals we have eaten. I wandered the laneways where we ate dumplings. Passed the bars where we drank Negronis. And celebrated all the little travels we have to be content with while our borders are temporarily closed.
Nova Weetman has published short fiction in Overland, Mslexia, Kill Your Darlings, Wet Ink and Island, and non-fiction in Overland and the Guardian. Nova is the author of 14 books for young adults and middle-grade readers, including Sick Bay and The Edge of Thirteen. She lives in Melbourne.
Illustration: Marc Martin
Brought to you by the Metro Tunnel Creative Program for Melbourne Writers Festival. Excerpts of ‘Writing Melbourne’ and accompanying illustrations can be seen at City Square on Swanston Street when restrictions ease.