Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Sitting In - The Next Big Thing

Last night I was at the final 2015 'Next Big Thing' at The Wheeler Centre. After weeks, no months really, of not writing much and fighting it with prompts and recriminations, listening to these five writers seems to have been the restorative that I needed.

While outside a spring northerly picked up to almost 100 kmh, listeners, actors, family members and friends were crowded into the front room in The Moat. Each work, and writer, is very different, but the one that got me thinking and had me scribbling at 5.30 this morning was Sam van Zweeden, reading from her project, 'Eating With My Mouth Open'.

Exploring the relationship between food and memory, from both a personal and investigative approach, Sam shared some of her intelligent and honest stories. She's weaving research into her reflections and making a beautiful collection, one I hope that we'll all hear more from soon.

Today I've been thinking about my own food memories.

My grandma is jersey caramels and butterfly cakes - also Promite on Sao biscuits, but I think of the sweet stuff first - and strawberry Freddos are Sunday mornings sitting in the car wagging youth group. A chicken kiev means birthday dinner in high school when the idea of a curry or a casserole made me gag. So did eggs, silverside and cheese, although I was pretty fond of the old "Toast Hawaii" when mum was tired after a long day at work and a hot drive home in the Torana.

A very dear friend is the first time I had churros con chocolate, in Madrid, and it can never be that amazing again. Wrapping spring rolls in fresh herbs and lettuce sets me on a child's stool travelling on my own in Vietnam in the mid-90s and if I could have another hot poulet baguette on the coast in Wimereux with a glass of sparkling from the Loire I'd be a pretty happy woman.

Most of my food memories are good, until I say that and suddenly think of the cockroach halfway through the tajine in Marrakech, the violent nausea throughout India and the disappointment of my first pub meal in London. I remember an awful plate of squid mess sitting at a table on my own, reading, amongst massive extended families watching football and feasting on shared plates in Monopoli and a dreary selection of cold, pickled items in a dinner buffet in Copenhagen in winter.

What I crave and what I make can show me how I'm feeling - if it's hummus and Vitaweets because I can't be bothered cooking, that might be heading to bad. If it's nachos it's probably not good and if it's nothing, or savoury then sweet then savoury everything, that's definitely a bad sign.

My homemade food doesn't have to be gourmet or take a lot of effort to show me that I'm all right - a simple linguine with garlic, chilli, eggplant and rocket is good; instant miso with fresh ginger and enoki mushrooms? I'm good. Looking up recipes to find something new to make? I'm definitely in good form.

Last year I met my man in a cafe, his cafe, and we've fallen for each other making and sharing many meals. Chilli, hard core chilli in a good Larb Gai will always take me street-side in Thailand with him, with locals looking on and laughing as we sweated and fire-breathed and still spooned on more chilli oil, both of us crying joyful tears, sniffing and coughing, grabbing paper square after paper square to wipe our foreheads and noses, loving being on our first overseas holiday together, speaking our few Thai words and using lots of facial expressions and hand gestures to talk with the women and men who cooked for us, laughed at us and waved to us when we left.

We're going overseas again after Christmas, this time to Malaysia. We've watched Rick Stein in Georgetown and know there'll be plenty of roti and murtabak when we're there and here I am, excited about food, my holiday and, most importantly, about being back at my keyboard.

Last night Sam van Zweeden read stories that are far more insightful and poignant than these few paragraphs and they inspired me. Thanks to Sam I've got my hunger back, just in time: tonight I'm going out for a Vietnamese meal and tomorrow I'm going away for a few days. To write.

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The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship is generously supported by The Readings Foundation.