This article is reproduced from the Sunday Mail, Brisbane, Sunday 17 November 1929. It shows how Brisbane ate back then. And that eating out was a little more multi-cultural than we might imagine, despite the somewhat offensive and patronising tone taken by the writer. But did the Italians really put desiccated coconut on their risotto?
How Brisbane eats
CAFES CURIOUS & COMMON PLACE
Have you ever tasted long soup? No? Then this is how it is done. You select one of the several chop sueys which are to be found in various parts of the city where Chinese live, and you wander into the atmosphere of quaint, smells of cooking food with an air of nonchalance in order to cover any slight trepidation you may have at the thought of entering an Oriental den where mystery lurks behind lacquered screens.
But there is no mystery; there are no screens — only a narrow- room where whites and Chinese sit at bare tables and chatter in several tongues as they manipulate the spoons or chopsticks in order to transfer the food from bowl to mouth.
You take a seat at one of the tables and soon a Chinese comes shuffling up with a smile of welcome on his face. Your order of long soup sends him shuffling off again, and while waiting to be served you glance round at the faces of the other diners. Most of them are white people who, like yourself, have come to taste the Chinese dishes, but you will notice that some of them are using chopsticks with an ability that comes of long practice. You are seized with the fear that you may be required to use them, too
The long soup arrives- It is served in a thick earthenware bowl, and it’s odour is most appetising. You are supplied with a spoon, a fork, and two chopsticks, and if you can pluck up enough courage to mention the matter to the waiter he will inform you that tie use of the Oriental cutlery is optional, and that the slicks are supplied in case the diner wishes to use them.
Relieved, you take up your spoon and fork and plunge them into the rich mixture in the bowl before you. It is difficult to decide what comprises this soup, of a consistency of thin stew. There are several delicate flavours reminiscent of the white man’s tasty dishes, and the general impression is most favourable, except that the soup is:rather greasy.
There are many long strips of a kind of paste which coil in sinuous ribbons in the bottom of the bowl, and a ittle care is needed to get them safely into the mouth. You are also provided with a saucer of sliced roast duck and a little bowl of a dark sauce of distinctive flavour. When these are added you will find that the whole concoction makes an appetising and satisfying meal.
If you go to a chop suey looking for any signs of the mysterious Dr. Fu or Kai Lung, or to get a whiff of incense blown from the knees of some hidden cynical-smiling Buddha, you will be disappointed. The only mystery is what the soup is made of,and the only incense is that blown from the pot of well-boiled cabbage.
If you want spaghetti or macaroni as they should be cooked, you may get them at one of the Italian restaurants which may be discovered in various parts of the city. The word ‘Italiano’ on the. window proclaims their nationality, and as soon as you enter there is a swarthy, smiling fellow brushing down the table and shifting the chair in readiness for your custom.
A plate of spaghetti cooked a la Italien is fearsome to look upon, for there appears to be no beginning and no end to the serpentine mass, but if you forget your manners you may, by judicious handling, be able to get a roll of the delicious food into your mouth on the end of a fork.
Then there is rice. It is not prepared in any ordinary way, but, after having been soaked in butter, it is boiled in chicken broth, flavoured with saffron, and served hot with a sprinkling of desiccated coconut to set it off. If you are not accustomed to saffron, you may discover it unappetising, but there are some who, like the Italians, find the pungent flavour stimulating.
If you want fowl you will be given a succulent leg boiled tender, with a fried egg to keep it company. A large jug of coffee, with sugar and milk already added, is placed on the table for patrons to help themselves. There is an air of generosity about the room, and if you show any willingness to talk, the Italian who serves you will most likely entertain you with cheerful conversation. A visit to an Italian restaurant is quite an interesting experience.
Then there is the vegetarian café where the flesh of beasts is anathema and where an order for a beer steak might cause a riot. Instead there are delicacies made from nuts, cheese, vegetables and fruit. Glancing at the menu, the visitor will see such dishes as “nut meat pie” and “nut meat chops,” but a taste will soon assure him that there is no animal flesh in them.
They are delicately flavoured mixtures of nuts and other healthful foods cooked in a manner which gives them an appearance a little like their meaty brothers. “Grilled nut cheese” arrives, corn and wheat come into their own. Cream and sweet corn form another dish which is worth tasting.
Here diners are secure from the ravages of tannin and caffeine, for neither tea nor coffee is served. Nicotine, too, is banned – at least until the diner leaves the café. There is a special “diabetic menu” including a specialty known as “diabetic rolls.” Looking about him, the visitor will fail to see anyone who looks like a diabetes patient. Indeed, nearly everyone in the café looks a real he-man or she-woman with red blood in the veins and a physique of average quality at least.
Contrary to the opinion of many, the custom of the vegetarian café is not composed of spineless, anaemic creatures who totter in for some form of food which will not upset their delicate stomachs. They are usually thoroughly healthy human beings; and often meat eaters pay a visit in order to enjoy a change from their usual diet.
But of, course the people of Brisbane, as a whole, have less exotic tastes, and are content with plainer fare. When they dine out they are content with meals somewhat similar to those they get at home – beef, mutton, or fish prepared tastefully and without flourishes.
That the citizens generally have no desire to dine in splendour on rich and strange foods when they visit a restaurant is due partly to a natural hesitation to attempt unaccustomed dishes and partly to a natural dislike for paying higher prices for fancy foods which, after all, simply appease the hunger like the plainer dishes, though in a pleasanter way.
So most of our city “eating houses” cater for the man in the street and his family. Those who want daintier fare and can afford it will have no trouble in getting it at the three or four restaurants which cater for such tastes, and at the many hotels where much attention is paid to the quality of the meals. Indeed, there are cafes and restaurants to suit all pockets and stomachs, unless the hungry one is penniless or suffers from acute dyspepsia.
Beginning at the humblest, there are those small and unpretentious cafes in the poorer areas of the city where the diner, unmindful of the dirty tablecloth, greasy cutlery, and air of general depression, may eat his soup as noisily as he pleases and wrestle with beer until he obtains a fall. In such places may be seen that leveller of caste, the meat pie, at the lowest rung of the gastronomic scale. It has a despondent look in these regions, but it is sound at heart, despite the suggestion of many who know it well that its motto should be “Cave canem.”
In these “eating houses” there is not much difference between the soup and the stew, except that usually the density and price of the stew are somewhat greater. Mutton is unknown, and the man who orders pork cracks a good joke. Yet patronage is never lacking, for there are many who prefer to or must eat the cheapest possible meals.
A GOOD SHILLING’S WORTH
There are restaurants which offer “a three-course meal for a shilling.” In these places there is no standing on ceremony. You are given little choice, and if you do not like the course chosen for the day you decide to eat there, you must go without. The meals are not unappetising, and tea is also provided – so one receives good value for the shilling.
Then come the small a la carte cafes, where the range of courses, like the prices, is greater. The meat pie is in great demand in these cafes – meat pie and potatoes, 4d. With potatoes at their present price, how such a substantial dish can be provided for such a small sum is beyond comprehension. It must be the quantity that counts in making a profit, for the meat pie is indeed a favourite with nearly all those who want only a light meal. It has been estimated that if all the meat pies consumed in Brisbane in one day were piled one on top of the other, the sight would attract visitors from all over the world.
The cost increases with every improvement in the quality of the food and the conditions under which one eats. Further up the scale are those restaurants which are patronised by what may be known as Brisbane’s middle class. They are very pleasant places, and some of them provide not only food, but music, too. It is pleasant to hear music while eating good food, and it is not altogether foolish to believe that it acts as a stimulant. Even if it does not aid digestion or titillate the appetite, it helps many persons to exercise their vocal cords, for they must speak loudly in order to be heard.
For those who want the best the city can provide there are the luxurious dining rooms where all manner of rich and delicate foods are provided. In these places, cooking and service are at their best, and those who can afford to eat there are assured of dining well.
OPEN LATE AND EARLY
All the “eating houses” so far mentioned are those which are open for custom at the usual hours. But there are some which cater for citizens who become hungry at unusual times, mostly when the rest of us are in bed. These are the cafes and the coffee stalls which remain open nearly all night, and they do a good trade.
Many fashionable persons who would not wish to be seen frequenting these places in the day time are only too glad to call there on the way home from a dance or a party in the early hours of the morning, and order a pie or a “hot dog” to silence the protests of their hungry stomachs.
Those who start work very early in the morning and those who finish their work about the same time – these are the best customers the all-night stalls count on for their trade. Especially in the winter and on rainy nights the coffee stall, with its cheerful warmth and food, is appreciated by many a tired worker or reveller.
Finally there are the fish and chips shops, usually owned by descendants of Homer and Sappho, who specialise in the serving of marine delicacies. A great deal of their trade is done at night and there is no more welcome sight to the hungry poor than the fish and potato chips being lifted from the hissing vats of boiling fat, and wrapped in newspaper, to be handed over the counter in exchange for a small silver coin.
So, in various styles and in various ways, Brisbane is always eating. Food is being provided for some person or other all round the clock, but despite this universal interest in food, hardly ever does any diner pause for a moment in the mastication of his meal to consider the various ways in which Brisbane eats.