Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Belshaw's World: Reflecting on the pasta in a bellwether seat

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 30 September 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

We live, so I am told, in a modern multi-cultural Australia, replacing the staid food of the past with excitement and variety. This may be true, but I cannot see it. With marriage and kids, the food available to me has narrowed to a shadow of the past.

I love Chinese food, my wife dislikes it. I love rich thick casseroles. I am alone. My wife joins me in my general love of curries, but dislikes some of the curries I like best. My children dislike curries.

I love pea and ham soup. This may be an acquired taste, but it is mine. My family hates it.

I have been the main cook and bottle washer since we left Armidale in 1996. Given the conflict in food tastes, I have been driven back to a core menu that my mother in 1950s’ Australia would have found very boring indeed.

I see no solution to this problem. It just is.

But why am I complaining about this now? After all, the problem is not new.

As it happens, my wife has just gone back onto a diet. Our food world is now dominated by points, by the need to avoid the wrong foods. The olive oil/butter mix that I use to cook certain dishes is now verboten. Then, too, in moving house I re-discovered some of my old cooking notes.

I sat there and thought of meals past, good and bad.

The worst meal I have eaten was Chinese at a sailor’s joint in Launceston. I was sixteen and hitch-hiking around Tasmania. I went back to the boarding house and threw up.

The following morning, still very fragile, I caught a lift with a pea-picker. Sitting in the front of the truck with my legs curled around drums of petrol while he smoked and chatted, I worried vaguely about the risk of fire, but then concluded that this might be a welcome release.

The young are resilient. By lunchtime, three lifts later, I felt fine.

Some of the best meals I have eaten have been in Armidale.

Raspberries picked in the morning from the vines in the backyard. Mashed with cream and sugar, they made a fine breakfast. Or black cherries cold from the fridge before I left for TAS.

Bottling was a big thing in our house.

Year after year at the right season, Dad would be drafted to bring the kit down from the garage. A production line was formed – apricots, peaches, cherries, gooseberries were bottled and then put away in the pantry for later use.

All the different stages in my life are associated in some way with food.

There was the Vietnamese phase during my first period in Canberra.

The Vietnam war was raging. A number of my friends had fallen in love with Asia and had Vietnamese girlfriends. Every weekend we gathered and the girls cooked while the men chopped vegetables.

One Sunday in 1967 we gathered as usual in Richard’s flat. It was a mixed group, mainly Administrative Trainees and present or just past Foreign Affairs cadets.

The phone started ringing. The PM, Harold Holt, had vanished, lost in the surf. One by one the group left, called back to work.

Vietnamese was followed by an Italian phase, although the two overlapped.

In 1972 and almost by accident I tried to enter politics. I had always wanted to be a Country Party member of parliament, but it had not been high on my immediate priorities.

There was a dinner for members of the Country Party’s national executive.

Chatting to Bill Ford, the general secretary of the NSW Country Party, I said, in all innocence, just how does one start running for pre-selection for Eden-Monaro? Bill commented dryly you just did!

On the surface, Eden-Monaro was a forlorn hope for the Party. We had run once, in 1946, getting only 6.5% of the vote. However, the long standing and very popular Labor member Allan Fraser had just retired and there was a chance.

Having thus started, I decide that I would run for pre-selection and promptly left Canberra to live in Queanbeyan so that I lived in the electorate.

How does this fit with Italian food?

Well, Queanbeyan was one of Australia’s first multicultural communities with a large Italian population. I joined the Italo-Australia Club. This had a very good chef at the time, and I promptly fell in love with Italian food.

In all this, what is my all time favourite restaurant? Victor’s in Armidale. The reason why is another story!

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