I have previously catalogued the many crimes of the parents of the past – those who did their parenting in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, there were the physical punishments, many of which were like something the CIA might have considered for the war in Iraq, before backing off and thinking, “No, that’s too much”.
Then there was their reliance on horrific warnings, otherwise known as the cautionary tale. These involved sayings such as “Don’t swallow a pip, or an apple tree will grow in your tummy”, or “If you don’t let me clean your ears, potatoes will grow there.”
Is it any wonder that so many of my generation ended up on LSD?
One of the great crimes of parents of the past? Never giving a straight answer to the simple question, “What’s for dinner?“.Credit:Kathleen Adele
And yet, for all of that, I now find myself running to the defence of this generation of parents. One of the peculiarities of the time was that they would never give a straight answer to the question, “What’s for dinner?“, not when that question was posed by their child.
It was as if a national law had been passed. Even if the chops were already in the pan, the potatoes in the oven, the green beans merrily overcooking on the stove-top, no one would ever think of replying: “It’s chops and spuds tonight, my darling.”
Instead, there were all manner of fanciful responses, often particular to the household. “What’s for dinner?” “Air pie and windy pudding”, one parent might say. “Hot air pie and plenty of plate”, another would answer. Or, from a third, “A drink of water and a pull of the belt.”
On Sydney radio, listeners my age gleefully recalled the answers chosen by their own parents: “A dog’s hind leg with a boot on it”, “Pig’s bum and cabbage”, or “Bread and butter and duck under the table.”
Meanwhile, listeners of more tender years expressed their outrage. “How cruel to the poor child, who just wants to know what’s for dinner,” said one. Or “Why do people bother having kids if this is an example of the tenderness they feel for them?” Or – I found this a little smug – “In our house, food was the opportunity for celebration, not this sort of nastiness.”
It was hard to know how to respond to these younger folk, so sorely aggrieved on behalf of the rest of us.
After all, some remembered “recipes” did border on the hostile. In more scatological households, the meals involved “poo on a stick”, often combined with a cat’s bum or a chicken’s eyebrows.
There was also a theme of privation. “What’s for dinner, mum?” “Snake’s bum and biscuit,” would be the answer, the joke being that snakes don’t have a bum, so it was just a biscuit.
All this, I know, sounds harsh to the ears of 2022, but some mitigating factors should be mentioned by the barrister for the defence.
Firstly, children are very annoying. The parent who gave a straight answer – “It’s rissoles and mash, darling” – would be greeted with howls of complaint by child Number One: “Oh, no, not the rissoles, they are the worst.”
Then from child number two, three, four, five and six – families were bigger then – a chorus of agreement: “Oh, can’t we have something other than the rissoles?”
Second, all food in the Australia of the 1960s and 1970s was disgusting, so it wasn’t a good idea to make too much of a song and dance about what was on offer.
In most households, the true answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” would be “tuna mornay”, or, more accurately, “wallpaper paste which has been momentarily placed in the same room as a can of tuna”. It was the sort of meal that had to be eaten quickly, otherwise it would set.
Or it may have been: “Defrosted chops, rescued from the very bottom of the chest freezer in the garage, at least I think they’re chops, the label fell off, served with peas that have been boiled for three weeks.” Or, in gourmet households, “A steak cooked on the BBQ so as to appear subject to nuclear incineration.”
More importantly, for parents answering this question – or rather not answering it – this was seen as a daily opportunity to teach a life lesson, one drawn from their own experiences, and those of their own parents, during the Depression and the Second World War. The lesson was: “Be grateful you’ve got anything at all.”
This message was then repeated as the meal proceeded. The merest pause in the eating, the tiniest reluctance to tackle a limp, bleached green bean, would bring the reminder: “Think of the starving children in Africa. They’d love to have that bean.”
It was a fair point, although whether the constant talk of world starvation assisted a healthy attitude to food remains unclear.
And yet I find myself saluting the creativity of the time; the love of language, the raucous humour and the sense of family tradition, that created these fanciful foods.
Oh, to sit down to a plate of “Fresh air and excitement.” Or of “Fried snowballs and a rasher of wind”. Or even of “Wait and See Pie.”
Once you consider what was actually being served, it all becomes an act of kindness.
Read more by Richard Glover
- Stop, operate and listen: my minor surgery was a minor attraction
- $7.50 for a toaster or $91.90 for a bucket of paint? The price is wrong
- Books are cooked: the eight problems I have with recipes
- My grandson’s a poet and doesn’t even know it
- ‘It’s Sydney. We’re boiling’: A city of winter sceptics strikes again
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