In his essay, ‘Moon Under Water’, George Orwell describes his perfect pub. I am not looking for the perfect pub but the most delicious meal where I live now. When I think about food, I have to think about ideas, stories, ingredients, context as well as taste (balance, uniqueness, flavour).
It is not only that food needs to be yummy, but that it also has to be compelling. That means it has to have a concept, has to have thinking behind it. We cannot theorise every meal as though Jacques Derrida was the first person to enjoy scrambled eggs. Yet some consideration and reflection should go into cooking and eating. It does not make immediate sense to assume that raclette matters in Sydney, or that ramen is best served on a 40 degrees day, unless it is chilled perhaps.
The next part is that we can use it to tell a story. We need to have a good narrative so there is something to talk about – that might be a local yarn in the case of Paul Iskov or a tale of your family’s arrival in Australia but it could just be a retelling of how you battled the crowds to get the best bagels downtown.
From here, you need the right ingredients, which is to say ingredients that make sense in a family resemblance for your dishes. If you know you cannot get excellent uni, then work with what you can. This does not mean we forget what is unique or only forage or only go seasonal. It means that we can respect our ingredients by using them creatively. Sometimes what seems like a constraint can be liberating and from that we can make a whole new taste. Cooking with the ingredients in the pantry means that we get to invent dishes we cannot yet imagine. Sometimes that fails, but sometimes it works incredibly well.
One does not only need to deal with how the meal fits together, but to think about whether it is contextually appropriate. This is not only about pairing wine with cheese, but with the sunlight, the vista, the temperature, the weather, the climate, the people, the occasion, the frame of reference, with ecology and social relations.
And finally, we need to consider taste – what makes it yummy to us? What makes us want more now and into the future? For some people, that might mean they make it hot with chillies, others cannot let go of umami. But I do not mean specific flavours and personal preference. Instead, I mean how do these things sit in your mouth and stomach, how they feel right, what we can intuit even if we cannot quite say why.
From that, you need to balance the idea that your taste suits someone else as well. To make that happen, you need to know their allergies and how to empathise with their love of green jelly. Not everyone is a gourmand every minute of every day. We should avoid a misplaced peanut just like we should riff on someone’s favourite dish next time they come for dinner at our place.
Given that the focus of this blog has mainly been in Australia, it is worth pausing here to think of our place on this continent. With that, it might simply be enough to point out that there are arguments over identity and belonging every January 26th. I for one have been to Invasion Day Protests and to lamb barbeques in the same 24 hours. I understand that people are angry and sad, and not only Indigenous people but those who were forced to leave their homes from convict England and war torn Sudan. To say that does not flatten those differences. But, we have built a remarkable society and we need a day for everyone to embrace. We have made mistakes. And yet, we always get a chance to do what is right. We get tomorrow to make it better. We cannot change the date out of hollow symbolism or because we want to avoid talking about the past. Instead, it offers an opportunity to think about who we are and how we have come so very far.
We need a new date that celebrates something meaningful. To my mind, that day can be in support of a new social contract that leads to a new constitution, which represents a new type of body politic that could also include a universal bill of human rights and a treaty. I do not say this because I think politics has a place in the kitchen. I say this because I want to plan a new meal of celebration. Depending on when it was held would alter what I cooked. In Australia, we could do with a winter feast, a holiday in July so we could roast to our heart’s content while drinking the shiraz, stouts and whiskeys we have become so good at making. Why not change the date to something we can all enjoy and get behind?
My perfect meal would happen down at Redgate. I would have been for a swim in the morning, read during the day, worked on some writing and settled into cooking for my family as the afternoon wore on. On the menu could be saffron marron pie with bush tomato chutney with a salad of saltbush, marigold, spinach followed by a Kakadu plum compote and a cardamom crème Anglaise. Maybe the next year, we could have a kangaroo stew with turmeric rice and minty peas followed by a quandong trifle and lemon kulfi. And, the year after that, pulled mutton on sourdough and wattleseed bread with blue cheese, rocket and honey ants followed by gulab jamun with lemon myrtle pistachios and clotted cream. But those are only half formed ideas of something hearty, welcoming, and symbolic; something that connects me to history, place, and community. Other people will think of other, better things we can all share, together as friends, family, and strangers.
I might have got it wrong, but isn’t the point of food to be inclusive, respectful, and authentic? We can do that and move towards a better society on this continent. That is what makes something delicious. That is what makes my own ‘Moon Under Water’ where you can taste the love if not the secret. Everyone is welcome at my table, everyone can find something to eat that is tasty, everyone can sit down and speak about their day, and what they dream of doing. I do not think it is beyond us. With that, good luck with your own meals of celebration and I look forward to sharing a plate with you one day.