Rachel Berger’s Postcode: St Kilda 3182
Technicolour childhood memories of a vibrant beachside upbringing.
If St Kilda were a confection it would be salted caramel: unpretentious, rich and laced with the world’s most commonly used seasoning.
I grew up in Acland Street above my parents’ shop, Berger’s Delicatessen. This palace of pate and cheese stood between Monarch Cakes, which has been making Polish cheesecake the same way since the early 1920s, and Cafe Scheherazade, which closed years ago but exists in our fondest memories.
Only a plaque remains where once vapours of chicken soup sank down the back of my throat, healing any potential ailment as I walked past the front door. The chicken soup was life-affirming but where the original owners Masha and Avram Zeleznikow really nailed it was with their Wiener schnitzels; humongous pieces of veal, delicate, full of flavour, succulent and impossible to finish.
Berger’s Delicatessen in Acland Street, St Kilda.
The Acland Street I grew up in was an oasis of schnitzels, schmaltz and strudel, where Europeans gathered together to laugh, remember home and cry, and eat… and eat… and eat.
Each group of new immigrants lands here with trepidation. Slowly they unpack their customs and their recipes. If they’re refugees it’s often all they have. They open cafes offering their unique ingredients and invite us to taste food from their country.
I’d stand at the back of our shop camouflaged by a curtain of frankfurters and salamis, watching customers make their selections: chopped liver, potato salad, herring salad and cabbage rolls.
At regular intervals a customer would face my mother with a feverish look and an accent as thick as a bolt of fabric. Pointing at the bread on the shelf they’d yell at the top of their lungs, “Is da bread fresh Missus Berger?” It was always fresh, but the question had to be asked, like a secret password.
I didn’t have toys, I played with the food instead. I remember wrapping a tiny shred of tulle around the middle of a whole Hungarian salami. I used toothpicks to poke two small pickled cucumbers on either side for arms and a couple of olives for breasts in the front. It was my Salami Barbie. I called her Magda, Barbie’s Hungarian cousin.
I got to see the sequin-covered fancy ladies strutting home early in the morning on the corner of Robe Street while I waited for the school bus.
I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. I loved it. Luna Park was a block away, the beach was two blocks away and I got to see the sequin-covered fancy ladies strutting home early in the morning on the corner of Robe Street while I waited for the school bus.
Today Monarch, Le Bon, Europa and Acland Continental Cakes stand like pastry pyramids reminding us of what the strip used to be. Most of the original European regulars are dead. The cacophony of several languages being spoken simultaneously has been replaced by the grumbling of hulking super trams as monotonous as the grunting of a Labrador chewing on a bone.
The gentrified open-air pedestrian mall looks weird, like wooden ornaments you buy in Bali that never look right at home.
Am I still a regular visitor? Of course! Where else in the world would I find Monarch’s unpronounceable, lip-smacking, delicious chocolate Kooglhoupf?
Rachel Berger is a comedian, columnist and presenter whose career spans live comedy, television, and print columns for The Age and The Weekly Review magazine.