Last Saturday night, we were going to have a German Food Night to celebrate what would have been my grandfather’s 100th birthday. However, true to form, we wandered off course and ultimately ended up where we were meant to be. As John Lennon said: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
You might recall that we had Irish Night a few months ago to commemorate when one of my Irish ancestors arrived in Sydney 160 years ago https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/irish-nightcelebrating-a-journey-from-cork-city-to-sydney-1854-2014/. Well, we were going to use my grandfather’s birthday as a catalyst for sharing my German heritage with the kids. My mother’s family has German ancestry and in 1992 after I finished university, I actually lived in Heidelberg, Germany for about 8 months with a German family.
Moreover, in addition to wanting to share my cultural heritage with the kids, these cooking projects are also part of my ongoing efforts to teach the kids how to cook. This process has taken quite a holistic approach as we’ve moved beyond simply trying to replicate a meal or bake cakes and biscuits, to learning more about the ingredients themselves, nutrition, caring for the environment and also the meal’s cultural heritage. It’s amazing just how much both you and your kids can learn simply by cooking a basic meal.
Of course, any kind of cooking and eating, involves bonding and that never goes astray especially in our frenetic modern world. In too many households, the family meal is on the endangered species list.
Just to explain our German heritage.
My grandparents in the 1940s
My grandfather was a Haebich born in the German-Australian town of Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia. While his Paech and Hartmann ancestors had arrived onboard the first ships of German immigrants back in 1838, Johann George Haebich and family had arrived a little later in 1846 onboard The Patel. George Haebich set up his blacksmithing business in Hahndorf’s main street and in the late 1850’s and built the family home which is known as “Haebich’s Cottage”. It is a substantial ‘fachwerk’ (basically a timber skeleton with infill of pug [straw/mud], brick or stone) cottage. This was where my great grandfather was born and it provided quite a family hub, along with the blacksmith shop next door. We are very proud to be able to point to Haebich’s Cottage and say that’s where we’re from…or, at least, that’s where a part of us came from. The house is no longer in the family.
The Kids and I outside Haebich’s Cottage 2013
Up until World War I, the Adelaide Hills and the Barossa regions had pretty much been a German enclave within Australia and a mixture of German and English were spoken. Anti-German sentiment during and post WWI, suppressed much of this German heritage and Hahndorf had its name anglicised to Ambleside and it was only changed back around 1938 to honour the centenary of German settlement in South Australia. We believe that my grandfather’s parents spoke German at home when he was quite small but as WWI progressed, they started speaking English instead. This became apparent as Papa aged and sunk deeper and deeper into the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease and he spoke more and more German before talking less and sleeping more.
Getting back to our celebratory dinner…
As much as I love German food and we had liverwurst on rolls for lunch and made Honey Biscuits, as the day drew closer, I realised that these German main courses didn’t resonate with me and were quite foreign. They weren’t what my grandfather ate. His favourite meal was undoubtedly Honey Prawns from the local Chinese takeaway. They appealed to both his love of seafood and his incredible sweet tooth. While it would have been easy just to order takeaway, that defeated what I was trying to achieve, share, convey. No! We had to have something home cooked.
After all, isn’t there something magical even mystical about home cooking? As any home cook will agree, it has to do with that special, magic ingredient… love. Love pours straight from our hearts and into the saucepan, mixing bowl or the old battered roasting dish, binding family together with glue. That is, unless you want to be purely scientific and say it has something to do with our genes.
There is also something extra special about celebrating those precious, special occasions in your own home where the photos almost talk to you through the glass and their aged frames and several lifetimes of tea cups, table cloths, precious read and re-read books all morph together into some kind of memory soup. Memory soup is a regular on our menu both because I have always loved those extra-special, old family stories and have wanted to share them with our kids. I have also wanted our children to know where they come from…the much bigger picture. Our family tree is a huge, sprawling giant with massive branches spreading from Sydney to Perth, Tasmania, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and back to Ireland, Germany, Scotland, England, Poland and maybe even a touch of France. Surely a tree this big, must have enormous roots which tunnel so deep into the earth that it could never fall down. It is anchored deep into bedrock, giving our family such stability…at least in theory!
When you are making memory soup, the dish itself also has to have meaning…deep and personal meaning. Of course, I’m not talking about the roasting dish here but the food…the recipe… itself.
This was where I was having trouble. I was struggling to remember what my grandparents ate. Then all of a sudden, like being hit by an ancient Greek thunderbolt or the proverbial flying brick, inspiration struck my otherwise dim and empty head. We had to have Roast Duck. We could only have Roast Duck for Papa’s dinner. While living in Marburg in rural Queensland, my grandfather used to raise and sell ducks to supplement their income and in later life, a beautiful farming family used to drop a duck off for my grandparents each Christmas.
Duck it was.
However, that’s when things began to get complicated. Of course, this thunderbolt hit less than 24 hours before the big event and although I’ve never cooked duck before, I had a hunch that duck wasn’t easy to find. First thing in the morning (which for us is something like 10.00am) Geoff received his instructions. He had to ring every single butcher in town and beyond until he’d found that elusive duck. Of course, this is the modern, urban equivalent of being “Man the hunter”. That is when the woman sends the bloke off “hunting” for weird or hard to obtain ingredients at the very last minute and, of course, he is expected to prove his manhood by coming up with the goods even if he has to drive inter-state and across the desert and back to succeed.
Alas for Geoff’s manhood, things weren’t looking good. Although there are families of ducks inhabiting practically every street corner and puddle where we live, “eating ducks” are actually rather scarce and considered a luxury. Apparently, you not only have to order them in, you also have to give a week’s notice. No such thing as an instant duck…or so I thought!
However, Geoff persevered. He found a butcher with frozen duck breasts and some sort of mysterious cooked duck. I didn’t quite know what a butcher was doing with cooked duck but duck was duck. We were on our way…Quack! Quack!
Well, this so-called cooked duck was interesting stuff. The duck came in a plastic packet and you just emptied the contents into a roasting dish and cooked it for 15 minutes and then finished it off with 8 minutes under the griller to crisp the skin. It was too easy especially for your truly who has never roasted a duck before. I felt a bit guilty cheating like this and wondered whether I was being a little wicked. I mean it was my grandfather’s 100th birthday party an event you associate with traditionand going to great effort, not whizzing up some new fangled instant roast which comes in a plastic packet. It seemed to be the roast you have when you don’t have a roast. Or was it?
Our roast duck served with the types of vegetables Papa used to grow in his garden.
Actually, our funny fangled duck actually appeared almost perfectly traditional. All the same, you’ll have to agree it was smarter than your average duck.
Stay tuned for more about our birthday celebrations and last year’s trip to Hahndorf retracing Papa Bert’s footsteps.