Eating Down Under

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Carveries, battered sav, postcolonial teatime, bizarre etiquette, roo steak, polyester kimonos, interminable Mondays & New Zealand.


For several years, I traveled back and forth to New Zealand. I was a guest speaker at two universities, hosted by well-known feminist scholars, and setting up these visits introduced me to the bizarre etiquette of corresponding with women who lived one day into the future. Our e-mails were like vignettes from The Twilight Zone: I pressed “send” while sitting in America on a Tuesday, and an instant reply came back from Auckland dated Wednesday, a kind of voice from Tomorrowland.

Each time I flew down under, I lost an entire day, perhaps departing on Thursday and arriving on Saturday; one of my travel journals mourned, “I had no May 19th this year.” But then, on the return flight, I had to live the same Monday over and over and over again—leaving early on Monday morning from New Zealand, flying for twelve to fourteen hours, only to land early on Monday morning in Los Angeles. On such flights I could estimate the passage of real time only by feeling the stubble of hair growing back on my shaven legs. I could also contemplate my fading attractiveness by perusing the world’s tackiest in-flight magazine, Woman’s Day, which included topless photos of celebrities and actual measurements of Kiwi and Aussie actresses’ breasts, butts and underwear sizes. Twelve-hour flights passed cozily enough due to the endless, free-flowing and excellent native wines served up gratis by Air New Zealand. These wines could (and did) lull dazed passengers into contented slumber, but on my first trip south of the equator I woke myself up in the middle of the night to see if the water in the bathroom sink really had started to drain counterclockwise.


My bus mate was a sixteen-year-old Maori girl named Davinia, who told me about the All Blacks, Tall Blacks, Gal Blacks and competitive netball; outside our window, I spotted a Welsh-themed restaurant, rather out of place amid the beach bungalows, palm bushes and orange fire plants, Live Volcano and Penguins Crossing signs.


As an English-speaking American heading to a one-time outpost of the British Empire, I assumed that language wouldn’t be a problem in New Zealand and that food would be “safe,” possibly even familiar: postcolonial teatime fare, toast, butter and jam. These were very attractive travel advantages, especially as my last overseas talk had been in Israel, where I stumbled through a speech in Hebrew under armed guard, and stayed in dubious hostels on a diet of rancid falafel. But soon enough I discovered that I had no idea what I was eating in New Zealand and, on a side trip, in Australia.

The eccentric vocabulary of colonial English, including names for canned foods and preparations, was familiar to me from other journeys into the former Empire. Local food labels could be unintentionally hilarious; for instance, Canada’s Homo Milk (homogenized) brand. Irish English included these polite directions for heating Erin No Soak Marrowfat Peas or Bird’s Custard: “To hob cook: take the sachet and place in your jug on the hob.” Now, in New Zealand in the last years of the twentieth century, I was bewildered by giant signs for “hokey pokey balls,” and the first time I was offered a Magnum Ego I politely declined, explaining that my ego was already large enough.

It turned out that Kiwi slang was both a corruption and a continuation of white occupiers’ talk—the legacy of the Queen’s English imposed on Maori land. In the Maori language I was not a white woman visitor to New Zealand, but a wahine manuhiri in Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud. To arrive at the Auckland airport was to be welcomed with the traditional greeting Kia ora, amid a bustle of announcements for Tongan Airways, for flights to the Solomon Islands and Cook Islands and Fiji and Samoa. The P.A. system shouted “Passenger Tiki-Tiki, you are wanted. Please, Tiki-Tiki, your dance troupe is looking for you.” I arrived during the Fijian coup, with militant Fijian activists coming and going and arguing in the terminal, and I myself was headed not for the Anglican-titled city of Christchurch but, instead, a semi-tropical village named Paekakariki. It was May—springtime, where I’d come from, but autumn in New Zealand—and I taped an autumn leaf into my journal, with the date.

Compass Rose

Food and drink rules began before I cleared customs. As soon as I landed, I was a criminal, and had to surrender two dangerous possessions I had almost brought into New Zealand’s protected and isolated ecosystem: a Golden Delicious apple and a snack strip of beef jerky. Officials’ faces softened as they went on to explain that the rest of my luggage was lost somewhere in the Pacific Rim corridor, but I’d be reimbursed for any emergency underwear purchases. (Would my size be reported in Woman’s Day?)

Thus unburdened with worldly possessions, I spent a pleasant week wearing the same outfit every day: my travel jeans and plaid flannel shirt, acceptable gear in an unpretentious, friendly land. After my presentation at Victoria University—a talk I delivered while dressed in my host Prue Hyman’s polyester kimono—I was free to explore volcanoes and palm-lined shores, staying at various little guesthouses around the North Island.


On such flights I could estimate the passage of real time only by feeling the stubble of hair growing back on my shaven legs.


There, eating had a language all its own, as I discovered when a menu was shoved under my door at the Sahara Motel. Did I wish to start my day with Ricies? Weet-Bix? Vegemite? Or some Light & Tasty? A trip to the grocery store was no less bewildering: muesli bars? Sultana flakes? Fags coffee? Feijoa? Gumboot tea? Kumara? At cafés, I could grab a takeaway sandy, a BLAT (bacon, lettuce and tomato, but not like American bacon), a soothing cup of Milo, or the hefty Kiwi burger (made of neither kiwi fruit nor kiwi birds, but a meat patty with beets atop). Carveries at suburban crossroads offered a Sunday dinner of lamb, lamb and a side of lamb, the product of New Zealand “woolies,” with the famous pavlova sweet as dessert. On bus trips from town to town, rest stops presented the following: cheese and onion sandwiches, gherkin and cottage cheese sandwiches, lamb-burger pie, ginger-and-date, takeaway thickshakes, a boxed iced coffee called Nippy, pork and apple pie with “wedges.” Fatherly bus drivers announced, “Please do not consume your hot meat pies aboard, as the smell can aggravate motorway sickness.” My bus mate was a sixteen-year-old Maori girl named Davinia, who told me about the All Blacks, Tall Blacks, Gal Blacks and competitive netball; outside our window, I spotted a Welsh-themed restaurant, rather out of place amid the beach bungalows, palm bushes and orange fire plants, Live Volcano and Penguins Crossing signs. But then wasn’t everything upside down, down under, with autumn leaves and early darkness in July? If it was autumn dusk with autumn leaves and I was eating apples and honey and local wine, then wasn’t it Rosh Hashanah?

I soon found that my favorite meal was a feijoa fruit smoothie (Arano Juice Brand Feijoa Frenzy), and that fresh creamed New Zealand honey could be eaten straight from the jar. In one Bay of Islands waterfront café, trying to warm up my blood after swimming with dolphins and elephant rays, I had something called a honey cream latte, easily the most delicious drink of my life. New Zealand had unique pub food and junk food, odd inventions such as chicken- or prawn-flavored potato chips. (The popular Hokey Pokey ice cream, I discovered, was vanilla with crushed toffee bits.) But there was also Maori culture with ritual foods, ceremonial marae dinners and the giant South Auckland market catering to Maori, Tongan and Fijian people, their communities straining to keep cultural traditions alive amid urban displacement, racism and unemployment. In that market were cans and cans of island specialties, tables piled with tubers and taro root and kumara sweet potatoes, Raro brand mango juice, dozens of creamed coconut and coconut milk preparations (Reduced Creamo Samoan, Delicious PePe), kiwifruit and fragrant sweet banana, fish and lamb—and pyramids of wretched high-fat Spam. Women sat at tables offering home-cooked foods, woven tablemats, carved boats and bone jewelry. I scribbled down lists of the wonderful new names and types of foods, trying to learn the correct pronunciation, until I realized that a white woman taking covert notes at each station of an aboriginal market attracted hostile glances. But no, I wasn’t a cop, a prying social worker or even, really, a smug anthropologist—just a hungry traveler seeking answers to a riddle. What exactly was the difference between a milkshake and a thickshake in New Zealand?


We were promptly taken under the wing and into the bosom of the lesbian community, lezzos dressed in flanno, and offered brekky, which might involve a trip to the milk bar, or just a cuppa, biccy, sultanas, jaffle, lollies, capsicum, or, if we wanted to try bush tucker, there was damper.


New Zealand could seem homey and stodgy and cottagey, with women in frumpy sweaters peddling free-range duck eggs, but as I slurped feijoa at cafés I noticed television ads were amazingly daring and tongue-in-cheek. Of course it was easy for a gay American to snicker at the stop-smoking campaign that featured a young man moaning, “I NEED A FAG!” But how about the commercial promoting slim-fit Tampax by showing the folly of a fat dog trying to cram through a tiny back-door flap? What about the ad where an arrogant man beats an old lady to a parking place, and the voice-over purrs, “Does someone you know deserve the big finger?” Why didn’t we get anything this hip and cool in the U.S. of A.?

Just when I had memorized the ringing Kiwi lingo, in which one’s relatives were relies, a traffic circle was a roundabout, accessible buildings boasted a paraplegic room and gas station attendants asked rather intimately if one desired lubricant, I flew to Australia to vacation with my friend Toni. We were promptly taken under the wing and into the bosom of the lesbian community, lezzos dressed in flanno, and offered brekky, which might involve a trip to the milk bar, or just a cuppa, biccy, sultanas, jaffle, lollies, capsicum, or, if we wanted to try bush tucker, there was damper. We did want to taste everything local, so en route to Cairns I dared Toni to eat something advertised as a battered sav, which I enjoyed and she promptly threw up (chunder). But the delicacies of the Cubbagudta Plantation soothed our palates: custard apple, sapote (black persimmon), cassowary plum, wattleseed, jackfruit, soursop, all of these fruits made into ice cream for the tasting, and served with Daintree tea.

Toni and I splurged for a week at Turtle Cove, a splendid gay and lesbian resort near Cairns that evidently had never had women as guests, judging from the star treatment we received (and the male porn films and condoms stocked in our guest bungalow). As I lay, head spinning, on the bed, thus observing geckos scamper up and down our walls and ceiling, Toni read aloud from the sumptuous dinner menu planned by the resort chef. Would we care to try reef trout, coral trout, barramundi, or—eek—kangaroo?


Over the passion-fruit juice at breakfast, our waiter, Matthew, handwrote us his mum’s own recipe for Aussie Damper. It read like a poem, we thought.


“Don’t eat that; it’s an aboriginal sacred animal,” I remonstrated when Toni dared to order the roo steak. “So don’t stare at me while I taste it,” was her retort as she speared a forkful; I relented and tasted it too. At Turtle Cove we ate like queens, with our own private chef, who was anxious to please and tempted us with beautiful, complex foodie delicacies. Avocado and sundried tomato salad. Banana-rum crêpes. Over the passion-fruit juice at breakfast, our waiter, Matthew, handwrote us his mum’s own recipe for Aussie Damper. It read like a poem, we thought:

Three cups self-raising flour
One dessert spoon butter/salt
Add one egg, one cup milk
Mix to bread consistency
Do not over knead, overwork it
Place in oven, till rising

When it was time to return to America, we laid our baggage on the beds and made inventories for customs, and I was the one bringing back piles of local foods: eucalyptus candy, crocodile jerky, rosewater, Vegemite, Daintree tea. Fair compensation for no May 19 that year.


Bonnie J. Morris is a women’s history professor, archivist and the author of seventeen books—most recently, Sappho’s Overhead Projector. A three-time lecturer for the Semester at Sea global academic program, she also serves as historian and guest speaker for Olivia Travel.

Lead image: Ashish Vyas

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