Every now and then, I find myself in a trough. Not the kind with pigs (even I have some standards). I mean a low where nothing tastes right, where everything you want to eat and even your cravings just aren’t enjoyable. You might be bored, you might be down, you might be exhausted. It happens to everyone at some point in time. For example, I was sick and tired of going to the movies, but then I saw Phantom Thread and my faith was restored. Thanks to three great scenes with toast, asparagus, and an omelette, I could go back to the world of film to say nothing of food. That is because I saw what is possible in art writ large.
I get that way with eating sometimes, and writing on it too, but then you have one meal that makes all the drudgery, all the grey days, all the blandness, fade away. You realise what hunger is, what you have missed, and why food matters. You get your appetite back. And so you write, because that satisfies you too, somewhere in the pit of your stomach.
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. It has always been part of my life and, in that way, it is like food. And there have been milestones along the way, moments in the writing life that are like memorable meals – from my first published poem to book launches. Writing can be good, it can help people and not only oneself. In that way, I aspire to make some of my writing like Food Not Bombs, where I used to volunteer. Helping others helps you too, but sometimes it goes the other way. Sometimes you need mates to pick you up off the floor, and those people matter a lot.
When I was homesick, a long time friend and I cooked a Peking duck in Cambridge where I was spending the week. In a common room at Kings College we marinated, steamed then fried a whole bird, going to great lengths to serve it with buns and greens smothered in hoi sin sauce. He has been with me at other places, for other meals, from spaghetti carbonara in the suburbs of our youth to a Creole degustation in New Orleans, but this duck takes the cake for when you needed to feel okay. The world is a big place, an infinite place with plenty of suffering, but the truth of community and food, the pleasure and joy of art, nature and people, helps one get through.
This feeling is particularly acute during the holidays if you are away from home, family and tradition. At Christmas last year, K and I spent the day in New York - walking through Central Park, then down to watch people ice-skate, but it was a sumptuous Szechuan feast that made me happy to be where I was. While we were dining, I did not think of my family back in Australia even though I care very much for them and wanted to know how they were spending the day. By all reports, the ham was glazed to perfection, the turkey moist, the trifle sweet and sour in equal measure, the pudding moreish, and the wine, beer, spirits flowing over lunch and dinner. The day after, I became quite ill with a heavy cold. What made me feel much better was a present my parents had sent us. It was a voucher to an Upper West Side institution – Zabar’s, which is the world’s greatest deli. It is a cornucopia of delights – olives, cheese, baked goods, fresh pasta, ten types of smoked salmon, all kinds of wonderful treats. And for us, in the week after Christmas away from home, it was a voucher that seemed immeasurably generous. We got pot roasts, pies, latkes, knishes, blintzes, bagels delivered to our door while the snow fell outside. We holed up that week, eating those prepared meals, watching re-runs of old TV on Netflix.
Of course, it is not always like this – sometimes you feel sick eating a whole tub of ice-cream to stop you from crying; at other times, meals that are meant to be excellent can end up disappointing; and then there are those times when food just doesn’t matter, and you are so bored that nothing helps, not even chicken soup for the soul. But, it all comes to pass. Life gets better. We get better. The history of the world is with us and to be reminded of that in every mouthful helps us get up in the morning and go on with living.
I needed a little help recently. I was missing friends and there was no easy answer – they are scattered all over the world and I wanted to see people who had not come to our wedding. That was a fantastic day – sunny and warm, which is so lucky to have in Melbourne. We ate share plates of beetroot and goat’s cheese, chervil salad with Moreton bay bugs, roast lamb, a cheese course, petit fours. The wine was in abundance, the view captivating and everyone was happy to have a long lunch celebrating. Now, a few months later it was winter and we were away from our friends, adjusting to a new reality. To be sure, I was happy, deeply content in a way I had not felt before, but K was heading off to Europe for work and the darkness of winter were getting longer. And then, a mate, just by chance, happened to be heading over to Western Australia. Could he stay for a few days at Redgate? I said, of course, I would love to host.
When people visit us here, we often take them on a tour – caves, forest, beach. And the natural attractions are wonderful, but we are also very proud of the vineyards in the region. When we were kids, we used to go through the bush to the one just behind us, eating grapes and chasing sheep in paddocks on the way. At other times, we went to concerts a few clicks away at Leeuwin Estate, where we have seen everything from opera to folk to pop to rock to blues on a grassy knoll overlooking gum trees that sway with the music.
My friends who were visiting were keen to have lunch out and I took them to my favourite winery, Vasse Felix, which has the oldest vines in the area. The dining room is austere and minimal without being cold or uninviting. The wood panelling is beautifully crafted from local trees endemic to the region and there is a fireplace in the middle of the room that makes the place warm. It is homely and welcoming. Wineries have, of course, become big business as Australia has grown wealthier and concerned with food and beverages. What I get from them is a sense of how to entertain, how to have a good time and relax in a country setting. They are very different from those in Stellenbosch, Napa and across France, which each have their own culture and sensibility. Here, if there is one word to describe that difference, it is sunnier. It is a little lighter, a little brighter, with the grapes drinking in the sun and being a robust contribution to flavour.
On the menu at Vasse, one is likely to read a list of ingredients – emu, yolk, cherry, cornichon; beef, radish, shimeji, marrow; dhufish, pumpkin, pipis, peach. And these are prepared in different ways – sous vide, braised, roast, raw, pan fried, pickled, foamed. What it suggests is openness and an appreciation of the upper middle register of dining out in Australia. This is not an over the top degustation where you are over it by the twenty-second course. Nor is it pub grub that fills you up. This is bourgeois eating, which tastes just as good as the very best yet satisfies like a comfort dish. It finds the path in between, not as a hybrid, as a fusion, but as a synthesis. It learns from both sides and encourages good eating over long lunches that is accentuated by the wine that is grown right here, in terroir you can see and walk through.
This particular time with my friends, who were only visiting for a short time, I thought about how lucky I was that I could live here and show it off. We could participate in a good life, talk and relax, stretch and be inspired to go on with our work precisely because we have community. That feeling of community is the balm to being down, to being in the trough, to not wanting to go on. I have found this with him on many an occasion, due largely to a weekly tennis match we played when we lived in the same city.
That tennis match was a study in bringing people together and while we came for the sport, we also stayed there because we could have a beer and a feed at the club each week. It was always something cheap and simple – a salad, a baked potato, a sausage in white bread. But it gave us points of connection that sustain you, just like food does when you feel like you cannot go on. And he had brought that with him to Western Australia in mid-winter. We walked along the headland, we stoked the fire, we ate very well, we drank whiskey, and I forgot about the dark days, the unsettling dreams, the shadows that everyone has no matter their persuasion. It felt like summer was here and all because you have mates that you can spend time with. And, we joked about who would win the trophy next time we played our own competition – Business vs Poets. I, being on the right side of history, assured him that the Poets would regain the trophy, restoring it to its rightful owners. He laughed, but when he left I knew that I could happily go back to the garden, to swimming in the ocean, to making the fire. And that small visit repaid my faith in eating, cooking and sharing with people who matter.
Food is, of course, a site of emotion – as a creative expression, as a ritual that brings people together, as a tonic for ill. It is not without its pitfalls from guilt to shame to addiction, but in a healthy relationship it can help us find balance, pleasure, strength. And that is one of the great possibilities that comes with visiting wineries, or making a picnic, or getting food delivered to you in a blizzard. It allows us to connect with each other and ourselves in such a way that we can go on. That is what it means to get out of the trough by smelling the salts, the rose and the cheese.