My steak tartare isn’t cooked and where is the sauce?
Our parents’ extraordinary life stories continue to surprise my brothers William and Tiriel, and me … Reality keeps surpassing all the legends, gossip, tall tales and press stories. One thing that continually irritated us was the press and people’s reactions to our mother’s public high jinks. Children are normally embarrassed by their parents anyway, but Mirka added a new level of sometimes risqué farce. In retrospect it was her comment on and send-up of 1950s Melbourne. It was as if an R. Crumb cartoon had been inserted into John Brack’s Collins St., 5p.m. (1955) painting. The paint would melt, the canvas bend!
My brothers and I grew up in what turned out to be an incredible Australian petri dish of artists, actors, musicians, political figures, writers, celebrities and nobodies. Our parents’ intimate friends became Australian cultural icons —Charles Blackman, John Perceval, Arthur and David Boyd, Joy Hester, John and Sunday Reed, Fred Williams, and the list goes on. As kids we knew some of them as fantastically entertaining clowns who would have made Chaucer blush. Some lit their farts, to our total astonishment, or did spectacular fire-eating by blowing a mouthful of turpentine on a match.
Back to Mirka and Georges: the central thing to understand is that the Holocaust was the formative experience of their lives. They never burdened us with it, rarely if ever mentioning it for years. Their way of dealing with it was an exemplary joie de vivre celebrating their survival by emphasising art, food and love. It was the joy of survival expressed in extolling the best the mind and senses have to offer. It was a fantastic middle finger to Nazi ideology, but we didn’t know this subtext. When I asked my father when I was twelve if we were Jewish, he only did a subtle double take. ‘Yes,’ he said, and I said, ‘OK, then I want a bar mitzvah.’ A week after my bar mitzvah at the East Melbourne Synagogue with an audience of our mostly Christian, atheist or pagan friends, the rabbi won the lottery. Georges, an atheist, said, ‘Maybe there is something to this Jewish thing.’
We kids never thought of ourselves as immigrants. In fact, we were more Aussie than most kids who would come to us—as we were worldly authorities in primary school—with questions like: ‘What is a lesbian?’ Mirka had of course thoroughly briefed us. Precociousness can be dangerous, and when I called my principal a lesbian she broke a ruler over my head. Still, she moved me up a class. William and Tiriel had similar scrapes. We were the kids who knew too much about food, art and sex.
We are biased, but we feel Mirka and Georges have had an incalculable but enormous effect on Australian culture. We are not alone. Baillieu Myer famously said our father ‘made Melbourne a city’. Max Harris praised Georges as a key cultural catalyst. In an absurdly misogynist society Mirka cut a swathe for all women—artists and writers in particular. Her humour, ghastly to us at the time, was a sword that cut hypocrisy deep.
Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan have done the impossible. They have distilled a huge, unwieldy saga into a clear narrative. They have, in an ode to their subject, turned a vineyard into a cognac.
This is an edited extract from ‘Mirka & Georges: A Culinary Affair’ published by Melbourne University imprint, The Miegunyah Press. ‘Mirka & Georges: A Culinary Affair’ is now available to purchase at all good bookstores.