OUR CHIP VAN
Greg Bruce on salt, fat, sunshine, carbohydrates, Old Spice, sea air.
I discovered the malaise of Sunday afternoons early and I discovered it hard: the end of the weekend, the last moments before the return to school, the looming revocation of my freedom. Even on sunny days, the light was wan and milky and resentful, as if nature itself was bending to my failure of positivity.
This fear of an ending stood in contrast to my other leading childhood concern, which was the fear of no ending, which was the central problem with my belief in God. I didn't want to go to hell but was physically unable to cope with the concept of eternal life. The fear of it filled my body with useless terror at inappropriate times, specifically bedtime. "How will I fill forever?" I would wonder in the endless dark until one day I asked Mum if there would be tennis in heaven and she said yes.
The malaise of Sunday afternoons dragged on, though. Either Dad sensed it or he felt it too or maybe Mum just wanted us out of the house, because we began filling the space with father/son outings. We'd look in the paper for things to do, drive into town and around the waterfront and so forth. One day, at St Heliers or Kohimarama or maybe Ōkahu Bay, we found a food truck selling hot chips. They were so good we went back the next week, and the one after that, and the one after that, driving all the way from grey and distant Pakuranga.
I could have been anywhere from 7 to 11. Maybe we went there for months, maybe for years. Did we share a pot or did we get two pots? Did we call them pots or pottles? Maybe it was cartons? I can't remember the specifics, nor the nomenclature but I still have the sense memories: salt, fat, sunshine, carbohydrates, Old Spice, sea air and the smell of samples belonging to Downing Plastics Ltd.
I remember the truck being devoid of customers. We would park and I would stay in the car while Dad went to order. Upon his return, he'd put his hand over the carton and shake vigorously, to ensure an even distribution of salt - a tradition I hope to one day pass on to my own children. Then we would eat and, for the next 4-7 minutes, Sunday afternoon would cease.
Sometimes the van was there and sometimes it wasn't, and disappointment was therefore always a possibility. As social media companies have learned, intermittent reinforcement is a powerful addictive force. Were the proprietors of the chip truck sophisticated entrepreneurs who were ahead of their time in understanding this? Of course not. They were probably lying on a blanket on the grass on some rural hinterland, smoking weed, lightly hung over, debating whether to roll down to the Eastern Bays for some sun and a splash. I don't remember the day we realised they had gone for good and probably neither do they.
Dad's primary addiction was the drink,but his problems could also be documented in the endless cascade of junk food that passed through his cupboards and himself. When he died, two years ago, he left several packets of Mackintosh's Toffees next to the armchair he had increasingly seldom left. His body and brain never seemed to tire of the vicious push/pull of the rewards and punishments offered by the salt, sugar, fat and booze they both constantly sought. I remember one supermarket visit where he dumped two heaving armfuls of Maltesers and Kettle Stix on the conveyor belt. "Are you having a party?" the checkout person asked. "Yes," he replied, "My own private Malteser party." I was probably 12 or 13 at the time. Before that, I'd never realised there was anything unusual about his eating habits.
"Pretty good," he would frequently say, whenever we bought chips in later years, "But not as good as Our Chip Van." I have always thought of "Our Chip Van" as the platonic ideal against which every other chip must be measured, although it almost certainly isn't. Auckland didn't have much of a food scene in the early 80s - the city's best restaurant was McDonald's and veganism was still illegal - and the market for high-brow junk food was non-existent. In all likelihood, Our Chip Van was buying the same frozen Mr Chips chips as every other neighbourhood takeaway joint and cooking them in equally rancid days-old oil.
But that's not the way I remember it, or at least it's not the way I choose to remember it. I know it's impossible to compare a taste from the present to one from 35 years ago but that's no reason not to try. Memories are ethereal and unreliable but there comes a point where they're the only solid things we have left.
WALKING ON SUNSHINE
Joanna Wane revisits summers past - and wonders where all the boysenberries have gone.
It was hot the summer I turned 15. The kind of blue-sky Hawke's Bay heat where the road shimmered and melting tar stuck to the soles of your feet.
Each morning, I'd be up before anyone else was awake to see how many lengths of our para pool I could swim underwater before taking a breath (my record was eight), then bake, face-down on the concrete in a steaming puddle of chlorine fumes.
I got my first after-school job working in a dairy, rolling hokey-pokey icecreams and making up lolly bags from bulk containers under the counter. Aniseed balls, milk bottles, jet planes, glo hearts, Snifters – all two for a cent. Milk came in crates of glass bottles that sometimes, thrillingly, would smash all over the floor.
The youngest of four kids, an unexpected epilogue, I grew up in a household where food was fast and functional. Mum was well over cooking by then. I'd help out in the kitchen by browning frozen mince in a stockpot, using a wooden spoon to chip away at the block.
It was the late-70s and provincial tastes were unsophisticated then. I'd never eaten an olive or an avocado. We might all be into pesto and poké bowls now but some things are slow to change.
In the early 2000s, I stayed overnight at a high-country station in Canterbury as part of an off-road 4WD trip. Roast lamb and pav for dinner – delicious. The hostess told me her son was running a farm of his own and his wife had him eating pasta and salad. She was genuinely astonished: "I said to her, 'How did you do it?'" In the heartland, this was pretty radical stuff.
It never rained the summer I turned 16. The hills crisped to a golden brown and the clay soil in our garden cracked like the parched skin on a farmer's forearms.
I got a holiday job picking strawberries. We were paid per punnet, so the faster you went, the more you earned. There was no minimum youth wage but the slippage from on-site consumption must have been enormous. The heat was relentless and I don't know how hard we worked. When a friend's co-workers discovered she was squeamish, they hid a dead bird in her row.
I took it for granted, back then but Hastings – where I was born – really was the fruit bowl of New Zealand. No one bought fresh produce from the supermarketbut we all had our favourite orchard stalls.
My mum bottled golden queen peaches and black doris plums and struck up a lifelong friendship with the Wongs, who ran Sang Lee & Co, a fruit shop on the outskirts of Hastings.
Joe took over the business from his father, who'd arrived in New Zealand alone from China at the age of 10. When he and Sue retired in 1985, closing the doors after more than 50 years in business, it made the local newspaper. Their daughter sent me the clipping and when I look at the black-and-white photo of Joe standing outside the shop, it's like stepping back into my childhood.
It was the beginning and the end of something the summer I turned 17. The air was bone-dry and ceiling fans whirred through the night.
I got a holiday job picking boysenberries (I don't remember there ever being blueberries). The work was less back-breaking than crouching over strawberry plants but the prickles were vicious and the purple juice stained my fingers. Strange how you can hardly find boysenberries anywhere today.
In my last year at school, I worked Friday and Saturday nights at a flash new restaurant in Havelock North village. Sam Hunt came in one night with his dog Minstrel and kissed a waitress' hand. New girls were sent home to practise their silver service and balancing plates. I never really got the hang of it and haven't waited tables since.
Deep-fried camembert with plum sauce was the height of sophistication – it was 1981, by then – and New Zealand's first winery restaurant had opened in Hastings at Vidal Estate. Now, there are more than 70 wineries and you can dine at a dozen of them.
But some things haven't changed. Rush Munro's (New Zealand's oldest icecreamery) is still where I left it, on Heretaunga St, with its old-fashioned rose garden and wrought-iron furniture, if not the same goldfish circling the lily pond.
And last year, a family about to have their first Christmas in Hawke's Bay arrived at Scott's Strawberry Farm just before opening time to find half the world had got there before them. The wait was one and a half hours. "It was so worth it," they reported. "The best strawberries EVER!"
I bet they couldn't have tasted better if I'd picked them myself.