In the first of the ABC’s “Back in Time for Dinner”, the opening 1950s meal was tripe. And earned universal revulsion from a family hailing from the future. The revolting prospect of eating cow’s stomach could only be imagined by the ABC’s researchers as a inevitable aspect of war-time shortage. They were gravely wrong.
The present generation cannot imagine the appeal of animal offal and yet for an earlier generation tripe, liver, kidneys, tongue, sweet meats, heart - or brains fried in breadcrumbs - were to-die-for dishes.
“Tripe” was once a universal expression to describe anything cheap or worthless though it is far from that now. The last purchase of tripe I ventured cost $15/Kg from a new specialty butcher.
Offal was certainly the food of the working family but it was relished, not seen as demeaning. Other meat was “poverty food” like lamb’s shanks. My grandmother would send me to buy shanks with the strict instruction to tell the butcher they were “for the dog”. We didn’t have one but she did not want anyone thinking we were so poor we would actually eat shanks ourselves.
Offal had always been part of a culture that never wasted anything. Samuel Pepys writing in his 17th century diary described eating a lip-smacking bowl of cow’s udders. He did not have his first steak until his more affluent mid 20s. Steak was aristocratic hence the tale about King James I knighting the delicious “sir loin”. The story is apocryphal arising from a pun on the Norman French “sur longe”, the “over loin” but it emphasised that such meat was reserved for a better class.
The speed with which values alter generationally is remarkable. The ABC’s Future Family in the 50s was delighted when the new European cuisine of spaghetti entered the repertoire but there was little appreciation of the suspicion Australians expressed at the time for the new “dago” food. The most enduring reward of post war immigration, however, was to rid the palate of English cooking.
Though the ABC program does not venture into beverages, the tea drinking 50s saw coffee as a novelty and Repins coffee shops in Sydney and the espresso equivalent in Melbourne sold the new sensation, a vast improvement on the hot water with a squirt of chicory essence which war time passed off as coffee.
For older Australians the past and present seem seamless and are surprised when the young see as novel what they regard as prosaic. Yet the changes have been frighteningly transformative. What do you say to a grandchild who asks what computer games you played as a child when a world without computers is unimaginable?
It is hard now, for instance, to imagine a childhood of horse-drawn ice and baker’s carts. The ice carts disappeared with the advent of fridges but the horse drawn bread cart lingered till the late 50s. The story was told of the bread delivery bloke who got totally confused on his first day with the new motorised van – he dealt with deliveries and customers but only the horse knew the route of the bread run.
These experiences fuelled family sagas particularly the day cousin Colin was caught on the stampeding ice cart. Neighbourhood kids vied for a chance to ride on the box seat behind the horse - while the iceman made his deliveries - and from that elevated position imagine reining the horse. The horse took absolutely no notice.
The iceman would chip a slither of ice for each kid and wrap it in brown Kraft paper to suck on. The taste was metallic, the flavour of the industrial ice works.
Colin was alone on the box seat that day when the horse bolted. Neighbouring blokes rushed to steady the nag and calm the scene while mothers rushed to smother the bawling Colin. Only later was the puzzle solved.
Colin sat alone on the box seat sucking his slither of ice when the horse lifted its tail to defecate. Curious, the lad tentatively touched the horses rear with the ice chip and the tail slammed down in reaction, driving the ice up its arse and the horse into locomotion.
Those were days without OH&S or ‘helicopter’ parents. Who’s to say if it was better or worse.
*Dr Michael Powell is Conjoint Senior Lecturer, Humanities, University of Newcastle; Adjunct Researcher, Humanities, University of Tasmania