Childhood Food

Rhonda Byrne

You’ll eat it before August is out!” my grandfather would say to any of the youngsters turning up their noses at something on the plates before them – as his father had no doubt said to him.

I guess we all wondered what he meant, but to me it seemed that he didn’t always know what month it was, or August was an awfully long way off! Images formed in my developing imagination of me, sitting at the table, for months – until I either ate those dreaded peas – or they rotted! I became very adept with peas, stuffing them in my cheek while managing to eat something more to my liking, without ever swallowing one of those dreaded peas. Eventually I gave in though.

Tomato was something else! Attempts to get me to eat tomato failed, no matter how well it had been disguised. If there was tomato in it I knew; and it didn’t matter how far off August was, I was determined I wouldn’t eat it. The one attempt I made, out of politeness in someone else’s home, saw it come back up, and later me being covered in hives. I was not given tomato after that.

My grandfather’s parents had survived the great famine of Ireland, when desperate mothers were reduced to boiling sticks and a few blades of precious grass in an attempt to feed their starving families. Such famished times gave them an appreciation for anything that passed for food, and as early settlers in this country, their struggle to survive continued, and was passed on to their children. Living in isolation, the early settlers were required to be self-sufficient, self-supporting. What they couldn’t provide for themselves, they did without. They learnt to put up stores, season by season, to tide them over.

August, it seems, heralded the end of the long non-productive winter. Stores, by this time, would be very low, and everyone would eat anything- and be thankful – just to survive through August to the new Spring harvest. Early in the season, my grandfather and his brothers and sisters may have been able to choose not to eat a certain food, but that didn’t mean the food would be wasted. It would be kept in store, and most certainly eaten ‘before August was out!’

It is hard for people of the 20th/21st centuries in Australia to understand this system for survival. The waste of these years is unforgivable when the famine experienced in Ireland during the 1800’s continues today in other areas of the world. It can only be imagined what those people would give to have something – anything – to ‘eat before August is out!’

My mother’s tactics to encourage me to eat were quite different from those of my grandfather, but just as perplexing. Mum would say “think of all the starving children on the other side of the world who would give anything to have food like that, now eat it up.” I could never understand how my eating something was going to help the starving children on the other side of the world. It seemed a better idea, to me, for me to leave it and have mum parcel it up and send it to them! On the whole, we managed quite well in spite of war time shortages and a depression.

There were not many luxuries when I was a child. We didn’t eat out, as there were not really any restaurants then. The closest we came to ‘luxury’ was being able to buy pies or sausage rolls when shopping on Saturday morning, to take home for our lunch. Sometimes my mother would meet her friends, and we’d have afternoon tea at a bakery. For 1 penny, my friends and I could buy a bag of broken biscuits from the corner shop on our way to school.

This was a real treat!

Sweets and ice cream were restricted to special occasions or when we went to the movies. Cakes and biscuits were baked at home and the occasional penny ice block, in a little paper bag, was a treat on a hot summer’s day. Toffees were sometimes available at school. These sold for 1 penny or 3 pence, depending on their size and whether or not they were brittle or tacky. When we had the luxury of a refrigerator, we started to make our own ice cream, which was quite an involved procedure, but worth the effort. I enjoyed helping with this, and made my own ice cream well into my marriage.

School did not have a Tuck Shop so lunches were either taken to school or we went home if we lived close enough. There were always some children who did not have lunches or go home, but Sister saw to it that they had something – even if it was only a slice of bread and butter. Milk was not provided at school when I was a child.

One day, I watched my grandfather milk a cow, and was horrified when he offered me a cup of fresh milk from the bucket. I was not having it! There wasn’t any way, anyone was going to get me to drink cow’s milk! I was strictly a ‘milkman’s milk’ girl, and went to great lengths to ensure that any milk I had from that time, came from my own milkman, mum’s brother, my Uncle Jack. His milk was ‘made’ in shiny big cans and carried on the back of his horse drawn cart. As he made his deliveries, Uncle Jack would ladle the milk out of the can and into a jug or billy-can left at the front door – along with the money, which was 3 pence a pint.

My father used to make fried bread, and I enjoyed this. The bread was fried in dripping then sprinkled with salt and pepper and eaten hot. Dad also made Uncle Toby’s Oats, which at the time had to be soaked overnight before cooking. I enjoyed that with lots of brown sugar sprinkled over it.

Sometimes on a Sunday morning my father would sit me on the bar of his bicycle and we’d ride down to visit his friend who owned a milkbar. While they talked, Dad and I shared a milkshake. I had been assured that Uncle Jack delivered milk to this shop. It was mixed in a metal container then poured into a milky white fluted tall glass and served with a straw. This was the ultimate luxury!