Archive for the ‘fads & fashions’ Category

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Amy Bloom’s fictional food

June 28, 2010

Don’t you find writing about food becomes awfully twee and tiresome much of the time?

All those clichés  about seasonal produce and sharing tables with family and friends, the delicious aroma of baking from the kitchen, blah blah blah. Or the slickly stupid language of shrine restaurant menus. Remind me to tell you one day of a friend’s visit to a most pretentious molecular gastronomy restaurant – not, I hasten to add, The Fat Duck, where we’ve eaten and which is an unforgettable experience of playful culinary genius, but one presided over by a rather less skilled chef. She said the wait staff behaved like members of a cult and the menu featured stuff like An Interim of Parsley Dust – hilarious.

Turning to food in fiction, it’s just as tricky. If you are as engaged and delighted by cooking and eating as we are, putting the spotlight on food in novels or short stories so often results in gushy, sentimental sop and nostalgic rosy glows. A writing teacher friend of mine, buried in marking one day years ago, sighed, “If I have to read about one more yiayia’s orchard I’m going to puke.”

I am well aware, dear readers, of my own shortcomings in this department, both fictional and non-. From now on I’m going to pretend Gay Bilson is looking over my shoulder when I write about food, for her stern, clear-eyed and unsentimental writing is inspiring.

For now, as an antidote to any food tosh you might have been reading lately, I want to show you how a really good fiction writer does it. I recently read Amy Bloom’s story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out.  This is from ‘Between Here and There’.

Most of the mothers in our neighborhood were housewives, like my mother. But my mother was really a very good cook and a very accomplished hostess, even if the things she made and the way she entertained is not how I would have done it (red, white and blue frilled toothpicks in lamb sausage pigs-in-blankets on the Fourth of July, trays of deviled eggs and oeufs en gelée—with tiny tulips of chive and egg yolk decorating each oeuf—to celebrate spring). My mother worked hard at what she considered her job, with no thanks from us and no pay, aside from the right to stay home.

Five minutes before the start of a cocktail party or bridge night, my father would make himself comfortable on the living room couch, dropping cigar ash on the navy-blue velvet cushions, or he’d stand in the kitchen in his underwear, reading the newspaper while my mother and I put out platters and laid hors d’oeuvres around him. Sometimes, he’d sit down at the kitchen table and open the newspaper wide, lowering it almost to the tabletop, so we’d have to move the serving dishes to the counter. One July Fourth, when I was about twelve and Andy was ten, my father picked up an angel on horseback as my mother was carrying the tray past him. “What is this, shit on a stick,” he said, and knocked the whole plate out of her hands, and then there we were, my mother and Andy and me, scrabbling to grab the hot, damp, oily little things from under the sideboard and out of the ficus plants. My father picked up a couple and put them in my mother’s apron pocket, saying, “You kids crack me up.” He was still chuckling when the doorbell rang and my mother went back into the kitchen and Andy and I went to our rooms, and he was still smiling when he opened the door for Mr and Mrs Rachlin, who were always the first.

Now that’s writing.


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In search of the perfect apron

May 31, 2010

Many years ago my sister-in-law Jacqui from Tassie made me the best apron I’ve ever owned. So much a part of our lives was it, this heavy cotton lime-green apron even scored a mention in the best woman’s speech at our wedding nearly seven years ago, as some kind of symbol of how we live (code, basically, for Pair of Gluttons).

Last week, the neck strap on this faithful friend (not the one pictured here, but similar) finally gave way, coming apart in my hands. And my elegant solution – tying a knot in it – ended up creating an unfortunate noose-like effect.

Luckily, I had to hand my first understudy apron, given me as a kitchen-warming present by the Parsnip Princess last year. This rather glamorous, intricately patterned number is especially good for hiding the many splotches and blobs that inevitably end up all over me, and also – having been made by some hardworking Kenyan gals – has the added benefit of the humanitarian glow one gets from wearing.

Then, later in the week, I was very thrilled when Charlotte Chicken’s foster grandmother Deb presented me with a perfect replacement for my old green faithful, that she picked up during the dreadful hardship of a trip round Spain and Italy recently.

All this led me to think about the essential qualities of the apron, and whether I am alone in obsessing about this. I am amazed by all those cooking TV shows where there’s nary an apron to be seen – how do they do it? What do they wipe their hands on? I have several half-aprons, but find the classic coverall shape the best for my particular style, which tends to the slip-slop-slap.  And I am keen to hear from you, dear howtoshuck family, about your criteria for the perfect apron. Do you, indeed, even use one? If you do, what’s your favourite type? Do you have views on length and width? Are pockets essential? Are you a fan of those cute retro half-pinnies? What about strings and straps – adjustable, or no?  Front-fastening, or back? Half or full?

I await your advice. And then down the track we must do a companion piece on tea towels…

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Rules to dine by…

January 28, 2010

Dunno about you, but I am a sucker for rules. Love ’em.

Not so much the ones involving denial and effort and sacrifice (ew) but still, a book of rules nonetheless gives me lots of comfort. I used to love how-to-write rules when I first started out in fiction – it feels lovely and safe to be told what to do and when to do it – but now they seem rather limited and dull, and very often incorrect.

Now I’m sure it’s the same with food ‘rules’, but until I discover the flaws in them myself, I am pretty keen on the idea of my mate Michael Pollan‘s new book,  Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. It sounds like a kind of precis of everything he’s done on food so far, prompted, he says, by doctors who say they wish they had a summary of his earlier books to hand to patients who eat garbage. Pollan writes:

Another doctor, a transplant cardiologist, wrote to say “you can’t imagine what I see on the insides of people these days wrecked by eating food products instead of food.” So rather than leaving his heart patients with yet another prescription or lecture on cholesterol, he gives them a simple recipe for roasting a chicken, and getting three wholesome meals out of it — a very different way of thinking about health.

Nice one, doc.

Anyhoo, I am keen on these rules, possibly partly because Pollan is such an engaging writer and his remarks on food are sensible and witty. We saw him speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival a while ago, where he invoked one of his very first rules: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.” To demonstrate this, he had an array of supermarket ‘food products’ on the table before him, and raised a long, pink, thick, phallus-shaped object up for the audience to view.

“Would your great-grandma,” he asked slyly, “know how to administer this to her body?”

Turns out it was some kind of ‘yoghurt drink’ encased in plastic.

Anyhoo, despite the Empress’s chiding (she thinks we already know all this stuff and don’t need books to tell us), I couldn’t resist and bought Food Rules. It’s a nice slender little mini-paperback, and the Empress is right – we already know this stuff. However, there are still some nice bits and bobs, like this one: “Be the kind of person who takes supplements – then skip the supplements”. Meaning:

..people who take supplements are generally healthier than the rest of us, and we also know that in controlled studies most of the supplements they take don’t appear to be effective. how can this be? Supplement takers are healthy for reasons that have nothing to do with the pills. They’re typically more health conscious, better educated, and more affluent. They’re also more likely to exercise and eat whole grains.

And so on. Lots of stuff like that. And for the gutsers and food-bolters among us (hmm, who could that be?), very good advice: “Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it” and “Serve a proper portion and don’t go back for seconds.” That last is the killer in our house …

Our only real rule in this house is that we don’t eat any processed food (I guess rice crackers are processed, but you know …) but that’s because we love to eat and cook; it’s for reasons of pleasure, not denial.

Anyway – check it out if you can be bothered, or check out the Sydney Morning Herald’s own version by Jill Dupleix apropos of the Pollan book. I like this and lots of the comments too. And if you have any eating rules you live by, do share, won’t you?

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Living in the seventies: Fondue, baby!

November 29, 2009

The topic of fondue arose recently, as it does now and then among friends when drink has been taken.

Everyone in the room recalled their parents’ fondue set and its occasional outings along with the funky pantsuits and false eyelashes of yore. But there was general disagreement about what fondue actually involved – some purists insisted that only cheese and bread was called for, while others of us recalled boiling oil and lumps of meat.

Serendipitously, the day after this conversation my beloved spied this book at a market and swooped. I suspect we will never actually use it, but it does make an entertaining conversation starter if you leave it on the coffee table. Published 1971, and in mint condition, Fondue and Table Top Cookery by Marion Howells runs the gamut of things-cooked-at-table, from your trad cheese fondues to your Oriental Fondue (meat in stock) to some rather desperate inclusions such as omelettes and dubious-sounding desserts (Apricots Jubilee, anyone?).

On fondue, Marion tells us that:

This popular dish originated in Switzerland. Many stories are told of the villagers being isolated in the long winter months, and supplies of food becoming short, they were forced to rely on local produce like cheese, wine and home made bread. As the cheese became dry they melted it in their wine.

So there we have it – a yicky gloopy mix borne of near-starvation becomes a classic fad for ‘entertaining of the more intimate type’, and into the bargain produces perhaps the earliest example of Fusion Food. As evidence, I leave you with the list of ingredients for my favourite recipe in this collection.

Fondue Bengali

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1.5 cups dry white wine
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 4 cups grated Gruyere cheese
  • 2 cups grated Emmenthal cheese
  • 2 tsp cornflour
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 3 tablespoons Kirsch
  • white pepper, cayenne pepper
  • mango chutney
  • French bread
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Shopping vs ‘sourcing’: scrap the sanctimony

October 4, 2009

ecoshoppingIn adding the postscript links to the Julia Child post here the other day I was led to the Julie Powell New York Times op-ed piece on organic food that apparently raised the hackles of foodie multitudes in the States a while back. I happen to agree with every word she writes in this piece about food snobbery and class. Her main objection is the moral high ground taken by those who only eat organic food, and their derision of ordinary folks who shop at crappy supermarkets:

What makes the snobbery of the organic movement more insidious is that it equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics. Eat wild Brazil nuts and save the rainforest. Buy more expensive organic fruit for your children and fight the national epidemic of childhood obesity. Support a local farmer and give economic power to responsible stewards of sustainable agriculture. There’s nothing wrong with any of these choices, but they do require time and money.

When you wed money to decency, you come perilously close to equating penury with immorality. The milk at Whole Foods is hormone-free; the milk at Western Beef is presumably full of the stuff – and substantially less expensive. The chicken at Whole Foods is organic and cage-free; the chicken at Western Beef is not. Is the woman who buys her children’s food at the place where they take her food stamps therefore a bad mother?

“That’s not cooking, that’s shopping.” This epigram has been attributed to Julia Child and several other chefs of an older generation, in reference to the tenets of California Cuisine. It is sometimes used – often pronounced in a snooty French accent or Childean warble – by devotees of the organic movement (like Doug Hamilton, writer and director of the documentary “Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution”) to mock these fusty old-school cooks. For the newer generation, a love for traditional fine cuisine is cast as fussy and snobbish, while spending lots of money is, curiously, considered egalitarian and wise.

Like Powell, I’m as farmers-market addicted as the next gal, and I prefer to buy organic and free range stuff for the sake of the soil and the animals rather than any belief in its ‘safety’ for my own health (the various studies concluding that organic food is no healthier for humans than other food are perhaps dispiriting, but they are there – and claims from organic food producers like this one, that “Eating non-organic food will lead to ill-health with medical costs that will be far greater than the price of healthy eating” are  just simplistic rubbish).

If I’m honest, one of the main reasons I like to ‘source’ (we can’t say ‘buy’ anymore, don’t you know?) food from small fancy grocers and farmer’s markets is that it just feels nicer.

Supermarkets are ugly, and horribly lit, and often more expensive than other shops, and there’s hideous music, and the fresh food has been in cold storage for a year, and one is confronted by more people speaking viciously to their children, and the packaging is aesthetically displeasing and there’s too much plastic, and the cold food section freezes your bones, and the space is vast and impersonal and noisy, and so the whole experience just makes one feel one has been turned into a mindless participant in the whole mass-production, over-processed consumerist nightmare.

So it stands to reason that visiting a market where there’s open air, and one person selling meat, and another selling cheese, and another selling salad (picked leaves in bags rather than whole lettuces, I might add; I’m not averse to that kind of packaging and processing)  and so on, is a whole lot more pleasurable. But morally superior it ain’t. And it can far too easily topple into into fashion-driven pretentiousness (as we’ve discussed before), and, as Powell points out in her piece, can be as unattractively consumerist as any supermarket:

With his gastronomic tests, Brillat-Savarin sought to find others like himself, of whatever economic status, who truly enjoyed food. It’s easy to do the same today, but the method isn’t to assume that everyone at Whole Foods is wise and everyone at the Western Beef benighted.

Instead, look in their carts. Some shop at Western Beef for nothing more than diet cola and frozen bagels; some at Whole Foods for premade sushi and overdesigned bottles of green tea. These people have much in common. So, too, do the professorial types poring over the sweet corn and dewy blueberries at the greenmarket and the Honduran family at the discount grocery, piling their cart high with rice and dried beans and canned tomatoes and all the other stuff you need to make something out of nothing much.

End of rant. Read the whole Powell opinion piece here.


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A Woman of Style, Substance & Hedgehog Slice

August 19, 2009

hedgehogI have just heard tonight that Mrs Spain, one of my mother’s dearest friends, died this week. My mum died 15 years ago, and I haven’t kept properly in touch with her friends … so it came as a great shock to hear that Marie, who was without question the most glamorous woman in my parents’  country Catholic family circle, was in her seventies (I realise I have always pictured her as still resolutely, elegantly 47), and had had Alzheimer’s for some time, and in the past week apparently decided her time was up, and refused food and drink, and faded away with her daughters by her side.

Marie Spain was quite a woman, let me tell you.

When were small, our family of seven would turn up to Mass late, every week, with each one of us kids looking as if we’d been torn through a bush backwards – hair fuzzed, clothes misbuttoned, faces unsuccessfully tissue-swabbed, still squirming and tearfully or viciously swatting at one another over some outrage committed in the Kombi on the way to church. Once they got us into the pew, I think our exhausted parents simply closed their eyes with relief at the hour of enforced silence to come (somehow the presence of God, incense and altar boys, combined with an icy parental stare when necessary, momentarily stilled the Beelzebubs within).

But though we were always late, there was invariably one family who arrived later – but oh, so gratifyingly so. Each week, with a regal air I am certain they never knew they had, would enter a procession of Spains, all nine or twelve or sixty of them (they had multitudes of kids, plus various extraneous extended family members of all generations in constant residence, I seem to recall…) and take up their series of pews down near the front.

The differences between my family and the Spains were many and various (mostly to do with sporting prowess and wide smiles and great warmth and good looks on their part, vs wan, lankhaired, spottiness and physical clumsiness on ours) but by far the most enthralling of these differences was that the Spains – all of them, but none more than Marie – always dressed like a million bucks.

I don’t think they had a million bucks,  but Marie was one of those women of our mum’s generation who could sew. I mean really sew, not the apologetic crookedly-pinned, wonkily hemmed A-line skirts we would labour over under Mum’s bored, lacklustre supervision and the Singer threaded too tight. Marie’s stuff was serious art: the kind of French-seamed, gorgeously satiny lined, perfectly fitted stuff we would all pay thousands for these days if we could afford it, which we never will, because that kind of skill and eye for beauty is priceless.

So Marie arriving at Mass was something akin to Audrey Hepburn taking a stroll down the aisle of Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Cooma North, every Sunday. I’m talking elaborate hats, and, when called for, minxy black mantillas. I’m talking gorgeously tailored suits in sumptuous fabrics, gleaming, unscuffed shoes and matching bags, fashionably barbaric jewellery. This was the seventies: Marie wore fur, and tartan pantsuits, and slinky boots, and in one glorious phase the Spains would come to church each week accompanied by a new movie-star mother, in a fabulously funky wig: platinum bouffant one week, redhead flapper the next.

We would gaze along the pews past our mother, past all the other perfectly presentable women like the ones we girls would grow up to be, and who paled (and still do) into the faded green baize carpet in comparison to Marie Spain. If she  happened to be hovering in her grotto on the wall above Marie that week, the boring old Virgin in her chipped blue plaster sack, with her downcast eyes and her lank defeated hair, simply never stood a chance.

Marie and her husband Brian – a tall, strong-boned, confident, handsome tennis champ with warmth to burn – made a dashing couple. Their arrival at Mass was as if a pair of birds of paradise landed on the church steps every week, with a brood of chicks-in-training-plumage  stepping along behind.

I’m told that the priest there now, a young chap, never knew Marie. It’s kind of unthinkable to me, that her funeral might be presided over by someone who never witnessed this Sunday spectacular. Not his fault, obviously. But just in case he happens to read food blogs, this is for him: Marie was a woman of a steady, powerful gaze; slender shoulders; a firm handshake; perfect lipstick (red, I think); excellent Twiggy-style haircuts; bold earrings; immaculate tailoring; a husky, throaty, flirtatious laugh; a complete absence of bullshit; a conception of love and family (and god, I reckon, for that matter) that surpassed all boundaries of blood or duty, to embrace anyone having a moment of loneliness or need; a woman of boundless love, enormous verve, enormous fun.

When our father got sick and died at 53, Marie and Brian were there, instantly and at all times for my mother, and for us. When our mother got sick a few years later, Marie and Brian were there, instantly, by her side, full of love and outrage. When Brian, super-fit and indestructible, suddenly became ill himself and died devastatingly young, my family was shaken to the core for all the lovely Spains. It was impossible that he had gone, and still feels like that. They were a team.

So tonight I feel the same all over again about Marie herself, though I haven’t seen her for decades. I simply cannot get my head around her being old, being gone.

There is one more thing about her.

Every year on my father’s birthday, Marie would show up at our house with a small plateful of her famous chocolate hedgehog slice. This stuff is legendary. And in her typically stylish fashion, Marie’s slice made an entrance – a few perfect squares, artful on a white plate, or wrapped in some elegant paper – and on this day, once a year, the package was always strictly for Dad, and Dad alone. The hedgehog slice would go straight into the fridge, in its special wrapping, until he got home from work. We kids were never allowed to even sniff it, though we stared longingly, with the fridge door held open, and I guess now and again we must have been given enough of a tiniest taste for me to have developed the Pavlovian drool that still starts up whenever I think of it.

I think it took a woman with a hundred kids and every demand under the sun upon her to understand something about the specialness of the biscuit equivalent of A Room of One’s Own – how she managed it every year I don’t know. But the hedgehog cake was Dad’s birthday treat, delivered by Marie every year without fanfare, without fail, and savoured every time.

So Vale Marie: fashion icon, generous soul, deeply  loved woman with exactly the right overabundance of style and substance. I proffer this recipe for hedgehog slice, which cannot possibly measure up to hers, but all the same, I offer it in her honour and memory, with love.

Hedgehog Slice

  • 250g plain sweet biscuits (e.g. milk arrowroot)
  • 3/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
  • 125g butter
  • 125g sugar
  • 2 level tbsp cocoa
  • 2 tbsp coconut
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 200g good quality dark chocolate

Crush biscuits, leaving some lumps, add nuts.

Combine butter, sugar, cocoa, coconut and vanilla in a saucepan and cook for 2 minutes.

Cool slightly and add egg, then add to biscuit & nut mixture.

Melt chocolate and stir thoroughly into mixture.

Refrigerate until set, about an hour. 

Cut into squares, reserving five or six to take on a small plate to your friend on his birthday.

* This recipe, while pretty good, nowhere near approaches Marie Spain’s hedgehog slice. If I ever get my hands on the original recipe, I will most definitely post it here.

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Michael on Julia’s legacy

August 4, 2009

Does anyone in Australia understand the Julia Child adoration thing, or is this purely an American phenomenon?

I have known virtually nothing about her except her name – but in the New York Times this week  is a long and lovely essay by the wonderful Michael Pollan about Julia Child, the first American TV chef, prompted by the new movie Julie &  Julia, starring Meryl Streep as JC.

He muses about the changes in American home cooking and the influence of television upon it, starting with the way Julia Child apparently liberated a generation of American women from fear of cooking by dropping a potato pancake and then retrieving it and patching it back together – her show was live TV, after all.

Pollan is such an engaging writer (his book Second Nature, about gardens, was a big influence on me as I wrote my second novel The Submerged Cathedral, and his other books on food production and ethics, In Defence of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, are just as lively and provoking), and this essay is a beauty.

michael pollanPollan’s essay goes on to discuss the exponential rise of television cookery, and how American studies show that people spend more time watching cooking being done than doing it themselves (particularly interesting given the popularity of  Master Chef here, and the talk about how it’s supposedly got people back into the kitchen. I wonder…).

Pollan writes that there are oodles of cooking shows on US television, but says of many of them:

These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience but never the sort of pleasure — physical and mental — that Julia Child took in the work of cooking: the tomahawking of a fish skeleton or the chopping of an onion, the Rolfing of butter into the breast of a raw chicken or the vigorous whisking of heavy cream. By the end of the potato show, Julia was out of breath and had broken a sweat, which she mopped from her brow with a paper towel. (Have you ever seen Martha Stewart break a sweat? Pant? If so, you know her a lot better than the rest of us.) Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself. No one cooking on television today gives the impression that they enjoy the actual work quite as much as Julia Child did. In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who have followed her on television.

He also notes that Julia Child began her cooking show in the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and points out that although they could have been seen as adversaries, this wasn’t true: Child had an aversion to the word ‘housewife’ and treated cooking as a skill and an art, rather than another bit of household drudgery for women.

Anyway I could go on and on – but better for you to simply read this excellent essay here.

Then discover more about Julia Child here (or this fab Youtube video of her show here – it’s hilarious), and more  here about the Nora Ephron movie (which in the way of this strange new world, originated from a blog. Yes, a food blog, called the Julie/Julia Project.).

I just watched the movie trailer and confess that I can’t wait!

Postscript – October 3 2009

Two more amusing additions to this post must be made.

First, this link to the beautifully narky Regina Schrambling at Slate, on ‘Why you’ll never cook from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking’.

And second, rather more entertainingly, The Defamer’s round-up of cranky food bloggers and their snooty dismissals of Julie Powell, the blogger whose work started the whole JC revival. Hilariously chock-full of envy and rage at their fellow blogger’s success, this stuff makes for rich reading. One namedropping post by a ‘trained chef’ even says, with disgust, “People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts”. Seems rather to miss the point of Julia Child’s taking cookery to the masses, no? Not to mention that the remark is written by a food blogger.

Anyway, all good for a laugh and found here.

Bon appetit!