I was reminiscing with one of my cousins recently about stuff our grandparents cooked for us in New Zealand. He remembered Grandad Freddy toasting Vogel’s classic mixed-grain bread, then spreading it with butter and, sparsely, with Vegemite (I’m a Marmite girl myself). As far as I know, this delicious bread is no longer available in Australia, so is but a memory to me now.
We remembered what Grandad called “toad in the hole”, which was cutting a hole in a piece of bread, then frying it in a pan with an egg dropped into the centre. This was actually not the right name for it, as the real toad-in-the-hole is an English dish made of sausages and Yorkshire pudding batter.
Grandad would whistle while he was in the kitchen cooking. He always made breakfast, and when I lived with them for a year when I was 12 and 13, he also usually made my school lunch. He was a career army man, a Captain after fighting in the Korean War. When I lived with them, Grandad had retired from the army and was working as a clerk for the government department that was then known as Maori Affairs. I’m not sure what he did for them, as he never talked about his work.
Grandma Rita most often cooked the evening meal. I remember her cooking had much more salt, butter and cream in it than my parents’ cooking. She would mash a big pot of potatoes, adding an egg and some raw onion. I always liked mashed potatoes done this way, though my father, her son, did not. Grandma Rita also made tasty girdle scones, and cheese or currant scones baked in the oven. And rock cakes that were impossible to chew! Grandma also liked to make an apple crumble, or perhaps an apple pie with a fancy flower on top made of the leftover pastry pieces.
On the maternal side of my family, Nanna would make wonderful fluffy little pikelets, spread with jam. Also, she would carefully peel tomatoes so they were skinless—I still don’t like tomato skins—and put them on crackers spread with butter. She would sprinkle salt and pepper on them. These had to be eaten straight away, as she said, before the tomato made the crackers soggy.
Harking back to his family’s strong Scottish Highlands origins, my maternal grandfather, Grandad Mac, made porridge every morning, adding a pinch of salt, and believed it was the only suitable breakfast. He always got up very early —about 5am—and if he was staying with us, I would find my school shoes outside my bedroom door, gleaming with polish.
Before porridge was served, there was something better, something so simple but something I love to this day and sometimes still have as a treat: Grandad Mac would cut the crusts off a slice of fresh white bread, then spread it with butter. He would cut it into halves and bring it in to me with the first cup of tea of the day. As a young person, I mostly drank coffee, but I liked the tea he made. Nowadays, I usually have tea, and my first morning cuppa always brings back memories of Grandad Mac.
When I was 19, I lived with my great-grandmother, my father’s grandma, for a year in Palmerston North while I attended Massey University. Great-Grandma Abbott always served dinner—she called it “tea”, as we did too when I was growing up—at 5pm. It was possible to have the plate kept in the warming drawer of the oven if you were late, but you were generally expected to sit and eat with the family at that time. She always told me off for not having sugar in my tea or coffee—“a girl needs a bit of sugar”—and for washing my hair too often—”I’ve never known a girl to wash her hair so much; it’s not healthy”. My reply? “Yes, Grandma”. One didn’t argue with her.
One afternoon I came home to find that tripe and onions in a white sauce were on the menu. I made some excuse and, to this day, still haven’t tried tripe, though I’m not a picky eater.
Great-grandma never got used to the electric stove. The old coal range on the farm had been far better to cook on, she said. She didn’t like the newfangled washing machine, either, even though she never had an automatic one, only one of those tubs with a wringer above it. Wooden boards in troughs of water had worked better, she said.
I asked her one day what had been her favourite time in her long life. She grinned and said she wished she were back on the farm in Waipukurau, Central Hawke’s Bay, “with all the boys” in the 1930s. She had had seven children, four boys and three girls, but one son had died in the Second World War and another of cancer, while her husband, my great-grandfather, the All Black Harold “Bunny” Abbott, had died about 10 years before I lived with her. She said she loved firing up the range on the farm, ready for the boys to come in from work for a big cooked breakfast at about 9am.
At Great-Grandma Abbott’s house, left-over meat from a roast was not put in the fridge, but in a meat safe in one of the cupboards. And soup would bubble away on the stove for days, added to from time to time with various leftovers. I can’t remember any of us getting food poisoning.
There was no pasta or rice to be had in my great-grandmother’s house, or even in my grandparents’ houses. I wonder what they’d make of our multi-cultural cuisine these days: one night we might have Thai-style food, the next Italian, Greek, Malaysian, Chinese, Fijian, Spanish, Colombian, or Japanese.
While my grandparents and great-grandparents cooked tried-and-true recipes handed down through generations, we are constantly trying new cuisines—it’s a very different approach to home cooking. Mind you, I still have my old favourites that I’ve been making for many years. But that’s a post for another day.