I don’t actually remember eating my Pop’s spanakopita, but I’m happy to follow instructions from a kindly looking papou on YouTube who reminds me of him. He grins as he finely chops the dill and parsley then very seriously looks at the camera—‘You can’t forgetta the feta,’ he says, stressing each syllable. ‘You can use a little—but I use a lot.’ He pours a copious amount of olive oil over everything.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the inclination to cook for the sake of it. It smacks of whimsy, a kind of laborious delight, to have the time carved out to pour myself into the kitchen. Cooking has become a kind of self-care ritual to take up the afternoons, only possible now because the work week as we know it has been forced into another shape—one that slips in and out of productivity, that shapeshifts just as I think I’ve grasped it. And so I find myself with my laptop perched on top of the compost tub, watching a papou on YouTube crumble handfuls of feta into a wilted spinach mix.
There’s nothing special about the video—it’s a fairly standard kitchen demonstration, something you might catch flicking through TV channels at three in the afternoon. Yet this stranger and his vivacious attitude to Greek cooking has me reaching for familial closeness through the computer screen. While I’m gently coiling the stuffed filo cigars into a round cake tin—drenched, yes, in olive oil—it occurs to me that maybe my Pop had never even made spanakopita. I might just be latching on to whatever’s around: Greeks on YouTube, the Byzantine and Cypriot recipe books high on the kitchen shelf. Bake until golden brown and flaky. Timer on.
I have to call my mum to check because our maternal family history is patchy. Our cultural heritage is a tenuous third generation migrant story peppered with black holes and dead ends. ‘Did Pop make spanakopita? Am I making it up?’ I’m calling Mum more now that I’m forced to be at home. She pauses. ‘Trays of it,’ she says, then slowly unspools her culinary memories, revealing the origin stories of my predilections for particular palates.
In 1969 my mother was three years old, visiting family in Istanbul. She tells me about Pacifique, her grandfather, pulling a baked pigeon out of the oven in a stone building out the back of a French orphanage. Later, he carried her on his shoulders to behead a couple of chooks—the blood spatter on the concrete wall stayed with her for years.
She remembers growing up in Sydney and the weekends her dad Henri spent in the kitchen. He was ‘particular with cheese,’ drank red wine while he cooked, spoke a handful of languages, fervently borrowed books from the library, and had a remarkable penchant for teaching himself whatever he needed to know. The provenance of his delight for cooking was a mystery to her—all she knew was that he was from Istanbul, that he had left home as a young boy.
Mum tells me about being dragged to the food markets in East Lakes, coming home with boxes of peaches and peppers, whole watermelons on the kitchen bench. White lace curtains ruffled above the sink over open windows, a cat on the windowsill. A tin bin brimming with food scraps. This kitchen is what mum returns to when she cooks. Food is the thread that connects her to her past, that overworn but accurate cliche that food is culture is family is identity is life. ‘Food was always around,’ she says. I ask her what dominant flavours she remembers. ‘Currants,’ she says. ‘Dill, cinnamon. Black pepper.’
Food is the thread that connects my Mum to her past, that overworn but accurate cliche that food is culture is family is identity is life.
Over two days, Henri would decimate the kitchen and Tete, my grandmother, cleaned up around him. The dish washing roster was written in military time. Mum says she liked to do the dishes. Henri and Tete ran a deli next to a Lebanese fruiterer and a hairdresser’s. Blue collar workers would come in for lunch, for Henri’s seafood crepes, his bagged coleslaw.
Then he opened a fish shop, trucking fish in the ute tray from the market at 3am. Mum worked in the shop for a time. She scrubbed the floor among the mixed stench of chlorine and fish. ‘His one regret was that he never opened a restaurant,’ she says, then scoffs.
When I was in my early twenties, Mum ran a cafe for a few years. It was a total passion project—and it drove her into the ground. Still, she says she loved food. It didn’t ruin it for her. With my newfound drive to connect to cooking, seemingly birthed by disruption in the economic order, I’m wondering about this genetic inheritance coming to light for me for the first time. Suddenly there’s space to unfurl and connect to something I’d been pushing down, but which I’d been around for so long.
My relationship with food has been clouded by my experiences of the service industry and the structural imbalances it represents. It’s the capitalist crunch—the massive time suck of work, the commodification of the things that make you feel alive and connected in the world, the difficulty in telling these things apart. But now, with this new disruption, maybe I can make a new start. If I lean into cooking, I can gather the thread that my mum is tugging on and follow it all the way back to Turkey.
In the past five years, several high profile restauranteurs and business chains were exposed for fleecing their workers through wage theft—a non-compliance with industry awards and regulations that set down the minimum entitlements for fair work. For those who’ve worked in hospitality, this isn’t exactly news—it’s well-known that you won’t get paid overtime, that your weekend wage won’t incorporate the penalty rate, that you’ll work trial shifts for nothing, that you won’t get your half-hour break per five hours—that you are replaceable. Anthony Bourdain’s famous 1999 treatise on hospitality lays hospo’s crookedness bare, in a romanticised way, when he writes:
There is a powerful strain of criminality in the industry, ranging from the dope-dealing busboy with beeper and cell phone to the restaurant owner who has two sets of accounting books.
I worked in cafes for years. They put me through university, paid my rent, forged deep friendships and life skills in how to deal with entitled, unreasonable arseholes. Our team was a well-oiled machine, and we carried a co-ordinated war effort against the assailing public and their brunch particularities. For the most part, it didn’t feel like I was being screwed. I had a symbiotic relationship with the place, though at times I felt like live-in help. I couldn’t enjoy cooking back then. I had to be around food at work; it was tainted. The job financially anchored me—I ate and revolved around the place, stuffing unsold muffins into brown paper bags to sustain me for fourteen hours until my next shift, guzzling drams of leftover smoothie so I didn’t have to have dinner. It was a perfect storm of interdependence. A mutual agreement with precarious work that had no foreseeable end.
I couldn’t enjoy cooking back then. I had to be around food at work; it was tainted.
But then someone who knew their entitlements was hired. There was a frenzy to photocopy the timebooks, request backlogs of payslips, cross-check the rates and hours. Most of the team turned tail and left. On the brink of COVID, one remaining colleague—he was shy and beautiful, like a spooked but gold-hearted foal—confronted the boss’ nonchalant attitude to the virus. More arrogant non-compliance. The place shut. He refuses to return to the industry.
Bourdain’s essay goes on to detail how, after a failed restaurant, he ‘began thinking about becoming a traitor to [his] profession.’ In a crude twist of fate, not long after leaving the cafe, I found myself photocopying service station employee timebooks for an evidence brief at a corporate law firm—for the employer. Coming out of casual work, where I’d almost revelled in the endless adolescence it propped up, I’d crash landed into fixed term full-time work. It was killing me softly in other ways. I’d come home weeping because I didn’t have enough time to do anything that felt real. If I cooked—and I tried—I couldn’t enjoy it because it took up an entire day of the two days per week available for socialising, rest, laundry, life admin. Again, cooking felt like work.
When my mum tells me about Tete cleaning up after Henri, I see head chefs and young waitstaff—the glorification of the male chef and the invisible, emotional and gendered labour of service. I see my mum professing to like cleaning up, bearing a self-imposed responsibility to continue to cook for her family even after a day in her cafe kitchen.
There is, of course, a difference between cooking because you want to and because you get paid to. There’s also the middle ground reality faced by women who are mothers and carers—that domestic labour is unpaid but carries the economy. An ABS study from 1997 found that unpaid domestic labour’s value comprised up to 48% of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A recent report from Deloitte, focusing on Victoria, mirrored the finding that if unpaid domestic work was paid, it would comprise 50% of the State’s GDP.
I still wonder if these invisible, insidious structures coerce us into particular relationships with the things that we profess to adore.
The despair I feel at the nine-to-five routine mingles with the reality that the business of feeding yourself and your family is never-ending. It’s another layer to break through. I have repeatedly distanced myself from gender roles, including cooking, that my mother ritualistically performed. She says she chose that role, but I still wonder if it was truly free choice, or if these invisible, insidious structures coerce us into particular relationships with the things that we profess to adore. Those same constraints have buried food joy for me for so long.
After working from home, I’m now back in the office. The time in my day is more tightly prescribed again, and there’s no space for 3.00pm culinary explorations. The weekends are compressed, too short, and the temperature is rising. I try to spend the day cooking to calm down and am only up to rolling out the thyme pastry for a tart when I call it—I’ve had enough. It’s the fourth time I’ve emptied and re-filled the kitchen sink with sudsy water, scrubbing to get the wet dough unstuck from the seam of a plastic bowl.
This is meant to be my downtime. I don’t have to work weekends anymore, but I’m still doing it. I’m multi-tasking, squeezing efficiency out of every step—stock churning, spiced sweet potatoes roasting, apple cider onions turning jellied and golden in the pan—it’s unshakable that it feels like work. It is work. But I want to be able to separate it from those invisible forces—commodification, the devaluing of gendered work—because it’s also identity and cultural connection. When the ground shifted and the nine-to-five questioned itself, if only briefly, I found that thread my mum tugged on. It felt like it carried me back to a place where culture, connection, identity and family histories knotted together, obstinate and joyful in the kitchen.