Learning About Me

Ejo #118 – Our House

On the 25th October 2012, David and I were crouched down, in the dark, in my sister Mari’s bedroom at our parents’ house. We were hiding. It was her 40th birthday and we’d flown to Melbourne to surprise her. And when she walked in and turned on the light and saw us, the ecstatic expression on her face as she jumped up and down, shouting “OH NO, YOU DIDN’T!!!!!” was absolutely fucking priceless. I relive that joyful moment often.

Another moment that has stood the test of time harks back even further, to around 1985 or perhaps 1986. I was in the exact same room, lying in wait for my youngest sister, Pieta. It was the middle of the day and I’d been sitting in her closet for about 45 minutes, patiently waiting for her to come in, close the door and make herself comfortable before jumping out of the closet and scaring the living shit out of her. She tore through the house, screaming like someone whose pants were on fire, and when I finally caught up to her and showed her it was just me and not the bogeyman, my ten year old sister collapsed in shock and relief. It took an hour of comforting her in my arms before the tears finally abated and she stopped shaking with fear. Good times.

Recently, I’ve been reliving many memories from my past. Memories inextricably linked to the house I grew up in. As you know, I recently spent several weeks in Melbourne, preparing our home for sale after my Mum died. And on a rainy day, in the first week of September, it was sold to the highest bidder at auction. Just six weeks later, on Wednesday, 16th October 2019 the keys to our family home were ceremoniously handed over to the new owners, and the front door to a massive part of my life was irrevocably slammed shut.

Before I go on, let me tell you a little bit about my parents. Both of them came from very poor families in Greece. But, while Dad grew up in a joyful, loving home, lavished with kindness and affection and praise, my Mum was raised in a hard, sterile environment bereft of love. Despite this, my mother’s ability to give love remained unscathed, and when she met my Dad her heart finally found its real home. When my sisters and I came along, the five of us created the sense of family and home that Mum had never experienced as a child. We all lived happily in a two bedroom flat in Elwood until I was twelve years old. And in 1983, after years of struggling, scrimping and saving, my parents achieved the great Australian dream of finally owning their own home – the house at 1 Anthony Drive, Mount Waverley. I remember the pride on their faces as my sisters and I ran around the “fixer upper” four bedroom house, on the day that we moved in.

Over the years, as my father put his talents to work transforming it, the house became not just somewhere for us to live, but a place that defined our family. Over a 20 year period, my Dad plastered and whitewashed the house, he knocked down walls, tore up the carpet, constructed staircases and decks, installed floor to ceiling windows and built a small scale working version of the fountain he’d been commissioned to create for Government House. He remodeled the bathroom and the kitchen, installed a sauna room for my Mum, paved the driveway and front courtyard, re-tiled the roof, insulated the whole building, re-stumped the foundations and, to my great consternation at the time, built a magnificent arched wall that ran the entire length of the front of the property (a massive nod to our wog heritage). The house we moved into was pretty great, but the house my father died in, in 2003, was something else. He had not built it from the ground up, but he might as well have, and everywhere you looked he was there. In every corner, in every room, he had left his mark on the Stathopoulos family home.

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My Dad single-handedly built the fountain at Government House.  Go check it out on Australia Day – the only day of the year it’s open to the public.

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Mum and Dad.  ❤

My sisters and I all moved out of home around the same time but our house was a place we could always return to, whenever we needed somewhere to stay, and I actually moved back home several times over the years – after every major breakup, after my year living in the United States, in between share households and for a few months after Dad died, sleeping on a foam mattress on the living room floor. It was a place I knew I could always come home to, and David and I always used it as our base whenever we visited Melbourne. Mari felt the same way:

It was a place that, no matter what I did or where I went, was always there. That welcomed me back into its folds after break ups and break downs, like a revolving door of love, sending me back out into the world stronger and with a fresh reminder that I was welcome back any time.

When our Dad died, everything changed. Mum was robbed of her partner, her lover, her companion, her rock. She desperately held on to all she had left – her three daughters and the house. For my Mum, those four walls had come to represent more than just a place to live. The house was how she defined herself, as a wife and as a mother. The house was our family history. It was security, and comfort and love – tangible things to a person who had grown up without them. It was her safe space, the only safe space she had ever known.

Sadly, like everything else, our house weathered the ravages of time, showing signs of decay in the years following my Dad’s death. The house got older, and so did Mum. Maintaining it, and the huge garden, became more and more difficult for her. I tried several times to convince her to sell it and move into something smaller and more manageable. I hated seeing her struggle, and wanted to make her life a bit easier. I never understood why she resisted, or exactly what I was asking her to sacrifice. Until my Mum died, I always thought that the house I grew up in was just a house. It was only afterwards, living there with my sisters as we cleared it out, that the enormity of selling it actually struck me. The magnitude of it punched me in the chest every night when I went to sleep in my old bedroom, and every morning when I woke up and looked out the window at my Mum’s beautiful garden. And every day, the memories came flooding back.

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My amazing Mum and her amazing garden.

In that very bedroom, I got my first period (and incidentally, quite possibly my last). A few months later, after countless failed attempts leaning up against my bedroom door, I successfully hammered in my first tampon. And around the same time I discovered the joys of masturbation. It was in that room that my fifteen year old friend Tina and I would turn out the lights and talk about sex for hours on end. It was where my first love finally, drunkenly kissed me, at my 18th birthday party. And where, a year later, I lost my virginity to a younger man I snuck in through my bedroom window in the middle of the night.

The rest of the house holds equally strong memories. And not just for me. Mari remembers:

Any time I needed someone to talk to, whether it was about a boyfriend, my work, my studies, my hopes and dreams, just life, whether the conversations were whispered in bedrooms with one sister or the other, hatching plans and keeping each others’ secrets, it was in our house. If it was a long meandering conversation over cups of coffee in the dining room with my Mum, or life lessons in the sunroom with my Dad, it was in that house. And you can bet any time there was joyous, chaotic yelling or singing at the top of our lungs in the lounge room, it was in that house, with my family, the people I love the most in the world.

My memories include our next door neighbour ringing the doorbell to complain to my parents about my horrendous singing (while I was still actually in the shower murdering “Fiddler on The Roof”). Endless summers tirelessly practicing dance routines with Mari and Pieta. And birthdays (so many birthdays, so many sparklers). I clearly remember the Holden Gemini filled with lanky teenage boys careening out of control and crashing into the side of the house while our parents were out, the three of us terrified that they were all dead and too afraid to go outside to check (they were fine). Roasting a whole lamb on a spit every single Christmas, and the obligatory family pic in front of the fountain. Endless VHS video hours of our parents entertaining friends – tables laden with food, live music, Greek dancing and thunderous, thigh-slapping laughter. I remember Mari dramatically throwing a plateful of spaghetti Bolognese at me when I pushed her just a little bit too far one day at lunch. And I remember grudgingly helping my Dad build that damn fucking wall, hating every minute of it, but still, knowing that I was helping him to achieve something remarkable.

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Xmas, 1999.  The wall… in the background.

Our house is where our dogs Barnaby and Subby lay buried in the backyard (shhh, don’t tell the new owners!!). It’s where David asked Mum for my hand in marriage. Where my father took his last breath as we held onto him, crying for our loss. In July of this year, the three of us moved back into that house, together for the first time in 25 years. For the last time. It was where Mari, Pieta and I mixed our parents’ ashes together. It was where we spent two months scrubbing our home of all the markers that had made it that. Mari remembers:

In clearing it out for sale it I felt like we looked over and contemplated every part of the house in a way we had never done before. It would have been so easy to just pay someone to do it, but that time of working through every item together, the questions of will we keep this, who will keep that, why are you keeping those? was a process of grieving for the house.

Even after methodically emptying out 36 years’ worth of belongings and memories and cobwebs and junk, even after it no longer looked or felt like my home, it was hard to let it go. My last day in Australia, we drove to the house one more time. I tried so hard to say a proper goodbye to a place that actually feels woven into my DNA, but I don’t think I did a very good job. That night I had to get on a plane, and five days later the house was sold. It was goodbye, whether I liked it or not.

Our house being sold is only a symbol of something greater being destroyed. With our parents gone, the selling of our home represents the fragmentation of the cellular walls of our family. My sisters and I are now like three untethered electrons, spinning around each other in ever greater orbits. Our family tree ends with us. In a weird way, I’m OK with that. Knowing that when we die, our family dies with us, gives me comfort. Nothing will be carried forward into the unknown. Our family was something that existed only in this lifetime. We will have had a beginning, a beautiful middle, and an end. In a way, it will have been perfect.

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The End.

Ejo #117 – My Mother’s Recipes: Chicken In Red Sauce

When I was a kid I didn’t like tomatoes very much. I liked them well enough raw, in a salad or a sandwich, but that was it. Anything with tomato cooked into it was blech to my palate. So I would aristocratically dip my hot chips in mayonnaise and snobbily eat my Four’n Twenty meat pies au naturel. When Mum made spaghetti bolognaise she would serve the pasta and the sauce separately and I’d happily reject the bolognaise, grating a little bit of goat’s cheese on my plain spaghetti instead. And when Mum made stuffed tomatoes, I would gouge out the yummy rice filling and wastefully leave behind a whole plateful of tomato cups. Which is why chicken with red sauce was never one of my faves growing up. Too tomatoey. Oh, but what a fool!!! Over the years I have come to appreciate tomato in all it’s forms and guises, including cooked!

Since Mum only ever cooked our favourite meals when David and I visited her in Melbourne, she never thought to make this one for us and as a result it’s been years and years since I’ve had it. Which is why I was so delighted when Pieta recently found a bunch of old handwritten recipes, including this one for chicken with red sauce. Yay!!! It was so wonderful to be able to cook this meal with my sisters and to actually enjoy, and appreciate, it with them. Especially since they both used to love it when they were kids.  It was truly delicious and I’m grateful that each of us was able to bring a recipe of Mum’s to this series. I still have a few of Mum’s recipes written down, but because Mari, Pieta and I won’t be able to cook together for a while, this post will be the last of “My Mother’s Recipes”. I’m sure I’ll be whipping up some of Mum’s other delicious recipes with David in Dubai, but it just won’t be the same.

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Not exactly a recipe, but close enough that we were able to decipher, and create magic, from it.  The butter, rice, fry, water bit is how our Mum used to make the rice.

Speaking of Dubai, we’ve been back here for just under four weeks and I already miss being in Melbourne. I miss the cool weather. The trees. The fresh air. Nature. My friends. I miss good food and good coffee. I miss hanging out in the neighbourhood I grew up in (and which I’ll probably never hang out in again). Shopping at the local supermarket, late in the afternoon and walking home with the groceries in the dappled light. I miss listening to the kookaburras laughing at dusk, and the magpies warbling at dawn. I miss my Mum’s beautiful garden. I miss my Mum.

And I miss my sisters. So fucking much. I miss spending every day with them. I miss the three of us all staying in the home we grew up in – the first time we’ve lived together in over 25 years. I miss the military precision required for the morning shower rush. I miss watching TV with them, going for drives together, running errands, talking, crying, laughing. I miss eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with them, and getting plastered with them. I miss their smiles and their quirks. I miss cooking with them. And I particularly miss the three of us cooking our Mum’s recipes together. It was so fucking special to have the opportunity to do that. We’ve never done it before, and who knows if we’ll ever do it again (though I really hope we do).

Recreating Mum’s food together was nostalgic, fun, delicious, cathartic and yes, a little bit sad. But most of all, it was something that bonded the three of us together in a way that we have never connected before. Food can be amazing like that. It thrilled me that the three of us could sit down to eat the food that we made – the exact same food that our Mum nourished us with, the food that she used to put her heart and soul into cooking for us. It was a beautiful thing. And I’m so happy that I can share it with you. It truly gives me joy that some of you have actually made these recipes for yourselves. That’s what this is all about. Food is love, or at least it is in my family.

Kalí órexi.

CHICKEN IN RED SAUCE
INGREDIENTS:
olive oil for frying
1 kg chicken wings and drumettes (free range and organic if you can afford it)
1 onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons tomato paste (more to taste)
1 teaspoon flour
a pinch of dried oregano
cooked rice to serve

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The ingredients.  We used brown rice which takes a bit longer to cook but is super easy (just pop a cup of brown rice and 1¾ cup of water into a saucepan with a large pinch of salt, and bring to the boil before lowering heat to simmer, covered for 35 minutes.  Remove from heat and stand for five minutes before fluffing with a fork and serving).

METHOD:
Heat oil in a large saucepan over a medium-high heat.  Add chicken and brown in batches.  Set aside.

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The browning of the chicken.  Be careful not to cook it, you just want to sear it all around to seal in the juices.  Mmmm, juices.

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The browned chicken.  As always, a glass of wine makes the cooking process run so much more smoothly.

Add more oil if necessary and saute onion until soft.  Add garlic and saute until fragrant.  Add tomato paste and stir to combine well.  Add flour and cook for a minute, stirring.

Add chicken pieces back to saucepan and stir, ensuring the chicken pieces are all coated in sauce.

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The flour will be a little lumpy at this stage but don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of it in the next step.

Add a little bit of water and stir through to dissolve any floury lumps (see, I told you we’d take care of it).  Add more water, enough to just cover the chicken, and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes.  Remove the lid and continue to simmer until the sauce thickens.

Serve over a bowl of rice and make sure you get lots of sauce in there.  YUM!

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As with most comfort foods the result isn’t super Instagrammable – however it is super eatable and super delicious, so get in there.  A good squiz of lemon juice really helps to elevate the flavours (it is a Greek dish after all). 😉

 

Ejo #116 – My Mum’s Recipes: Meatballs With White Sauce

A couple of years ago, I thought it would be wise to ask my Mum how she made my favourite meal, meatballs with white sauce.  And I’m so glad I did because I don’t really think I could have ever reverse-engineered it.  There’s a sneaky little step at the end which turns a pot of boiling meat into something absolutely magical.  And the secret is avgolémono.  Avgolémono, which literally translates into egg-lemon, is a very Greek flavouring used in lots of different types of dishes.  But my absolute favourite (the best) is this one.

My whole life, whenever my Mum asked what I’d like to eat for my special birthday meal, the answer was always meatballs with white sauce.  And later on, after David and I moved to Dubai, Mum always cooked it as our welcome home meal, because she knew that’s what I wanted.  Sometimes we’d even have it as our farewell meal too.  I’m pretty sure that I have never, ever asked for any other dish.  Ever.  So of course she was never surprised with my answer.  She still asked, but she always knew.  Everyone knew.  This was my dish.  This will always be my dish.

I’m pretty sure meatballs with white sauce has a proper Greek name, but I don’t know what it is.  We always called it meatballs with white sauce, to differentiate it from another of Mum’s dishes which was meatballs with red sauce.  We kept things simple in my family.  This isn’t a dish that can be described.  It needs to be eaten, it needs to be tasted, it needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated.  This dish does take some time to cook, but it’s not difficult to make, so I do hope that you give it a shot.  And who knows, maybe it’ll become your favourite dish too.

Because she knew how much I loved it, meatballs with white sauce became a love letter between my mother and me.  She loved cooking it, and I loved eating it.  And we always shared a moment of gratitude/appreciation/acknowledgement when she served it at the dinner table.  Fittingly, it was the last thing my Mum ever cooked for me.  I had no way of knowing back then that it would be our last meal together but if I had known, perhaps I would have cooked it for her.  Either way, I’m glad it was meatballs with white sauce.

Kalí órexi.

MEATBALLS WITH WHITE SAUCE
INGREDIENTS:
500g mince
3 eggs
5 small handfuls of short grain rice
2 small handfuls of oat bran
cayenne pepper, to taste
olive oil
juice of 1½ lemons

METHOD:
Mix mince, one egg and rice in a bowl.  Add a splash of water if required.  Season with salt, pepper and cayenne, and add oat bran and a dash of olive oil.  Mix well, cover and leave for 20 minutes.

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My Mum used to use breadcrumbs but then she experimented a little bit and found that oat bran made the meatballs softer.

 

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Cover with plastic wrap and go have a glass of wine.

Shape the mince into meatballs.

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Measure each meatball by the very first meatball, rather than the last one you’ve made.  That way they will end up roughly the same size.

 

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One of these meatballs is not like the other.  Try to make them all the same size so they cook evenly but don’t forget that one of them will be sacrificed in order to make the dish so damn creamy and thicc and delicious.

Heat some olive oil in a frying pan and brown the meatballs on all sides.  In the meantime boil a pot of water.

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Brown the meatballs in batches – but be sure not to cook them through.  You just want them to be a golden brown colour, all over

Place the meatballs and the oil from the frying pan into the pot of water and allow to boil.  Reduce heat to low and simmer until done (about 90 minutes).

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You just want a very low simmer.  Also, you don’t want too much water in the pot otherwise the whole thing will turn out too watery.  No-one wants that

When you are ready to serve, mix the lemon juice and 1½ cups of meatball liquid from the pot with an electric mixer.  Add one meatball and continue mixing until smooth.  In a large bowl, crack two eggs and a splash of water and mix until frothy.  Slowly add the meatball liquid.

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This is where the magic happens. And that magic is called avgolémono.

Add this frothy mixture to the meatballs, shake the pot and sit for a couple of minutes to allow it to set.

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Look at them!!!  I just want to put my whole face in there.  My Mum would be proud.