Fab Feb Photo Collage Festival: Day 11: the Ekka

4 x 7UP collage

Front cover of The Queenslander newspaper 11 August 1927. Copyright expired.  SLQ bishop.slq.qld.gov.au:503000

Front cover of The Queenslander newspaper 11 August 1927. Copyright expired. SLQ bishop.slq.qld.gov.au:503000. It captures the kewpie dolls, icecreams, balloons and sample bags…and the happiness.

The featured collage image is really a story about Brisbane’s Exhibition or Royal National Association (RNA) Show, a 10 day event beloved by all Brisbaneites. However to Brisbane people it really only has one name, the Ekka, or occasionally the Show.

The Ekka is still a cause for great excitement but in my childhood even more so, as there were fewer competing events and treats to capture our imaginations. The Ekka existed mainly for the display and competition of produce, crafts and livestock especially for people from the bush, who would arrive in town en masse. It would be something of a novelty to see the country people in town dressed to the nines, or occasionally wearing an Akubra.

The Ekka was held at the RNA showgrounds, not too far from my home, so we would see the progressive unveiling of the accoutrements of the fair. It covered a lot of ground so you needed to have your walking shoes on and even that didn’t guarantee that you wouldn’t end up exhausted.

There were basically four areas to visit and a wise visitor planned their trip well in advance.

The Show bag Pavilion

Two young girls enjoying their show bags. Copyright expired, SLQ bishop.slq.qld.gov.au:139717

Two young girls enjoying their show bags. Copyright expired, SLQ bishop.slq.qld.gov.au:139717

The building (now demolished) which housed sample bags was of course one of the most popular with children. We would plot and plan just what we’d buy to make our pocket money stretch the distance….few children would have unlimited funds. My own children did much the same when their turn came round, costing each item in the sample bag to maximise bang-for-the-buck. But of course in those pre-decimal currency days before 14 February 1966, our purchases were in pounds, shillings and pence.

Sample bags actually offered samples of goods and I remember that they’d include things like a weetbix in a packet, for example or lollies. We would then use the empty boxes afterwards to play shops. In my uni days I remember working on a stall with my friend. Our job was to encourage people to try the free freshly-ground coffee, no doubt because tea was still the usual drink of choice. The stand smelled absolutely delicious, and I barely drank coffee in those days.

How old was I when this was done? Maybe about 11?

How old was I when this was done? Maybe about 11?

Upstairs in the same building was the display of arts and crafts and baking. It was always intriguing to see what children your own age had produced and wonder over the skills of the cooks who’d produced the delicious looking cakes, biscuits and confectionery. Little did I know at the time that my great-grandfather had won prizes at the equivalent show in Ipswich (Qld).  Near the steps going up to the arts displays was a man who would make your portrait by cutting out your profile with scissors from black paper. This is where my featured photo for today came from.  Nearby was the kewpie-doll stand with those gorgeous (to small eyes) dolls on sticks with frilly netting skirts and lots of glitter.

Wool Pavilion, Tasmanian Potatoes, and Machinery (and sometimes exams)

Across the road in the other buildings were the rather boring things like machinery but the nearby Wool Pavilion was much more fascinating with its wonderful fashion parades featuring Australia’s superb woollen fabrics. The Wool Parade was a great hit with girls and mothers, but less so with husbands and fathers. In later years I sat several exams in the Wool Pavilion. In the November heat, without any form of fans or airconditioning it wasn’t the more conducive atmosphere for doing your best. Still and all I can’t blame my Chemistry I exam results on that! Another popular spot was the Tasmanian potato stand where you could buy delicious fresh, hot chips on buttered rolls..they were constantly in high demand.

The showground: animals, motorcyclists, and fireworks

Hereford bull SLQ 1948

Hereford bull judging at the Ekka 1948. Copyright expired SLQ bishop.slq.qld.gov.au:101780

The hub of the Ekka was the main showground where the livestock exhibitions were held. When your feet gave up you could go and chill out and watch the premium stock being paraded or the expert woodchopping. At other times there were also exhibitions by the Police motorcyclists who would perform skilled choreography on their bikes, leaving everyone with their hearts in their mouths at the near-misses. As darkness fell everyone made sure of getting their place in the various stands so they could watch the night’s fireworks display. Everyone would choose their favourite colour and barrack for which one would go highest with oohs and aahs of happiness or disappointment. Behind the stands were various food outlets and I remember my mother working on the Guide stand serving food. Even the city-slickers would go and have a look at the large bulls and cows, the cute calves and the horses. Of course the smell was a bit overwhelming but it was fun even if we didn’t have the knowledge to assess the animals’ worth.

Livestock parade main arena Ekka c1981

Sideshow Alley

Sideshow alley was one of the “must visit” areas of the Ekka. Just imagine all the thrill of the fair: spruikers selling their shows, the wrestlers, the Fat Lady, the Mirror Maze and Slim Dusty’s singing show. And then there were the opportunities to win a cuddly animal or some other (often tacky) item: the sharpshooters stand, the clowns with their smiles swishing back and forth (more suitable for littlies) and the big Mater wheel.

Side Show Alley from the ferris wheel late 1980s

Side Show Alley from the ferris wheel late 1980s. P Cass.

And the rides!! As a small child you would start with the gentle horses on the carousel and progress to the train before moving up to the centrifugal force of the Octopus or the stomach-churning fear of the Wild Mouse roller coaster. Each year the scary rides got scarier. The stately ferris wheel was an all-time favourite and good for all ages. Each day as I went past on the bus to school I could assess just how close the Ekka was by its steady growth.

Sideshow alley lights

Sideshow alley lights and the Octopus (?). P Cass

My Littlest one (some time ago) enjoying her strawberry and cream ice cream

Our Littlest Bear (some time ago) enjoying her strawberries and cream ice cream

If we’d finished for the day we could duck out the gate near the hospital and catch the bus home, but usually we had to go back to pick up the show bags that had been put in storage rather than carrying them around: a good excuse to stop near the underpass of the railway line and get some bright pink fairy floss and that Ekka staple, an ice cream with strawberries and cream. Yummo!

To top it all off we got a public holiday on the Wednesday but wise people didn’t go to the Ekka on that day!

 And there you have it, a day at the Ekka. If you used to go, what do you remember most?

Fab Feb image

Family Hx writing challengeThis post is part of the February PhotoCollage Festival and the Family History Writing Challenge.

52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History: Week 13: Sweets Lollies and Desserts

52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy & History:

Week 13′s topic is Sweets. What was your favorite childhood candy or dessert? Have your tastes changed since then?

This week’s topic intersects both my genealogy and my own personal history. As I grew up I was told that my maternal great-grandfather owned a chocolate factory. You can imagine how much my mouth watered at that! Although the sceptical side of me assumed this was an extension of the truth, I’ve subsequently managed to prove it was correct….he was a skilled confectioner and pastry cook. So I suppose it almost goes without saying that I have a “sweet tooth”. One of the benchmarks of a true dessert aficionado is the need to check what’s on the end of a restaurant menu before deciding on the main course, and whether there’s room for an entrée. Having said that, the power of the desserts is slowly losing its hold on me….perhaps because there are so few that truly live up to expectation?

Do you associate sweets/biscuits etc with your relatives? I remember my maternal grandmother (who died when I was young) by the round, jam-spliced shortbread biscuits she would bring when she came for a visit –it was her father who was the pastry chef/confectioner so I guess she had a sweet tooth too. My paternal grandmother is Orange Cream biscuits and my paternal grandfather the Ginger snaps he’d dunk in his tea. My maternal grandfather is associated with the rich, complex Hungarian cakes that neighbours would give him in exchange for home handyman work he’d do for them in those post-War migration years. My mother goes with sponge cakes and my father sums it up with “custard, cream or ice cream” to which he’d reply “yes please”. He never did bother with the “or” in that query! My grandson associates his aunt with chocolate crackles that they make together and me with making smoothies together or the tiny ice cream that they have after their afternoon nap…I wonder what their memories will be of this as they grow older.

A delicious slice of custard tart.

When I was a child my birthday request would often include home-made custard tart –delicious but temperamental to cook, especially to ensure the pastry remained firm but melt-in-the-mouth. Mum would make lamingtons with her home-made sponge cake, and these were another favourite as my mother’s sponge cakes were “to die for”.  For special events she’d sometimes even make the lamingtons with pink icing rather than chocolate…girly heaven.

But I don’t want to focus on desserts but rather on the confectionery side of this topic – lollies, sweets, candy or whatever confectionery is called where you come from.

My Easter raffle prize tin - without the lollies.

My stand-out memory of lollies is the year I won the Easter raffle at my primary school. I need to tell you that despite my strong Irish ancestry, the luck of the Irish for me involves black shrivelled shamrocks, not buckets of money at the end of the rainbow. This explains why a win of a metal tin of home-made lollies has stayed so strongly in my memory over such a long period. I’m a sucker for pretty “containers” and an even bigger one for delicious lollies so it was a double whammy. The tin still lives with me and holds some of my childhood memorabilia. The lollies inside the tin were all hand-made and included marshmellows, coconut ice, toffees, and chocolate fudge. Delicious!

In those days it was not uncommon for women to make their own lollies –or perhaps it was and I was just lucky to know so many who were skilled at cooking confectionery. My mother would sometimes make marshmellows, usually in winter I think, as it’s an item which can be very temperamental to make in a sub-tropical and humid environment and needed the “right” sort of day before it could be made.

Coconut ice is another confectionery item that I used to love but these days it’s remarkably difficult to find one with the right texture and taste, even among the home-made varieties. A few years back I found a commercial one at a deli in New Farm in Brisbane, and I would stock up when I went down there for a visit….not that it would last long. J  Mum’s coconut ice was pretty good too but some could be too creamy, others too sugary, some just too sweet and ikky.Wholesome Cook’s picture of coconut ice looks perfect. And just in case you were wondering about whether I really liked coconut, we’d also have home-made pink coconut ice blocks during the summer ;-)

Mum would regularly made toffees for school fetes or the birthday morning teas that were a part of our school-day celebrations. These toffees would be made in patty cake papers and usually the top was sprinkled with hundreds and thousands.

The best chocolate fudge that I remember was made by the man who lived across the road and whose daughters were childhood friends of mine. He was ahead of his time and very comfortable in the kitchen –a change of pace, and possibly stress-release, from his real job as a train driver. Jim’s fudge was smooth as silk, rich and dark and melt-in-the-mouth. Nothing since has quite matched his standards.

In the 1950s school and church fetes were huge and most of the things on sale were hand-made. Confectionery was among the many appealing things available to buy and you got to know which ones you liked best. Toffee apples were a feature and so appealing with their bright red toffee coating and crisp healthy inside: do you think the healthiness of the apple offsets the sugar factor?

Even the lollies on sale at the corner store had some ceremony rather than being packaged up as they are today: they were stored in large glass bottles with silver lids, and our shop probably had about 10 jars. For most kids a treat involved being allowed to buy a small paper bay of lollies from the corner store and the ones I remember best are the hard heart-shaped ones which had messages written on them or the bright pink musk lolly twists. There was also a stick-jaw type mint stick with chocolate coating. What were they called?? These are the ones that have stuck in my mind along with the round gold-foil-wrapped Coconut Rough chocolates- now I can only taste the copha fat in them.

In another post I’ve talked about the Ekka and its role in the life of Brisbane children. It is inextricably linked with the show bags which were so fantastic in the 50s with all sorts of miniature and real-sized lollies and treats.  Not to mention those strawberry and ice cream cones. It’s difficult to convey the sheer excitement and anticipation of this wonderful event and the treats associated with it.

It’s not surprising that hand-crafted items, be they clothing, houseware, or food are regarded as luxury items now. Once they were “normal” but we’ve become so accustomed to the mass-produced goods that the old-style things are now luxurious because they’re less common.

Having said that, one of the quite surprising things about Darwin is that we have a fabulous pastry chef here at Kurt’s Cakes who works behind a glass wall of the Bar Espresso at the interestingly-named Ducks Nuts. Kurt makes wonderful, amazingly decorated cakes that add impact to a special event. We bought my daughter’s wedding cake from him and “special” birthdays also merit his special cakes. It’s also one of the comparatively few places in Darwin where a coffee shop offers a range of delicious sweet treats to go with coffee….thanks Kurt! Its location next to the city cinema is very clever!

We recently had a week in Provence and found the most heavenly cake-shop in Aix en Provence, L’instant thé Riederer …talk about lush. Heaven and decadence rolled into one. We sampled some but if we’d been there longer we’d have made it our mission to sample more.

Delicious sweet-treats in Aix en Provence

Whatever my age or where I live, a delicious cake or a tasty sweet-treat will always make my day!

BTW I’m now on the rampage for some good coconut ice and today’s wonderful Portugese custard tarts, or the ones from Chinatown in Sydney…but they’re all so far away ;-(

52 weeks of Personal Genealogy & History -Week 2 overdue -Winter

Despite missing the timeline for Week 2, I thought I’d update my blog to include my thoughts on “Winter” in Queensland. This isn’t all that simple, as other Australian bloggers have mentioned, because when you grow up in a sub-tropical climate, winter is a relative thing. In the tropics where I now live, a temperature of 20C is inclined to see a flurry of Ugg boots, warm coats, long sleeves, jumpers etc. What else can you expect when the daily temperature routinely hovers between 28C and 35C all year round?

So what do I remember about winter as a child growing up in Brisbane? Firstly it needs to be mentioned that houses in Brisbane are built for the heat and not the cold, so sometimes you can really feel the cold in an uninsulated, unheated house. In fact one of my stand-out memories of being cold is sleeping on mattresses in my grandmother’s house after she died and the wind coming up through the floorboards….colder than New Zealand and certainly colder than anywhere I’ve slept overseas in mid-winter.

Although Brisbane wasn’t really cold, by almost all standards, I would usually get a warm coat on a regular basis when I was growing up. Usually my mother made this overcoat (she was a proficient dressmaker) & it would be made from woollen fabric and quite warm. I don’t recall having masses of winter cardigans or jumpers –probably enough to match the climate. When I was at high school we had a winter uniform as well as a summer one and that involved a blazer and a jumper and sometimes both were needed at once such were the freezing conditions! Overseas winters require much more complex decisions than “how few clothes can I wear” and “where are my sandals”. This simple life makes it difficult to naturally grasp layering and the need to wear claustrophobic stockings and scarves just to keep warm –possible, practical, but not always enjoyable.

Brisbane’s winters are typically sunny blue skies so lovely and fresh. Nor do we have deciduous trees or autumn colours. In August the winds would blow from the West across the empty continent and it was always the coldest month as I remember it. As the winds would howl through the city canyons it could get quite chilly and brisk.

Sideshow Alley at the Ekka at night.

August is the end of winter in the sub-tropics and usually Brisbane’s coldest month, also the time of the annual Ekka (or Exhibition), a celebration of all things “bush” with displays of cooking, artwork, fashion and craft as well as the sideshows, woodchop competitions, trots, Police motor cycle displays and fireworks (barracking for one’s preference of blue, green or red to go highest). The influx of people from cattle stations and other properties, bringing with them their cattle and stock to be judged, meant the city was suddenly inhabited by their trademark Akubras, RM Williams’ boots and generally laconic style.  We lived quite close to the Exhibition grounds so I would see the progressive construction of the ferris wheel and all the rides in sideshow alley en route to and from high school each day.

Side Show Alley from the ferris wheel late 1980s

My Littlest one (some time ago) enjoying her strawberry and cream ice cream

Another treat always associated with the Ekka and Winter, was the delicious ice creams which were made from a layer of vanilla ice cream, a layer of real strawberry ice cream, fresh strawberries, and fresh cream. In those days strawberries were only obtainable in August, or perhaps I’m wrong and I really only noticed their presence in association with the Ekka. I’ve said in other contexts that the Ekka was a cultural experience and people have derided the concept….certainly it’s not culture in the sense of grand art, opera or classical music, but in the sense of being part of a city’s lifeblood I firmly believe it is part of our culture.

Snow was something we saw only on Christmas cards or in books and when my husband and I first saw it we whispered our question to each other: “is that snow?” Who in Europe would believe people could be so ignorant of such a basic phenomenon! Mind you, my father always swore that one very cold winter’s night there were snowflakes falling in the railway yard where he worked the night shift. Despite decades living in sub-tropical and tropical climates, and perhaps because of the novelty, winter and autumn remain my favourite seasons. I think that sentiment might stand the test of heavy snow, but perhaps not the everlasting grey skies and drizzle so much in contrast with winter as I’ve experienced it in Australia.

Livestock parade main arena  Ekka c1981