Last week I wrote about my love of cafes. I hope that in doing so I did not accidentally imply that I only rate going out for day time meals. This is not so. I also love going out for tea. (I grew up saying ‘tea’ and ‘pudding’ and now say ‘dinner’ and ‘dessert’ but I am trying to reclaim my language heritage. Pudding of course does not have to be actual pudding and in my house after tea we usually grappled with the dismal news that there was ‘only fruit for pudding’. Sometimes we would have a tin of fruit for pudding, which was harder to prepare than it sounds as my mother often stocked up on unlabelled cans from the SPC factory and then got the tinned tomatoes and peaches mixed up in the cupboard.)
I grew up in country Victoria and so my first memories of going out for tea are naturally of going to the local Chinese restaurant. This was a big and rare treat. I loved everything about it. I loved the opulent decorations, chicken and corn soup, the ingenuity of the Lazy Susan and the possibility that at the end of the meal someone might order pudding and have that ultimate contradiction and seeming impossibility: fried ice-cream.
(Incidentally Susan has been very unfairly described as ‘lazy’ when she was obviously flipping brilliant. I suspect with that kind of efficient thinking she may have had something to do with the time saving properties of margarine.)
We loved going to the Wangaratta Chinese restaurant so much so that my older sister chose it as the destination for her eighth birthday party. This might seem like an odd choice for an eight year old but it’s not like McDonalds was an option as my parents refused to take us and Mum met all pleas with the comment ‘You can go to McDonalds on your 21st birthday’, which I now realise was a joke to herself but at the time seemed like she was simply being ridiculous.
But although McDonalds was alluring I was also very excited that the whole family, along with three of my sister’s best friends, would be going to the Chinese restaurant for tea. My sister was also very excited. She was extremely excited. She was so excited that she got a stomach ache. At first there was concern that she was actually ill but then it became obvious that she was just too nervous and sick with anticipation. And instead of just leaving her at home and forging ahead with the outing my parents cancelled. We had a cake at home, so at least there was pudding.
I love going to cafes. I sometimes think that the amount of joy cafes have brought to my life is disproportionate. And by that I mean that I am not exaggerating when I say ‘joy’ and I think I should be. My life’s happiness should not have been materially touched by the existence of a room with a coffee machine and some baked treats, but it has been.
I can’t remember when I first went to a café but it was late by today’s standards. In the 1980s small tots were, perhaps appropriately, not sipping bubacinos every second day as a way to motivate them to stay still for thirty seconds while their parents try to motivate themselves with caffeine to go to the park. So I don’t remember ever going to a cafe as a young child. (Please do not feel sorry for me, I had plenty of treats like a free slice of strass when we went to the butchers.)
My first job was in a the local bakery/deli/supermarket/café in my very small home town. The café component of the business consisted of two tables and an espresso machine, which I operated very badly. Part of the problem was that I didn’t get much chance to practise as people rarely ordered coffee. The ‘café’ only owned two latte glasses. My friend and I used to joke about what would happen if someone ever ordered more than two lattes. The joke was that we knew this would never happen. (Until the Great Victorian Bike Ride stopped unexpectedly in town when it was raining, which is all a disastrous blur in my mind, but anyway we used disposable cups rather than making people take turns for the glasses.)
In nearby Castlemaine there was a thriving café culture but despite there clearly being heaps of time between netball, music lessons and dance classes my mother chose not to take her four daughters to cafes very often.
So I was not a regular café goer before I left home. There were glimpses though. One time I had an interview for an exchange program in Melbourne. Afterwards my mother took me to Richmond Hill Café and Larder. We sat on cane chairs and yellow was the feature colour. I had kippers on toast and a coffee and felt like I was finally living.
When I first moved to Melbourne I was too poor to eat at cafes but would occasionally meet a friend for coffee. It was not until I was in fourth year and I moved to a share house in North Carlton that I made my next big café discovery. My housemates went out for BREAKFAST. I had not realised that such a thing was occurring. For my first ever external breakfast we went to Small Block, had to wait for a table and sat on tiny stools. There was a lot of concrete and red was the feature colour. It was incredibly uncomfortable and amazing. Going out for breakfast was a thing and I loved it.
I am now so spoilt for café choice and go so regularly that it takes a little more for the old rush of elation to come back. But sometimes it does. Usually, it involves finding an excellent café unexpectedly and suddenly feeling that I’m living a charmed life.
Like the time I had been demoralised by a bad work meeting, missed a train and then wandered down the main street, where I discovered The Duchess of Spotswood. There was a lot of wood and aqua was the feature colour.I had a ginger muffin and a cup of tea. All was well.
My partner and I sometimes drive from Melbourne to Adelaide with small children because we are very glamorous. We once stopped in Dimboola, a quiet town with an historic but faded main street. We arrived in town expecting to buy a Big M from the fish and chip shop. I was bracing myself for yet another conversation about the superiority of Farmers Union Ice Coffees. And then there it was. The Mason Clarke Preserving Company. Specialising in local produce, roasting their own coffee, and selling home-made lemonade with white and red paper straws. Now every time we do the drive we plan to stop in Dimboola and approach it with white-knuckled terror that the children might oblige us to break in Horsham instead.
I can’t fully explain why cafes make me so happy. Perhaps it stems from my childhood, growing up always packing our own food, doing our best to keep the Glad-wrap and Tuppaware companies afloat. There is something very refreshing about ordering whatever you want and leaving the mess. But you would think I’d get over that, and I haven’t. Maybe I just like sugar and caffeine. But you would think that after the high faded the glowing memories would too, and they haven’t. Like much of the point of living, it cannot be rationally explained.
Sometimes when people are very hungry they become physically and mentally weakened and it becomes hard for them to decide what they would like to eat. We’d all like to support people in this painful condition, but so often friends, family and colleagues get it very wrong and say something that not only makes the sufferer’s anguish worse but can actually prolong the decision making process. Please read on to educate yourself about what not say in these circumstances.
1. What do you feel like eating?
Firstly, it’s not that simple. There are many factors to consider when ordering food including price, health, ethics and whether you’ve brought a spare change of clothes. If it was as simple as deciding on a preference the waitress might not be hovering awkwardly while my mouth opens and shuts with no sound coming out. Secondly, I don’t know what I feel like. This is hard for me, please don’t make it harder.
2. I think we need a few more minutes.
Now you’ve told the waitress to go away. Now I have to wait even longer. I am genuinely not sure if I will make it.
3. Try to visualise yourself eating the meal to help you decide.
Do I look like I’m on a mountain retreat at peace with nature and at one with my mind? If so, why have I made five trips to peer at the specials board, scarcely able to understand it, and why can’t I stop shredding napkins? Also, you suggested I try visualisation in the last three cafes we went to before this one, where I was unable to choose anything and we had to leave without ordering. I am even hungrier than I was then, so what are the chances of me being able to visualise anything now? How about you try to visualise yourself not being a complete arsehole.
4. I’ll swap with you if you don’t like yours.
But what if I don’t like yours either? Mitigate risk, don’t just create more of it.
5. First world problems!
How. Dare. You. Oprah says all pain is the same. Anyway you’re not even supposed to use the term ‘first world’ now. STOP PATRONISING EVERYONE IN THE WHOLE WORLD.
6. I think you might be a bit hangry.
Don’t tell me how I feel. I’m not hangry I am legitimately incensed by the fact that there are three types of orange juice on the menu and I can’t remember if jamon is a type of cheese or meat and I’m too embarrassed to ask because I think it’s something that everyone is supposed to know by the age of 34. That’s it. We have to leave this place too.
The one thing that you should say: Here, have a biscuit.