For the Love of Lamingtons
It was another small town New Zealand bakery, circa 1994. The kind that sold retro (even for then) sandwiches of tinned asparagus rolled up in stale white bread and reheated savoury mince pies. The store window was partially covered with a slouched doily curtain, and the walls had scrawled chalkboard "specials" that never changed. Dad stopped the car, yet again, and headed inside to quiz the teenager working behind the counter over the bakery's chosen spelling of a particular cake.
I sunk down as low as I could in the car and willed the moment away. Even the car was annoying me. It was a practical station wagon, not the cool sort that took ski trips up the mountain with roof racks, but the ugly, practical type with small wheels, designed for carting toilet paper and potted plants home from the store. The car was made even less enviable by the metal bars installed along the top of the back seats. These were humiliating but necessary to keep our two hyperactive and disobedient labradors from leaping over to lick our faces at the traffic lights. As a teenager then myself, I was wholly concerned with what was "cool". And my linguist father's weekend field research, driving around quizzing bakeries to deduce the etymology of the word "Lamington," was most certainly not.
I'm going to assume, unless you are from these parts, you won't know what a Lamington is. It's a simple cake—a cube of sponge soaked in either raspberry or chocolate sauce, covered in shredded coconut, and filled with fresh cream and jam. Cheap to make, gaudy and delicious, it's considered something of a national treasure in New Zealand and Australia. Much like the actor Russell Crowe, there's been great debate over which country this pre-war treat actually belongs to.
The general assumption back then was that the cake had been named after the English town of Leamington Spa, full of exquisite regency architecture and finesse. The name lending the tacky cake a touch of posh to it. My dad was enraptured by Lamingtons. He was determined to gather as much in-person evidence about the spelling of the cake, while at the same time dutifully recording the variations and flavours on offer at each venue—additional data points. Once, he even drove up to the capital city to study old cake recipes in the national library archives, hoping to uncover patterns that lead to the first appearance of the Lamington. Well, whatever the spelling or reasoning, a silly sponge cake is not what you want your family to be known for.
It's such a familiar memory: Dad, in a bakery, excitedly asking the bored, slightly irritated, weekend shop assistant why their employer had opted to spell the contentious cake "Leamington" instead of "Lamington", or sometimes it appeared as "Lambington," and once "Lemonton." It was pretty clear to my younger brother and I that accurate spelling wasn't high on any of these bakeries' agendas, given the sloppy names they gave their roadside cafes, such as Cupachino or the Pattyserie. From the car window, we would watch him gesticulating wildly, overly enunciating every word, to explain (as he always does) with the utmost clarity, his question.
I'm not sure where he got to with that in the end, as, thankfully, it wasn't too long before I got my driver's licence and was able to transport myself away from my embarrassing family each weekend.
Recently, historians have published evidence which validates Dad's queries. It turns out the Lamington recipe was actually brought here by a Lord Lamington, who visited New Zealand in 1856 and then became Governor of Queensland the following year. And, putting an end to the country debate, the Lamington was first recorded in New Zealand with said Lord, except they called it a "Wellington". I feel like my teenage years might have been quite different if they'd stuck with that name, but my life would have been infinitely inferior without those memories, or my dad being exactly who he is.
The quintessential university professor, he is bespeckled and heavily bearded, with curly hair and a slight build. As far as I can tell, he has always dressed in chinos, checked shirts, diamond print v-neck sweaters, and brown leather shoes. And for when he's out and about, he'll don a tweed blazer with leather elbow patches, the activewear for academics.
A piece of advice he once gave me was, "If you are going to do something, do it well." It's a philosophy he has applied to his own life, striving for the best at all times, excelling at everything from languages to calculus and physics, and being crowned dux of his university. Unfortunately, my lazy shortcut-seeking mind misconstrued this advice and twisted it to believe, there's no point in doing anything as it won't be done well. I didn't inherit his extreme intellect, but the tiny amount that trickled down was plenty for me to do OK at school with little effort, much like living off the smell of an oily rag. In my final year of school, he helped me write and perfect an excellent German aural essay, which I memorised without bothering to really learn anything else, and is entirely responsible for carrying me through to a good (and rather surprising to the rest of the class) final grade.
Growing up, I was jealous of my friends whose fathers had seemingly fashionable jobs, like insurance salesmen, with their brick-like mobile phones and flashy company cars in garish metallic colours. I always knew my dad was kind, loving, and gentle, never raising his voice at us, but back then I was far too shallow and selfish to appreciate the privilege of having a fascinating intellectual in the room.
He can talk about any subject, be it Renaissance art, philosophy, world history, Russian literature, or pop culture throughout the ages, with detailed authority, but always extreme modesty. Often, he'll share a titillating anecdote about the topic at hand that is entertaining, erudite, and baffling, as in where on earth did he learn that?! "Ah yes, that soccer game loss tonight reminds me of an ancient ritual of Papua New Guinea from 7000 BC..." Or he'll drop in a fabulous foreign phrase you'll want to adopt and use somewhere else straight away, like "In die Kurze, liegt der Wurze" (roughly, brevity is best). A lot of the time, he busies himself with his cognitive linguistical analysis, and can often be found a few metres away from the family, muttering away some hypothesis of speech to himself.
Linguistics is his passion, and I've always been in awe of how clear his sense of purpose has been. He's never been driven by money or power. What takes most of us a lifetime to understand, that true success and happiness comes from living a life on purpose, he's always had in the bag. It's what has inspired me to seek out my own purpose in recent years. While it took me 40 years - and the help of a very skilled and patient life coach - to understand it, it's clear how much it has been influenced and gifted to me by my father. (My purpose is writing and anything and everything to do with words.)
I remember one year, we took a family holiday to Hawaii, where Dad discovered a knick-knack store selling plastic fridge magnets in the shape of food. They were high quality, true to size and very realistic. Other than books and computers, I've never known him to be motivated to buy anything, but that day he bought a large collection of the magnets including a red packet of french fries, a banana, a cluster of potato chips, stack of pancakes, slice of Swiss cheese, doughnut, fried egg, hot dog, slice of pineapple, and an ice cream on a stick, and proudly placed them on the fridge at home. They had to be positioned from waist level up so the dogs didn't steal them and munch them up in the backyard, but once they were safely affixed, they became a talking point for every visitor, to this very day.
Sometime after that holiday, I brought home my first boyfriend, Geoffrey. He could barely write his name, didn't know how to use cutlery, had recently been expelled, and was forced to attend some rehabilitation school for bad kids—pyromaniacs, drug peddlers, and the like. We had nothing in common, but I liked how incredibly handsome he was; dark wavy hair, green eyes and long Persian eyelashes, plus he wore Michael Jordan Nike Air high top sneakers, so "cool". (Thinking back now, he would definitely have stolen those.) Geoffrey was supposed to be on his best behaviour that day and decided he would address my dad as "Sir". But midway through being introduced to my parents, he spotted the magnets, bolted over to them, snatched at one and tried, repeatedly, to eat the rubberised french fries, unable to believe they weren't real.
For decades after, visitors to our house have seen the fridge magnets and presumed my father likes food magnets, not understanding the brief: it's food magnets done exceptionally well, not just any old magnet in the shape of food. If you are going to do something, do it well. As a result, his collection has swelled to include dozens of tiny ramen bowls in perspex, teeny fluoro soda pops and miniature branded alcohol bottles, all totally unrealistic and cheaply made. My dad has always borne this misunderstanding gracefully.
With four grandchildren now, he keeps the magnets in a box and delights in rotating them around on the fridge when they come over. The Hawaiian magnets still look almost as impressive and realistic as they did 30 years ago. The small gimmicky magnets still look as awful as the day they left the factory.
As an adult, I realise now you could ski down a million snow-covered mountains and still wouldn't find the type of intriguing joy one gets from being around my dad. In fact, you don't even need to walk further than the fridge.
There's always going to be some kind of Great Lamington Inquisition taking place in my dad's orbit, something he throws his enormous mind and time into learning everything about. And I always look forward to hearing what he is captivated by next.