When I was a child growing up, we used to visit Miss Maud’s at Floreat Forum. I would always order a ‘Tiny Tots And Not So Tiny’. From memory, it was a ham sandwich cut into triangles with world flags planted in it, potato crisps, fairy bread, a drink, and a small toy (say, a parachuting man or something like that). It was a treat for us, and, in my memory, Miss Maud was a special institution in a suburb nearby. I’ve always had fond memories of it. I still do.
Recently, K and I were walking past Miss Maud’s in Perth City. This is their flagship restaurant in the Murray Street location. It looks like some sort of Alpine Family Robinson getaway with soft lighting and maroon carpets out of place in some later century with its faux lead-light of Vikings and wooden outside. We passed it and K was intrigued. I went on to explain the historical importance of the chain and to express my nostalgia as well. We pledged to come back, if only because Perth is short of local institutions.
It took us a month or so before we got round to going to Miss Maud. We had brought it up with friends over lunch and they said they wanted to go too. One of them was from Perth, and, like me, had long and fond memories of the restaurant. His partner was from overseas, and had lived here for five years and always wanted to go. Miss Maud had caught her eye just like it had with K. It was unique and attractive in some idiosyncratic way. These friends were about to head off to New York to live for the next few years. Of course, they would be back every now and then, but Miss Maud seemed like the kind of place you could go for a celebratory last meal. It would be a place to say farewell, a place to remember Perth by as well. It was closing down too, so it seemed like a fitting tribute to make to this place.
It was Friday evening when we went, and, as always, the Swedish smorgasbord buffet was laid out before us. I was in trouble just by looking at it. I had been sick the day before with stomach pains and a feeling of flatness. The only thing I ate was a chicken and veggie noodle soup with plenty of ginger. In fact, it had been a shithouse week and I had been copping it for some bad writing. I deserved most of what came up, but some of the criticism went a little too far. But, thank god it was Friday and thank god I was at Miss Maud. I had a few items I didn’t think I could stomach but, there was a (somewhat shitty) cornucopia on offer and I was up for it all.
Let’s begin where the food begins – I wanted the seafood and the cold cuts and the roasts and the cheese and the cakes and the drinks and the whole buffet in my mouth, all at once. I wanted it now, but from experience I knew that I had to pace myself. It would be better to be here for a long time, to go at it slow and steady, with some sort of method, rather than just piling it all on. I wondered if I should have a sample of everything there and then just focus in on what was best. That is my usual buffet tactic, but then you often had a bite of something that you knew was always going to be terrible. This all looked terrible, in the best possible way.
Here, I am reminded of a story my old supervisor used to tell when I was studying at the University of Pennsylvania. She was researching the CIA’s activities during the Second World War and how they had employed librarians to be spies who took a lot of archives from Europe when it looked like it was all going to burn overnight. She told me that the Americans were indiscriminate in what they took – sending back shipping containers full of documents that the Library of Congress is still going through to this very day. The British on the other hand only took what they thought was the best. They were selective in what they were going to save. We could assume there is something important about national character in this, a quantity and quality argument about the way to approach what is on offer. Australia often thinks of itself as a combination of America and Britain, and though I do not subscribe to that view, I do think there is something in approaching a buffet that learns from the two.
In remembering that now, I thought, right here, before me, I had better approach all that food with caution. It was not that I wanted the most of what was best, as though maximum quantity of top-most quality would make the best eating experience. It goes without saying that I did not want the opposite – minimal quantity with terrible quality, which might not have even been possible. Rather, it is that you learn what is a good amount to eat and what tastes good to you once you have to make your way through the archive, world, buffet as it is laid out before you. You simply make do with the possibility depending on where your nose leads and what your friends are interested in. And so I had to choose. Would it be prawns or oysters? Would it be ham or salami? Would it be Princess Cake or Black Forrest? Or would it be all of that?
I ate two oysters, three prawns, three slices of ham, two slices of salami, some pasta salad, some potato salad, four roast potatoes, two roast carrots, a spoonful of cauliflower cheese, two slices of roast lamb, two slices of beef brisket, a slice of Black Forest Cake, a slice of Princess Cake, a cup of Irish Breakfast tea, and a piece of garlic bread, in that order. It was all bad quality and very overpriced. The live keyboard player was having a go at it and the wait-staff were friendly. But, we could sense the reason why the place was closing down. Capitalism had won this round.
The Princess Cake was the consolation prize. I remember it as being delicious and it still is. I was eating the past more than anything else. It was a moment where you thank the gods above and the ancestors past for putting this Swedish restaurant here to help introduce us to a world of food that touches the heart. I would not change that moment, not for the world if only because our friends were there. I will remember sharing this sweetness as I say bon voyage to them on their way to New York. They must know that they can return to eat with us anywhere, for now and forever. I'll miss those guys more than Princess Cake and all the buffets in America. Let’s eat together sooner rather than later.