20 January 2012
Author Article: Mink Elliott
Why Cafes Are Great
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about cafes - and not just lately, either, because my new book, Just Another Manic Mum-Day is about a cafe catering specifically for stressed-out and exhausted mums, dads and carers. No, I’ve always loved planning the decor, the location and the menu of my favourite fantasy cafe – ever since I was a nipper. Well, not quite a nipper, but a lot younger than I am today, that’s for sure.
The first time I went to a proper grown-up cafe (not just a chippy with some chairs in it) was with my mum, one stormy, wintry lunchtime in Adelaide, South Australia. I must’ve been about 12 or 13, on the brink of young womanhood (i.e. a stroppy teenaged nightmare – although Mum still says my adolescence began in earnest when I was about five years old) and we’d been shopping for an outfit for me to wear to a friend’s birthday sleepover.
We plumped (plump being the operative word for me, what with my penchant for all things sugary and an intolerance to exercise) for a claret red velvet pencil skirt and a black angora jumper in the end, I think. Although my memory’s not what it used to be, I freely admit. I mean, this happened a long time ago in the early 1980s – so, really you could tell us now that we actually purchased matching rah-rah skirts and a big box of XL shoulder pads and I bet neither of us would be surprised.
Mum, a teacher, and by now also a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown after spending a few hours alone with mardy, mono-syllabic me, was desperate for her cappuccino fix. So we took shelter in a cafe above a hairdressers in the newly-built, swanky shopping mall, The Gallery.
As I recall, Mum asked for some pumpkin soup, doorstop slices of rustic, crusty bread (this was pre-Atkins/Zone/cutting out evil carbs for life) and I ordered the oh-so-sophisticated asparagus quiche and a Tab (which is what you had back in the Dark Ages, before they invented Diet Coke).
Anyway, we sat there, arms crossed, looking around at anything but each other in stony silence for a while until Mum eventually extended the olive branch by saying: ‘Tell you what. I’ll buy you that enormous piece of Black Forest cake over there on the dessert trolley if you can tell me, in 200 words or more why having a carpet in a cafe isn’t the smartest of ideas.’
My mouth started to water instinctively and I looked down at the royal blue and gold swirly carpeted floor.
‘Because it’s ugly?’ I offered, falling way, way short of her preferred word count and then adding for good measure, ‘So ugly it’ll put everyone off their food?’
‘Well, yes, maybe,’ Mum smiled. ‘Maybe that’s one very good reason...’
And that was it. We were off, banging on about the considerable merits of easy-to-clean, country kitchen-y cosy floor boards versus food trapping, eye-wateringly unpleasant carpets made out of nylon which give you electric shocks, whether you’ve ordered them or not; the fabric of the curtains and whether, indeed, Venetian blinds might not have been a better option; the layout of the tables and booths and whether red and white checked tablecloths would have been too much or simply a nice touch yada yada yada. Oh, and after I’d been to the loo, why asparagus makes your wee smell so weird and asparagus-y.
Unbeknownst to me, Mum had used the alien surroundings of an adult cafe (and the promise of cake) to trick me into talking to her. And I loved it! Safe from the storm outside, warm and close in the relative sanctuary of the cafe, we bonded again. There we were, sharing Mum’s Bic biro and drawing our Grand Designs on paper serviettes, oblivious to and no longer bothered by our usual every day annoyances (that would be me, if you asked Mum), injustices (that would be my mum, if you asked me) and daily distractions (Rubik’s cubes if you asked anyone in those days).
Eventually, though, I got bored and wanted to get back home so I could ring my mates to discuss what they were going to be wearing to the party and whether or not Anna Johnson really was going to bring cigarettes and Brandivino with her. Because really, there’s only so much one-on-one time with her mum a 13-year-old girl can take. Especially in public.
Years and years (and, ooh! What was that? Oh, only about 10 more years) have whizzed by and I still love spending hours sitting in cafes, drowning myself in Earl Grey and thinking about what I’d do to improve the place. Only difference is I drag my five and a half-year-old daughter along with me and bore her to tears with my cafe plans while she sips Baby-Cinos and scoffs gourmet goujons et frites. Now she’s the moody little madam who’s giving her mum grief with the old arms crossed, bottom lip dragging on the ground routine.
Like mother like daughter, eh?
Yes, indeed. And so, as family tradition tells me to, I’ve already started bribing my daughter with cream horns, banana bread and Smarties cookies in calorie-laden attempts to keep the lines of communication open. Now I just hope the reassuringly cosy nature of our favourite cafe can do the rest. Well, it worked for my mum. And they do say the mini cupcake never falls far from the cake stand, don’t they?