October 2009


Tonight my mind is on a hamster wheel, trying to churn out 10 brilliant ideas at once, but managing only hamster crap. (Why do we call them hamster wheels in Australia when all we have are the slightly chunkier but eminently more edible guinea pigs?)

Reading bits of Julia Powell’s blog on cooking her way through Julia Childs’ recipes and through her abortive, yet peppy life (link is in last post, too lazy to copy & paste…how slack). Can’t help but like her cheery, ne’er give up attitude, whilst simultaneously hating her for being onto a good thing. Talking to my boy on internet chat, hating the pauses between the posts, and finding writing my new novel less interesting than researching it. Promised myself I would not get bogged down in research (not to mention the kind of self-loathing that I always get at the start of a project). Have since become not just bogged, but quagmired. My boy is helpfully supportive. When I type:  perhaps if i beat myself over the head with a cow it will aide my writing or at least my sense of humour? He replies:  you just do what you feel you need to do

I eat reheated chilli con carne for dinner despite having dreamt all day of cooking something crisp, summery and delicious after writing my last post on food writing. Heading away this weekend to pick up my stuff from my parents’ house, so haven’t done much food shopping, and have nothing in fridge because of having just got back from New Zealand.
Oh yes, parents are moving away from the town they lived in for 25 years, and which I grew up in for 19. It’s a betrayal of sorts, and I wonder if the town, the beach, the one hill, will glare at me as I drive back in to my family home for the last time. Or if they will all look a thousand times more beautiful and less hick-ish because they won’t be mine for much longer?

I’ve been thinking about a person’s claim on/attachment to place for the last few weeks. There was one town in New Zealand that I really bonded with, quickly. I fell for it hard, the people, the slow lifestyle, the oily smell of the sheep (though that particular element can be had in roughly 98% of NZ I suppose). I was there for two nights, and by the third morning, I didn’t want to leave. There really wasn’t a lot to do there it being tiny, though to give it its due there was a (very) short strip of delightful shops, not a one of them was uninteresting; there were vineyards, and a lavender farm; it was close to a seal colony, and not too ridiculously far from Wellington. My brief wanderings around the back streets while my travelling companion had her massage, yielded the kind of slow pleasures that I know I love, but can’t get in the city where I live. An old man mowed a huge block of knee high lawn as the sun attempted to stab through the thick shroud of grey cloud. Two old men wearing tweed coats with elbow patches, and pork pie hats (I swear I’m not making this up), stopped in the middle of the traffic-less road as they passed each other, to say hello. Every house was a cottage, and every one had a garden layout that looked like it had come from a House and Garden magazine, and yet was somehow uncontrived. I don’t know why I was so surprised at the way everything grew and grew. They have rain for goodness’ sake.

I digress. We were speaking about claim on place – the kind of claim that makes you belong to the place as much as you belong to it. At this house of my parents I helped shape some of the garden, I watched the trees flower and fruit, and occasionally die, and I knew from the smell of each day what season we were in. I swear on my hamster-crap novel that I can smell the exact day when the season changes there.

My boy and I were lying in bed when we got talking about scent and memory. His friend’s pillow has the same stuffing as his Mum’s, and the combination of sweat and this certain stuffing has a soporific effect on him. My father, when we lived on the one hill in town(before we betrayed that house and garden by leaving it), would always reminisce most about his childhood when our Jasmine vine was flowering – he could dip back into his boyhood when he smelt it. And today I woke up and I could smell the summer storm coming. Without being able to articulate why, I left my windows closed (in case rain came in and wet my precious laptop on which all my hamster-crap novels are stored). For a day I felt like I belonged here – just from that smell and the quick joy of heavy rain in the afternoon.
 I’ve lived in the city for five years now, and I still don’t feel like I belong – not to the land, and the land does not belong to me. My small plot of garden is perpetually dying. Flourescent lights shine into my window at night and keep me awake. I am suspicious when people I don’t know approach me. Yet little bits keep opening themselves up to me: the park at the back of my house; a particular stretch of river that is almost always deserted yet feels safe; an Italian coffee shop shoved without grace into a tight alleyway. God knows why I feel the need to hold land so tightly to me, when I have so many good and wonderful and effervescent friends. I guess it’s my old fallback from nervous schooldays.

This weekend I will get off the hamster wheel, take the four and a half hours drive to contemplate the unfathomable and terrifying future while listening to some zeitgeist music, be the child for the last time in my childhood house, and blurt (with many hand gestures and too many glasses of wine) my New Zealand stories out to my parents, who listen and listen and listen, bless them, as they have always listened to both my brilliant ideas that come effortlessly (and which I am suspicious of – which Muse sends them? And why?) and to my hamster-crap ones.

(Note: if my Muse is reading… please feel free to drop by – there’s some chilli con carne in the fridge)

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Imagine a plate, white – waiting to be filled with seared scallops, or stuffed zucchini flowers, or Salad Caprese. Imagine a page, just as white, waiting to be filled with rich descriptions of these foods…The image is delicious, no?

Julie&JuliaThere has been a proliferation of books recently that divide their attentions between memoir, travel and food writing. Of course the most prominent at the moment is Julie&Julia, the book that is now a film starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. If you love a bit of humour, soul searching and are interested in Julie Powell’s relentless personal challenge to cook her way through a Julia Child cookbook, this is a great book to check out before/after you’ve seen the movie. Julie documented her journey at her blog, which you can check out here: http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/

Under the Tuscan Sun BookI’m currently reading an old, dog-earred copy of Under the Tuscan Sun, which I ‘borrowed’ from a gorgeous farm-stay in New Zealand, and even more than the heady descriptions of drowsy bees in olive groves, and Catholic churches, I love the simple descriptions of food. I’ve always preferred to cook ‘around’ a recipe, changing an ingredient here, and there, until I end up with something very different and not always delicious, but mine. This is why I am enjoying this style of writing so much at the moment. Instead of lists of ingredients, I am presented with a description of the deliciousness of a tomato paired with a local mozzarella, and I can visualize exactly where in Frances Mayes Tuscan Garden the vast basil bushes grow. I seem to learn so much more from these slow nibbles on food literature than I do from prescriptive cookbooks.

Risotto

Food is so evocative of place and time – certainly this is true of Anna Del Conte’s ‘Memoir with Food’ Risotto with Nettles. Born in pre-war Italy, she enjoyed the table delights of her mother and her family cook’s invention. When war came to Italy, her life turned upside down, until finally, she was able to escape to England. Her memories of the tiem are vividly, hilariously preserved – from the joys of unrationed horse-meat to tomato soup at Lyons Corner House. Her Italian cook books were hugely influential in bringing Mediterranean food to Britain.  I love the way Anna’s passion for food comes through in her writing, “Myriam’s favourite pasta dish, pici alla senese, a Tuscan tagliatelle with a palate-shooting chilli sauce”. What a delicious phrase, ‘palate-shooting’!

matt_preston_ARTWORK:Layout 1

Another brilliant food-writing book that’s come out this month is Cravat-a-Licious by food journalist and judge of MasterChef Australia, Matt Preston. He takes in the history of food, pokes fun at his contemporaries (and himself) in his chapter on ‘Foodie Tribes’, revels in descriptions of unusual delicacies (toffee covered crabs and cow’s foot jelly), and unravels anecdotes like they’re spaghetti and he’s a fork. Though I find it irritating that he features both on the front and back cover of the book, it really is worth checking out – Preston knows what he’s doing, both in the kitchen and on the page, and he does it with wit and panache.

Armed with such wonderful food-writers, what other prospect is there for us all to spend a good wadge of summer consuming their books, and experimenting in the kitchen?