Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

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Food as loneliness (in London still)

October 28, 2009

londonAm excited this week, because our anthology, Brothers & Sisters, is finally out, in the shops, published, released into the wild. The launch is in a couple of weeks – I would love all howtoshuckanoyster friends to come along, so if you are in Sydney and available on the evening of Tuesday 10 November, let me know!

It’s so much easier to be vocal about and proud of a book I’ve edited than one I’ve written – quite a joyful experience, quite  unlike the usual nauseous tremor that accompanies the release of a novel, and that ghastly fear every time you see a newspaper that within its pages you are being evaluated, judged, pilloried or – better, but still weird – foolishly praised … This time, though, I am so confident about the quality of the book because of the skill and talent of the writers within its pages, that I feel nothing but happiness that the stories and essays about siblings are finally reaching their readers.

I am also thrilled because I’ve wanted for ages to post my friend Tegan Bennett Daylight‘s brilliant passages about loneliness from her story, Trouble, but have been resisting until the book is actually available.

Trouble is narrated by a young woman who’s moved to London with her sister Emma, and the narrator’s loneliness as she watches the more confident Emma embrace the big new world they find themselves in while she herself is struggling to find her feet. They share a plush apartment belonging to some family friends, but Emma is out a lot – at her groovy architect’s job, or with her new boyfriend – while the narrator stays home, watching out the window at the city, feeling fat and out of place, halfheartedly looking for a job and trying to ward off  London’s cold, rainy misery.  It’s a beautiful story about growing up, about loneliness and desire, and finding your own way in a world far from home. Here are a couple of bits I particularly wanted to share.

Emma’s office was only a few tube stops from our flat, and I met her for lunch sometimes, but mostly I sat at home, too weary to struggle along in the fine bubbles of her wake. I couldn’t get warm. It was only September, and the flat was centrally heated, but I was doing nothing except sitting at the table in our white kitchen, whose window overlooked Vauxhall Bridge Road. Sometimes I ate porridge oats, dry, from a bowl. There was something solid and sustaining about them. You could make porridge in your own mouth, mashing the oats into a warm paste with teeth and saliva. I could eat two or three bowls at once. I looked in the newspaper for work. Sometimes I had baths to try to ease the cold ache in my sides and legs.

Eventually she gets a job in a department store.

After a month or so I gave up eating in the cafeteria at work, no longer exercised by the horrible fascination over the other staff’s eating habits. At first I had just sat and watched as slender, clear-faced girls collected trays of lasagne and chips, bowls of chocolate pudding, and Diet Cokes. Everything came with chips. London was the only place I had been where you were offered chips with Chinese food. Not even Parkes, not even Dubbo had food like that.

It was partly the food, but partly also that I didn’t like people to see me eating. Later on I would wonder why I’d thought myself so fat – I was merely plump, a word I hated nearly as much as chubby – but back then there seemed to be no doubt about it. Whenever I could, now, I went over the road to Harrods to buy my lunch. In the food hall you could get a mango, or a bag of dates or figs. I always tried to get outside if it was sunny, but often enough I spent my whole lunch break in the food hall, sneaking figs from a paper bag while I stood in front of the bread display, or the butchery. Everything was beautiful in the food hall – the tiled floors, the columned rooms, the elaborate plaster ceilings. There were no windows, but the lighting was generous and warm. There was nowhere to sit, but I sat all day at work anyway, and there were always enough people to prevent me from feeling conspicuous as I walked around.

One lunchtime I was waiting at the fruit counter when someone beside me said, ‘Hey.’ I looked up. The voice belonged to Tony, our floor manager. I had never spoken to him before. He was a tall, skinny man who always wore the same loose-fitting suit. He had a walkie-talkie clipped to his trousers and thick, slicked-back hair. Sometimes I saw him conferring with the white-shirted security men. I don’t think he liked Rory, he rarely came into our section. But I saw him in the distance sometimes, talking to an outraged customer. Women in particular became angry very easily, and it was his job to soothe them and make them want to come back.

He had a gentle Cockney voice and quite a large mouth. He grinned at me. ‘Hungry?’ he said.

I blushed and blushed.

‘Seen you in here before. This lady was first,’ he said to the woman behind the counter.

‘No, you go,’  I said, stepping back so fast I trod on someone’s toes. ‘I was just looking.’


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A quickie on Julie/Julia

October 27, 2009

Yesterday the Empress, the Parsnip Princess and I went to see the Meryl movie, Julie & Julia. And loved it, as anticipated. That Julia Child was a woman of appetites, if this film is any kind of a biopic. We left the cinema drooling and wanting boned duck stuffed with pate and cooked in pastry for dinner.

And the other thing we all seized upon was that despite eating their body weight in butter each day, smoking and drinking and generally having a high old time of it, Julia Child and her husband Paul lived to the ages of 91 and 92 respectively. Don’t you love those stats?

The Empress declares this one more piece of evidence for her theory that home cooking (i.e. good home cooking, with fresh, varied, unprocessed food) is the key to a long and healthy life (hmm, I won’t mention my own parents and their early deaths despite lifelong home cooking here – except to remark that to my mind, their growing up in postwar England did not equate to being reared on good food!) .

My last word on the Julie/Julia phenomenon is to point you to By Designa terrific Radio National program my friend Mark Wakely produces, hosted by Alan Saunders – and the fact that years ago, long before Hollywood found Julie Powell, RN interviewed her about the blog that led to this whole hullabaloo.

By Design just replayed the interview this month, and it’s great – she talks about the actual cooking, and how she went about working her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking (and the strange fact of her having never eaten an egg until the age of 29!) Listen to the interview on By Design’s website here.

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Sibling chivalry!

October 6, 2009

2008_Siblings_Sauvignon_Blanc_Semillon_FRONT_LABEL_(WEB)A quick cheerio to Leeuwin Estate Wines, for generously agreeing to send some of their delicious Madge River Siblings Sauvignon Blanc Semillon our way for the launch of our new anthology, Brothers & Sisters. A cut above the usual book launch wine, I think you’ll agree – and so beautifully apt! Yay Leeuwin Estate. And I have just noticed that this match was meant to be – the Siblings label colours even match our cover!

The launch is on November 10 at my favourite bookshop and local, Better Read than Dead in Newtown, Sydney – so you must all come along.

brothers&sistersPS: Today is an exciting one for other reasons too – we have been sent a copy of B&S‘s  first review, to appear in next month’s Australian Bookseller & Publisher mag, and it’s a cracker!

Can’t say too much as it’s not out yet, but an esteemed reviewer says of our short stories:

“It’s a measure of the strength of the form, and of the calibre of contemporary Australian writers using it, that the writing is keen, sharp and challenging.”

I’ll drink to that – off to buy some Siblings SBS to do it with.

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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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More writing on food

September 21, 2009

My thanks to my friend Eileen, for alerting me to this meaty segment on writing about food from ABC Radio National’s Book Show. More surprising than I had expected, it’s a nice energetic discussion on fictional, poetic and other writerly food between Stephanie Alexander (whose new book The Kitchen Garden Companion I absolutely lust after), John Newton and Gay Bilson with Ramona Koval.

Gay Bilson is particularly literate, erudite and thoughtful. She’s a very interesting woman, I think, given her stepping away from her massive success as a restaurateur (Berowra Waters Inn, etc) into a more reflective, quieter and far more ascetic sort of life these days. As a result of this interview I shall be seeking out her own books, Plenty and On Digestion. She also writes for The Monthly, and has a strangely moving piece in this month’s issue about organ donation which begins by evoking mushroom harvesting. She is intriguing, I reckon.

The beloved MFK Fisher comes in for a surprisingly acerbic serve from both Gay Bilson, who says Fisher’s writing is self-regarding and “makes my toes curl” and Stephanie, who calls her writing mannered and says she gets the feeling of indigestion from Fisher! A good lively, highly literate discussion all round, liberally sprinkled with food quotes from Sybil Bedford, Hemingway, Ian McEwan, Henry James, Lawrence Durrell, Anita Brookner, Frank Moorhouse and invoking The Magic Pudding, Enid Blyton and lots more.

Download it or listen online here.

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Back to the books

August 30, 2009

booksFurther to our very satisfying natter about cookbooks a couple of weeks back, I have now obtained the Empress’s informative and amusing cookbook manifesto, first published a few years ago in Good Reading magazine, and it’s available here as a quick PDF file (will also pop it on the Writing on food page for easy access later). It’s a lovely piece of writing about Steph’s favourite books for recipes, travelogues, pictures and entertainment …

A taste:

I’ve never actually cooked anything out of The Taste of France based on a Sunday Times magazine series from 1983 because the food all looks a bit dark and the layout’s confusing. But the photo of a chipped pottery bowl filled with three kinds of wild mushrooms, five eggs still in their shells and an old wooden spoon holding sea salt, ground pepper and garlic cloves is fantastic. It doesn’t immediately make me want to make scrambled eggs with mushrooms but it does make me want to rent an old house in the Auvergne, in October (mushroom season), shop at the markets for my eggs and butter and then make the recipe. It’s just something a white-styled Donna Hay book can’t do.


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Eat her words…

August 12, 2009

eating booksJust listened to the good ol’ Book Show on Radio National, to a piece I missed a little while back with Helen Greenwood, a very experienced food writer who, among her other many gigs, apparently  teaches workshops in writing about food. I’ve actually been toying with the idea of having a crack at teaching such a workshop myself (about food in fiction, only), but from what I hear Ms Greenwood probably does it better. In this interview Helen pretty much covers what is so riveting about grub – not just the eating, but its tendrils into everything else that’s important: history, art, culture, medicine, love, conflict, ethics, death, emotion, memory … no wonder what’s on the plate is so endlessly interesting to mind, body and soul.

Anyway, check out the audio of Helen Greenwood’s interview here – and as I twirled around the net after Ms Greenwood, I came across another good bit of her work here, in a review* she did quite a while back for the SMH of  a brilliant-sounding anthology of food writing, rather boringly titled Choice Cuts: A Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History. But though the title may be dull as dishwater, the book itself sounds excellent – one for the Christmas list I say, if it’s still around.

*I have to say the first line of this review, where Ms G takes anthology editors gently to task, gave me a leetle shiver; ours is out in November and I’m the editor who might be copping it –  yeek… but you know what? I don’t reckon I will. Because the stories in our book, Brothers & Sisters, are fricking gold. Take one Nam Le, mix with one Cate Kennedy, one Tegan Bennett Daylight and a Christos Tsiolkas, and blend with one Robert Drewe, a Roger McDonald, an Ash Hay, a Tony Birch, an slug of newness a la Virginia Peters & Michael Sala, rounding off with a sprinkle of One, and I say that is one impeccable recipe. Oh, how a metaphor can be stretched and mangled. Believe me, though – unlike this blather of mine, the book is a cracker.

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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!


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Family lunch, Franzen style…

July 28, 2009

correctionsI’ve just taken Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections down from the shelf, again, because I’m at a reading loss, with nothing good enough to replace The Line of Beauty coming my way yet (suggestions, anyone?).

Tried earlier today to buy Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, as my writing pal E showed me a bit of it last night, and lordy that woman can write. But no joy in the shop.

Anyway, I have once again come across this superb mealtime encounter between abrasive Denise, a chef, and her ageing parents Enid and Alfred.

It starts with Enid’s description of a lavish party.

“The desserts were a foot tall!” Enid said, her instincts having told her that Denise didn’t care about pyramids of shrimp. “It was elegant, elegant. Have you ever seen anything like that?”

“I’m sure it was very nice,” Denise said.

“The Dribletts really do things super-deluxe. I’d never seen a dessert that tall. Have you?”

The subtle signs that Denise was exercising patience – the slightly deeper breaths she took, the soundless way she set her fork down on her plate and took a sip of wine and set the glass back down – were more hurtful to Enid than a violent explosion.

“I’ve seen tall desserts,” Denise said.

“Are they tremendously difficult to make?”

Denise folded her hands in her lap and exhaled slowly. “It sounds like a great party. I’m glad you had fun.”

Enid had, true enough, had fun at Dean and Trish’s party, and she’d wished that Denise had been there to see for herself how elegant it was. At the same time, she was afraid that Denise would not have found the party elegant at all, that Denise would have picked apart its specialness until there was nothing left but ordinariness. Her daughter’s taste was a dark spot in Enid’s vision, a hole in her experience through which her own pleasures were forever threatening to leak and dissipate.

“I guess there’s no accounting for tastes,” she said.

“That’s true,” Denise said. “Although some tastes are better than others.”

Alfred had bent low over his plate to ensure that any salmon or haricots verts that fell from his fork would land on china. But he was listening. He said, “Enough.”

“That’s what everybody thinks,” Enid said. “Everybody thinks their taste is the best.”

“But most people are wrong,” Denise said.

“Everybody’s entitled to their own taste,” Enid said. “Everybody gets one vote in this country.”

“Unfortunately!”

“Enough,” Alfred said to Denise. “You’ll never win.”

“You sound like a snob,” said Enid.

“Mother, you’re always telling me how much you like a good home-cooked meal. Well, that’s what I like, too. I think there’s a kind of Disney vulgarity in a foot-tall dessert. You are a better cook than–“

“Oh, no.” Enid shook her head. “I’m a nothing cook.”

“That’s not true at all! Where do you think I–“

“Not from me,” Enid interrupted. “I don’t know where my children got their talents. But not from me. I’m a nothing as a cook. A big nothing.” (How strangely good it felt to say this! It was like putting scalding water on a poison-ivy rash.)

Denise straightened her back and raised her glass. Enid, who all her life had been helpless not to observe the goings-on on other people’s plates, had watched Denise take a three-bite portion of salmon, a small helping of salad, and a crust of bread. The size of each was a reproach to the size of Enid’s. Now Denise’s plate was empty and she hadn’t taken seconds of anything.

“Is that all you’re going to eat?” Enid said.

“Yes. That was my lunch.”

“You’ve lost weight.”

“In fact not.”

“Well, don’t lose any more,” Enid said with the skimpy laugh with which she tried to hide large feelings.

Alfred was guiding a forkful of salmon and sorrel sauce to his mouth. The food dropped off his fork and broke into violently shaped pieces.


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Mark Strand’s Eating Poetry

July 22, 2009

Today I came across this, by an American poet called Mark Strand who, in my vast ignorance, I had never heard of.  I love this poem, despite not really understanding, or being able to say why it takes me ….


Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

It is from his Selected Poems – and there’s more about Mark Strand and his poetry here and here.  Turns out my ignorance is even greater than I thought – he has been a Pulitzer winner as well as American Poet Laureate, and very distinguished all in all. I am going to buy one of his books now, in the hope he doesn’t mind my reproduction of his strange and disturbingly beautiful poem here.