I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Or the next day. Or any of the days allocated to me until my time is up. But no one does, right? No one can count on love to last, or their ship to come in, or on their next breath. I may never stand in the icy wind staring up at the Moais on Easter Island, or feel the growl of Tom Waits as he paces across a stage like a caged lion. I may never hear my own baby bellow as it’s forced out into the uncertain world.
Ah Christmas. Easily summed up in a burst of ‘F’ words: Family. Friends. Festive! Fun. Food. Full. Flatulence. Fights. Fatigue. But mostly, if you’re lucky, food. Every year, as the 20s of December approach, my food memory thrills.
I discovered envy early. Santa had some kind of over-worked, over-tired single parent mix up with the lists and on Christmas morning my brother received the new bike I’d requested, while I unwrapped the Crocodile Mile waterslide he’d asked for. I scrunched up my face, stamped on the spot and flung my arms like noodles before moping around the backyard, muttering about injustice. Eight year old me watched my brother ride circles around the Hills Hoist with a belly full of envy, before making do by gleefully hurling myself down the slippery plastic runway into the jaws of the croc.
My parents met in Greece in the early 70s, two longhaired travellers escaping the static hum of middle class Canada and the hot grind of working class Australia. Both free spirits, one was the resolute black sheep, the other a dimpled and adored daughter. Greece was the start of a journey that took them round and round the world together, then to a quiet corner of New South Wales where they fed their two babies Greek yogurt with honey. The story of my parents’ first meeting is entwined with my mum’s memories of the cool white, drizzled with sticky amber; it’s a fable that binds food, love and romance.
Fear. Anger. Hunger. They all sit, Gollum-like, in the pit of your stomach, clawing at the sides and hissing bile. Wretched, debilitating and nauseating, each selfishly demands the resolute attention of your senses, cells and synapses. Combine the three and you’re basically a hyena. And they all make you do stupid, regrettable things. Like punching someone, or eating a whole box of uncooked dry spaghetti, or weeping quietly and uncontrollably on the bus. In fairness, the dastardly trio can also inspire greatness in their victims: resourcefulness, momentum and mettle.
Perfect in every way… but his last name is Hitler. Do I have to take his name? Yes, you’re Mrs Adam Hitler. I just couldn’t. Perfect in every way… but he’s a heroin dealer. Does he sell it, like, hand it to the junkie, or is he just the boss? He’s the leader of a cartel, super-rich, Colombian. Is he a good dancer? Continue reading
I remember crying as I watched my dad’s figure grow smaller out the window of the coach that took us from his home back to my mum’s. Even if I hadn’t grasped how long it might be until I saw him again, or exactly how nauseating the coach ride would be, or that my brother would vomit (Fanta and a vegetable pastie) on my feet in the last twenty minutes of the journey – seeing the tears in his eyes was enough to set me off. Years later, at the airport as he moved to the other side of the world with his new children, I had to swallow hard to keep my heart and anger down. I couldn’t bear to see them excited at their new life without me, or the tears in my dad’s eyes. Again. So I tossed a ‘bye’ over my shoulder as I walked away. The first time I fell in love I told him in the dark, so I wouldn’t have to see the look in his eyes. He didn’t say it back to me but I said it again anyway, because I knew that I did and had faith that he would. Months later, at the airport saying bon voyage, I hugged him on tippy toes and said ‘I love you’ again, this time into his neck. He squeezed me tighter and repeated the same three words back, for the first time, then went away for three months. Years later, at Ashfield BBQ Korean Restaurant, over bibimbap (me) and sizzling spicy chicken (him), I can look him square in the eye, like with no other person in the world. The bibimbap is a fine balance of its components – garlicky marinated beef, sesame-scented bean sprouts, gochujang, carrot, shitake mushrooms and zucchini, all with a sunnyside egg hat, over white rice. I feebly attempt to pick up every last grain with my chopsticks before reverting to the strangely oversized, and accordingly efficient, spoon. The spicy chicken is the same he orders every visit; the routine gives me confidence that it is good. We sit and eat, picking over the complimentary kimchi and other fermented sides. I want to remind him of the three words he’s said thousands of times in our years together; freely, happily, sweetly and earnestly. I want to hear them again now, and see them in his eyes. I want to whisper them to him with the same faith I had the first time. I want to visit Ashfield BBQ Korean Restaurant with the same regularity he does, but sharing a meal isn’t regular anymore. K-Pop enthusiastically sings and dances its way across the wall-mounted TV set, songs that seem familiar but are in Korean and never could be. Being forced to say goodbye to someone you love is not fair. But maybe it’s a blessing that the soundtrack to my heart breaking is in a language that I don’t understand and won’t remember.
We are what we eat, and what we eat is kind of who we are. A hand of bananas, rib of celery, ear of corn, head of lettuce, mango cheek, heel of bread, kidney bean, artichoke heart, potato eye, a thumb of ginger. And all that we have in common with food becomes more apparent when you consider drunken tofu, sweet and sour pork and the genius that is jerk chicken. We eat when we’re lonely, happy, depressed, in love, hysterical and anxious. I’ve plonked myself down in a chair at the Happy Chef restaurant many times, but am yet to find the Lonely Café, filled, as it would be, with multiple tables for one. Food attaches itself to memories, recalling the best and worst moments without prejudice. The croissant you devour on your first trip to Paris; the meal you bring back up the first time you get drunk; a birthday cake baked by the love of your life; the first dinner you ate together in silence. The amorphous fried pork/steamed prawn/spring roll/duck pancake/chicken feet/mango pancake/sticky rice of Yum Cha is tied up in knots with memories of my favourite people, knockout conversations and best times. My first Yum Cha was at Marigold, with my oldest friend and her father, who has since passed away. He chose wisely, laughed loudly and if I didn’t love every morsel as I do, I’d love it because of that experience alone. I’ve over-ordered, and finished it all, with a new friend who matched me bite-for-bite without judgment or complaint. Then sat with her at the exact same table months later as we both pretended to exercise restraint. I joined in the family feast of my very best friend as she celebrated a special, and secret, milestone. All in that same red-carpeted, white-clothed, gilt-edged, cavernous dining room, with its steaming, rickety trolleys and the irritable ladies pushing them. But I’ll eat Yum Cha anywhere and have eaten no better than the post-flight feast on my first trip to Perth, to celebrate a pal’s engagement. On a lonely Sunday I drive to see an old mate, meet her brand new son, and go out for lunch. We met at work where almost the first words she spoke to me were, ‘I’m not worried, you’re a good writer.’ Those seven words that keep me writing, even on the worst days. Before she was pregnant she’d let me finish anything she was too full to eat; when she was pregnant the scraps and seconds stopped. Now, at her local Grand Lotus Chinese Restaurant, with her tiny, perfect, five-week-young boy asleep in his pram, we sit down for Yum Cha. She orders tea for us both; I order chive and scallop dumplings, pork dim sum, prawn dumplings, Chinese greens, BBQ pork buns, sticky rice, mango pudding and mango pancake ($48.20). For us both. The chow here is hot and fresh, the service brisk and the room small enough to ensure your dumplings don’t circle the floor for an hour. Just like all of our lunches before, she listens to my woes, bolsters my spirits, makes me laugh til I snort and pushes the last prize in the steamer to my side of the table. She’s wise and honest, whip-smart and piss-in-your-pants funny. She is a compassionate listener, the least judgmental advice-giver and now, an outstanding mother. As if there was ever any doubt. Grand Lotus Chinese Restaurant is a fair name, but I’ll always remember this place as Dynamite Friend Yum Cha.
At my eighth birthday party I hid in a tree after a girl mocked me because my nostrils flared when I laughed. At my tenth birthday party my friends had to be collected early when I broke out in hives because I was overwhelmed. At my eleventh birthday party the wafer fence on my Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book swimming pool cake was too close to the candles and set on fire, so I ran away and hid. At my fifteenth birthday party the pig piñata I made out of a papier-mâché covered balloon, to impress my fifteen year old friends, was kicked to smithereens on the floor. On my sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth birthdays I sat waiting by the phone for a call that never came. For my twenty-sixth birthday, I went for dinner at Bodega. We sat in the window and ate pumpkin empanadas, corn tamale, fried cauliflower, silverbeet and chickpea salad, and the banana split. The service was genuine, the food was glorious and the night ended in contentment and stretchy pants. And no visit to Bodega ever falls short; being made to feel welcome, taken care of and part of the family, then leaving stuffed to the gills. I’ve sat outside on the street two hot days before Christmas, sharing a cheese platter that smelled of feet and toasting the season with friends, escaped from a boring party to hang out, eat and talk shit about the boring party, celebrated with old friends and minded my manners with new friends – all in the company of that glorious food. At Bodega’s seventh birthday, on an icy August night, they presented eleven of their iconic dishes: morcilla with apple and radish salad (2006); bacalao stuffed piquillo peppers with salsa verde (2006); steamed milk bun, BBQ tongue, crab and salsa golf (2012 – 13); hiramasa fish fingers on charred toast, cuttlesfish ceviche and mojama (2007 – 13); scallops and morcilla with braised cabbage, pickled cauliflower and tahini sandwich (2009 – 13); buttermilk pancake, salt cod, 62˚ egg and smoked maple butter (2012 – 13); pork and sweetbread cabbage rolls with verjus, muscat grapes and olives (2008); fried cauliflower, silverbeet and chickpea salad (2006 – 2012); Suffolk lamb, eggplant and “Kenjisan” roasted miso paste (2009); chocolate yogo, Earl Grey tea ice cream and Dulce de Leche (2007); the banana split (2007 – 13). The service is still genuine, the food still glorious and the night ended with a lady relieving herself on the floor outside the bathroom – proof that even the best birthday party can end badly, but you’ll always leave Bodega contented.
Everyone knows first is the best. To wit: the 1986 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the initial chip from a packet of Salt and Vinegars; Home Alone; Mickey Rooney’s original wife (of eight); the chicken; the egg. Add to this illustrious list, Wilson’s, the self-proclaimed ‘first Lebanese restaurant in Sydney. Est 1957.’ It’s cold, the horse’s birthday and dinnertime in Redfern on the night we walk in. My first impression? Brown. From the chocolate-brown carpet, to the mission-brown laminate tabletops, with matching vinyl chairs, and the ceiling, tented with dirty-brown parachute fabric. Literally dirty, with blooming rust stains. Strangely, suspiciously phallic shapes weigh the parachute down in random spots, raising questions as to where the rest of the body is kept. But first is the best and we barrel on accordingly. From the word doc menu we order vine leaves ($9.50 for 8), the mixed entrée of hommos, baba ghannouj, tabbouli, falafel and tahini ($16, serves two) and a mixed grilled plate of shish kebab, shish tawook, kafta, shawarma and sausages ($35, serves two). ‘Do you think I should stop drinking coffee?’ I ask. ‘Yep.’ He replies. ‘Are you just saying that?’ I press. ‘Yeah.’ It’s a routine conversation, comforting in it’s familiarity. ‘Do you think I’d make a good spy?’ I wonder, so often looking for opportunities to diversify my portfolio. ‘Because of your agility, firearm skills and composure under pressure?’ The vine leaves are served warm, with a cool yoghurt dip; they are mild, with a soft breath of cardamom. ‘I think I could be a good cater-waiter, don’t you?’ I continue, considering a casual, cash-paying weekend job. ‘What, because of your unwillingness to talk to people? Your whisper-quiet voice and discomfort in social situations?’ We take delivery of a plate of smoky, earthy dips and lemony-tart tabbouli, with a basket of flat bread and a plate of pickles. We both love pickles. The meat plate is hot, a bed of flavourlogged white rice piled with tender chicken and beef. Tasting of the grill, lemon, salt and faintly of cinnamon and fresh herbs, it’s brown and finished quickly. ‘Another person called me “weird in a good way” today. Do you think I’m weird?’ I query. ‘No, you’re not weird.’ I’m pleased. ‘Of course you are, you weirdo!’ He recants, noting my blush of vindication. I’d ask him anything, because there’s no one who’ll give me a more honest answer. He made the call that jump-started my stalled career; I cried and cried on his shoulder when I thought my heart could never hurt more; he gave me a home and his heart when my life came unmoored. He’s the first friend I’d call, and concurrently, is proof of the opposing rule, ‘first the worst, second the best…’ In the beginning, almost ten years ago, he looked witheringly from my under-cut bob haircut down to my ugly shoes and asked, ‘who’s this freak?’ Then ordered me to, ‘stop staring, you freak.’ He still tells me to stop staring, but six times out of ten it’s for my own safety.