The house I spent my teens in had a big courtyard surrounded on three sides by large windows that looked into the living areas. It was full of lush greenery including the impressive stag and elk horns, to which I was always instructed to feed my spent banana peels. Come nighttime, the greenery came alive; moths and bugs hovered around the glow of the outdoor lights, dancing beneath the beams and hanging plants. Bumping against the windows, the smallest would crawl through the fly wire only to be found scattered on the kitchen island come morning, misled by their ambition. It was when the lights went out and the bugs began this migration toward the glow of the indoors that things really came to life. Little tree frogs would start to climb the windows, feeding on the ample insects at their disposal, their feet suctioned to the glass until they leaped toward their meals, expanding their bellies before hopping back beneath the rocks to croak late into the night.
It was these little creatures that inspired my best friend and me to name our little cooking experiment Frog Diner. Looking back, it wasn’t the most creative name, but to us it was necessary for our latest game of “restaurant”. We would set up the large wooden pedestal with one of Dad’s old daybooks next to the entrance to our dining room and request that my parents take themselves off to get dressed up. On their return, they were prompted to give their name as we scanned the empty page of the daybook for their booking. We would seat them, offer them a drink, and sometimes a menu with very limited choice, and then leave them to their own devices while we took over the kitchen.
My parents weren’t huge meat eaters, and therefore, a meal with meat playing a starring role was rare in our house. I would often land on our neighbour’s doorstep, complaining that my hippy parents never gave me meat, and didn’t care if I ended up anemic. She would often feel sorry for me and invite me in for dinner. This meant the meals I generally cooked were heavily meat based; spaghetti bolognese, sausages, chops or steak.
I don’t really remember where I learnt to cook these things. I guess I watched Mum and Dad, often sitting at the island bench complaining about an upcoming teen party they were never going to let me attend no matter how hard I bargained. There was always lots of chopping and grating. A dash of this and a pinch of that from what seemed like an endless supply of dried herbs and spices from the walk-in pantry. The space it occupied was just large enough for my Dad to pull a stool into and sit on, unseen, while I celebrated my first teenage party with boys. He discovered it was the perfect vantage point for him to keep an eye on us from the reflection in the oven. Looking back, I hope he realizes this was one of those times he may have overstepped the father mark. He was uncovered when I walked in to refill the popcorn. I was mortified and banished him to the lounge where my mother could keep an eye on his over-protectiveness.
Those spices in that pantry were what shaped our ‘restaurant’s’ dishes. I had no idea what I was doing but I pinched and dashed (and often flat-out shook) those little bottles all over the pieces of steak I would inevitably overcook and toughen, before serving it up next to mashed potatoes, broccoli and carrots steamed in mum’s folding steamer. I remember it had one little flap missing, ensuring the smaller pieces would escape and boil in the water below.
The sausages and chops were always done in the vertical grill, designed long before George Forman decided to “knock out the fat”. We would cook them until they started to form crispy edges, the fat dripping into the tray at the bottom. The sausage skins would stretch and bubble; becoming taut, crisp and ready to burst under the slightest amount of pressure from a hungry bite, spilling the scalding escaped juices down an unsuspecting chin.
Dessert was usually an unimaginative bowl of ice-cream with strawberry or caramel topping, and if they were lucky, some slightly bruised fruit from the bottom of the crisper. My parents really were good sports. We would have them sitting in that dining room for almost an hour before they were able to eat. Every now and then I remember Dad requesting they move to the lounge while the ‘chef’ was still cooking but I always refused. I felt it would ruin the mood.
When dinner finally arrived, it was always met with the appropriate amount of oohs and ahs. They would both praise the flavours of the meat as they worked their jaws, chewing the toughened steak, smiling just the right amount so we didn’t suspect they were overdoing it. The vegies would disintegrate beneath their forks, often floating in some sort of powdery ‘just add boiling water’ sauce. But the praises continued until we excused ourselves to clean up, satisfied we were going to be the next big thing in food.
Since the days of the Frog Diner I’ve learnt how to cook a decent steak, how to make a béarnaise sauce from scratch, and how to host a respectable (or unrespectable, depending on the guest list) dinner party. What I did learn, though, is how good it felt to make something for the people that I love. And also, how grateful I was that mum and dad were smart enough to install a dishwasher.