raleigh bike.pgI was given my first bike when I was eight years old. It was shiny and black and a source of endless delight – not to mention unrivaled freedom.  It had no gears or hand brakes, but as I didn’t know any better, neither of these were an issue. What it did have was rather nifty mudguards (soon removed for convenience and speed) and simple back-pedal (or coaster) brakes that were dead easy to use. That little Raleigh bike was my most beloved possession from the very first day, despite crashing headfirst into a hedge down the road on my initial solo attempt at riding it!

From thereon out I had any number of adventures, big and small, wherever my wheels could take me. One of the more dramatic of these adventures started out very low key. My friend Felicity and I were about 10 years old at the time and, unlike many of the youth of today, we were assumed to be both capable and independent. Parents weren’t informed of our movements, we just trotted off on our merry way. As long as we were back by dinnertime and there was no obvious damage to explain, we were left to our own devices. In this instance we had planned a trip to the local shopping centre to hunt for Christmas gifts. It was a distance of about 2.5km and we knew from experience that this took about 30 minutes on foot, about 10 minutes by trolley bus, or about 12 minutes by bicycle. Ever the staunch Scot, I opted to save the bus fare and rode my bike up the (very steep!) hill to meet Felicity as she hopped off the bus.

Some time later, after purchasing what knickknacks our pocket money could afford and enjoying an iced confection in the park, we headed for home – Felicity hanging out the back of the trolley bus and me in hot pursuit on my trusty bike. I’d grown quite a bit in the couple of years I’d had the bike and it had become a little worn in that time. My brothers had taught me to fix punctures and how to put the chain back on when it inevitably came off, but they still did the tricky things like adjusting the seat height since this involved enough physical strength to tighten the nuts and bolts. Or so I’d always assumed…

As I careered down the hill in hot pursuit of the trolley bus, laughing like crazy and taking the sorts of risks that ten year olds do, it never occurred to me that anything could go wrong. Not until the trolley bus stopped a little sooner than I expected and, when I tried to slam the brakes on by back pedaling desperately, my feet came off the pedals!  The seat had tilted back rather dramatically as I applied emergency pressure on the brakes and it was pretty obvious that the saddle was, in fact, not properly secured. I was left clutching the handlebars, my behind only centimetres from the back wheel, my legs akimbo to avoid the chain and the wheels.

coasterbrakeNow, the thing you need to know about back-pedal brakes is that pushing back on the pedals forces a set of brake pads to expand inside the hub on the back wheel. Friction then slows the wheel down very efficiently. The downside is that your feet actually have to be on the pedals for this to work – and there’s no backup plan if they’re not. My feet were nowhere near the pedals at this point, having slipped off when the saddle tipped backwards and tried to deposit me on the rapidly rotating back wheel. All I had was precarious balance and a grip of death on the handlebars.

Felicity’s face told me that she fully expected me to slam into the back of the bus at any moment and, considering the rate at which I was bearing down on it, this seemed extremely likely. Immediate evasive action was called for and instinct took over. I swerved out from behind the bus – narrowly missing both it and the on coming station wagon, then swerved back onto my side of the road just as the bus started off again. All this time I was trying desperately (and unsuccessfully) to haul myself back onto or over the saddle so that I could get my feet back on the pedals.

I whizzed down the steepest part of the hill and into the long sweeping curve towards the intersection, hoping with every part of me that the traffic lights would be in my favour and that there would be no oncoming traffic. My luck held, the road started to level out, and my speed dropped enough for me to risk the rapid dismount. I leapt clear of my bike whilst keeping hold of the handlebars and running alongside it. It was, after all, my treasure!

We careered to a halt, narrowly missing being clipped by the bus as it trundled past, and fell into an inelegant and only slightly grazed pile right near the bus stop. Felicity made a flying exit from back  of the still-moving bus and rushed to my assistance. Between us we managed to drag my bike to the verge, and then collapsed in a heap, laughing and whooping with the joy of being alive and being 10 years old and invulnerable. There being no actual damage, the parents were never the wiser – but I closely supervised any maintenance of my bike done by others after that!

Bicycles have been part of my landscape since that very first machine. I’ve had racing bikes, mountain bikes, a BMX bike, static exercise bikes and a hybrid bike. They’ve varied in colour from black to pink; silver to blue – but all (except the static bikes) have provided me with unsurpassed levels of independence, adventure and enjoyment. I still ride whenever I can – and every time I see someone else on a bike – whatever their age or gender, whether they’re wearing cutoffs or lycra, barefoot or in expensive cycle shoes – I smile. Rock on, riders, be free!


On a borrowed racing bike, 1975

For the first time in ages, I had pea and ham soup last week. It was ‘soup of the day’ at the pub we frequented for dinner one evening while we were away on our knitting adventures in Bendigo – and it was certainly the weather for it.  Soup is my comfort food in winter – it’s hot and filling and comfortable and easy. Pea soup in particular brings back happy memories of my childhood, of our family sitting around the kitchen table chatting, squabbling and vying to be the first for seconds. Not that my Mum actually made pea and ham soup, mind you, but she did make split pea soup. Instead of a ham hock, she used some beef shin – which essentially performed the same task. It’s not so much about the meat as about the taste, the beefy (or smoky ham) flavour that permeates the soup and enriches it. Delicious!

Having enjoyed the pub-version immensely, I set about trying to recreate it – and a little slice of childhood – this week. I found a ham hock in the freezer (score!) and a packet of split peas with recipe on the back in the pantry (everyone has a packet of split peas in the pantry, right?). Next I hunted down the biggest pot I own, selected some appropriate veggies (from the over enthusiastic market purchases made on Saturday) and then set about making my first ever attempt at the iconic dish that is pea and ham soup.

Munching my way through cheesy toast and what I think was a fairly reasonable rendition of the dish that evening conjured up thoughts of other meals from my childhood. I found I could only remember happy, tasty things – other than the rare visitation of the dreaded liver-and-onions and the all-to-frequent boiled cabbage. The former was an occasional request from my father (and enjoyed by no-one but him) and the latter I must assume was simply always in season – it certainly felt that way! However, overall, my conclusion is that I either didn’t bother to remember the things I didn’t enjoy or that my Mum was a canny housekeeper and knew her family’s preferences all too well 🙂

Either way, it feels as though my childhood was filled with mealtimes sitting around the kitchen table enjoying plates of oxtail stew, split pea soup, shepherds pie, macaroni cheese, roast chicken (on Sundays), jam roly-poly with custard (a particular favourite), pineapple upside-down cake, flapjacks and eggy-bread. This last was our version of French toast, which was bread lightly smeared with bovril, dipped in egg, then briskly fried in a little butter – and never (ever!) served with syrup, cinnamon or sugar – a taste preference I still cling to, I may add.

Most of these dishes are winter foods, things that fill hungry children and are relatively inexpensive to prepare, which confirms my belief that Mum was a canny housekeeper. I actually have no idea what we ate in summer – the only things that come to mind is watermelon and tomatoes, but I’m pretty sure there was more to it than that!

Whilst I’ve an idea that Mum used to make her version of split pea soup in the pressure cooker (and I may give that a go next time to speed up the process a little), it gave me enormous satisfaction to recreate this much-love childhood staple in my giant stock pot and to share it and my ramblings about childhood food with my family. Best of all, there was some of the soup left over for lunch for today 🙂

tastes of childhood

Back in 1977 I fitted out my very first kitchen. I had a ridiculous amount of fun wandering through department stores and kitchen shops deciding what would be most useful and which items I might get at a later date. Even things as mundane as rubber spatulas, whisks and mixing bowls made me feel bouncy. It was at about this time that I was invited to my very first Tupperware party.

An impeccably groomed young(ish) woman introduced herself as Jenny, our sales consultant. She assured us all that there was absolutely no obligation to buy anything. Of course, if we did choose to buy a few items, this would add to the total sales for the evening and ensure that our hostess would receive a lovely gift as a reward for having us all around and for providing such a tasty afternoon tea… and she would be more than willing to sit with each of us in turn to advise us on our purchases…

Having delivered those little bombshells and neatly installing a small case of the guilts, Jenny got into the swing of things. First we had to endure a couple of mildly awkward icebreaker games. Somehow or other sharing the name of our first pets, where we went to school, our favourite colour or whether we could touch our right hand to our head at the same time as rubbing our belly  was supposed to enhance our chi, make us feel relaxed and help us get to know one another better. I’m not a fan of ice breakers in general. They tend to be activities or questions that the under-12’s might find amusing or interesting, but leave me stone cold and significantly less relaxed than I was to start with – and yet they seem to have become part and parcel of any number of meetings, gatherings and events, much to my dismay.

Jenny barrelled on through her script, eliciting uncomfortable giggles and random information from all and sundry for 10 minutes, then moved on to the main game. She started by giving us a bit of background about the product, emphasising that all items came with a lifetime guarantee. Several bright smiles later we finally got to the point where she showed us some of the latest and/or most popular catalogue items, i.e. what we were actually there for.

Since I was still mix 'n storin kitchen-equipping mode, this part turned out to be surprisingly interesting. The products looked useful and I could definitely imagine a range of the matching canisters in my pantry, storing things away tidily and in such a way that critters couldn’t stealthily infest them. I also rather fancied the idea of an item called the Mix ‘n Stor, which was essentially a large measuring jug that doubled as a mixing bowl. It had a rubber/silicon anti-slip ring on the bottom and a lid that doubled as a splashguard in the event that one chose to use a hand-held electric beater to mix things in it. Very handy.

At about this point we were given the shiny colour brochures – and the price list. I’ve never been much of a poker player and I doubt my flinch was very subtle. Jenny pounced immediately, smiling brightly and reassuring me that I could actually get some of the goodies for free – if I booked demonstration of my own and invited at least six friends along. No pressure, of course, but booking a demonstration would also add to the overall points for the evening and my friend would then get even greater rewards for hosting the current event…

Not a lot has changed in almost forty years. The products are still very attractive, the sales reps are still well turned out and discreetly pushy, the icebreaker games are just as awkward – and the price list still makes me flinch. These days, however, supermarkets, department stores and kitchen shops are all overflowing with a plethora of comparable products that one can purchase at far more affordable prices and without the ‘no pressure’ sales technique. Despite this, however, Tupperware parties are enjoying a renaissance. Just last week I ended up attending my first in over a decade. I was one of a dozen or more guests, all but three of whom were between 25 and 35 years old. The older contingent neither wanted nor needed any more plastic items, no matter how attractive. We’d simply come along as a gesture of solidarity (the host for the evening being the daughter of a mutual friend) and to catch up with one another.

The surprise of the night was the glee with which the younger women fell upon the products, cooing at them as though they were novel and exotic. They sipped their champagne, nibbled on Brie, crackers and fresh cherries and compared what they’d already bought and what they were planning on getting. They used their smart phones to share their calendars and to book demonstrations and trotted out their credit cards to confirm their significantly overpriced purchases. It was fascinating to watch the buying and demonstration-booking frenzy, even though it was largely incomprehensible. Surely their mothers and grandmothers all have kitchens and pantries bursting at the seams with similar products bought at similar events during the 70’s and 80’s, I thought, so what’s the attraction?

By the time I left I’d concluded that Tupperware is rather like flared jeans, mini skirts, short shorts, tie-dyed T-shirts, low cut pants, bright colours, maxi-dresses and oats porridge (a super food, you know…). They’re all hang overs from the 70’s and have all been (re)discovered by a generation that has claimed them as new, rather than retro, and who find them original and exciting. Everything old is new again. Again.

Sadly the Mix ’n Stor no longer seems to be a catalogue item – and I never did get one.