During these years I lived at Eastern Hostel, a State Electricity Commission Hostel for 500 men. I was the only one under 21 years and just about the only Aussie. Most of the others were refugees from war-ravaged Europe.
Our meals were provided in a canteen where hardly any of the cooks could speak English. This canteen supplied cut lunches to take down the mine. These lunches consisted of a piece of fruit, a chunk of heavy, dark, fruit cake and two sandwiches – one cheese and the other jam between thick slices of white bread. The jam was nearly always marmalade – there was no choice. Marmalade is made to be spread on warm toast. Even on toast, on the few occasions I had it, I never liked its bitter taste. But on cold, white bread it was barely edible. However, after sitting for hours high up on a bucket-wheel dredge my teenage hunger always got the better of me. I had to eat these distasteful sandwiches or starve!
After eating them for four years I grew to tolerate them. At breakfast I experimented with marmalade on toast and that was a different matter. I came to positively adore the sweet and sour flavor. Today, I am addicted to marmalade, all kinds of marmalade, to the point that a day without marmalade is like a day without sunshine.
Thinking of marmalade has brought to my mind other food adventures.
In 1984 Pauline and I led a group from our Sth Perth Uniting Church to Purbalingga, in central Java. The purpose of our journey was to visit the home-town of one of our members, Mrs Hardy who had recently arrived from Java.
Purbalingga was not on any tourist map and it transpired we were the first European visitors to the region since the Second World War. We received a great welcome, especially from the members of Mrs Hardy’s church. Their welcome gift to us were platefuls of bright pink cakes, of a similar size and shape to cup-cakes, but made from sticky rice. They clearly wanted us to eat them while they watched. Through a translator, we declined saying we would save them for later. During the day, we learnt that these pink cakes were a delicacy which the locals could only afford to eat on one day of the year. We were honoured to receive this special food, but the truth was we didn’t like the look of them nor the taste.
Our whispered plan was to wrap them in tissues and quietly dispose of them in a rubbish bin. But, in that part of Java, there were no rubbish bins. No one threw anything away.
There was one exception. We were staying in a guest house, (their first European guests), and there were small bins in each room. That night, we wrapped the cakes in tissues and placed them in the bins.
The next day, I forgot my camera and had to make an unscheduled, midmorning stop at our guest house. To get to my room I had to walk through a reception area. There, upturned on a long table were all our rubbish bins. Their contents had been sorted and at the end of the table were all our pink cakes. My embarrassment and shame knew no bounds! I still blush at the memory.
It was in Paeroa that we made our first Korean friends. They made a surprise visit to our house in beautiful Karangahake Gorge. We treated them to a Kiwi (Aussie) barbeque. Our barbeque was often used and moderately clean – we relied on heat to kill the germs. We didn’t know it at that time but the sight of the barbeque and the meat we cooked and the way we cooked filled them with horror.
On their next visit, they decided to show us how a proper, hygienic barbeque could be created. They completely wrapped our barbeque with aluminium foil and placed the fancy meat they brought with them on the shiny, hygienic foil surface. But, the lack of ventilation caused the barbeque to explode. Panic! Quick thinking saved the barbecue and the house – but it was close.
Not deterred, on their next visit they bought a small gas stove and set it up on our kitchen table. They brought carefully prepared sliced meat and crunchy iceberg lettuce. They also brought some odorous cabbage vegetable mix – a kind of relish they told us. They said they had with every meal. To our taste and nose it was strange indeed. That was our first experience with Kimchi. Rather like my experience with marmalade; apparently once you have the taste you can’t live without it. To our surprise, when we visited Korea we found our friends all had a refrigerator dedicated to various types of Kimchi
It was in Auckland that we first experienced Yum Char. To go into a huge dining hall at 11.30am in the morning and find it full of noisily chatting Chinese people was surprise enough. But then the ladies with the trollies and their spiel in Chinese about the goodies they were offering was something quite unfamiliar. But it was the candied chicken’s feet and fish with staring eyes that put us into shock. That was a long time ago. Now a visit to Yum Char is quite a treat. However, we still have trouble with the chicken’s feet and the staring fish eyes even though we have been told the feet and the eyes are delicious.
These days in our church and centre we are surrounded with food – mostly European but increasingly Asian and from the Middle East and eastern Europe. Nowadays, many of our gatherings, probably most of them have a food component. Some wonder have we gone too far?
For twenty years’ seminars and workshops were a regular part of our life. In North America, coffee and doughnuts (usually iced) were pretty much standard at such events. But in Australia and NZ biscuits were the normal fare.
There are biscuits that look like and taste like cardboard. In the stores, they are the cheapest items in the biscuit section. I have heard it argued that based on economy and Christian stewardship, these are all that should be supplied at church functions. What I have noticed is that when they are all that is on offer; the mixing time is subdued and many people hurry on home after a short while. However, when a better class of biscuit and/or other tit-bits are on offer people stay longer and talk more.
What would Jesus do? Well we know that the wine he provided for the wedding was the best wine. His meals with tax collectors and sinners would not have been economy affairs. Certainly, with Mary and Martha, he rebuked Martha for fussing over too many things (too many dishes I assume). In fact, many of the New Testament events took place around a meal table. What we now call Communion was originally a full meal. And then as it is now, the tradition of hospitality right through the Middle East is that you give your best to the visitors.
I realise that our tastes are influenced by our background – e.g. me and the coal digger. But exploring new tastes and affirming the foods of others can be an adventure and the beginning of friendships. I think of food as a tool to enable communication. It has been that way since the beginning of recorded history. It still is.