Archive for March, 2009

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The happiness of getting it down right: cooking and books

March 21, 2009

recipesIan McEwan said a lovely thing in a long profile of him in the New Yorker the other day, about the deep pleasure of writing a good sentence  (what William Maxwell, I believe, described as “the happiness of getting it down right” in a letter to his friend, the short story writer Frank O’Connor – such a good phrase it’s the title of the beautiful collection of letters between them).

McEwan puts it this way:

“You spend the morning, and suddenly there are seven or eight words in a row. They’ve got that twist, a little trip, that delights you. And you hope they will delight someone else. And you could not have foreseen it, that little row. They often come when you’re fiddling around with something that’s already there. You see that by reversing a word order or taking something out, suddenly it tightens into what it was always meant to be.”

As I was copying this out for my noticeboard (I especially love the last line – exactly what it feels like, I reckon, when you get a bit down right) it occurred to me that perhaps this is a good description of the pleasure of cooking well, or any other kind of creative act, for that matter: that happy merging of skill, careful attention, luck, and discovery, as well as knowing when to leave things alone, that happens when you’re deeply absorbed in a creative task for no other reason than the pleasure of doing it.

Sigh.

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Things on Toast

March 21, 2009

toastI’m thinking of another page or two – Things on Toast, to start with.  Along the lazy lunch idea, but lazier. Am brain dead after a long day, but what do you people put on toast – or Ryvitas (mmm) – that’s quick, easy and interesting (i.e. not Vegemite) and not toooooo laden with delicious fat, that you can pull out of the fridge when, say, you’re on a writing roll but hungry? If I ever find myself on another writing roll I will need this.

And also I need to know other things from your collective cooky wisdom reservoirs, like do mushrooms grow in seasons? This might be a kind of tech-support page for the kitchen.

Ok, seriously brain dead now. But do visit the things on toast page over there on the right, and tell me some ideas. I, meanwhile, will think of a better title.

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In praise of salt

March 19, 2009

saltHave you noticed how, if you cook a meal for folks who like eating but aren’t as obsessed with cooking as One is, that they often rave about the incredible flavours you produce? I realised early in my cooking career that this has sadly little to do with how amazing the fish/snags/bombe alaska really is, and more to do with the fact that the said dish is seasoned. i.e., contains salt (and my second love, pepper).

I am frankly astonished at the number of people who don’t cook with salt at home but always find restaurant food and food at cooky friends’  houses delicious. It’s SALT, people. Delicious, crunchy, subtle or serious – it’s salt that underlines every bit of good cooking I’ve ever done.

I’ve been discussing with my chick pea empress friend Steph (the best all-round cook I know) the whole salt-scare issue. We are both firmly of the view that unless you have high blood pressure – when it really does matter that you cut down on salt – then one should go for one’s life on the salty goodness. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Considering David Foster Wallace’s lobster

March 17, 2009

consider-the-lobsterI’ve been reading a bit about the late writer David Foster Wallace lately. I haven’t yet read his novels but have been moved and challenged by various remarks he has made  about fiction and essay-writing before he committed suicide last year, finally unable to endure his deep depression any longer. (The following stuff is doubly interesting when one learns that mental suffering – and the question of how to live a moral life – were so burdensome for Foster Wallace for so many years. )

Among his essays is this excellent piece he wrote for American Gourmet magazine on attending the Maine Lobster Festival in 2004. Consider the Lobster also became the title piece in a later collection of essays, which is now on my must-buy list.

The Gourmet essay is essential reading for omnivores like me who love all kinds of food – including animals – and yet like to pride themselves on their awareness of the complexity of food and its cultural meanings and echoes beyond the act of stuffing fuel in the gob and digesting it. Because if one has an ounce of honest integrity, eating animals must be problematic. Consider the Lobster is Foster Wallace’s very readable exploration of the issue of cooking a live lobster and whether the creature feels pain.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Give me a freakin break dept.

March 13, 2009

kidcookAs a schoolfriend’s mother used to say when exasperated, JesusMaryandJoseph, I wish I was in heaven.

This article from the excellent Slate magazine had me retching over my breakfast. Apparently, in the States, there is a new food fad – small children as restaurant critics, chefs and food columnists. The New York freakin Times Magazine, for God’s sake,

has pledged one-quarter of its monthly food real estate to the kitchen exploits of a 4-year-old, Dexter Wells, who just happens to be the firstborn of the newspaper’s food editor, Pete Wells. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Three cheers for Christos

March 12, 2009

the-slapSpeaking of cruelties and betrayals and food-filled family gatherings, I am so pleased at Christos Tsiolkas winning of the regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize last night for The Slap , his brilliant novel in which a man smacks another bloke’s vile child at a family barbecue, and hell breaks loose all over Melbourne as a result.

I love that book for its wild, sprawly portrait of contemporary Australia, its compassion and its ambition. I love it exactly as much as I love Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, for its almost completely opposite qualities – the restraint and careful spareness of the writing, exactly right for the piano-wire anxiety and taut, profound misery of caring for a dying person. Both were in contention for the prize, along with Joan London’s really beautiful novel, The Good Parents, among others. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Roast beef and eels and fleeting cruelties

March 12, 2009

eel1Meal-times are so rich with understated potential for conflict, it’s no wonder they appear so often in fiction. I’ve just been dipping into William Maxwell’s beautiful stories All the Days and Nights once again. I so love them.

One story, A Game of Chess, details an evening spent by Hugh and his wife Laura with Hugh’s unpleasant older brother Amos and his family and friends, at a New York hotel in the mid 60s.

The whole evening is tense with suppressed, unsaid things, or brief and brutal comments. Hugh hears Amos saying to Laura, “You must come out to Chicago. We’ve got a housing project with niggers and white people living together” – a remark ‘intended to beat Laura out of the bushes and perhaps test the timbre of her rising voice.’ But she doesn’t take the bait; ‘She was there to defend Hugh, not to argue.’

In a tiny moment that comes and goes beautifully quickly, Amos orders well done roast beef and Hugh, to draw a line between himself and Amos, orders eels (I can’t imagine how in 1960s America these little babies would be cooked but I’m pretty sure the gorgeous smoked Japanese variety wasn’t it … ugh). Read the rest of this entry ?