I Remember Mum Saying – You’ll Eat Worse Than That before You Die!

The secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.

Mark Twain

Today was probably not the best day to take delivery of an anthology with the title You’ll eat worse than that before you die, edited by Kari O’Gorman and published by Melaleuca Blue. The media is full of a hepatitis A outbreak caused by frozen berries imported from China – no deaths reported, but the number of people falling ill increases each day.

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However, the current crisis aside, I was thrilled to receive my copy of the anthology in the mail because one of my stories is included. Kari has done a magnificent job collating the pieces, which include poems, anecdotes, photographs, quotes and sayings as well as stories and recipes.

Writers want to be read and opportunities to publish short stories and poems difficult to find unless you have a body of work to be made into a book – for the traditional publishers or self publishing. Entering competitions or submitting work to projects with specific themes can be a great avenue and I thank Kari and Melaleuca Blue Publishing for the opportunity to be read and to be included in a delightful and entertaining book.

Broth and Trouble!
Mairi Neil

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green, waiting in a hot tureen! Who for such dainties would not stoop? Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

So sang the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland and I often echo this praise of soup when remembering a childhood where it provided healthy and hearty meals— especially if accompanied by freshly baked bread.

Many a night I‘ve carried on the childhood tradition of substituting Scotch Broth or thick vegetable soup as the main course when the day’s dramas left little time for preparing a more elaborate meal, or the energy and inclination for cooking couldn’t be found.

When recovering from chemotherapy in 2011, I chose a July trek of the Larapinta Trail in the Central Australian desert as a challenge and to tick off an item from my ‘Bucket List’. The five nights camping provided opportunities for soup to shine as a nutritious meal; easy and quick to prepare over the campfire for the small family on the trail.

Most days a large pot sat on glowing logs, witches black against grey ash as orange flames danced like dervishes in the gusts of wind common in Arrentre country. The enticing aroma of vegetable soup wafted in the winter air. Soup spiced by additional herbs from the ancient garden surrounding us, where tasty plants have flourished for thousands of years. The healing properties of these plants revealed each day by our Arrentre hosts: Nicholas, Malcolm and Genise.

The pot and its often mysterious contents stirred memories of 1962…

The first few months adjusting to life in Australia proved a testing time, especially for Mum, the centre of our close-knit Scottish family. After leaving London by ship in fogbound November, we arrived in Croydon, nine days before Christmas, to a blistering summer. Croydon, on the outskirts of Melbourne, nestled at the foot of the blue Dandenong Ranges, which were still boasting scars from bushfires in January. The area faced more danger before the summer wilted, necessitating anxious Mum and Dad to organise a bucket brigade. We lugged pails of precious tank water to dowse burning embers carried in the hot north wind when the hills burst into flames. Aware of the vulnerability of the rented ramshackle house of dry cracked timber, Mum soaked the weatherboards and surrounding bush to prevent fire from taking hold.

The ‘old house’ as it is now referred to with affection at family get-togethers, had a wartime Raeburn stove fuelled by red gum logs chopped and stacked weekly by my father and two older brothers. Mum cursed the Raeburn because in the swelter of that first summer she literally baked herself. The heat of the kitchen of wood-lined walls under a corrugated tin roof not relieved by air conditioning, or even a fan. Immersed in the habits of Scotland, our taste buds and customs attuned to cooked meals, not salad and cold meat, meant life was not easy for Mum. Regretfully, we never gave her discomfort a second thought. Six children aged from 3-13 raced each other to the table to devour whatever was on the menu.

One afternoon, Mum cooked a pot of vegetable and barley soup. The tureen sat on the side of the old stove until she slid it across to warm for dinner. The eight of us gathered around the large cedar table protected by a green and white chequered oilcloth. The meal was early because Mum wanted to visit an elderly aunt in hospital. The soup swiftly ladled into blue and white Willow-patterned china bowls with the order to ‘hod yer wheesht (be quiet) and eat.’

Brother Iain, the fussiest eater in the family inspected and prodded with his spoon. ‘What are those black bits in the soup, Mum?’

‘Barley,’ Mum replied as she sliced a loaf of bread.

Iain examined the soup on his spoon in more detail, ‘But the black bits have legs.’

Interest sparked, we all searched our soup for black bits. Brother George, declared, ‘Mine have legs too,’ with closer inspection he announced with triumph, ‘They look like ants!’

We moaned as if poisoned, pushing the plates away, gulping water, dramatising as only six siblings can when trying to outdo the other’s reaction. It took a thunderous roar from Dad to restore order.

An army of ants had drowned or been boiled alive in the soup, a sprinkling of their cadavers in all the bowls. Dad suggested they had found their way into the soup via loose mortar in the chimney bricks, ‘This house was built during the First World War and has been neglected ever since.’

However, Mum always had an answer for everything. ‘A few dead ants won’t hurt you,’ she said, checking the time so as not to be late. Her final word, ‘The Aborigines eat them so stop your nonsense and finish your dinner.’

‘But Aborigines only eat Honey Ants,’ said Iain, who also happened to be the family encyclopaedia.

A withering look from stressed Mum chastised us to silence. We rolled eyes and exchanged funny looks behind her back as she debated with Dad whether to strain the soup and salvage the meal, or throw it out and open a tin of tomato soup kept in the cupboards for emergencies. Money always being tight in our working-class home, the thought of wasting food was unthinkable. Those still with a desperate appetite supped the strained soup, the others filled up on toast and jam. Not surprisingly, Scotch broth was renamed Ant Soup in the family lexicon forever onwards.

The camp cooks, Karl and Kathleen, interrupted my musings and I was back in 2011. Soon we would queue for a meal of spicy vegetable soup, camel sausages, and sizzling kangaroo steak, mushrooms and salad. I pondered the difference in menu to those early days at Croydon and what I would be eating with my daughters if home in Mordialloc.

One of the camp hosts, Nicholas, grinned and whispered his appreciative ‘good tucker’ looking forward to piling his plate high. Earlier that afternoon he had managed to dig up a witchetty grub, a delicacy he was prepared to share with me, advising ‘it tastes like cooked egg yolk.’ But I had watched the effort it had taken to unearth the white grub. Small and wriggling in the palm of his hand; it was hardly ‘a meal.’ His brown eyes begged me to refuse his offer and I obliged. A sacrifice I was happy to make; insects and grubs still a taste I have yet to acquire.

‘Fetch your mugs, it won’t be long till we serve.’ The pot of soup was eased off the fire and I watched ants scurrying over leaf litter around the campfire not far from the pot.

5 thoughts on “I Remember Mum Saying – You’ll Eat Worse Than That before You Die!

  1. Congratulations. And to me too! (I’ve also been included in the book – ‘Working Out for our Mussels’). I enjoyed reading your story and yes, I think Kari O’Gorman’s done a great job. Here’s to next time …

    Liked by 1 person

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