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

26.6.15

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.

2 comments:

Dr. Alice said...

If the potato is #2 on your list, I can't wait to see what is #1. What a wonderful memory.

Sadly, no school today would accept volunteer mothers making lunches for students due to legal issues (at least I am sure this holds true in the US).

Melbourne Girl said...

I think a good potato cake is one of the most delicious things on the planet.

Can't wait to hear what Number 1 is KH.