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


School lunch defines #2 vegetable of all time.

Never mind the old story about the Italians and the Greeks getting strange looks at their salami sandwiches on one-inch thick peasant bread. We were as Australian as gum trees, but our sandwiches raised eyebrows every day. Baked bean sandwiches. Canned spaghetti sandwiches. Beetroot sandwiches. Cucumber sandwiches. Sultana sandwiches. Some of those I would still eat. The rest, perhaps not.

We didn't always take our lunch to school. Sometimes, in junior grades, I went home for lunch – yes, walked the half mile all by myself – and I could scent the aroma of home-made vegetable soup a block away from home. The walk back to school was slower and more reluctant.

There was also a school canteen, staffed by volunteer mothers. In those primitive days, fulfilment in the workplace and paying $120 a day for childcare was just a pipe dream; and mothers did nothing all day except dust, and hold lunch parties, and drive their new Volkswagen Beetle to the church tennis club to play tournaments, and make canteen lunches at school for no pay. What a life. On bitterly cold winter days, the aroma of pastry from the Noon pies* and pasties warming in the six-drawer chrome pie warmer would somehow drift into the classrooms, and make you forget what the teacher was droning on about and wish lunchtime would come sooner. Pies, 10c. Pasties, 12c. In a brown paper bag. Help yourself to sauce.

On Fridays, at least in the cooler months, orders were taken for the local fish shop, which was on the corner, just a few houses away from the school. Its shingle was a large blue plastic shark. The fish shop and the shark are still there. Drive down Hoffmans Road and you'll see it.

Two children, one often being me, took the class orders to the fish shop in the morning, and went back at lunch time to pick up the parcels. They were newspaper-wrapped and boxed in a carton, and it took two children to carry it. The briny salt and vinegar aroma that rose from the box on the thirty metre return journey to the classroom was possibly the best thing I've ever sensed. Back in the classroom, we handed the parcels around. Names were hand-scrawled along the margins of the newsprint. It took a while to find them sometimes.


Your parcel arrives. Sit at your desk, tear open the newspaper package and smell the aroma. Then bite through a crisp golden crunch to a soft, yielding, steaming, semi-transparent white inner substance that was the most heavenly eating experience on earth: the potato cake.


How could such a humble vegetable be transformed; alchemically, almost – into such a transcendentally delicious eating experience? The magic of the deep fryer had something to do with it, of course, but it still comes back to what's inside the batter. For instance, some fish shops now offer other vegetables in place of the potato; but I just couldn't anticipate eating a 'pumpkin cake' with the same ardor as looking forward to a potato cake thick with salt and vinegared batter.

That one simple innocent uncomplicated food experience is enough to shoot the mundane potato into position number two in the top ten vegetables of all time countdown.


One man's cake is another man's fritter:
In Australia ... deep fried potato cakes are commonly sold in fish and chip shops and takeaway food shops. In New South Wales, they are usually referred to as "scallops" or potato scallops, however the term "potato cakes" is used across the southern states of Victoria and Tasmania and known in South Australia as a potato fritter. The potato cake is also known as a potato pie in Western Australia, and both "potato scallop" and "potato fritter" are used in Queensland. In the ACT, potato cakes are more commonly referred to as "scallops" - a term more commonly used in the surrounding areas.
- Wikipedia

*Thanks to Stef of Finding the Radio Book blog, a treasure trove of Melbournalia.


The first hero; and his brother.

I went back through the archives. (This blog is just a continuation of what used to be hand-written diaries. I keep them all in a box in the bungalow at the beach house. If fire ever roars through the Mornington Peninsula my life in words will be gone. No great loss. The early ones are just pre-teen terse two-line entries.)

I went back through the decades, right back to the early 1970s. I flicked through. It must have been winter 1970. April, May ... there it was:

Saturday 30 May, 1970. State cross-country championships at Bundoora. Saw Ron Clarke and got his autograph.

I hadn't remembered getting the autograph. All I had vaguely recalled was seeing the adidas-wearing Glenhuntly-singleted Olympian near the finish, face etched in pain as usual.

I had joined St Bernard's athletics club the previous month, after reading Franz Stampfl on Running, and Bundoora was my second race after Clifton Hill in pouring rain. I liked running and the rain never bothered me.

Two years earlier I had listened on radio as Clarke finished the Olympic 10,000 metres in Mexico, reportedly near death. From yesterday's Australian:
Realising his main rivals in the 10,000m would be from high-altitude countries, Clarke paced his race so he would be with the leaders at the 8000m mark. So far the race plan he had devised with famous Austrian trainer Franz Stampfl was working perfectly, because as the runners went through with only 2000m to run, he was only one of four who could win. But when he attempted to push the accelerator a lap and a half from home, his body didn't respond.

He couldn't get air. He staggered on, steadily turning greyer. Now, all thoughts of a medal gone, it was all he could do to finish; barely had he crossed the line for sixth than he collapsed. Up in the stands Australian team doctor Brian Corrigan was on his feet well before that happened and though there was a moat and several officious policemen in his way, he somehow kicked and fought his way to Clarke's side.

Incredibly, no resuscitative equipment was available, almost as though the then IOC president Avery Brundage was intent on demonstrating that racing at altitude was never a problem, so all Corrigan could do was give Clarke oxygen and pray. His image, holding an oxygen mask and praying, remains one of the most enduring photos of Australia's Olympic journey.
Ron Clarke had been a mesmerising figure for most of the 1960s. In 1965, when I was eight and in grade three, Clarke seemed to be never out of the news. In fact, he set nine new world records in 21 days in that incredible year. Melbourne's evening newspaper, The Herald, carried dramatic black and white pictures on both front and back pages from Europe. The morning papers couldn't get them in time. Dad brought in Clarke's triumphs every afternoon. We were a print family.

Ron Clarke's brother Jack was centreman in Essendon's 1965 premiership win, captained the team in 1962 and coached the Bombers in 1968 to a narrow grand final loss. No wonder the Clarkes were sporting heroes to a boy in Essendon.

Back to that 30 May 1970 diary entry. There was a second line:

Essendon beat Collingwood.


It's OK to gamble: chief croupier.

Federal treasurer Joe Hockey, in a casino-logic moment, says that if you think house prices are unaffordable, just get a better job. See? Simple. Croupier logic. Rake in more money and everything's great.

(Incidentally, 'Joe Hockey' could not be a better name for a hustler at a shady casino in a James Hadley Chase novel. But I happily admit that's just gratuitously nasty.)

As truisms go, Hockey's assertion is practically an axiom, or even a platitude. I don't know, I'm just throwing words around meaninglessly, as you do in a casino while you're waiting for the spinning to stop. Plenty of spinning goes on in Canberra. It's a money pit. Want a million dollar house? Get a better job.

Truism. Of course anyone can buy a house. All you need is a deposit and enough income to service the payments. Guess what? The commentators agreed with Uncle Joe.

But they're asking the wrong question, or shooting the wrong fish, or looking into the wrong barrel. Or something. I don't know.

Peter van Onselen in today's Australian (subscription required) crunched some figures. By averaging the salaries (circa $65,000) of three classes of public servants, van Onselen arrived at the conclusion that a pair of these earners could borrow in excess of $800,000. Case proven.

None of this figuring takes account of risk. Risk is everything. But wait, we're in a casino. Risk is an exciting part of the game; not a threat to your financial security. That last sentence is savage irony because even though it looks right, the truth is completely and utterly the reverse. Risk has to be minimised or at least covered first. Financial crashes have always started with the fatal flaw that you buy at the highest price you can afford. But prudence demands that you ask yourself if you could afford the loan if you no longer had the house. That is: if the bubble bursts; and you have to sell a million dollar house for $500,000; and you still have an $800,000 loan. There is no jingle mail in Australia. You have to pay off the loan even if you lose the house.

Van Onselen concludes:
"Hockey's comments were fair, reasonable and factually accurate."
'Fair' is in the eye of the beholder, we've already dealt with 'factually accurate'; and that leaves 'reasonable'.

Was it 'reasonable' for a federal treasurer to reprimand the electorate for worrying about astronomical house prices? Hockey's comments might have read like a statement, but to the electorate it came across as a cantankerous rebuke.

So no: it was not reasonable. It is not reasonable for a federal treasurer - or a croupier - to cantankerously rebuke his customers. A prudent treasurer would at least be more guarded in discussing any potential bubble which might affect millions of constituents.

Meanwhile, The Australian's Stefanie Balogh reported in a break-out story alongside van Onselen's column the comments of a losing bidder, who fell short of the $2.33 million sale price at a weekend Balaclava auction:
"Mr White said: 'I did hear (Tony Abbott's) comment earlier in the week that he owns a house and he's happy prices are going up ... and I thought it showed a complete disregard for people entering the market.' "
More gratuitous nastiness: if Joe Hockey is a good name for a crooked croupier, Tony Abbott is a great name for the fictional casino boss you find in the secret back office behind the red velvet curtains. If you can get past the bodyguard. Aah, Tony, there's a guy here wants to see you. Everybody wantsta see Tony ...

These people have the political nous of a housefly. Or a Clifton brick. One of the two. And the alternative is an ex-unionist being investigated by a corruption inquiry. Since when did politicians come from that background?



Sometimes you just need a little perspective: at the Balaclava auction mentioned above, the gap between the reserve and the selling price was double the amount I paid for a Melbourne house in 2005. It went for two houses more (at 2005 values) than the buyer expected.

If that's not starting to look like a bubble, I'm James Bond. Or Phillip Marlowe. Or both.