Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

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Food & friendship: on Crossing to Safety

February 1, 2010

‘The expression of a civilised cuisine’

It’s been a while since I posted any fictional food, and this morning trawling through my bookshelves for readerlyinspiration I found Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. This novel (introduced to me, incidentally, by the Parsnip Princess) is One of Those Books – it will remain one of my favourites for ever, I think. It’s about a lifelong friendship between two couples, and the dominance of one charismatic, exceptional, difficult woman over all four individuals. Very little has been written about this kind of complex, meandering, intense friendship, so the subject in itself is a fine thing. But the finest thing is the writing. I love this book.

Here are new arrivals Larry and Sally going to Sid and Charity Lang’s place for the first time.

I have heard of people’s lives being changed by a dramatic or traumatic event – a death, a divorce, a winning lottery ticket, a failed exam. I never heard of anybody’s life but ours being changed by a dinner party.

We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe. We wandered into their orderly Newtonian universe, a couple of asteroids, and they captured us with their gravitational pull and made moons of us and fixed us in orbit around themselves.

What the disorderly crave above everything else is order, what the dislocated aspire to is location. Reading my way out of disaster in the Berkeley library, I had run into Henry Adams. ‘Chaos,’ he told me, ‘is the law of nature; order is the dream of man.’ No-one had ever put my life to me with such precision, and when I read the passage to Sally, she heard it in the same way I did. Because of her mother’s uncertain profession, early divorce, and early death, she had first been dragged around and farmed out, and later deposited in the care of overburdened relatives. I had lost my security, she had never had any. Both of us were peculiarly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and their hearts to us, we crept gratefully in.

Crept? Rushed. Coming from meagerness and low expectations, we felt their friendship as freezing travelers feel a dry room and a fire. Crowded in, rubbing our hands with satisfaction, and were never the same thereafter. Thought better of ourselves, thought better of the world.

In its details, that dinner party was not greatly different from hundreds we have enjoyed since. We drank, largely and with a recklessness born of inexperience. We ate, and well, but who remembers what? Chicken kiev, saltimbocca, escallope de veau, whatever it was, it was the expression of a civilised cuisine, as far above our usual fare as manna is above a baked potato. A pretty table was part of it, too – flowers, wine in fragile glasses, silver whose weight was a satisfaction in the hand. But the heart of it was the two people who had prepared the occasion, apparently just to show their enthusiasm for Sally and me.


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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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A case of the busies

November 6, 2009

Brothers & Sisters coverI’m sad to say I have done barely any cooking this week and think it unlikely to be doing much in the week or so; I’m afraid it may be rather quiet round here for a little while.

This week I have had the busies, with lots of  promotion in progress for our new book Brothers & Sisters – preparing for the forthcoming panel at the Newtown Festival this Sunday, then the Sydney launch on Tuesday, another in the Blue Mountains on Thursday, plus the odd interview like this one here with Radio National’s The Book Show earlier this week.

Now this is clearly a load of completely shameless self-promotion, but I figured if you can’t do it on your own blog …

However, I have lots to talk about soon from devils on horseback to the contrast between dried & fresh herbs and when to use which – not to mention a revisit of my spud farm (Jamie, I’m in trouble …) and the herb garden finally coming along  – so please don’t go away! See you back here for actual foodie natterings very soon …

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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.