The Mount Pleasant Food Stories project is a growing collection of portraits, stories, and recipes gathered from people living, working, or simply eating in the neighbourhood. A collaboration between local residents Sarah Mathisen, Elanna Nolan, and Kerria Gray, the project aims to explore how food connects people to both new places and old memories. Mathisen, Nolan, and Gray gather their neighbours’ stories of family, ancestry and migration in the best way possible–over a kitchen table and a homemade meal.
Gabor and Eva Make Meggyleves (Fruit Soup)
“I remember that being one of my favorite meals as a kid, and it was a treat to have…”
Gab and his mother talk over Skype on a Friday afternoon. It’s morning in Australia, from where Gab’s mother, Eva, is calling. She’s just woken up to a miserable winter’s morning. Sitting in front of the computer at Gab’s home in Mount Pleasant, it is clear we are on the opposite side of the earth. It is hot. And, it turns out, a perfect time to eat one of Gab’s favourite and most nostalgic Hungarian dishes–meggyleves–a cold sour cherry soup.
“The real cornerstone of the fruit soup is cinnamon,” Eva instructs Gab. “Cloves are also key, but not really mandatory,” she explains. “When making a fruit soup it’s really all about your taste,” and, as Eva points out, getting the beautiful pink colour of the soup just right.
As a child and new arrival in Australia from Yugoslavia, Gab would ask his mom to make his favourite soup for friends when they came to play. “I was very puzzled, because I thought it was so delicious, but my friends didn’t like it,” Gab laughs. “They’d say ‘It’s kind of strange.’” But Gab wasn’t dissuaded by their distaste for the pastel-hued soup. “A lot of the food that [Australian kids] ate was gross–like Vegemite, sausage rolls and meat pies–I was afraid of those. It made me feel okay because I found their food disgusting too.” He now reflects that fruit soup is most likely an acquired taste.
When Eva and Laszlo moved their family to Australia in the late 1980s, they were confronted with the challenges of adapting to a new culture and a new climate. Finding a butcher who could make the right cuts of meat for Eva’s traditional Hungarian and Slovak recipes was difficult, as was the absence of Hungarian paprika on suburban supermarket shelves. Fresh cherries, which in Europe had been Eva’s fruit of choice for the fruit soup, were prohibitively expensive because they were hard to grow in an Australian climate. Eva and Gab both spoke lovingly of the abundance in their previous homes in Slovakia, Serbia, and Hungary.
From within the Australian Hungarian community Eva was able to track down a butcher, and paprika could be sought at specialty stores. While there were many challenges, Eva explains she began to find settling in Australia liberating. “I was under far less scrutiny, so I could get away with, for example, fish and chips on the beach for Christmas.” Although faced with the challenges of settling in a new place and missing the home she had just left, she also describes feeling that she had escaped from the customs and conformity she felt in Europe as a wife, mother and family cook.
During their Skype conversation Gab begins to assemble the fruit soup, excited at the access he now has to cherries here in Vancouver. As Gab tentatively pits the cherries, measures out the water, and begins to make the fruit stock, he checks in with Eva to make sure he’s doing it right. Eva enjoys cooking with Gab in this way, talking through practical details with him in the kitchen. They both tell us it makes them feel closer.
Emil Reflects on Tempeh, Home, and Childhood
“You show your love by feeding people…it’s almost universal in Indonesia.”
Emil lives in a lovely little house in Mount Pleasant. We sat down together at his kitchen table one summer evening, while Emil told us about his childhood growing up in Indonesia. For Emil, the most nostalgic food that brings back memories of home is tempeh, and he often finds himself craving it: “I’m not generally the most patriotic person…but it’s one of the items that when I cook it, it’s like….home.” He finds it frustrating that it is so difficult to find it raw in Vancouver, though he’s recently found a shop in the Downtown Eastside that sells it the way he remembers. He described to us a few of the ways it is prepared in Indonesia: in thin slices soaked in brine and deep fried, then dipped in sweet soy sauce, or simply eaten with vegetables and rice. In Indonesia many households make their own tempeh, but it is also readily available and affordable in stores. Here it is relatively expensive and almost always processed. “Growing up we ate it 3-4 times a week”.
Emil’s memories of childhood are tied up with particular meals, and his descriptions give us a vivid sense of the rituals and foods that brought Emil’s family together and connected them to a broader sense of identity and place. “The thing about Indonesians is we love snacks, we will have snacks all the time and most are often deep-fried, which is a problem if you are watching your weight [laughter]… If not having meals, we will just hang out on the patio and have snacks there…maybe in jars (crackers, dry fruits) and if not that, on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon we will have fried banana with coffee and tea…especially if it’s rainy. Rainy weekends remind me of sitting on the patio eating fried banana and drinking tea and coffee.”
When he was 17 years old, Emil moved to first to Malaysia, then to Victoria, BC, then to Sydney, Australia, and then finally back to Canada where he became a permanent resident. His connections to Indonesia remain strong, and food continues to connect him with his home country. “My parents would always want me to know where I come from…so they always push me to bring lots of things from home back to here…clothes, food, crackers…[mom] really wants me never to forget, and I appreciate that now.”
On Saturday September 26th, Mount Pleasant Food Stories will be exhibiting some of their photos and interviews at Metamorfest. If you’re interested in being involved in the project, you can contact the organizers at www.mtpleasantfoodstories.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or drop by Metamorfest to say hello.