You never really know where gateway cheese and milkshake vomit will take you, writes Kim Knight
The icecream container did not contain icecream.
It sat on the car floor in front of my little sister and you could not set your brand new leather-strapped birthday present wristwatch to the moment she would announce "I feel sick" - because she always felt sick.
One minute, we're singing King of the Road ("ain't got no CIGARETTES!") the next, we're pulled over and she's spewing and crying and OMG who let her drink a banana milkshake at the Murchison tea rooms?
We lived on the West Coast and our grandparents lived in Blenheim. Four-and-a-bit hours if you didn't stop. We always stopped. My parents had no money for restaurant dinners but, at least twice a year in the school holidays, a singular treat: lunch on a tray, chosen from a cabinet in a small town that appeared to exist for no other purpose than to serve pies to people passing through.
The phrase "tea rooms" can conjure a very English sort of properness. Good china, small sandwiches and polite conversations between women with narrow waists and hair buns so voluminous they could comfortably contain resting cats.
Perrin Rowland, in her book on the history of dining out in New Zealand, discusses the rise and rise of "dainty-ness" - the development of small and light dishes best accompanied by tea or an elaborate soda drink. As a post-colonial cuisine evolved, tea rooms became centres for fine dining and forward-thinking. In the 1930s, they promoted vegetarianism and offered "fruit suppers"; in city department stores the tea room was a "beacon of modernity, fashion and service" boasting monogrammed china and burnished silver.
The tea room of my memory has Formica tables and black vinyl-backed chairs. Cream buns with bindi dots of jam and club sandwiches flying the red, green and ham-pink tricolour flag of fanciness. My dad is spooning two sugars into an instant coffee and my milkshake is, according to the giraffe on the waxed paper cup, The Longest Drink in Town (my sister's endless gastric outpourings support this thesis).
I have been thinking about this lunch for days. On the morning of our departure, Dad packs the car, rolls a cigarette and refuses to play the Boney M. tape for at least 30 minutes ("I'm listening to the engine"). We count blue cars and shout every time we see a horse. Mum tells us to stop fighting. Dad tells us to stop fighting. Inside, I'm spiralling. At home, we eat what we're given and we don't complain. On holiday, this rule flies out the window like so much cigarette smoke and I learn the exquisite agony of choice.
A mince pie and a sausage roll both have their merits, but only one can be filled with tomato sauce and eaten with a teaspoon like a meaty soup. Is a ham sandwich (white bread, crusts on, but cut on the diagonal) better than a cheese and onion sandwich? Dad will have both and also a hard-boiled egg and a pickled onion and we'll laugh till we cry when he farts and stinks out the car.
The glass-front cabinets of the Collins Tea Rooms on the main street of Murchison are a cornucopia of cream-filled and custard-squared decisions but these are not what has been keeping me awake at night. At home, cheese is one kilogram of tasty. Parmesan has been invented but, so far, my parents don't trust it. The individually wrapped and flavoured triangular Chesdale Cheese segments that sit in a basket next to the cash register are, to me, as exotic as foie gras or rum baba. Pineapple? Ham? Smoked or Plain? You're only allowed one, so make it count.
Pull the little red tab at the back and the foil unzips like an evening dress. Inside, the cheese is silken and when you take a bite you can see your teeth prints. There is, at this point in my short life, nothing like it in the entire world.
I will, in due course, eat paneer marinated in spices and barbecued on a rooftop in Jaipur. Order goat cheese, two rounds for just three euros, from Barcelona's La Boqueria. Mozzarella balls, scooped from a deli counter in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Cheddar mixed with mashed potato and stuffed into a pierogi in Dauphin, Manitoba. Back home, I'll go to farmers' markets and meet artisan makers who sell cheese that tastes like guts and perseverance; risk and glory.
The stuff in that foil wrapper was gateway cheese. In a rural tea room, with my farty dad and my spewy little sister, I began to wonder what else might be out there.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com