Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

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Cate Kennedy’s new shoots

July 21, 2009

garliccateAs I’ve said before, Cate Kennedy has a new book coming out soon. It’s a novel, and I keep hearing from advance readers (those folks who get to snaffle up the advance copies of books that are sent out to bookshops, media and so on before they are actually in the shops) that it is a right cracker. Cate is well known as a short story writer of particular note, and her collection Dark Roots was widely acclaimed a couple of years back.

So I can’t wait to read this novel of hers, called The World Beneath, but I, like you, will  have to wait till September to do so.

(Incidentally, Cate’s publisher is one of the great Oz independents – Scribe, which is doing excellent things with Australian fiction and particularly short fiction. Another of Scribe’s books to get your mitts on very soon is newcomer Patrick Cullen’s short story collection, What Came Between, out in August. He has been well published in anthologies for years, but this is Patrick’s first solo collection, and it’s bound to be good.)

But back to Cate. Apart from her writing (did I mention her amazing story for our Brothers & Sisters story collection, out in November?) she is a primary producer of another sort – garlic. A few weeks ago I got the lovely surprise of a heap of baby garlic in the post, sent by Cate after reading of my garlic-growing anxiety here ( I killed the other one, by the way).

Since then I’ve potted the bub bulbs into these peat pots, and as soon as the painters finish the frame of the bathroom window, directly above my new herb bed, these will go into the bed too. It’s the only spot in the garden that gets year-round sun, although only for a few hours a day in winter. Come summer though, that spot will be hot hot hot and perfect for herbs and, I hope, the garlic. So here’s to Cate, her Dark Roots and her New Shoots.

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Class act: Alan Hollinghurst’s venison

July 13, 2009

The Line of BeautyI’m loving The Line of Beauty, immersing myself in it at last after having avoided it for years because of Booker hype (how many of us, do you think, are turned off rather than on to a book by literary prize hoohaa?). But I’m having that thrill of discovery of a writer one instantly loves, knowing there are more of the author’s books lining up after this one to be enjoyed.

I so admire Hollinghurst’s psychological precision and the superfine texture of every passing moment. Tricky to pull off for long without making the prose drag, but right now it’s making me see how lumpen and heavyhanded are my own clumpings through scenes, and is particularly instructive for the novel I’m working on at the moment, which I now realise demands a much, much finer net in which to haul along its catch, if that makes any sense at all.

Anyway, of course this novel is all about class, being set in Thatcher’s England, when the young protagonist Nick is coming gloriously, though secretively, into his new love life as a gay man. He’s staying with family of his old Oxford friend Toby Fedden, Toby’s father being the up-and-coming parliamentarian Gerald. I am only a quarter of the way in, so have no idea what’s to come, but am loving the writing itself so much that I hope it takes a long time to unfold. But as Nick’s ultra-rich Tory hosts aren’t entirely aware that he’s gay, and his lover Leo is black and working class, I predict trouble at mill.

Last night I came to this passage about a long, ghastly dinner party full of homophobic old politicians, uptight matrons and pretentious upper-class claptrap. The beast in question comes from a family estate, prepared by the family’s ‘help’, Elena, in the afternoon and then served at dinner by pompous Gerald.

Elena hurried in from the pantry with the joint, or limb, of venison, plastered up in a blood-stained paste of flour and water. The whole business of the deer, culled at Hawkeswood each September and sent to hang for a fortnight in the  Feddens’ utility room, was an ordeal for Elena, and an easy triumph for Gerald, who always fixed a series of dinner parties to advertise and eat it. Elena set the heavy dish on the table just as Catherine came down from her room, with her hands held up like blinkers to avoid the sight. ‘Mm – look at that, Cat!’ said Badger.

‘Fortunately I won’t even have to look at you eating it,’ said Catherine; though she did quickly peer at it with a kind of relish of revulsion.

…. [later]

When the venison came in Gerald yapped, ‘Don’t touch the plates! Don’t touch the plates!’ so that it sounded as though something had gone wrong. ‘They have to be white hot for the venison.’  The fact was that the fat congealed revoltingly if the plates were less then scorching. ‘Yes, my brother-in-law has a deer park,’ he explained to Morden Lipscomb. ‘A rare enough amenity these days.’  The guests looked humbly at their helpings. ‘No,’ Gerald went on, in his bristling way of answering questions he wished someone had asked, ‘this is buck venison … comes into season before the doe, and very much superior.’  He went round with the burgundy himself. ‘I think you’ll like this,’ he said to Barry Groom, and Barry sniffed at it testily, as if he knew he was thought to have more money than taste.

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Disdain, rebellion & pork in milk: how Elizabeth David changed my life

July 2, 2009

elizabethdavidbookThis week’s Guardian has a nice little piece about the spiteful annotations made by Elizabeth David on other people’s cookbooks. Irresistible, no?

I have an abiding love of Elizabeth David which is only tangentially to do with her cookbooks. The first time I ever heard of her was when I went to my university art teacher’s house for lunch, where his spiky, intelligent and beautiful wife cooked something rustic, garlicky, slow-cooked and to me, delicious in an unearthly way. I had never eaten food like it.

It seemed to me that day, sitting in that rambling country house full of Norman Lindsay paintings and art books and warm-toned, casually handled antiques, talking of art and books and garden-grown food and life, that this smell, this dish, this way of eating was somehow a portal into an entirely new creative life, a simpler-but-richer way of living than I had ever known existed, or aspired to. I was right, I think.

It’s not that my own upbringing was lacking in creativity – quite the opposite; I had a talented father who made half the furniture in the house as well as beautiful, ethereal costumes for school plays and other things, and a florist mother who routinely created beauty in small ways around our house (I have written about them here) – it’s just that food was never really a part of that creativity. Food, for my beleaguered mother, was a matter of filling up seven hungry stomachs every day in the most efficient and responsible way possible before escaping out into her beloved garden. The cooking got done out of love, but I don’t think she really ever enjoyed it. And who on earth could blame her?

But the food I ate at my painting & drawing teacher’s house that lunch time, I intuited, was somehow to do with art, not separate from it. It seemed to draw the very art from the walls, and the garden and the furniture and the conversation of that day, into one living whole. In an unspoken and completely unpretentious way, it seemed to somehow feed not only the physical but the artistic selves of these people.

I think the dish my teacher’s wife (who later became a friend too) cooked that day was Maiale Al Latte, or pork cooked in milk – I remember it because I found the idea of cooking meat milk completely astounding – and when I asked about it, the elegant chef said it was “just an old Elizabeth David thing”. I feigned familiarity with this person. Ah, I said, and nodded. And noted the words Elizabeth David, Elizabeth David, in my head.

A short time later, in a local op shop, I came across my first copy of Elizabeth David’s little Penguin paperback, A Book of Mediterranean Food. It was destiny. I took the book home and began cooking boeuf en daube a la nicoise and soupe au pistou for my uni flatmates, and began to fall in love with cooking.

I still have this book (that’s it, above) even though the pages have fallen out and the cover is ragged. I bought a new hardback version a few years ago, but I can’t let go of this one for sentimental reasons. Even though I only ever cooked a few things from it, and never have properly read David’s musings and impressions, this book seems deeply emblematic to me, in the way objects can represent those moments one has, as a young person, when you find a way of becoming your real self – that person you want to be. I treasure it still for that reason.

I know there are plenty of Elizabeth David fetishists out there, and I suppose I am one of them.

I absolutely loved, for example, that brilliant television biopic screened here last year, Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes, not because it was an accurate portrayal – which those who know their stuff about her tell me it absolutely wasn’t, omitting any mention of her elite Tory childhood and patrician ways, for example – but because it was a film about the creative struggle, and about abundance in the midst of postwar miserliness, and saying yes to personal freedom in spite of society’s disapproval. And the price paid for all those things.

(As an aside, any writer who’s ever done a bookshop or library reading to an audience of four, two of whom are asleep and one of whom berates one for using, on page seventy-two, the word ‘squashed’ when they themselves would have chosen ‘crunched’, should clasp to their bosom the scene in this film when cookery writer ED goes to address a Women’s Insitute meeting. Priceless).

Anyway, back to the Guardian piece: apparently her archive of personal papers shows that Elizabeth was a right snidey-pants about other people’s cookbooks and recipes (and even the illustrator of her own books), keeping notes on their faults.

There’s a light dusting of yellow stickies with general comments to set the tone: “p166 This is NOT a tian [a Provencal mixed-vegetable gratin]”; “This is a useless book”; and “Chocolate in the Renaissance?” There are comments that should be engraved on every modern food writer’s heart: “Why say crispy when crisp is more expressive?”

Then, suddenly, you find yourself deep in sedition and heresy. Inside a copy of The Cooking of Italy (1969) by an American journalist Waverley Root: “Waverley Root is a pitiful phoney.”

On the legendary 1969 French book Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point, regarded by a generation of chefs as the bible of modern cuisine: “This is a really awful book.”

In a carbon copy of a private letter dated October 1983: “I have to tell you that really I never did care very much for the John Minton illustrations for my books. They are so cluttered and messy. They embarrass me now as much as they did in 1950.”

On a copy of Full and Plenty, a mercifully forgotten volume by Maura Laverty: “The kind of pretentious rubbish that has brought French cooking into disrepute as a snob’s preserve.”

Perhaps she was a vindictive snob, but who cares? These are personal papers, not published remarks (until now!). Or perhaps she was right. Regardless, I’ll always be grateful for whatever spirit of rebellion or snobbery (along with, doubtless, the Tory money) sent her from England to the Continent, into and out of her miserable affairs and her drinking and her stroke. And I’ll be grateful too, for what many have seen as her unforgivable disdain for the lives of ordinary Britons, because a generation and a lot of geography later, it was that same rebellion and disdain that made an everlasting difference to my very ordinary life.

So tell me, did you ever have a small but transformative culinary moment like mine? And which was the cookbook that changed your life?

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Moore fictional food from Lorrie

June 20, 2009

like life lorrieAnother taste of food-in-fiction from the superlative Lorrie Moore, still from this old collection Like Life.

This from a story called Joy, where Jane works in a midwestern shopping mall, in a cheese shop called Swedish Isle. Her job is to proffer samples of cheese spreads and dips on crackers out in front of the shop.

She liked the customer contact. “Care to try our chive-dill today?” she would ask brightly. She felt like Molly Malone, only friendlier and no cockles or mussels; no real seafood for miles. This was the deep Midwest. Meat sections in the grocery stores read: BEEF, PORK, and FISH STICKS.

“Free?” people would ask and pick up a cracker or a bread square from her plastic tray.

“Sure is.” She would smile and watch their faces as they chewed. If it was a man she thought was handsome, she’d say, “No. A million dollars,” and then giggle in the smallest, happiest way. Sometimes the beggars – lost old hippies and mall musicians- would come in and line up, and she would feed them all, like Dorothy Day in a soup kitchen.

Jane runs into an old high school friend in the mall.

“Bridey, you look great. What have you been up to?” It seemed a ridiculous question to ask of someone you hadn’t seen since high school, but there it was.

“Well, last year I fell madly in love,” Bridey said with great pride. This clearly was on the top of her list, and her voice suggested it was a long list. “And we got married, and we moved back to town after roughing it on the South Side of Chicago since forever. It’s great to be back here, I can tell you.” Bridey helped herself to a cheddar sample and then another one. The cheese in her mouth stuck between her front teeth in a pasty, yellowish mortar, and when she swallowed and smiled back at Jane, well, again, there it was, like something unfortunate but necessary.

At the end, Jane’s colleague Heffie quits work at the shop, “but the day she did she brought in a bottle of champagne, and she and Jane drank it right there on the job”.

They poured it into Styrofoam cups and sipped it, crouching behind the deli case, craning their necks occasionally to make sure no customers had wandered in.

“To our little lives,” toasted Heffie.

“On the prairie,” added Jane. The champagne fizzed against the roof of her mouth. She warmed it there, washing it around, until it flattened, gliding down her throat, a heated, sweet water.

She and Heffie opened a jar of herring in a cream sauce, which had a messily torn label. They dug their fingers in and ate. They sang a couple of Christmas carols they both knew, and sang them badly.

Inside the deli case, the dry moons of the cheeses and the mucky spreads usual plastic tags: HELLO MY NAME IS. Jane reached in and plucked out one that said, HELLO MY NAME IS Swiss Almond Whip.

Here,” she said to Heffie. “This is for you.” Heffie laughed, gravelly and loud, then took the tag and stuck it in one of her barrettes, up near the front, where the hair was vanishing, and the deforested scalp shone back in surprise, pale but constant, beneath.

Long extract, I know, but I couldn’t resist.

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Loved letters

June 3, 2009

sylviaHave just picked up, once again, the book of gorgeous letters between the writers Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, The Element of Lavishness.  

It is one of my favourite, favourite books – forty years of correspondence between Warner, in England, and Maxwell, in the US, which began when Maxwell was fiction editor at The New Yorker, and they corresponded over her stories. But they soon became everlasting friends. 

As I’ve said here before, one of the things I love about letters as opposed to biographies is their discursive intimacy and their domesticity … which of course includes lots of fleeting references to food, often more enjoyable for the fact they are throwaway remarks, yet so well written.

Here’s Sylvia on ice cream:

We make a wonderful variety with blackcurrant jelly, it is a deep vicious mauve, the exact shade I used to see on highclass fallen women when I was young. I notice the recognising and awed start of recognition in any one of my generation to whom we offer our blackcurrant ice.

Shop ones here have air pumped into them, and are like ectoplasmic cream, and very nasty. 

And decades later, in response to the news that she’d been elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters:

I am really extremely pleased and set-up and cockahoop, and was on the brink of telling the butcher about it, since he happened to be the first foot to my honours; but he was busy tieing up a round of beef for Mrs Lamasys.

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A party piece

June 1, 2009

In honour of the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in some time – Gatz, the amazing reading / performance of The Great Gatsby, which I saw at the Sydney Opera House last night – I thought I’d revisit that beloved book here.

Gatz photo by Chris BeirensThe show is hard to describe, but anything that keeps one riveted for seven hours, with only two 15-minute and one 1-hour break, is a feat of wonder. It’s a stunning reading of the entire book by one spectacularly talented chap, Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, along with a supporting cast of 12 including the elusively beautiful Jim Fletcher as Gatsby (pictured). And it’s also got another wordless story running along beneath it, of the futile melancholy of office life – but that is another story. The originality and wit of the direction makes this an inventive, gloriously playful, surprising and – when it should be – desperately sad production.

There will be many who can describe Gatz better than I, so check out the reviews, like this one here. All I can say is a huge thank you to my friend Bec for taking me. It was a wonder. And one of the best things was its reminding me how beautiful is the writing in The Great Gatsby, so here is some for you. Surely no party since this was written has ever lived up to one of Gatsby’s wondrous soirees.  

There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In the blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On weekends his Rolls Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough coloured lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oevre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.

And when we came out, the sails of the Opera House were all lit up like a strange blue underwater garden. Seemed so apt, somehow, and made our night.

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Christian Lander in Newtown

May 28, 2009

landerDespite my admiration for Christian Lander and his Stuff White People Like I somehow failed to see him at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, even when he was appearing at the New Theatre, about five blocks from my house.

Luckily, that appearance is now available on Slow TV. It’s a two-parter; the first part is quite entertaining but largely about his astronomical 12-month rise to fame and the celebrities who now love him, which he’s very starry-eyed about so it gets a bit tedious.

But the second half, which I’m linking to here, is sharp and funny, like the work itself. 

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Quote of the week

May 16, 2009

mfk fisherOne of the reasons I love this blog is that you folks keep leading me to new discoveries I would never have found otherwise – like Hughesy’s and the Empress’s references to MFK Fisher, author of How to Cook a Wolf and Consider the Oyster, both of which I’m now on the hunt for.

Anyway, a little zip around the net looking for Ms Fisher revealed this lovely remark of hers, after the deaths of her beloved brother and husband within a few months of one another. As I’m reading a lot of books about bereavement at the moment for the Sydney Writers’ Festival next week, this quote struck me with particular force.

“One has to live, you know. You can’t just die from grief or anything. You don’t die. You might as well eat well, have a good glass of wine, a good tomato.”   

– MFK Fisher 

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Meals as emblems

April 22, 2009

waitingroomTwice in two weeks I have heard public readings from Gabrielle Carey’s new memoir, Waiting Room, about her mother Joan. Once was at the launch, and today was at Caroline Jones’ talk about her own new memoir about her dad, Through a Glass Darkly: A Journey Of Love And Grief With My Father.

Both memoirs are about an adult ‘child’ dealing with the illness of a strong-minded, forceful parent, and the unexpected grief that results. And both readings from Waiting Room – one from Gabrielle herself, the other from Jones apropos of her own strange adventures in grief and bereavement – were about food.

I was struck by these choices – the same passage, about  the kitchen, and I realised that some of the strongest writing in Waiting Room plays out in domestic duties, and in the inheritance of those routines of the kitchen, seemingly so commonplace, yet so resonant with symbolism. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Voyage round Fenella’s kitchen

April 15, 2009

peter-jugs-bowl1A couple of years ago I read a wonderful feature in the Good Weekend about cooking – it seemed to capture everything I felt about the pleasures of cooking – aside from the actual eating, that is!

The article, Voyage Round my Kitchen was by one of that mag’s star writers, Fenella Souter, and she has very kindly given me permission to reproduce it here. It’s a witty, moving and beautifully written exploration of the pleasures and consolations of cooking, and as a piece of food writing it’s gloriously untainted by the stink of fashion or snobbery or celebrity – depressingly common in Australian food writing I reckon (the Empress’s regular SMH Three of a Kind column excepted, I hasten to add!). The article is in a PDF file here that takes a little while to download, but be patient, it’s worth it.

A little taste:

As anyone who likes to cook knows, the kitchen is full of therapeutic pleasures. The familiar swift and competent movements of hand and knife; the invigorating beauty of a group of plump aubergines or elegant artichokes or voluptuous yellow quinces; the reassuring smell of frying onions or the yearning fragrance of poached peaches; the zen-like calm that descends as the cook oversees some delicate operation, for nothing focuses the mind like watching a custard thicken or caramel brown; the feeling of accomplishment, indeed of love, when all is done and the meal is laid on the table for the pleasure of others, or oneself.

I realise I’m painting a rather rosy picture here – relieved of such kitchen staples as boredom and resentment, griping children, grated fingers and burnt potatoes – but you get the drift. While cooking is not principally a cure for misery, it can cheer you up wonderfully. The Joy of Sex was a bestseller, but so was The Joy of Cooking. Ideally, one experiences both, but we may have underestimated the second as a helpful tool in life and marriage, even if the first is lacking. It’s surprising the subject doesn’t come up more in marriage counselling.

There’s lots more – just read it. You’ll love it.