Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Brylcreem and Pipi's

Memories of childhood trips to my fathers homeland of New Zealand are punctuated by two things, two smells to be exact. The first my pop's brylcreem, the thick emulsion applied liberally and daily seemed to preserve my grandfathers hair well beyond it's used by date. Black long past when hair should be black I am certain the cream created a time vortex in which the hair, forever hardened could not age. The second smell of steaming piles of pipi's I found pungent and vile. Their soft formless bodies freed from their shells appeared and re-appeared on the dinner table for what felt like an eternity, their fishy aroma offending me to the core and their consumption by my parents and grandparents defined the utter aliens that were adults.

Memories can be inexplicable. As a child our trips to see relatives in New Zealand were rare, scrounging the airfares for a family of four was a major undertaking and it has been many decades since the smell of brylcreem and pipi's have crossed my path but there it is, branded on my memory like the initials on a cows hide.

The smell of the hair product made famous the world over by air force pilots and Ronald Reagan was so synonymous with New Zealand for me that at one point in time as a child there was no distinction between the country and the smell. The smell I thought was the "scent of New Zealand" That smell that was with us from the time we arrived at the airport in Auckland, in the car trip to Morrinsville, in every room of my grandparents home and burnt into my nostrils for weeks afterwards was only identified as brylcreem when my grandparents visited Australia and the smell came with them. Turns out this was not the scent of New Zealand, this smell was my pop's slick head of hair and after weeks of them sleeping in my bedroom (myself sent to sleep in my parents unfinished en-suite amongst the exposed plumbing) the stench permeated my bed, my carpet and every absorbent surface in the house. As a man wearing brylcreem well past it's heyday I have no other associations for it, my pop and the smell of brylcreem are forever entwined.

The smell of pipi's cooking on the other hand brings back a different set of memories from the same locale. As memories so often do mine are faded. I have no recollection of how many times we went pipi'ing I just know we did, I don't know how old I was I just know I loved it. Led by our deeply tanned heavily brylcreemed pop and his side kick my father, who at five foot five was the tallest in his family, my bespectacled older sister and myself were sent out on a seaside hunt in the coastal community of Thames, a thrilling prospect for two inland dwellers. Who knew the ocean held creatures beneath the sand, hiding and waiting for curious little hands to dig them out and trap them in a vessel like Hansel and Gretel in the gingerbread house. As that bucket filled I felt triumph with a side of competition. Each pipi caught held glory for the hunter and as the youngest my sketchy memory of the event leaves me certain I was the champion pipi hunter. Catching the pipi's for me was the whole mission, beyond that the washing, the boiling and the eating was the domain of the adults. I had no interest in consuming these creatures and once cooked their smell was so pervasive that it masked the smell of brylcreem for some time, no small feat I can tell you.

It is interesting what brings these memories to the surface. I have started seeing pipi's everywhere. Anthony Bourdain munching away on them in Mozambique on an episode of "No Reservations", Rick Stein feasting on pipi's in his series "From Venice to Istanbul", bottomless tubs of pipi's for sale in the local fish markets and recipes in food magazines like the latest issue of Delicious which has a concoction from Lennox Hastie of the restaurant Firedoor which combines pipi's with garlic shoots and chilli. These strange beings from the deep which were so foreign to me as a child are eaten the world over. Who knew.

The photo accompanying this story is the only existing evidence that these events occurred. It's blurry people, my family, are far clearer in my memory than what was preserved on film so often the case from those days prior to digital photography. That brief moment in time captured on film, converted to digital, posted on the internet, read and re-read by friends, family and strangers has now taken this memory and immortalised it.

In memory of Reginald Pekin

Originally posted on Tuesday, 27 October 2015 by


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