Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Selling the 1970s.

People think I exaggerate about the past. Maybe I do. But maybe I don’t.

Because I was there. Reader Melbourne Girl recalled an item of 1970s clothing in a comment at this post about 1970s food. That brought the whole horrible decade of bad taste flooding back.

Because I sold them! My first job was salesman in a menswear store during a period that rode the fashion wave from flower power to the platform sole. Put 'clothing' and '1970s' in a sentence and you picture skin-tight trousers with the legs flared out to eighteen inches at the bottom. Why the width? To accommodate the battleships underneath: two-tone fake leather uppers that sat on five inches of prime Portuguese cork. People think the wine cork industry was destroyed by the Stelvin closure but that’s rubbish. It was devastated by the shoe industry. Rumour has it that a famous Italian shoe designer had a love rival who was a Portuguese wine cork baron, or whatever they call barons in Portugal. He vowed revenge, deciding to derail the wine cork industry and bankrupt the baron. The next spring, his models clomped down the catwalk precariously (if you can clomp precariously) in shoes that were six inches off the ground. Every shoe contained enough cork to cap 45 wine bottles. That’s 90 bottles a pair; or nine million per 100,000 pairs of shoes. The wine cork manufacturing industry was starved of raw material overnight, with the shoe makers importing raw cork direct from the growers - and the wine industry was forced to turn to plastic closures. Of course, the designer knew his shoes were ridiculous, being to proper footwear what a double-decker bus was to a Mini Cooper. The noise they made caused bands such as Slade to dramatically increase the volume of their concerts because you couldn’t hear them over the clomping of fans in the stadium.

Getting to the point of this story, one day in 1972, the store manager brought in his first shipment of Continental 'body' shirts. What the hell? we (the salesmen) said, tape measures dangling around our necks. These are going to be huge, he said. They're huge already, we replied. Hugely ugly. Normal shirts had sensible pointed collars, muted colours, self-stitching and were made from proper cotton. The new horrors came in lurid colours such as lime green with contrast stitching, had vast rounded collars like the ears of a goat and were sewn from a bizarre kind of material that stretched, hence the body shirt tag. There was chocolate brown with tan stitching, a ghastly yellow that I can’t make a simile about (because it would be too horrible) and a red one with white stitching - the Al Grassby special, we called it. No-one will ever wear those, we said.

The manager made a space on the shirt rack by putting dozens of white GloWeave, Pelaco and Paramount shirts into the store room at the back and replacing them with the full colour range of Continental body shirts. Now the rack looked like a gelati shop window in a heatwave. The '70s were born that day.

Won't wear them? said the manager. Wait and see. He was right. Within weeks we were selling them by the truckload. Some pop star had worn one on television; nothing else could explain a population losing not only its entire fashion sense but also its ability to withstand discomfort and the embarrassment of being dressed like a demented clown. Wearing a tight lime green shirt-like garment tucked into flapping yellow trousers would have looked ridiculous on a sixteenth century pirate, let alone a twentieth century lawyer. Mid-seventies summers saw moustached hipsters with underarm stains stretching halfway down their sides, thanks to the osmotic effect of the hideous stretch fabric of which their Continental body shirts were made, a strange combination of elasticised nylon and an early form of lycra, minus the breathability.

Then there were the ties. Someone on TV again, maybe a comedian. We threw out the old tie rack, because it was designed to hold 120 two-inch wide ties, but the new ones were five inches at their widest point. No-one needed serviettes any more in restaurants. Nothing could get near the shirt, but a lot of Pieroni (upstairs, Little Bourke Street, a young Guy Grossi as waiter) diners called in at Myer for a fresh tie after a boozy spaghetti bolognese lunch.

A five-inch width of orange seersucker over a yellow Continental body shirt was a sight to see and we saw plenty of them. People criticise copywriters for having worked on cigarette accounts, but I did something far worse (as well as the former, in later years). I knowingly matched up clashing shirts and ties for hundreds, possibly thousands, of menswear customers throughout the 1970s. Those archival photos of 1970s weddings? My work. I was the one who said, Why yes sir, the lime green suit with the bottle green velvet lapel suits you perfectly!

Time went by in and with it a million ghastly disco hits; and one day the manager brought in his first shipment of proto-eighties suits, which could be described in one word: shiny. To counteract the shortfall in fabric due to the passing of wide flares, designers (with kickbacks from the fabric manufacturers) surreptitiously introduced the 'power shoulder'. I say surreptitiously because at first your coat just had slight padding around the shoulder area, but by the eighties proper it had grown, and you had the shoulders of a prize bull at a Pamplona bullfight. The seventies were over. Thank goodness. If only we knew what the eighties would bring.


Queensland politicians slow off the mark.

The weather is good in the Sunshine State, as is the beer, the beaches, the football, the hinterland, the outback and everything else. So you can little blame the politicians for taking a few days to notice a speech by the USA’s chief weather forecaster. But they got there, finally.

'The Queensland government,' The Australian reports today (subscription required, but Facebook link here), ' ... is incensed over what it sees as an ill-informed, insulting speech from Barack Obama about climate change, the Great Barrier Reef and coal.'

You could add patronising, hypocritical, disingenuous and any number of other words, but mostly hypocritical. The guy might be an orator, but Australian larrikin bushmen know a bit of oratory too, they just keep it short. Their rejoinder might contain just two words, the second of which would be " ... off". The last US chief weather forecaster got the same treatment, so don't say we're not fair.

Meanwhile, at the same conference, French President Francois Hollande 'spoke for eight minutes exclusively on climate change' while rational, lucid Indian PM Mr Modi 'talked of the need for access to electricity for the world’s poor.'

Sometimes, the fewer words you say, the more sense you make.


Stop the presses.

Two rival newspapers, two banner headlines outside the newsagent this morning:




Plugging the leek.

The leek might be the vegetable I have mentioned most in the twelve years I have been writing this online diary. It could be my favourite vegetable, but I'm never sure. But the leek is one of the most versatile, tasty, fragrant, inexpensive, ubiquitous and waste-free vegetables you can buy. As usual, I shop on price and leeks are $1 each this week so leeks is what we eat.

Leek, potato and tomato stew.

Warm a tablespoon of butter and a splash of olive oil in a deep heavy pan. Chop a large leek into thin rounds and rinse. Chop an onion into rings. Add vegetables to the pan and cook until soft.

Now add a scored clove of garlic and a zucchini chopped into quartered rounds. Stir, add a glass of white wine, and lid the pan. Simmer on low for ten minutes.

Then add two cans of whole tomatoes with their juice, a dozen or more pitted black olives, a cup of stock, a dash of salt and pepper, a scant teaspoon of sugar, and a dash of chilli powder.

Put the lid on and let it bubble for a few minutes while you peel and chop four medium potatoes into thick rounds. Add to the pot; cook until potatoes are just soft. Fluid should just cover the vegetables. Adjust if necessary.

Now the support team: polenta. Cook polenta, following your preferred method. Add salt, pepper, and a tablespoon of butter to the polenta and fold through half a cup of chopped parsley when done.

Serve stew over parsley-flecked polenta and garnish with chopped basil, or scatter flaked parmesan cheese over the top. Or both. Drink: anything. I'm no wine snob, but I've met a few.


Brown rice shakes off reputation as 1970s artefact.

Like barley, brown rice used to have a reputation.

Barley was once regarded as the ingredient grandmothers added to soups and lamb stews to fortify growing children. Then someone on television turned barley into a risotto, and packets of McKenzie's Pearl Barley starting flying off the lower supermarket shelves, where they had lain untouched for decades next to McKenzie's Soup Mix, McKenzie's Yellow Split Peas, McKenzie's Dessicated Coconut and, of course, McKenzie's Bi-Carb Soda. Barley was now a foodie's food.

Brown rice was once similarly unloved. It was like barley for 1970s hippies, having been associated with that demographic together with several types of smoke and a kind of footwear. Being brown was kind of appropriate because everything in the 1970s was brown: curtains, Datsun 120Ys, carpet, dinner sets, corduroy, record covers, you name it. Even the timber bowls that brown rice salad was typically served in were brown. Well, of course.

And the rice salads served at student household parties generally lay untouched, and the grains dried out and went hard, and were inedible, and people stubbed their 'cigarettes' in it, and the reputation of brown rice was caught in a vicious cycle. And someone had to clean up the next morning, although in such households, it was usually next afternoon, if not evening. Parkville memories come flooding back, and the picture is not pretty; and the stove is covered in burnt, dried substances that were once food.

But brown rice was much more than salad at student parties. It is robust enough to carry ingredients on its back without turning to mush, which white rice will do if you're not careful. It has an agreeable texture and a flavour that is distinct but which will not dominate its fellow ingredients, as evidenced by the following recipe.

Brown rice biryani with a chilli kick.

I had a few cups of cold brown rice left over. (Left over from what? Er, a brown rice salad ...)

I warmed the rice through in some peanut oil, then folded through two teaspoons of coriander powder, one teaspoon each of turmeric and chilli powder, one scored clove of garlic, and half a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. The aroma that arose from the warming spicy rice at this point was so good I could have eaten the lot from the pan right there. Stop!

I cut four spring onions into short rounds and tossed them in, along with half a cup of capsicum cut into small dice, and a cup of peas. Peas work superbly with rice dishes, giving a satisfying pop! as your teeth bite into a hidden one.

If the rice was moist enough to begin with, you can warm it through without adding any fluid. Otherwise add water a little at a time.

Now for the meat: a few strips of chargrilled fillet cut into cubes and folded through the rice. This was also left over, a remnant of the children's dinner. Don't be too proud to eat your children's leftovers; the whole world has gone mad on recycling so why not eat scraps? Apart from that fillet is expensive, and we no longer have a dog anyway. Three rationalisations in one paragraph. The whole point of biryani was to use up cooked meat and rice with any available vegetables and spices.

Meanwhile, I boiled two eggs until just set, peeled them and set them aside.

When the whole thing had warmed through (letting the capsicum and spring onion retain their crunch) I made piles of hot biryani in two deep bowls, made craters in the top of each pile, nested an egg in each, and sprinkled fresh chopped coriander over the top.

I served it with mango chutney or sweet chilli sauce, and papadums.


Butter substitute margarine was originally developed from nuts, so why didn't they call it "nutter"?

Turns out they did. The brand name of an early version of the then-controversial spread was indeed called "Nutter".

From the Daily News Cookbook, UK. Can't find a publication date but the paper itself was founded by novelist Charles Dickens in the 1840s and folded (in the economic sense) in the Depression of 1930.


Four eccentric, elderly English gentlemen on stage.

It's almost pathetic. What? That I missed the Rolling Stones again. Always an excuse. Too young in '65 or '66. Couldn't afford '73. Too busy another time. Missed out on tickets. Forgot. Out of town.

On the subject of ticket prices, is $300 to $1000 too much to pay for a two-hour Rolling Stones concert? It's all relative. If you offered fans the chance to see a miraculously revived two Beatles, and they joined the other two in concert, how much would they pay? Anything. Elvis Presley? Quadruple that. Yet the Rolling Stones survived largely intact and are here. It's all relative. I think I just said that.

Last night, when Keith Richards was announced on stage, he was reported saying, "It's good to be here. It's good to be anywhere!"

No, I haven't bought tickets for Hanging Rock. Can't remember my excuse, but there must be one.


Favourite Stones song? The one my mother frowned at in 1967 when my brother purchased the EP: 'Let's Spend the Night Together'. The summer of love! Wait, I was ten. But I loved those keyboards.


Cinematic experience in a TAB.

The children have never been inside a TAB. We went in to throw away a few dollars on the mugs' race, the Melbourne Cup. A huge screen on one wall was showing races around the country. Sit on the couch, I told them, while I put the bets on. (Fawkner for Tracy, William and Thomas; Lucia Valentina for Alex; Mutual Regard for me.) Alex asked me if she could have some popcorn.


Green, green grass of home.

The last three Friday nights have been on the grass. I suppose it was inevitable. I was kicking a football around with the boys - refusing to admit football season was over - at Coburg city oval, when an under-tens training squad was setting up for a game down at the grandstand end. The coach came over. "Would you like to join in?" he called to the boys, having seen them running around. "We're short of a couple of players."

Ten minutes later they were fielding, and I was sitting on the grass outside the witches-hat boundary. The game finished about seven, with the ground draped in long shadows from the trees at the western end and the air still warm. The boys enjoyed the game so they signed up. Thomas had hit a boundary, William had taken a catch.

If you're going to join a club, it might as well have a good history. This one does. It came into being two years after Eureka, and a couple of years before the Melbourne Football Club was formed. The cap proudly states: Coburg Cricket Club. Est. 1856. Melbourne University CC was formed the same year and I can imagine cricketers travelling by horse, and possibly cart, up and down Sydney Road on warm summer weekends.

The ground is in walking distance and it's a nice stroll home in the dying light after the game.


Pasta with broccoli and avocado.

Cook half a 500g pack of linguine.

Approximately three minutes before pasta is done, add a cup of broccoli florets and a few sticks of asparagus chopped into one-inch batons. A minute later, add a cup of snow peas. Drain.

While pasta is cooking, warm through two chopped garlic cloves in olive oil in another pan, then add half a cup of sliced button mushrooms, an avocado sliced into segments, a good shake of black pepper and half a cup of white wine. Cover and cook gently for three minutes. Remove lid, add a tablespoonful or more of cream. Reduce.

Drain pasta and green vegetables and place into serving bowls. Pour creamy mushroom and avocado sauce over. Add parmesan and chopped parsley.


Yarraville Gardens food festival threatened by bureaucrat with one of the most absurd job titles in history.

Now, let's just get some perspective.

This city, Melbourne, has about four billion people spread across 9,900 km2 (3,857.2 sq mi). That's a lot of mouths to feed. Melbourne is also often regarded as the food capital of Australia in which the hospitality and food industries thrive. Melburnians love to be outdoors, especially on warm spring nights. It's almost compulsory. What? You're inside watching television on a night like this? They sit on sweeping lawns in Victorian-era parks (or in their own manicured back gardens), sipping cold wine and eating al fresco dinners while the aroma of barbecue drifts across the suburbs, and the children run wild silhouetted by a shimmering orange sunset. They go indoors only when darkness comes; and sleep, perchance to dream of marinated steaks and pork ribs and cold white wine and warm brulee and the best city in the whole world. And food trucks.

Food trucks have been around a long time, way back to the horse. For years, they serviced the industrial and manufacturing areas. Morris J bread vans roamed the suburbs and ghostly horse-drawn milk carts clip-clopped around pre-dawn streets. All part of the same industry, taking food to people for convenience or pleasure.

Then food trucks had a resurgence in the inner suburbs. Initially on their own, the new but retro industry soon found that trucks in pairs or even groups, rather than cannibalising the market, brought customers in even greater numbers, who were attracted by the variety and sense of occasion thus created.

In Yarraville, it was practically an impromptu food festival every weekend with up to 18 trucks lining Yarraville Gardens in what has become a tourist attraction. One truckie even bought a Citroen H van in Europe and shipped it to Australia. Customers love its pizzas, but the truck itself is a drawcard. Another van is a vintage all-over-chrome Airstream, yet another is an old green-grocer's Bedford. A food festival in which people come to admire the machinery? That's success.

So, as the hip expression goes, it's all good. Small business thrives, people enjoy a world of food in one place, and Melbourne's reputation as food capital is enhanced.

But, like grey clouds that herald a sudden rainstorm, enter the council.

Maribyrnong Council's ridiculously-named functionary, 'Acting Director, Sustainable Development' said, in an oddly contradictory statement, that while council supported the food vans, their numbers would now be limited to six.

What 'development' could be more 'sustainable' than a small business that has built its trade from scratch, using its own money?

Rubbish was mentioned as one of the factors in the new limit of six trucks. Rubbish used to be what council took away. It was their job!

Visit the Yarraville Gardens Food Trucks page for more news of this unfortunate, but all too common, and brutally stupid bureaucratic interference in people's lives.


How to write, by Johnny Speight.

Till Death Us Do Part writer Johnny Speight satirises the pseudo-intellectual public broadcast culture in explaining his writing technique:
... any big words would have been lost, not only on their audiences but on (the actors) as well. And as (they) didn't pay you any more for big words it seemed best to stick with the little ones. It was more economical because they took up less room on the paper. ...

I never had a lot of time for big words. They're harder to spell for one thing and if you stutter like I do they're harder to speak as well. I always tried to slip out little words before my stutter notices them. ...

Of course this was a handicap for a writer because only being able to use little words which everyone could understand, I had to be very careful what I said. I couldn’t hide behind an indecipherable display of semantics. I was out in the open, and on my own, without a dictionary to protect me. ...

I figured that most radio audiences were ordinary, simple people like my mum and dad, and that a simple lad like myself with a simple gift for simple words might have a warm-hearted appeal for them. ... Home spun philosophic humour written in simple four letter words.

Anyway, with my little words poking out of my new Smart and Weston suit I took myself off to the B.B.C. ...
It Stands To Reason. A Kind of Biography by Johnny Speight. M&J Hobbs in association with Michael Joseph, London, 1973


Simple words? Forget it. The bureaucracy has been awash with indecipherable semantics for as long as it has existed, but there’s no excuse for the private sector. From today's Herald Sun (no link):
Drinks giant Lion has secured its spot at racing's forefront through a five-year sponsorship deal with the Victoria Racing Club.

The deal, centred around the James Boag's Premium brand, aligns Lion with the Melbourne Cup Carnival, kicking off with Victoria Derby Day on November 1.

... A "brand experience area" known as the James Boag's Premium Celebration Deck will be set up on the front lawn at Flemington.
Translated: Starting on Victoria Derby day, racegoers can sample James Boag’s beer at a bar set up by new spring carnival sponsor Lion.


Top nine bar songs revised.

At night when the brand experience areas close down Brandy walks through a silent town

I matched the man behind the brand experience area for the jukebox/and the music takes me back to Tennessee

The guy behind the brand experience area was watching Ironsides on TV

Well Mr Harper couldn’t be here cause he stayed too long at Kelly’s brand experience area again

And at the edge of the brand experience area sat a girl names Doris and oh that girl looked nice

Then afterwards we drop into a quiet little brand experience area and have a drink or two

And I’ve got swingin’ doors a jukebox and a brand experience area

I looked down the brand experience area, at the brand experience area tender/He said, Now what do you want, Johnny?/One bourbon, one scotch, and one beer

The Gatlin boys just laughed at him when he walked into the brand experience area

Oh it’s lonesome away from your kindred and all
By the campfire at night where the wild dingoes call
But there’s nothing so lonesome, morbid or drear
Than to stand in the brand experience area of a pub with no beer


Out for a duck.

It was a cold overcast spring day - most have been so far this season - but so far no rain. It was a nice day for a walk if you're not the kind to be scrabbling for an umbrella and a coat and a scarf every time you see a cloud. I got a bag of loaf ends out of the fridge and took Alexandra down to the lake, heading for the south side near the picnic ground where the ducks gather. On the far side, the cliffs rise sheer and you can see joggers steaming up the hilltop path. I've been visiting the lake for years now, back to when William was a baby; and prior to that when the children's much older brother and sister were toddlers. That takes it back to the 1980s. We don't do it for the ducks; we do it for the children. Children like feeding birds. It's good for them; the children, I mean.

You stand by the edge and throw a crust. The pigeons arrive first; followed by seagulls if there are any around. In this weather there were plenty. Arrogant nasty things lowering their heads and charging at the other birds. Then the ducks and moorhens or marsh hens or whatever they are called come sailing in, cutting beautiful ripples on the water, or just running across it making that curious flap-flap-flap sound. But today a family of swans were on the lake. Father and mother sailed regally towards the edge, shepherding four cygnets with soft yellow-grey fur. They were obviously old enough to eat. (I mean they could eat; not that I had designs on them for the oven.) The mother strutted straight towards Alexandra and the fun started. The other birds were trying to get a look-in. The father held full-back and swooped diagonally forward towards the flanks, like Malceski in the 2012 grand final. He cut off the pigeons easily and disposed of the swooping seagulls with a whiplash neck movement. The ducks were moving in from the forward flanks. The mother dealt with them while keeping an eye on the cygnets who were dining regally. Every now and then the father appeared to allow one of the lesser species to take a piece of bread; this had the effect of drawing off scores of pigeons, seagulls and moorhens who followed the lucky duck into the water hoping for a shard or two, and giving the cygnets more room to move.

The cygnets sat down one by one. They had had enough. The parents shepherded them back to the lake. The bread was gone. We walked on. Then I saw the sign. It must have been placed there only recently. Don't feed the ducks, it said. Not their right diet. You can feed them shredded lettuce and small pieces of carrot.

We'll have to start eating our own loaf ends. I used to make bread and butter pudding with them but you get lazy.


Purple haze.

I call it the grand final plant because I’ve been planting them on grand final day irregularly over the past few years. Not for any particular reason; the lady at the nursery told me one year that they pot their annual batch of echiums in the last week of September. So that's how I came to plant the first few on grand final day one year.

I had been looking for a low maintenance plant to fill the gaps in the garden at the beach house. Sandy soil means you don’t have a great choice apart from agapanthus, which would grow on the moon if it could. One winter, I ripped out enough agapanthus to fill a Kenworth tipper. Agapanthus spreads and clumps and takes over. You lose tennis balls in it. I was tired of having to deadhead the flowers each year, and tired of buying tennis balls. When I dug out the agapanthus, I found enough tennis balls to supply Wimbledon for ten years. There’s no tennis court in the garden; just grass, and the boys used to hit the balls all over the place; on the roof, over the fence, through windows; but the balls mainly ended up in that horrible undergrowth of agapanthus. Out it came and in went the echiums.

Echium has an open, spreading habit with grey-green foliage all year round and very striking purple spiky flowers in summer. It is also heat tolerant. The ex-agapanthus garden bed faces west and catches the afternoon summer sun and temperatures rocket up into the forties at the height of summer.

On grand final morning in 2009, I drove down to Glenvue nursery in Rye and bought half a dozen six-inch potted specimens. That afternoon, I took the radio outside, stacked the echiums in a row, dug holes in the garden bed along the west side of the house, and listened to the grand final while planting them. My team was out of the finals that year and I was going for St Kilda.

Just as I was planting the last echium, about ten past five, Travis Varcoe handballed to Paul Chapman, and he kicked a goal, and Geelong won. I think of that grand final moment when I look at that echium - next to the back door - now. But that’s OK, because Chapman plays for Essendon now and won a few games for the Dons this year. The echium is now at least six feet tall, and up to eight feet in summer when its spikes take off.

Same day the next year, I put in some more echiums, but I saved them for the grand final replay. I was going for St Kilda again because (a) my team was still out; (b) St Kilda still only had one flag; (c) they were playing Collingwood and (d) I was getting sick of seeing Ian Meldrum in the papers every grand week. Just bloody win one. They didn’t. I didn’t listen to the first game, but I knew the result. I had walked through the streets down to Blairgowrie beach and the clamour from all the backyard barbecues signalled every goal. I walked back to the house around five. Dead quiet. Eerie. I knew immediately what had happened, of course. Got home, turned on the radio. Draw.

Next week I was back in the garden, as usual. Collingwood won the replay. More in 2012, when for some reason I favoured the Swans. Can’t think why. Bloody Sydney. What a horrible city it is. We’ve given our game away. In the 1960s there was a novelty song in the charts called Melbourne and Sydney. One line it in ran, Sydney's got its strippers but we’ve got Ron Barraaaaaassi (pronounced rrrrrrrr). Not any more we don’t. First Sydney got Barassi literally. Now compare the Swans with this city’s iconic club, the MFC. What a joke.


By now I had the west garden bed covered, and new plantings in a several island clumps further down the back garden. Every summer, the garden roared with bees. Open the backyard and it sounded like a Tiger Moth from Moorooduc airfield passing over but it was just a million bees getting nectar from the hundreds of purple spikes which were now up to eighteen inches tall. I had created a monster.

This spring, something happened. I didn’t have to go to the nursery. Hundreds of echium seedlings appeared in the undergrowth, like baby animals under the skirts of their mother. Literally hundreds. I could open my own echium nursery!

But I didn’t. I just waited until they were as big as the Glenvue nursery specimens had been, which was grand final week, of course; then pulled a dozen or so gently from the ground, preserving their baby root balls, and transplanted them along the northern fence line.

Echiums work best in massed plantings, and this is one hell of a massed planting. But it’s not the only plant. Behind the bungalow is a twenty foot plumbago hedge. Purple.


Purple Haze all in my eyes,
don't know if it's day or night,
you've got me blowing, blowing my mind
is it tomorrow or just the end of time?