Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

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Indie bookstore love!

March 24, 2016

I have been away from this blog for a loooooong time, but have been sent back here today by an interview with the fabulous Richard Glover of 702 ABC Sydney, who had me on his Drive show to talk about a prize I won last night – and about FISH!

First, the fish – it’s Easter, and lots of people like to keep to tradition and eat fish on Good Friday. At the last moment Richard asked me t0 stay on for his segment with the beloved Simon Marnie, weekend ABC Radio host, gourmand and excellent kitchen knowhow guru . I was asked for my go-to fish recipe, which had to be the Five-Minute Feast dish we eat at least once a week, of Salmon with Mirin, Ginger & Soy. I posted the recipe way back in 2009, and here it is.  These days I add a sliced red chilli to the mirin/soy mix, and sometimes some finely julienned red capsicum. And we add lots more greens of whatever variety are about – broccolini, or bok choy, whatever you like.

CharlotteWoodAusIndiesJust before that Richard and I were celebrating Australia’s independent bookselling scene, because our beloved indie stores yesterday chose my novel The Natural Way of Things as their Indie Awards fiction category winner, and then their overall Book of the Year. I can’t tell you how much this means to me, but those who were in the room and saw me blubbing like a fool might have got some idea. Richard, by the way, was also shortlisted for his brilliant, funny and very moving memoir, Flesh Wounds

The excellent folk at Allen & Unwin have posted my speech about bookstores on their blog, and I thought, ‘what a good idea’. So here are my thoughts about independent bookstores and what they mean to us in Australia.

Happy Easter everyone!

I am so very touched by these awards, and so grateful. Thank you for this honour. I would like first to thank the Independent Booksellers of Australia for your support of my novel. From offering me the chance to speak at the Leading Edge conference in May last year to choosing it for book clubs, to all the bookshop events, social media postings – and, most of all, the truly enthusiastic hand-selling of my novel, I owe you all so much.

I would also like to honour my fellow shortlistees. Gail Jones, Stephanie Bishop and Geraldine Brooks are writers I have long admired and whose accomplishments I celebrate. Book prizes are a strange phenomenon, and the way they are discussed can sometimes give rise to the depressing idea that the creation of literature is a contest, with one writer pitted against another. I honestly feel that nothing is further from the truth. All writers work in quiet, often lonesome isolation, each pursuing our own particular truth, each trying more than anything to make a strong and beautiful work of art. Yet despite this essential seclusion and the equally necessary differences between our literary projects which thankfully makes comparison impossible, we are also a community. Not a competition, but a flourishing community of quiet creators. I thank my fellow writers for their encouragement and solidarity over the years – and I offer mine to them, always. Independent booksellers in so many ways connect and support and build this community of writers. We could not make our work without you.

I also thank my beloved publisher Jane Palfreyman and editor Ali Lavau and all at Allen and Unwin who have been so overwhelming in their support.

I’m sure every author in this room has faced moments in the writing of a book where you can’t see a way forward. The book defeats you – uneven, unresolved, shameful in its ragged, state. You have a deep urge to finish it but every logical part of your mind wonders, why?

It was at one such moment, about fifteen years ago, that I left my desk in a state of despair and went for a walk. My first strange little novel, Pieces of a Girl, had mercifully been published but died soon into its short life, sent to the great pulping station in the sky. I kept writing, struggling along with a second novel that wasn’t working. All the time I was working against these questions: Why am I doing this? Who wants this? Who will even notice, let alone care, if I never write another book?

Brooding on those questions that day, I found myself wandering – perhaps riskily – into my local bookshop, Better Read than Dead in Newtown. I drifted along the shelves, looking for I don’t know what: consolation, inspiration, a reason to keep going. I bought something – quite possibly considering my finances at the time, not even a book but a card, a notebook. Behind the counter was a friendly bookseller I’d seen there before, but didn’t know by name. As I handed over my five bucks, she said to me quietly, ‘And Charlotte, can we expect another beautiful book from you some time soon?”

I was utterly stunned.

I have no idea what I said in reply. I am sure I was ungracious, from shock. But I can tell you that this moment of generous noticing from the bookseller, Karen Ferris, was a watershed moment in my writing life. If Karen cared that I finished my book, maybe someone else would. More importantly, maybe I could care, and keep going.

Since that moment I’ve felt the same kind of noticing, and caring, from so many independent booksellers, quietly urging me on through the writing of all my six books. Some of those books sold okay, and some didn’t, but the support I felt from these people never wavered. I want to particularly thank Barbara Horgan (formerly of Shearers and now of Boffins Books in Perth), Karen of course, now with Berkelouw, Kathryn Bancroft and Jenny Barry at Books Plus in Bathurst, Anna Low and her beautiful team at Potts Point Bookshop, Natalie Yabuka and Jeremy and all at Oscar and Friends in Double Bay and Surry Hills, Scott Whitmont at Lindfield, Lindy Jones and the team at Abbeys, Fiona Stager and Krissy Kneen and everyone at Avid Reader in Brisbane, David Gaunt and Morgan Smith at Gleebooks, Gillian May at Berkelouw Mona Vale; and Mark Rubbo, Chris Gordon and everyone at Readings in Melbourne for their sustaining care over the years.

One of the pleasures of sending The Natural Way of Things into the world has been meeting a whole new lot of booksellers, whose enthusiasm for it has been astounding to me. As well as those already mentioned, I thank the unstoppable Amelia Lush at Better Read than Dead, Gavin Williams at Matilda’s in Adelaide, Dan Sanderson and Nikki Anderson at MUSE Canberra; Clive Tilsley at Fullers, the amazing Natasha Boyd of Book Bonding in Essendon, Jay Lansdown from Constant Reader, Paul Macdonald at The Children’s Bookshop and the indefatigable Suzy Wilson at Riverbend Books in Brisbane.

Of course, I know there are so many others I haven’t named, and others not met, but who have gone out of their way to press my novels into readers’ hands, and I cannot thank them enough.

CharlotteWoodBlog

Recently I saw a news item about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a bombproof storage bank built deep into a mountain in Norway, in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1300 kilometres from the North Pole. Countries from all over the world send seed samples there to be protected and preserved; the Vault’s mission is to provide a safety net against accidental loss of diversity in traditional gene banks.

In thinking about tonight, and Australia’s independent booksellers, it struck me that you are like that seed vault. You are storehouses for the kernels not only of our literary culture but our history, our music, our food culture, our health and legal and technological culture, our visual arts, our politics. You are the safety vault for the seeds of our country’s cultural and intellectual life, and your customers are the spreaders of those seeds out in the world.

A few years ago, the outlook for our independent bookselling scene looked gloomy. But like those seeds packed into the cold mountain in Norway, you have survived, you are thriving, and because of your noticing and care, your love of words and your determination to flourish, you have kept Australian literature and our culture alive and thriving too.

On behalf of us all, I thank you so very much.

You can listen to Richard every weekday here – and see more about the Indie awards and the other category winners – brilliant writers all – here.

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Why cook?

June 19, 2012

This post is rather a cheat, but as I’ve been travelling so much lately (last week back to  good old Varuna, where I spent a week remembering what it is like to sit still, think in silence for hours at a time and even – gasp – write a little) I’ve hardly been home to cook anything. It’s been a pleasure to meet readers of Love & Hunger at events around the place, including a couple in Sydney, one at Bathurst, another at Huskisson. And this coming Sunday I’m in conversation with the Jennifer Byrne at the Noosa Long Weekend Festival, after an event tonight here in Sydney which promises to be a real treat – not abut my book this time, but I’m in conversation with the wonderful Ailsa Piper about her book on pilgrimage, Spain and ethical life without religion. It’s called Sinning Across Spain. Do come along if you get a chance… 

All this running around, while such a gratifying response to the books, can tend to separate one from real life and what for me are the grounding, nourishing routines of ordinary domesticity. So I’ve decided to remind myself about that real life by posting the first chapter of Love & Hunger. It’s called Why cook?

And soon I’ll be back with some new adventures in the kitchen, hopefully starting with a successful first edition of homemade yoghurt – stay tuned. 

PART 1: ORIGINS

WHY COOK?

I began really learning to cook in my mid-twenties, at about the same time as I began really learning to write. I have only recently wondered if there is a link between these two things, other than the circumstances in which I found myself: an idle university student in possession of time for dawdling, some vague creative urges and new friends who inspired me with their own creativity and skill with a pen or a frying pan.

I had, of course, been cooking for years, in the way one does to feed oneself on first leaving home. I cooked sturdy, cheap and cheerful meals that were nutritious enough, if not exactly adventurous. I had also been writing for years, as a journalist on our small-town local newspaper, and I suspect the properties of my writing echoed those of my cooking. My articles—about artificial insemination of cattle, say, or the latest Lions Club fund-raising effort for a new piece of hospital equipment—were competent, and no doubt accurate enough. But the desire to write creatively, to bring out into the light and give shape and purpose to the inchoate longings and imaginings of my young mind, was still too unformed—or else too deeply buried to acknowledge. I remember once being asked if I had ever thought about writing a novel. The idea seemed utterly ludicrous. My questioner might as well have asked if I had yearnings to captain a ship to Antarctica, or to become a world-famous belly-dancer. It was not just that such an achievement was beyond me, but I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to expose herself—to danger, to knowing—in such a way.

Skip a few decades to a recent dinner, when a dear friend who likes to be provocative suggested that people like me cook for others as a way feeling superior to them. I admit I was a little rocked by this idea. Could he be right? Might there be even a kernel of truth in this? And if it wasn’t true, why then do I cook, and why does the satisfaction it brings me feel so profound?

I hope my friend is wrong about my motives—or mostly wrong—but I do see his point, given the almost obscene contemporary obsession with what I think of as fashion cookery: the slavish reproduction of the latest television fad, the obedient queuing outside this cake shop or that restaurant, the cult-like allegiance to this brand of olive oil or that cookbook. All this worries me, because it seems born of a kind of competitive social anxiety rather than a confident love of food, and it makes cooking into a club of knowing insiders, excluding all others. The fetishisation of chefs and dishes and ingredients and equipment led one woman I know to declare in exasperation that she just didn’t get this obsession with something as basic as food, she said. ‘I mean,’ she cried, ‘it’s just petrol!

I am not immune to food fashion, and some of it can be fun. But I aspire to something nearer to the ground, more elemental. The home cooks I know who have the most strongly anchored, easy relationship with their skill and interest in making food are somehow both serious and casual about it at once. They might make their own passata, but they would never dream of replicating an Adriano Zumbo cake. They spend hours a day reading food books, but couldn’t give a damn about where ‘the best’ olive oil comes from.

But I’m drifting from the question. What is the nature of the pleasure I get from cooking?

Whenever we whined about being bored as children, our mother would call over her shoulder that we should ‘go and do something constructive!’ This may well have merely sprung from the desire to get yet another of her five children out of her face for a moment, but she touched on something important: the deep arising from the act of creating something that didn’t exist before you made it. Whether it’s a drawing, a paper plane, a garden bed or a tub of baba ganoush—there is something fundamentally enriching about bringing something new into existence. It’s constructive, in the most literal sense.

Another aspect of my pleasure in cooking is in the mental diversion it creates. When cooks speak of preparing a meal as a way of ‘unwinding’ or ‘relaxing’ after a hard day at work, I think there are several things at play. I am reminded of the great joy I felt for the year or so I went to Latin dancing classes. As with any kind of dancing involving patterns, what’s essentially happening when you cook is a focused engagement with something physical and momentary, with patterns of repeated movements (chopping, stirring, turning a piece of fish or meat, for example). And in that focus on the physical, the mind may be freed from whatever had previously been occupying it. One woman I spoke to about this described it as ‘free concentration’—a graceful transition from the intellectual part of her day to the leisure part of it. I wonder if this kind of freeing of the mind from niggling worries of the past hours or days, or of future expectations, the intense focus and control only of the present moment, is part of the serenity that people seek from meditation.

At the same time as I am freed from the past and the future, though, in some subtle but definite way I am also connected, at least once every mealtime, to a cycle of life greater and more permanent than my own. This might sound grandiose, but pour a cupful of dried Puy lentils through your fingers and tell me you don’t feel at least a faint twinge of earthy delight. Similarly, whenever I thump a cleaver through a piece of raw meat, it inevitably provokes a subtle but definite stirring of some primal life-and-death struggle.

Pinching the balled-up bud of a basil flower off a knee-high plant by the kitchen door and tossing it into a pan of pasta sauce might not satisfy as deeply as making cheese from the milk of your own cows, as does one gentleman of my acquaintance, but it’s still there, this tiny thread of connection between me and the earth. This thread is so fine nobody but me would notice it – and to others it may sound tenuous and highly romantic, but I don’t care. It’s true for me.

This kind of creativity is also mercifully free of public evaluation. In a creative field, your work is always attended by the possibility of humiliation—when a novel is published you are at the very least subject to several cool public assessments of your work, if not to newspaper declarations of your failure, or screeds of online comments about how stupid are your characters, how scant your ideas, how tedious your voice. Even when reviews turn out to be positive, the period of waiting for them makes opening the Saturday newspapers an exercise in nausea control for weeks, if not months, around publication time. So freedom from critical evaluation of the result makes the creative pleasure of cooking even deeper for me. Nobody is going to publicly declare your soufflé a workmanlike attempt in which the slight dip on the left-hand side ultimately led to the failure of the whole dish. For me, cooking (and gardening, a related pursuit) represents creativity in its purest form. It’s no surprise that many fiction writers I know also have other private creative pursuits: one plays the ukulele, another sews stunningly beautiful bed quilts. We do these things partly, I think, because the strain of producing creative work under the watchful eye of reviewers, even publishers, even our beloved readers, can leach the work of much of its joy. It’s work, after all. But cooking – or quilting, or ukulele-playing—is pleasure.

Ah, pleasure. Of course physical pleasure must also be at the heart of every good cook’s desire to do it. A friend (who, ironically, doesn’t drink much at all) once told me she didn’t trust teetotallers. To her, permanent abstinence from alcohol equates to a pathological fear of losing control, which in turn equals a fear of life. Having a couple of life-loving friends who don’t drink at all, I’m not sure about that—but I certainly agree that a love of eating and drinking seem to correspond, among the people I know, with a love of life. A powerful appetite for food and an open emotional and intellectual appetite tend to go together—or perhaps that’s my convenient prejudice.

What is not a prejudice but firm, proven data is something social researchers have been telling us for years: that connection with other people is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. For me cooking creates the occasion and the place for those connections to happen. I remember several years ago stirring a pot of something in the kitchen, listening to the near-deafening hubbub of a dozen people sitting around the table in the next room, and thinking: I have never been happier in my life than in this moment.

But what about my devil’s-advocate friend’s assertion, that people become good cooks in order to impress—even intimidate—others? Well, no doubt this is true for some. But I think the inverse is far more prevalent: that people become good cooks in order to be loved. The writer and former restaurateur Gay Bilson has spoken of her ‘need to be needed’ in this context, and in her book Plenty: Digressions on Food writes of the moment she learned, by making cream puffs at age eleven, that cookery leads to praise. I think it would be a rare cook who could truthfully deny sharing these desires. For one thing, this kind of praise is so easy to get: any good cook will tell you that the compliments lavished upon them usually far exceed the effort it took to bring the lauded dish to the table. (This is not all sweetness and light, however; so bound up is my social life and my cooking that in my darker moments I have occasionally wondered whether, if I didn’t make food for them, I would have any friends at all. If there is a sombre underside to be found in my cooking life, that is it.)

But some of the deepest satisfactions of cooking are not necessarily to do with sharing food with others, with the big dinner party or the impressive dish; it might be a single perfectly seared piece of salmon eaten on a weeknight in front of the television, or the pleasing consistency of a pea and mint soup eaten at your desk for lunch.

Thinking about the quiet but serious pleasure in these small moments, I finally recognise the most persistent feeling I have about my skill with cooking. It’s not superiority, or even wantedness—it’s that I feel lucky.

Every now and again someone will say to me wistfully, ‘I wish I liked cooking.’ I think my mother was probably this sort of person. My siblings may have differing opinions, but it seems to me she did not really like cooking much and yet she did it, hour upon hour of it, every day, with very little money, to provide nourishment for five children and a husband. Her garden was where her heart lay, and I think with a kind of sadness sometimes about how often she must have longed to be out in the garden instead of buttering yet another biscuit tray, or chopping another carrot, and I blush at how much we complained about the food she so selflessly put on our table each night.

This is when I realise my luck. To derive so much pleasure from what to some people is a chore as joyless as vacuuming feels like an enormous stroke of good fortune.

Writing and cooking are, as I have said, two separate arenas of my life, and their separateness is part of what makes them both so satisfying to me—and yet here I am, bringing them together. But there is another thread that joins them. Like many before me, I write fiction to find out what I think about the world; to open it up, look at it and place myself in it—and, in sending those books out into the public space, to share with others what I have found. In some ways, cooking does this for me too. When I try out a new technique or a recipe on my friends, or I pick a bay leaf from the little potted tree outside my kitchen, or I get excited by something as simple as a well-made frangipane tart, I am extending myself, discovering something new, and connecting myself to my world in a way that feels important.

As I write this I am increasingly impatient to get into the kitchen. I have ten people coming for dinner this evening, and I’m roasting two experimental chickens. I’m brining one of the birds before cooking, for the first time, to see why people make such a fuss about brining. As well, I’ve just been given a whole real truffle—an amazing black, chocolatey nugget of a thing—which I’m to shave and put under the skin of the second chicken before roasting. I am more excited by these two experiments to come, and yet so anchored to myself and my place in the world because of them, than it is possible to explain in words.

From Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food, by me.

Now it’s your turn. What is the nature of the pleasure you get from cooking? 

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Walking on sunshine

May 8, 2012

Hello all … well, Love & Hunger has been out for a week today, and I’ve been a little taken aback at how frenetic that week has been. A few radio interviews, a newspaper extract here and there, a couple of reviews, few pieces on others’ people’s blogs – I’m pooped! And on Thursday I’m off to New Zealand for the Auckland Readers’ & Writers’ Festival – very excited as I’ve never been to NZ before – then straight back into the Sydney Writers’ Festival starting in Katoomba on Monday and Tuesday, then more events in Sydney at the end of the week. Plus a couple more interviews. And then more festivals and travelling to come …

When my darling writer friend Tegan (whose novels and stories are some of the finest you shall ever have the pleasure of reading) read Love & Hunger she said I should prepare myself for much communication, because of its conversational nature. She was right.

I have had emails from radio listeners, including one woman who took me to task for my offhand remarks about bad Australian food in the 1970s (“the food of the 1950s to the 1970s is in fact far superior to the food served up today”), and another very moving one from a woman coping with chemotherapy without the support of her friends. I’ve had a gorgeous podcast listener from south-west France email to invite me and my husband to come and enjoy the food of his region, and another lump-in-the-throat email from a young uni student who bought my book after reading The Age extract: “I feel your every word directed to me personally … perhaps you have given me what Elizabeth David gave you all those years ago.”

I have had the most beautiful messages from friends and family who have already read it, often sharing with me what they’ve cooked that day for someone else, or offering me a new recipe apropos of something that’s come from the book. I absolutely love this passing on of ideas and knowledge and experience – as in Tegan’s lovely comments here the other day. It means that for these people at least, the book has worked in the way I hoped it would – as a conversation, a lighter of flame, a nourishing presence. I can’t tell you how happy it’s all making me.

That long and busy week was topped off by seeing Senor playing trumpet at a gig for the first time in a long time for me. It made me so elated to see him play again, because he so talented, and he enjoys it so much. And that event gave  rise to yet another conversation and a new idea, about bringing people together through music, in a new little experiment we’ve got started.

More on that later – but in the meantime, the weather is sharp, and blue-skied, and cold. Which means it’s perfect for this sunshiny roasted pumpkin risotto. It is the business – comfort food with zing and vibrance, first made for me many moons ago by the Empress, and which has become one of my faves. It’s also excellent frugal food, but with absolutely no sense of poverty about it whatsoever.

Roast pumpkin risotto for 8

  • 1 big lump of pumpkin – I used about a quarter of a medium punk for this one, I suppose around 1kg or a bit more…
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 cups arborio rice
  • white wine or verjuice
  • 1.5 litres chicken / vegetable stock
  • butter
  • Parmesan
  1. Cut pumpkin into big chunks and roast in olive oil in the oven for up to an hour, until nicely browned and very soft and mashable
  2. You already know how to make risotto, but just in case: gently fry the onion & garlic in oil, pour in the rice and stir until the grains begin to stick to the pan, deglaze with a glass of white wine, then lower the heat and add the hot stock a cup or so at a time, stirring very frequently until the rice is just al dente, and adding boiling water if you run out of stock.
  3. Meanwhile, mash up the pumpkin and then when the rice is just tender, add it to the pan and stir in to get a beautiful orange risotto.
  4. Add a big lump of butter and stir, loosen the mix with more boiling water or stock until it’s nicely sloppy – I detest a stiff risotto – season and then add to a bowl with grated Parmesan and lots and lots and lots of pepper.

 

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I need your help with fictional food

September 29, 2010

I have a little quest, and I think all my beloved shuckers are just the folk to help me. I need to compile a list of novels in which food and cookery is central – can be any genre, any era, just so long as food is somehow inextricably linked to the story and the characters. Australian novels most particularly welcome, but all suggestions will be very warmly welcomed. As we’ve discussed before here and here, I am quite keen on bad food in fiction – and not so interested in the exotic school of luscious lyrical pomegranate/chocolat/cinnamon-and-jaggery-love (or as @cityoftongues rather more tartly termed them in a Twitter chat this morning, ‘chutney and incest novels’)  but still, all ideas welcome.

All this is in aid of a proposal I’m writing for some academic work on food in literature – and as the highly sophisticated, erudite and learned creatures you are, I just know you will have some contributions for me!

And by the way, I have some happy news. I can officially announce that my new novel, Animal People, has been accepted for publication by the wonderful folks at Allen & Unwin. It will be out toward the end of next year – October 2011 to be precise – giving me a gorgeously long lead time for editorial sprucing. I am so thrilled they will have me back.

Now, kiddies, I look forward to your fictional food suggestions!

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A week away …

September 28, 2010

Soon I shall be back in earnest to report on the results of this year’s Allen & Unwin bakeoff – just as spectacular as last year’s, and the Empress and I once again had a groaningly good time of the judging.

But this week I’m away writing at Varuna, the Writers’ House. If you’ve never been here and you like to write, you really should make the acquaintance of this place. It’s the former home of the renowned Australian novelist Eleanor Dark, who was writing in the 1930s and 40s.

Varuna is a huge light-filled house on the edge of a valley in the Blue Mountains of NSW, Australia. The house is set in a large garden of exotic and native plants, complete – this week – with a dive-bombing magpie who makes sure everyone who comes and goes does so holding a book over their heads. It’s like some strange school of deportment, with squeals. I have been given the most glorious room – Eleanor and Eric’s bedroom with this adjacent sun-trap of a workroom. I get to stickybeak on all comings and goings as well as basking in the sun like a lizard. Oh, and write, of course.

I have had a long and happy association with Varuna and have been here many times to work on various books (as well as doing bits of work for the organisation itself, like helping to run this very good publishing forum coming up in October).

This week I am in the company of some very gifted writers – including our own Julie Bail, who is midway through a fab-sounding novel and whom you will know as a wonderful writer from her many astute and hilarious comments on these pages; and also my dear friend Lucinda Holdforth (who, I learned last night, among other distinctions has had the enviable privilege of a fan letter from the fabulous and very witty Leigh Sales about Why Manners Matter).

Alongside us in the house, working quietly away, are Glenda Guest whose first novel Siddon Rock won a squillion prizes last year including the big Commonwealth Writers’ Prize first book award, and the gorgeous Paddy O’Reilly, a short story writer and novelist of rare talent. We are going to have a week of working hard during the day and long conversations about writing over dinner at night with Peter Bishop, who has been the creative director of Varuna for many years but has now stepped sideways into a consulting role, to focus on his own writing. Already (we got here yesterday) the six of us are finding common threads, fears and preoccupations with similar structural issues and other matters of craft.

One of Varuna’s recent guests, Mark Welker, has made this stunning short video which shows exactly what it’s like to work here – the staring out of windows, the walks, the garden, and the burrowing inside your own slow, intense thinking as the weather moves around you. So until next week, enjoy this beautiful thing.

http://www.markwelker.com/2010/08/a-week-at-varuna/

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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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Preening…

February 10, 2010

Well, well. We’re feeling a bit flouncy round here today, having been told that the very cool online news site Crikey included us in their list of “a smatttering of fantastic food blogs and recipe sites” yesterday, as inspiration for readers to get out of their food rut and cook up a new signature dish.

So, a big welcome to any Crikey-led visitors – we hope to see you round these parts often. Better lift my game!