The Chimes of Pavlova

The Monkey King Dances is a collection of columns written for two New Zealand newspapers – which don’t archive online – between August 2007 & July 2008. Columns are reprinted as originally published barring any serious grammatical errors. Pictures and links added for fun.

Frankie and Laird

Frankie and Laird

With some “edible” items, it’s not difficult to see how they became “food” items. Say, for instance, mountain oysters. It’s quite easy to imagine two hunters gathered around their butchered goat, trying to figure out how to utilise every piece of meat.

“Say, Frankie, whatta we got left mate?”

“The ribs are gone and so are the thighs. Looks like the only thing left here is the testicles, Laird.”

“Well…get the salt, drown’em in oil and call’em oysters.”

“Sweet as.”

But for some items, like Pavolova, I wonder what kind of boredom brought it into existence.

What kind of people would think of a way to turn three tones of pure sugar into a mound of fluffy white cream and try to pass it off as a culinary creation?

The best kind of people, I reckon.

It took me awhile to realise this, though. After my first two months in this great country, I got used to the feeling of utter confusion followed by real anger every time I was asked: “Have you tried Pavlova yet?”

pavlova1The first time I saw that look of bewilderment on the face of a Kiwi grandmother, I thought I was gonna to be slapped in the face.  I stopped covering my checks around the 22 time I answered that question. But I still flinch.

During that period, which I will always refer to as the Pavlova Inquisition, I racked my brain trying to figure out why the name seemed so familiar. What was it about the dessert that brought forth to my mind images of textbooks and theories, of manipulation and deceit? Why did this dish sound so ominious?

It was right after I spat on a sidewalk that a terrible epiphany surged through my spine.


At first, I tried to make sense of the conclusion. Maybe Pavlov came to New Zealand and became frequent visitor of a dairy who named something after him? It happened with the Reuben sandwich, right? Maybe his kiwi cousin invented it for a culinary competition? It could happen, right?

Deep down, however, I knew there was only one reason Pavlov was famous and only one reason they would name this “thing” after him.

It obviously had something to do with his dog.

At the time, I didn’t know it was a dessert. All I knew was that it was supposedly delicious and eaten during Christmas time. My family has something like that too, it’s called Chowmein Takeaway.

It was when I reached that airtight conclusion, I became very angry. If I wanted to eat dog, I had thought, I would have gone to a third-world country that openly advertises for food aid. Things only got worse when someone said it was actually named after a Russian dancer. By that time I was familiar with mince pies and had seen the new “Sweeny Todd”.

“Great,” I thought. “They cook up ballerinas for this dish. I hate lean meat.”

The moment of truth came one day at work when the office grandmother came in with a big, white box. Those of us in the room crowded around and I braced myself for a tutu stuffed in the mouth of some poor girl.

Boy did I feel stupid.

It was nothing but a fluffy cloud of childhood bliss, topped off with the fluorescent glow of kiwi slices. I didn’t have to be told twice to try a piece. I could smell the sugar from the corner I was hiding in. Through the mouthful of heaven, I started admitting things that only fools in love admit when they’ve fallen under the spell.

So I confused Pavlova and Pavlov? Big deal. It was an honest mistake! But you’d think it was the first time those people ever heard of mis-communication. I never heard the end of it.

pavlova63New Zealand may be able to claim for its proud heritage annihilating the moa, conquering Mt Everest, and inventing the electric fence. But when I return to The States, I will be rambling endlessly about the joy, the wonder, the beauty, and the diabetic bliss that is pavlova.

I might make fun of New Zealand for the occasional quick laugh, but I have to admit, when this country does something right, it blows the competition out of the water. Actor Harvey Keitel sums it up pretty well in that beer commercial he thought no American would ever see, but he missed a few things.

America might be the home of the hamburger, but I’ve been to that little trailer next to Mermaids in Auckland. They have a burger that includes – but is not limit to – meat, tomato, onion, pinapple, lettuce and egg. Apparently, this is called a kiwiburger and it’s heavy enough to sink Stewart Island. You can find it at almost any decent grease joint, even the indecent McDonalds.

pavlova73As for pavlova, I can just imagine a Baking Olympics where an American pulls from the oven a beautiful, golden brown apple pie. The crowd goes silent as all eyes are on the Kiwi, who laughs manically: “You call THAT a dessert!”

I ramble. I’m sorry. But I’m in love with pavlova and for many reasons. For one, I’m addicted. But unlike with the physical destruction of crack or ‘P’, I’ll be able to whisper through a gummy mouth ravaged by cavities, “It was worth it”.

Pavlova is also one of those dishes that I find very elusive. After several ill-conceived and disasterous attempts, I’m convinced that you must be either over 45 or have three-plus children to make a decent pavolva. If you fill both requirements, you pavlova-fame probably reaches past the far corners of your district.

There’s another reason I love pavlova but it’s quite hard to articulate. Since moving to Timaru, I started to get a craving for it every quarter of an hour. You see, every time I hear a Courthouse bell ring, I start to salivate.


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