It bothered me that they didn’t have eyes. There they were, a man and a woman sitting at a tiny table smiling at each other with no eyes. Their smiles were so big they reached almost to the temples. And their legs had no feet. They ended in sharp points, like stakes to be driven into the ground.
They sat on the cover of Mum’s slim yellow cookery book, My Daily Dinner, acquired around the time of her marriage in 1961. I read it, on and off, over the years. How to deal with an old fowl. – A quite old fowl is very nice boiled. And I’d move on to the recipes for brain rolls or stewed tripe. I read and reread it the way I read the other books that lay about the house. These included a rude one called Laughter Between the Sheets which was kept under other things in the sliding-door cabinet in the lounge room. (We found all hidden things in the house, without exception.) And there was Strange Stories, Amazing Facts from the Reader’s Digest in which the image of a dead person kept appearing in the lino on the floor, no matter how hard the cleaner tried to scrub it off.
For me, My Daily Dinner was reading material for mooching, listless afternoons. I wasn’t thinking about the act of cooking. I was thinking about the old fowl or the brains.
Leafing through it now – not Mum’s original one but an old copy I found myself – I see that its purpose was not connected to idleness but to industry and thrift. It was a how-to manual for getting something on the dining table day after day after day. And now I see the connection with the things that actually appeared on our table. There’s the bread and butter pudding. There is the hot chocolate sauce we poured over vanilla ice cream. There is all that offal: the tripe, the brains, the liver (lamb’s fry), the kidneys, the tongue (yes, I remember a large tongue with its own thick pitted skin), the lumps of corned beef boiled forever and served with a white sauce.
My Daily Dinner is big on white sauce. It’s big on flour in general. Mum was forever dredging things in seasoned flour and frying them. Everything was thickened with flour, dotted with butter. Puddings were endless variations on flour and sugar.
The apple roly poly, the star dessert of my childhood, is not in My Daily Dinner. There is a jam roly poly, but that’s not what we used to have. Our roly poly had slices of apple rolled up in a scone-like dough with water and sugar poured over it and baked to create a caramelised self-saucing sensation. Eaten out of the mustard-coloured Bessemer bowls I still remember arriving new in the box.
I don’t think Mum ever attempted to follow a complete suggested menu; she took inspiration here and there. The complete menus, building day by day, were about eking out food, making it go further; about using animals from snout to tail because that’s how you could feed a family on very little money. The menu for the Friday of the third week of the winter is this: Sheep’s head broth (made with stock from the sheep’s head you boiled for dinner yesterday) followed by scalloped fish (a small amount of fresh fish stretched out with white sauce and baked) served with potatoes (an all-white main course) finished up with half pay pudding. The half pay pudding is a concoction of flour and currants steamed in a pudding cloth for three hours. Very good results are obtained by mixing the pudding with one cup of cold tea. This makes it more economical.
My Daily Dinner was published by the magazine New Idea, which in those days was all about knitting patterns and household hints. Now New Idea is a mess of celebrity gossip in a world of criminal excess, in which, it’s estimated, Australians throw out eight billion dollars worth of food every year. But women have it better than they did then. They’re not spending the afternoon fiddling with sheep’s heads: Get two sheep’s heads or lambs’ heads, soak them well in salt and water, and rinse thoroughly. Cut the sides apart, separating the tongues, and take out the brains. Then again, some people are rediscovering such activities, as a way of combatting food waste. But tripe. Is anyone going to go back to tripe?
If you’d like to give it a try (I swear I ate this exact dish, as a child) here’s the recipe:
Stewed tripe: – Get one and a half lbs. thick, seamy tripe, wash, and cut in neat pieces, not too small. Cover with water, and add one dessertspoon salt; boil gently for two hours. After one hour place six peeled onions on top of the tripe. When cooked, pour off most of the liquor, and add one cup of milk. Bring to the boil and thicken with one tablespoon flour mixed to a paste with a little cold milk. Add a small piece of butter just before serving on a hot dish.