Vaarwel, Manly Girl

Elizabeth_Wynhausen_11.04_2My friend Elisabeth Wynhausen died last week.  It feels odd to write a tribute from a distance, as I would much rather have been at the funeral/wake to hear from her friends Susie, Mary, Kim, her beloved niece and nephew Gabi and Jesse and their families, and so many others who would have shared copious memories of an amazing individual. Since fate has placed me 11,000 miles away, this will have to suffice. Apologies, Elisabeth – but I am in one of your favourite cities, and I will visit Roxy at the Seven Stars to raise a glass in your honour.

During my Cantorial life, I met people in multiple contexts, often associated with life events. With Elisabeth this was no different, and though the pathway to our friendship was, like hell, paved with good intentions, it was a path I am glad to have trod: it taught me a lot.

I first met Elisabeth through the pages of her novel Manly Girls, a biting, sharp, witty autobiography of her youth.  Only brief flashes of memory remain at this time, and I will re-read the work when I return to Australia; but I do remember being shocked, impressed, and moved by the way Elisabeth captured a sense of outsiderness in her experiences of Jewish life on Sydney’s North Shore in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In particular, I remember a passage where she mentioned the cliquishness of certain sets of proper Jewish ladies, and their exclusionary behaviour that caused so much hurt at that time. With a certain amount of trepidation, I asked my mother (of a similar vintage to Elisabeth) whether she remembered her own time at Cheder (Hebrew school), and whether the social dynamics described by Elisabeth resonated in her memories. I was relieved to find out that mum’s experience of exclusion was almost identical, and that she treated similarly by those young, ‘white-gloved princesses’ (was that the phrase?) who had ruled the roost.  Both my mother and Elisabeth were outsiders of a different hue: my mother was from a single-parent family (her father having died when she was 12) and thus not ‘normal’ in either 1950s Australia or the Jewish community of that time; Elisabeth was Dutch, and her Holocaust survivors had decided not only to live outside the nominal Jewish ghetto of the Eastern Suburbs, but to do so in possibly one of the most Anglo suburbs in Sydney: Manly, southern capital of the Northern Beaches, the “Insular Peninsula”.

My first proper meeting with Elisabeth did not bode well for the establishment of a future friendship. I had just completed a four-month internship at St Vincent’s Hospital, and was working “on the floor” as a Jewish chaplain. The training was an intense process; the Certificate of Clinical Pastoral Education required a 40-hour working week at the hospital, spending up to 5 hours on the floor, visiting patients (of any or no denomination or faith), reflecting on such visits and writing them up in journals, debriefing with a team of incredible supervisors, learning the intricacies of Hospital politics, policy, theories of empathetic listening etc. If that wasn’t enough, I happened to be the first Jewish chaplain in NSW who had gone through such a course, and much of the theology was Christian in focus and language, a fact I had to address fairly resolutely (and respectfully) every day of my training.  One day when glancing at the list of Jewish patients, I noticed the name Nan Wynhausen. I felt a little bit of excitement at recognising the name of Elisabeth’s mother from the book, and I went to visit. We had a terrific conversation, most of it to do the pride she had in her daughter’s journalistic excellence, and my enthusiasm for Manly Girls.

In the back of my mind, an excitement built about the prospect of visiting Nan when Elisabeth was present, talking to her about the book, and her answering some of my [polite] enquiries.  Now, those of you who know Elisabeth know that she and organised religion were not on speaking terms … when the day came, my friendly approach was not only regarded with high suspicion (as proselytising), but most firmly refused. Ejected promptly from Nan’s room without the chance to even engage in conversation or explanation, I retired hurt.

It’s amazing how things turn. In the year 2000 (a few years after the hospital visit) Elisabeth’s brother Jules approached me with the idea of forming a community choir at Temple Emanuel. Although not religious, Jules loved Jewish identity, community and Jewish music, and wanted to sing for High Holydays. Together with his mate Leo van Biene and Geoff Cohn, I had an instant and enthusiastic bass section, and soon Jules encouraged others to join.  He helped with Hebrew translations, encouraged me to make recordings of the parts so that the non-music reading choristers could practice diligently at home or in the car.  Jules taught me how to relate to amateur singers: he gently revealed the value of working with limitations, in community. I loved his cynical dry wit and his enthusiasm, his enormous smile and the wicked twinkle in the eye. I used to watch him sidle up to the late Danny Slade (one of the elders of the Temple community, also a Dutch survivor) on Rosh Hashanah, and crack jokes (most likely obscene ones) in Dutch.

In March 2003 a devastating bicycle accident left Jules in a coma, and after rehabilitation, a profound change in personality. No longer able to enjoy music in the way he had previously, our previously jovial relationship faltered during the many hospital visits I made to see him. This was understandable as I was a fairly new friend in his life, and I think the brain injury caused irreparable damage to short term memory.  My sadness was assuaged by the knowledge that Jules had a team of devoted friends and family who visited all the time.  And when he passed away in July 2007, it was a great honour to officiate at the funeral of a man I described as a non-conformist, philosopher, singer, linguist, stubborn and generous lover of life, nature and humanity.

Through Jules’ death I finally got to meet Elisabeth. Properly. The Elisabeth I knew I would like, who liked me back equally. We worked on the tributes to Jules together, with Jesse, Gabi and Eve. Within a month, we were working together again, to craft an appropriate tribute to Elisabeth’s mother Nan, who passed away less than four weeks after Jules.  Nan’s story of growing up in Arnhem (Holland), her experiences with the cream of German cabaret in Scheveningen during the Nazi occupation, her miraculous escape into Switzerland, her love for Paul, building a new life in Australia – that alone is worth another blog entry.  But this process of co-writing really bound Elisabeth and I together in friendship.  We shared many discussions, keeping in touch regularly via email. In 2009 Al and I were in the United Kingdom for a holiday and the celebration of my sister’s wedding.  Elisabeth was in town, and took us to her favourite haunt: a 407 year old pub in Holborn called the Seven Stars, one of the few buildings to survive the Great Fire of 1666. After a great night, we vowed to see each other more back in Australia.  A minor disaster struck when I invited her to my 40th birthday party – she was the only person who didn’t receive the email of the change of venue, and turned up at the Civic Hotel instead of the UTS Loft.  Thankfully, Elisabeth forgave the error, and we continued to write to each other.  I wrote to her my news of the fellowship in the United States – she wrote back and reconnected me with a friend and congregant, Susie, living at that time in New York.  When I moved to DC, Elisabeth’s nephew Jesse and his wife Jo were staying at Susie’s – they too showed amazing hospitality, and we had a few very special nights out: going to see the preview of The Book of Mormon, later on dancing to the music of Danny Krivit at Sessions 708 in celebration of my dissertation passing examination.

Many roads led me to Elisabeth. At first bristling and prickly, cautious and suspicious (often with good reason), when she let you in, generosity and support flooded through, and she connected like-minded people in a profound, joyous and communal way. In 2011 I finally had the chance to repay the hospitality to both Susie and Elisabeth with a dinner  at our house.  We had a boozy, opinionated, raucous night, filled with laughter and salacious conversation.  When Gabi put her aunt’s blog onto Facebook in January this year, it prompted me to write again to her on the email. Alas, no reply – this should have alerted me that all was not well.

As Ferris said: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

I am so sorry I missed the last part of your life, Elisabeth. I would have loved to say goodbye in person. I would have loved to have you and Susie over for dinner again. I would have loved to have just chatted for an hour or more.  Alas, it was not to be. You will remain in my heart and memory as a fabulous, generous individual.  Vaarwel.


Elisabeth and Al

Elisabeth and Al in London, July 2009


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Filed under Nostalgia

When your friends give you lemons …

The month of June 2013 was the wettest in Sydney since 2007. With double the historical average, homes were left soggy, damp, and leaking, but many of our gardens flourished. In particular, citrus trees were delighted with the downfall, setting many fruit in the conditions.  Fortunately, the very dry and mild July has allowed the fruit to grow and ripen, and some of my friends have bumper crops of citrus, branches groaning under the weight.

My lovely friends Anthea and Gus have a couple of healthy citrus trees in their backyard, and put out a call for friends to come and help themselves to oranges and lemons (and they’re nowhere near the bells of St Clemens).  Prior to my mountains writing retreat, figuring that cooking was a necessary and enjoyable distraction, I raided the lemon tree to transform some of the harvest into delicious treats for friends and family.

The three most traditional ways of keeping a lemon for future use are through the preserving agents of salt, sugar or fat.  In Moroccan cuisine, lemon quarters are rubbed vigorously with salt and packed into sterilised jars with spices (cinnamon, coriander seed, bay leaf) for the traditional L’hamd marakad (literally ‘sleeping lemons’).  I used Stephanie Alexander’s recipe from her iconic A Cooks Companion – you can look it up via this link. I won’t be able to open these beauties for another 2 or so weeks, but they should last the rest of the year. Once ready, the flesh is scraped off and you only use the rind sparingly to add complexity to savoury dishes (tagines, soups, etc).


Preserving fruit with sugar will give you a jam or marmalade. Apparently the word marmalade comes from the Portuguese word marmelada, which means preserved quince, and the first written usage of the word is from a play published in 1521. Of course in Portuguese tradition, marmelada is the famous quince paste, a delicious accompaniment to a cheese course. Coincidentally (before even knowing this), I actually flavoured this year’s batch with  quince jelly, a delicious by-product from some baked quinces. When you bake quinces in the oven (with water or verjuice, sugar and spices), at the end of the cooking process there is a delicious, sweet, quince-flavoured liquor that remains. Because of the high pectin content of the quinces, you can boil this down to a concentrate that sets naturally: hey presto, quince jelly with no horrid gelatine! Here’s my effort:


Last year’s marmalade was quite different to this batch. I used a more simple approach via the BBC Good Food site, but with some important modifications. I added more fruit (1.2kg), reduced the sugar to 1.5kg, added in 4 tablespoons of quince, 3 passionfruit and a vanilla pod for some different flavours. So far the reaction from punters has been very good!


The final, most perishable and indulgent form of preserving fruit flavour is in fat: specifically, butter. Lemon butter, or lemon curd, is a wonderfully versatile ingredient: you can spread it on toast, use it as a pie filling (I made a blackberry tart with lemon curd last year) and even make a delightfully retro “tropical meringue roulade” (with lemon butter, whipped cream and a brown-sugar meringue, all rolled up together).

According to the British Food website, lemon butter has been mentioned in cookbooks from the mid-19th century, and prior to that it was referred to as “lemon cheese”.  My partner’s mother Betty always refers to it as “lemon cheese” rather than lemon butter or lemon curd.  Apparently there’s also a difference between the North and South in whether one says “cheese” or “curd”.  In the past I’ve made lemon butter on the stove by incorporating butter, slowly whisking it in on a double boiler; I’ve made it in the microwave (shudder – but it worked as a fast solution); and this time I followed a really wonderful Lemon & Passionfruit Curd recipe by one of my contemporary food heroes, Poh Ling Yeow. It has worked a treat, and just as Poh says, it looks curdled at first, and as you stir there is a miraculous transformation into silky smooth deliciousness.


So that’s this year’s lemon preserving efforts. In total, from a bag of about 40 or so lemons I made 10 jars of marmalade, 8 jars of lemon curd and two jars of preserved lemons. It’s a great way of continuing the lemon bounty for some months to come: you avoid buying commercial products that are loaded with extra artificial rubbish; you are using a local, sustainable product without a great deal of outlay; and you can  give them away as gifts to your loved ones!!! Last pics are of my lovely friends, picking the bounty from THE tree of plenty. Thanks, gorgeous ones!



Filed under Comestibles, Seasons

Musical Game of Drones …

Since it has been some time since I wrote about a theme song, I thought I would have a look at the music of a current hit: the theme song from the HBO series “Game of Thrones” (an adaptation from A Song of Ice and Fire, fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin).  The first series debuted in April last year, and as I write this, Series Two has just concluded. Despite the title of this blog entry, I AM a fan of this series – it is joyous escapism, combining a Dark-Middle Ages aesthetic with fantasy elements like sorcery and magical creatures, and quite a few salacious bits too, which adds to the spice and entertainment value.  The script is also well constructed, and the characters are appealing and more than one-dimensional.  But this blog is about the music, and in particular, about the theme music, which in my opinion, lets the show down.

Music for theme songs in television series fall neatly into the category of programmatic music: subordinate to a narrative or story-line. In fact,  music for motion picture soundtracks and the small screen has followed the model of programmatic music since the advent of talking pictures, and with such strong visual leads, it is not unreasonable to argue (although some of you may do so) that it is the primacy of IMAGE that guides the musical form and shape in these contexts.

So before I go on to deconstruct the music, let me contextualise the visuals first.  The graphics for the opening titles depict the major centres or locations of interest in the fictional continent of Westeros. Each title opening changes to reflect where the action will take place in that episode.  For example, titles of the first episode depicted Winterfell (ancestral seat of the house of Stark); the Wall of the North, an enormous barrier of ice guarded by the Brotherhood of the Night’s Watch, erected to keep out “the Others” (mythical creatures alluded to during the first Season, who we finally glimpse at the end of Season Two); and Kings Landing, where the King of Westeros sits on the Iron Throne.  Each of these locations rise out of a quasi-two-dimensional map, in an elegant mechanical manner inspired by Meccano, but a LOT more sophisticated. Allusions to the mediaeval worldview come in the portrayal of the sun as a giant Astrolabe, soaring over the landscape. Visually, it is clever: it conjures up notions of an old-fashioned fantasy board game or even something like the old Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing games. If you want to know more detail about the process of the credits, click here:

The author of the theme song (and general incidental music for the series) is Iranian-German composer Ramin Djawadi, who has a strong list of musical credits as a film and TV score composer (see image attached).  His most successful efforts in the past include Iron Man (2008), Prison Break (2005) and Blade: Trinity (2004). A protege of the extremely prolific Hans Zimmer (who now heads up the film music division at DreamWorks studio, and was a pioneer in combining electronic and acoustic orchestral arrangements in scores), Djawadi has more recently branched into scoring for animation and games, and this really seems to be where the influence for the the theme song of Game of Thrones is situated.


The orchestration and trajectory of the score is as follows: the rhythmic-melodic introduction begins on lower strings accompanied by drums.  The drum sound is akin to a tapan, but they could be tenor or bass drums.  A cello solo introduces the main theme in a four bar phrase, which is constructed out of the driving lower string accompaniment:

I’ve notated the work in 12/8 rather than the more typical 3/4 for a specific reason: the main theme has a doubled pulse of four, appearing over the three-pulse rhythmic cell.  I could have notated it in 3/4, but it makes far more sense to notate this in compound time.

Back to the music.  The four-bar theme is doubled by a viola, who plays the occasional ornament  around the theme. The theme repeats again, legato, on full string section; it is varied rhythmically in the 5th and 6th bar.  Finally the theme is extended, first on middle violin range, and then up the octave.  The credits conclude with the rhythmic cell now played on a plucked zither instrument – either harpsichord, dulcimer, psaltery or a zither.  Here’s the ‘official’ show open – sometimes credits show a slight variance, with an extra two beats added during one of the sections.

Harmonically, the arrangement is in C natural minor, with a naturalised Eb in the second bar, for some presumed ‘effect’.  The use of a natural minor is used, presumably, to evoke a pre-modern musical system – it conforms more readily to our imaginings of church modes, and a more ancient Western musical system.

Having explained all of this in such detail, you might be tempted to ask me why I find this theme so lacklustre, so unrelated to the actual series.  The answer is simply this: it is stock-standard-derivative, boring in the extreme, and everything that Game of Thrones is not. Eeach device used by the composer is meant to evoke the unattainable quasi-mediaeval world of fantasy.  But the blunt, unsubtle and ham-fisted manner of using such clichés in abundance just disappoints. It certainly sounds like an accompaniment to a fantasy game for Xbox. But the theme to Game of Thrones (the HBO series) is an unsatisfactory pastiche of stock mediaeval/fantasy musical devices, cobbled together in a truly predictable and disappointing manner. It’s a shame: HBO usually does a lot better with their musical accompaniment. I’m guessing that the expression on Ned Stark’s face below came just after he heard the theme …


Filed under Music Reviews, TV themes

Winter baking and marmalade making

When the temperature drops and the wintry rain discountenances outdoor activities, a gratifying distraction on such occasions is to formulate an indoor cooking project.  We retreated to the mountains hideaway this weekend accompanied by our friends Tim and Karl, and later Marty and Kel.  Tim is an accomplished baker and preserver.  (Is there an elegant word for a person who makes jams and preserves? I haven’t found one as yet.)  With such auspicious alignments in mind (that is, bad weather and a cooking collaborator), I thought that the weekend would be perfect for my first foray into the world of preserves, jams and marmalades, guided by one who had gone before me with many successes.

But what to preserve?  I had some lovely red grapefruit that had been purchased with the intention of being used in a fennel salad; and mum and dad’s meyer lemon tree had also yielded an amazingly good crop of lemons in its first year.  With such a bounty, what could one do but make Lemon and Grapefruit Marmalade?

The recipe was fairly easy.  2 grapefruits, 4 lemons, sliced finely, the seeds and some pith preserved in a muslin.  Soak the fruit overnight in 2.5L of cold water.  The next day, pour into a pot, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 45 minutes. Then add 2.5kg sugar which had been warming in the oven for the last 15 minutes of the simmer.  Remove any scum that rises to the surface. Cook, stirring for 10 minutes until the sugar has dissolved. Then bring back up to the boil, and cook for up to an hour, or until the jam has set.  Let cool, pour into sterilised glass jars, and admire! If you want the recipe that I based mine on, here’s a link to it.

There are a whole series of nostalgic memories surrounding marmalade. My grandmother Essie (z”l) was an excellent cook, and was the first person to introduce me to marmalade as a child: in particular, Rose’s Lime Marmalade.  And my maternal aunty Wendy had a cumquat tree at her house in Killara, and I remember as a small boy visiting there, and enjoying the most intensely sour and sweet smell of cumquat marmalade cooking on the stove.  We had a small sample on hot, crusty bread with butter.  Delicious.

Tim and I decided to make another nostalgic treat: melting moments.  The recipe was easy – basically a shortbread by any other name, with the crucial ingredient of custard powder added, for flavour and colour.  I creamed butter with the seeds of one vanilla pod.  Then I combined icing sugar, custard powder and plain flour in a bowl, and beat it into the butter with a wooden spoon.  It’s crucial to beat it in lightly, so that you do not work the gluten in the flour.  Then we rolled it into small balls, made the characteristic prong marks with the fork tines, and baked in a medium oven for 18 minutes.

Here’s the controversial part.  Essie used to make very special melting moments with dulce de leche rather than the lemon or passionfruit icing.  For this, she would boil a can of condensed milk on the stove for 2 hours, making sure that the water was always in the pan so the can did not explode.  Two hours later: caramel, or dulce de leche.  Sandwiched between the shortcrust biscuits, these are incredibly rich and delicious.  I can’t ever eat more than one.




Filed under Comestibles, Nostalgia, Seasons

Yoykhs and Away!

Yoykh (f): Yiddish word meaning broth, most usually referring to chicken broth or chicken soup.  “Tsores mit yoykh iz gringer vi tsores on yoykh” (Troubles with soup is easier than troubles without soup)

Sorry vegetarians, but this is another meat-based food post.

This is dedicated to my friend and colleague, Chris, who is expanding his culinary repertoire and wanted some help with the making of stock.  The journey of a thousand soups begins with one stock.  It’s taken me many years to work on my stock technique. I’ve used every part of the chicken over the years: veal bones, chicken feet, giblets, heart, just carcasses, sometimes roasted, sometimes using the remains of a roast chicken.  All have produced different flavoured stocks. If you use a roasted carcass or cooked chicken, then the stock will be a little richer; if you use feet, it will be more gelatine in nature; if you use giblets or heart then it will be stronger. In the past I’ve sweated the mirepoix (the crucial mix of celery, onion and carrot) in olive oil before adding the bones. No more. Now I have developed my own fool-proof method.  Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 3-4 chicken carcasses. Get the very best quality that you can find – kosher is good, organic is also good.
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, or half a small fennel including the fronds.  I use fennel because I find celery disgusting.
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 small brown onions, or 1 large one (keep the skins!)
  • 6 peppercorns (optional)
  • 1 knob of ginger, peeled and sliced (optional)

Now, first things first.  An essential part of making a good stock is removing the scum (the impurities).  My way of doing this comprehensively is to do two boils. First, place your bones in the pot, cover with COLD water and bring to the boil.  While it comes to the boil, chop your vegetables finely, and keep the onion peel – you will throw this into the stock and it will impart a nice colour.      

Once the bones have come to the boil, tip them into the sink, clean the pot, clean the bones, and start again.  This time, put all your chopped vegetables into the pot with the carcasses on top.  Then fill to the top with water.

Bring to the boil, then turn down to the absolutely lowest point you can.  Let it cook for 6 hours.  Yes, that’s what I said. 6 hours.  Set it and forget it. Here are the pictures at 3 hours and at the end:


Leave to cool.  Find yourself a muslin tea-towel, and drape it over a mixing bowl. Pour in the whole mixture, and squeeze away until you have all the liquid in the bowl, and a fairly dry mixture in the muslin.  Throw that away.  Put the bowl into the fridge for the fat to rise and set.


Next day (or in a few hours) take the bowl out, and with a spoon, carefully remove the fat. Discard it – it’s no good for you.  No, don’t use it for shmaltz. It’s NO good for you. Now you have a delicious stock – you should get about 2 litres from this recipe, and it will have cost you about $4 – a lot better than that tetra-pak rubbish they sell in the supermarkets.  If you need to adjust for salt, add some salt!  Now you can make delicious soups like lokshen yoykh mit zakhn (chicken noodle soup with yummy additions) as seen on the front cover of this post.  There is medical evidence to suggest that yoykh may be a better treatment for colds and flu than that stuff you buy over the counter.  Don’t believe me?  Read this article:

And go make some … winter is coming in Australia, for goodness sake!


Filed under Comestibles

One Day in April …

Yesterday was Anzac Day: for non-Australians reading the blog, it is our national day of commemoration for those who died serving Australia in the wars of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

First, a personal disclaimer: for many years I co-ordinated the service for Anzac Day at my Synagogue, and I aimed to make it a dignified and respectful service. That particular Synagogue (Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney, formerly Temple Emanuel) had a history inextricably bound to the events of the Second World War. As far as I know, it was one of the only Synagogues to be built during the war years (at the same time that so many were being deliberately razed to the ground by the Nazis and their collaborators).  The women’s guild of Temple Emanuel raised funds for activities through active contribution to the war effort, making camouflage netting and other important materials. A great many congregants of Temple served in the armed forces, and the most senior Jewish member of the Australian armed forces, Major General Paul Cullen AC was the founding treasurer of the congregation. For all these reasons and more, I was happy to co-ordinate a dignified memorial service for those ex-servicewomen and men who had seen military service. I saw this as an intrinsic part of the Synagogue’s history, and an important moment for the elderly women and men who would come especially for this one day in April.

However, there is another side to Anzac Day that has risen in recent years. Growing up, I used to like the ambivalent position of Anzac Day in Australia, exemplified in Alan Seymour’s play “The One Day of the Year”. When I was young, Anzac Day was the day for ex-servicemen to get drunk with their mates at the pub, and a quiet day off for the rest of us. Those who attended the dawn service or other events did so because they were connected to it directly through family who had served, or those who were still serving. It functioned a lot more like the American Memorial Day. I feel nostalgic for this past way of commemorating our war dead. Back then, there was little of the ridiculous public chest-beating and almost no connection to the sort of nationalism that occurs these days. No-one went to Gallipoli on a ‘pilgrimage’. The transmogrification of Anzac Day happened during the Howard years, when national identity was firmly planted in the soil of the blood-stained Anatolian cliffs, where thousands of young Australians AND New Zealanders were pointlessly and callously slaughtered in 1915 because of the laziness and stupidity of the British commanding forces. The question we asked during those days of ambivalence was: did Australia need to experience this catastrophic generational loss in order to formulate a national identity, to enshrine the notion of ‘mateship’ in our  consciousness?

Regarding mateship, my gut says that ‘mateship’ has a far older origin than the place of Anzac Cove. I’m sure mateship existed in the chain gangs of those convicts, transported to the other side of the world for the most trivial of crimes, supporting each other through their misery. I’m sure mateship existed in the phenomenally corrupt Rum Corps and the way in which they ran New South Wales. Plus ça change, plus ça la même chose?  Wasn’t mateship a part of the Kelly gang, and all the other bushrangers, skirting the law? I’m pretty sure mateship existed in the various tragic explorations into the interior of the continent. I also think that a far darker and less pleasant mateship existed in the organised eradication and dispossession of land, culture and life from the first people who had existed in Australia for tens of thousands of years prior to us Johhny-come-latelies. In short, although I think that mateship is an intrinsic part of how we construct our identity, I don’t believe it was codified at Anzac Cove, nor do I think it holds a definitively ‘beneficial’ or positive aspect. It is the way we socialise in our culture, and I suspect has its true heritage in British forms of social village behaviour, in rural and disadvantaged parts; and also perhaps a transference of such behaviours to the emerging working-class areas of expanding city life during industrialisation. There is a certain tribal nature to ‘mateship’.

When I was growing up, some historical commentary treated the events of Anzac differently. This perspective saw the awakening of the Australian identity at Anzac through the act of British abandonment. The wholesale slaughter of these young men spoke to later generations as a conscious revelation that we, the colonies, were not inextricably linked to the Mother Country as we had perceived up to that point. This unease was reinforced in World War II, when tens of thousands of our best trained Australian and New Zealand troops were caught in the European conflict ‘on loan’ to the Mother Country, whilst our borders sat exposed to the threat of attack and possible invasion.  Again, I am simplifying complex issues and intercontinental relations, but this contributed to the severing of the imperial umbilical cord in the minds of many Australians.

While I admire and pay respect to those who served in various conflicts for Australia, I despair at the growing sense of jingoistic nationalism that surrounds this history. I wonder, was it a coincidence that the rise of Anzac Day consciousness during the Howard years also occurred during the diminution (and in some cases, revisionism) of the more shameful aspects of our colonial past, that is, the dispossession and oppression of indigenous cultures? If we are going to be full and frank about this, then the way in which we treated our indigenous soldiers left much to be desired.

A point in case: if you go into detail regarding our policies for Torres Strait Islander men, the following facts can be stated. First, they were paid at less than half the rate of the non-Indigenous soldiers; second, as heads of their villages, they were understandably concerned when their women and children were left exposed to Japanese bombing and attack, with absolutely no plan of evacuation or protection implemented by the Australian government. If you want to read in more detail about this largely forgotten history, here’s a good link to the history of the war in TSI:

Despite the very subjective nature of those who recount, History should not be a pick-and-choose game. If we are to continue towards a more mature understanding of our national identity, we must consider all different aspects of our history with a keen and critical eye, and not resort to nostalgia for some sections, and amnesia for others. Methinks we still have a very long way to go.


Filed under Nostalgia

Not guacamole

Many years ago, the Sydney Morning Herald’s resident food writer Matthew Evans wrote a very delicious recipe for guacamole.  Evans’ recipe called for the usual suspects: chilli, cumin, raw garlic, avocado, Spanish onion, sour cream, diced tomato, coriander and lime juice.  I continue to make this occasionally, but I have found that as the years go on, my ability to digest raw garlic has diminished, as has my capacity to consume hot chillies. So here is my not-guacamole, pared down to something really simple. I was inspired to simplicity by an old friend, Judy Nachum. She served something like this when we had lunch a few years ago. I don’t want to call it an avocado dip – it’s just something nice to put on bread, or shmear on carrots and cucumber. Ingredients:

  • 2 avocados
  • 2-3 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 6 grinds of the pepper grinder
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 4 spring onions

As you can see … very pared down!  First, juice the lemons – you will need the juice straight away for the next step.  Mash the avocados, and stir the juice in right away to prevent discoloration.


Toast the cumin seeds in a pan until they colour. Then grind them straight away in a mortar and pestle.  The smoke from the grinding will lend your house a delicious aroma.  There is NO comparison to freshly ground cumin and that pathetic pre-ground cumin powder dust that you can buy in supermarkets.

Mix the ground cumin into the avocado mash. Add the salt and pepper.  Adjust accordingly – you want something salty, spicy from the cumin and sour from lemon.  Then add the chopped up spring onions.


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Savoury treats for the Allkie talkie




Our friends Stephen and Beth are coming over for an afternoon of fashion documentaries and chats. I suggested to Beth that we name such events “Allkie talkies” because they involve a lot of chatting, and Stephen’s last name is Allkins. She loved the idea.

But what to cook? Beth usually brings the best hummus in Sydney (made by Erciyes in Crown Street, Surry Hills – others may dispute this and nominate Abduls, but I like the Turkish version more).  I thought I would make something a little nostalgic: an onion puff pastry tart – something a little like the delicious Pissaladière of southern France.

Why would I dub this nostalgic?  Well, the first recipe book to get me back into cooking after an 8 year hiatus was Jill Dupleix’s New Food. Contained within its enormous covers was a delicious recipe for caramelised onion, as the basis of an onion soup. In 1994, the Dupleix’s book was an inspiration for two reasons: the language contained within was plain, simple, and unpretentious; almost larrikin in nature, the humour and personality of the author shone out; secondly, the food styling was seriously beautiful, clever (often focussing on ingredients and their beauty over the finished product of the recipe) and mouthwatering. The recipes weren’t genius – they were simple, delicious, accessible and easy to prepare. New Food was my gateway back to the love of cooking, and without it I would never have been able to approach the austere scholarship and comprehensive knowledge of Stephanie Alexander’s (my most treasured cookbook, along with Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food).

So today I will make a couple of variations on the traditional Pissaladière. Beth is vegetarian, and I will make one of the tarts without anchovies, but with the addition of some cherry tomatoes and a splash of A’s homemade tomato jam to add complexity. Second, the pastry will be pre-purchased puff (PPP) – I’m not going to make a bread dough, nor will I make pâte brisée (shortcrust pastry), because short-cuts are quite acceptable in my book. Here’s what you will need for these delicious goodies. If you can’t find vino cotto at your specialist wanky delicatessen, then you may substitute it for 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. Alternatively, leave out the 2 tablespoons of red-wine vinegar, and substitute with 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.

  • 1 packet puff pastry
  • 8 Spanish (red) onions
  • 3 sprigs thyme, leaves stripped from stalks
  • 50g butter
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 2 tablespoons sherry or red-wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon vino cotto
  • 1 punnet cherry tomatoes AND/OR adequate reserves of anchovies
  • 100g olives (pitted)

Preheat the oven to 190ºC.






Peel your onions, and slice.  There’s no need to chop into fine dice – the sliced onions will give a lovely texture.  Heat your butter and oil, and when foaming, throw the onions in. Turn the heat down to about low-medium. You want the onions to cook slowly, get soft and caramelize as they go – it will take between 30 and 40 minutes, with occasional stirring.  In the last 5 minutes, stir in the vino cotto and the red wine vinegar (alternatively the balsamic vinegar; third alternative, dissolve the brown sugar in the red wine vinegar and then stir it in).


Let the onions cool.  Now get your frozen puff pastry out of the fridge. Score a ridge along the side of it with a knife, but be careful not to cut right through!  Then spread your onion mixture onto the pastry, and arrange the ingredients (olives and/or anchovies and/or tomatoes and or whatever) on top.  Place on a baking sheet, and into the oven for 20-25 minutes.

Easy peasy!  I forgot how easy and fun these are to make.  The only irritant is all that onion peeling and slicing at the beginning.  They went down a treat as we watched three special documentaries: Florent, Queen of the Meat Market (about a restauranteur activist and icon of New York’s Meatpacking District, Florent Morellet); Elizabeth Taylor: Auction of a Lifetime (the auction of Her jewellery) and L’Amour Fou (about the art collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé).  What a nice Anzac Day treat!


Filed under Comestibles, Nostalgia

E Pluribus Facebook

In my post on vows (see I mentioned that I had taken the decision to suspend my Facebook account for the month of April. A few reasons led to this resolution.  First, I suspected that I was spending far too much time looking at Facebook. Indeed, my suspicions have been confirmed, for the past three weeks have seen many more opportunities to stay ahead of work preparation, write my blog regularly, begin piano practice again and generally find a lot more time to do things rather than view things. I estimate that I was spending approximately two hours per day trawling Facebook posts, looking up what my friends were doing but not feeling that I was interacting with them in a proper, meaningful way.

After the film “The Social Network” was released in 2010, the author Zadie Smith wrote an article in the New York Review of Books (November 25, 2010) entitled “Generation Why”.

Here’s a link to her full article, should you wish to read it for yourselves:


Smith reviewed the film, and combined the review with reportage on the reaction to the film by Zuckerberg, the issues and controversies surrounding the website at that time, a more general discussion of the website, and why she gave Facebook up.

I went back to Smith’s article to look at her particular critiques, in order to see if some of her thoughts resonated with my own discomfort and the subsequent decision to suspend the account for a month. One of the really interesting writers she cites is the programmer and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier:

“Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information under-represents reality. [In Facebook, life is turned into a database and this is a degradation] based on a philosophical mistake … the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do.”

Smith goes on to emphasise the point (later made by Lanier) that software is NOT a neutral format:

“Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.”

These are a series of fascinating observations. We spend so much of our time online. Rarely do we consider that the tools at our disposal are actually not neutral in character, but shape the way we communicate, the way we interact with the internet itself, and how we communicate with others. We tend to notice such features when highly commercially explicit issues are at stake: only then are our hackles raised: for example, when Microsoft or Apple control in a proprietorial way that we are forced to purchase one product over the other; or when we receive junk-mail that resembles our ‘tastes’ in a curiously accurate manner based on browsing history; or in news items, when some poor sap in a mid-Western state of the US is prosecuted to the full extent of the law for copyright infringement, and we look on with guilty sympathy, knowing that he/she is merely a “fall-guy” (for want of a better term) for the millions who are perpetrating the same ‘victimless crimes’.

In practice, one simple answer against buying into the marketed product of Facebook is to create (or update) a blog – hence my own rather more active writing during the month of April. Blogs feel more proprietorial, individual, encapsulating a personal presentation of our personalities and opinions. Sure, we are still imprisoned to some extent by our ability to manipulate the software (WordPress in my case), but ownership feels more secure, presentation/layout seems more flexible and you can vet comments and responses.  But, I hear you FB loyalists cry, Facebook can do all of this and more, and it does it all for us with such ease!  Well yes, it certainly can provide such features and more – but I do find myself feeling uneasy about the intellectual property of my the images and thoughts contained on my Facebook profile; and then there the surprising and jarring global decisions on the part of Facebook to change formats without consultation or the chance for feedback.

Smith’s argument against Facebook is that it operates under the rubric of E pluribus Unim – (one from many). This phrase, embedded in the coat of arms of the United States is turned on its head in a beautifully ironic fashion by the writer. The height of her argument is encapsulated in the following paragraph:

“When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”

Ouch! Harsh but very persuasive words. Reductionism is something that we tolerate in our society, and manifests in the way we function within structures based on transcendental premises. The structures that are transcendental in our society include the law, the education system and the government (and, in times past, the arts).  They exceed our present reality as participants in society, denying immediate gratification for the promise of a greater reward. They reduce us to a general public, and we sacrifice our individuality in order that the general well being of society can function in an orderly fashion: ergo, the utilitarian social contract.

But we have not chosen any form of reductionism in our personal or general interactions on the Internet, despite the rhetoric and desire of governments (and, we suspect, private interests) to to regulate the Internet in various clumsy ways. When we choose Facebook over independent internet presentations of our selves, we unconsciously limit ourselves to what Zadie Smith bluntly terms a representation of us “entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”  There is nothing at all wrong in doing this. Facebook can help us reconnect with friends of years past; it can help us keep in touch with friends many miles away. But it is doing so through another person’s filter, and it’s worth keeping that at the forefront of our communications.

When I return to Facebook in May, I will enjoy reconnecting with friends and keeping up to date with the latest events, parties, photos and celebrations. I will enjoy being guided by friends towards fascinating and engaging articles, great musical and video gems.

But I will hesitate just a little bit when sharing my own personal thoughts and musings …


Filed under Nostalgia, Philosophy, Social Graces

Peasants from Plock

The family of my maternal grandmother’s father’s side were named Levy, indicating an ancestral claim to be descended from the ancient Levitical tribe (servers in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Levites were also musicians during sacred service, and I sort of like that musical link).

I imagine them to have been good solid European Jewish peasant stock, vainly toiling the frozen ground in Plock, Poland, fleeing political and religious persecution to England, and from there migrating to one of the far-flung colonies. What motivated my great-great-grandparents Joseph Levy (1840-1919) and Esther Cohen (c.1851-1902) to leave Mile End for Sydney? Overcrowding in the increasingly Jewish East End? A reunion of sorts with family who had already moved out here? So far I have located Esther’s sister, Hannah Cohen, who married Solomon Goldstein, and we know of some the children of the Goldstein family.  But that’s it so far in terms of details.

Unfortunately, I doubt we will ever find out any tangible reasons for the relocation. Joseph went on ahead in March 1876 on the SS Rotarua, leaving behind a pregnant wife with three young children: Mark (4 years old), Daniel (3 years old) and Ann (2 years old). Clara was born in 1877, and Esther arrived in Sydney with her four children on February 24, 1878, free passengers on the Lochee. In Sydney she would give birth to five more children: Fanny (1879), my great-grandfather Simeon (1881), Rosa (1882), either Isaac or Isadore (1884), and an infant who did not survive, Samuel (1885).

In Sydney, my great-grandfather Simeon married Emma Maude, and had three children: my grandmother Esther, and her two brothers, David and Neville. Both brothers had a form of muscular dystrophy, and died in their teenage years (David died at 14 in 1918, Neville died at 16 in 1927). My grandmother was taken out of Fort Street High School,  where she was excelling at science and hoping to train in chemistry, so that she could nurse her brothers through their sicknesses. She never spoke of this to us – but I always sensed a deep sadness in her, a bias towards male relatives, and a profound personal regret in the cessation of her formal education.

The most famous and successful of the Levy family was my grandmother’s uncle Daniel. A precocious lad, he attended Crown Street Superior Public School, where according to family legend he apparently used to play cricket with Victor Trumper. I am a little doubtful of this … Dan was 5 years older than Victor, and I cannot imagine an 11 year old playing cricket with a 6 year old in the playground. Still, stranger things have happened …

Dan went on to obtain a scholarship to Sydney Grammar School, where he won the Knox Prize  and Morehead Scholarship. Proceeding onto Sydney University, he won the University medal in Classics. No wonder my grandmother was so keen on my continuing study in Latin!

Uncle Dan, as he was known in the family, became Sir Daniel Levy MLA, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the NSW Parliament. You can read all about his career in the following link, written by Lionel Fredman:

In subsequent posts, I will write a bit more about Uncle Dan. His personal life is shrouded in mystery, because the day after his death his sister Fanny went to the house and burned all the personal papers in the back yard. He was unmarried – was there some scandal involving a non-Jewish mistress? Or was he secretly gay?  We shall never know …

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