Tag Archives: community

Tools for being human, part nine: Cooking and eating with others

Hostel eating

In my childhood, meals were consumed eye-to-eye. The family sitting, circling the table, forks and knives hovering under conversation. Even Friday-night fish and chips were elevated, the hot paper-bound bundle of deep-fried all-sorts steaming the glass table-top. Tomato sauce allocated in five small dollops. Buttered bread in a leaning tower. No TV, no radio, no tapping sly LOLs to mates under the table.

In the warmer parts of the Mediterranean, an evening meal with family might last for two, three hours. In our house it was usually forty-five minutes. Three-quarters of an hour of noisy retellings, prompting questions, and arguments over who had found the most chunks of toffee in their ice-cream. Then at around 6:48pm Mum or Dad would check a watch, and table clearing would begin, just in time for the marine weather forecast.

Food was the thing that unfailingly drew us together as a family, but in many ways it was the winds that were responsible for what ended up on the table. My father loves, loves, loves the sea. He worked any number of jobs, but his default workplace was between lapping waves and sandy seabed, hunting out the ocean’s bounty. So between 6:51 and 6:57 there was a communal silence as predictions were made. Light variables, Southerlies dying out overnight, squalls,  gusts and gales.

If the conditions were favourable, my brother, sister and I knew we’d be bundled up in the back tray of the Land Rover, sliding back and forth amongst the fish boxes and dive lungs. Most of the seafood limits were on a per person basis, so the three of us plus Dad meant twenty-four crayfish. I ate a lot of crayfish as a kid. Fortunately Dad knew a lot of the Greek and Italian families that had been drawn to Wellington’s rugged south coast. And seafood to them, was like cigarettes to the imprisoned. So after a day in the sand we’d park up outside garages and kitchens, having our cheeks pinched by enthusiastic Nonas as the trades were done. Prosciutto for cod, baklava for shellfish, wine for scallops.

If say an eighth of my early years were spent on beaches and bays, then another eighth must have been spent in the kitchen. My father was trained as a chef, in a fancy hotel, by men who ranted in French. It was only natural to him, to spend time with us in the kitchen, teaching us to make pastries, sauces and casoulets. He had a library of faded French cooking manuals, but he taught us that the best meals were made from simple ingredients, drawn by hand, from land and sea. Fresh mushrooms from an absent farmer’s fields, cooked in cream and thyme. Butterfish cooked on an open fire with a little butter and a few capers, as the tide creeps stealthily away.

My first experience cooking in a commercial kitchen was beneath an 800 year old church in Cambridgeshire. I worked, ate, drank and played with a mix of central Americans, Europeans, Australians and Brits. A delicious blend of accents, cooking traditions, and ways of interpreting the world. We all cycled Cambridge’s narrow, cobbled streets to work, our wheels juddering madly as we swept past colleges and chapels. We’d lock our bikes to the church gates, beside boxes of early morning produce, which we’d haul into the larder, flanked by hundreds of shelved ingredients.

There’s something visceral about catering. There is the short time-frames of production. Menus were clipped to stainless steel walls at 6:00am, the first batches of scones and breads lined the counter at 8am. There’s the physicality, the great dance, flashing knives, swooping trays, fast marching waiters, swinging doors. There is heat and cold, the spin up of enormous ovens, the gentle shudder of cheese fridges. And of course there is the end product, the gentle stacks and swirls on the plate, the scents and tastes and colours of the season.

I know I’ve never worked harder, but I’m also pretty sure I’ve never laughed more. The various roles are all so tightly interlinked: the baker, the dishwasher, the cake decorator. No failure is independent, no success singular. We’d picked each other up, wiped one another down, and limped across the finish line as one, coated in flour, drizzled in sweat and thirsty for a pint. It’s the sort of teamwork that can build great fellowship. And of course, produce the occasional drama.

After catering a wedding, or a bell-ringers dinner, we’d sometimes set off on our bikes, for a chef’s basement home. There we’d drink Suffolk ciders and Speyside Whiskey, while one of us cooked food from the homeland. Pierogi, Coca Cola pork, tea smokes mash. One of my greatest ever meals was wild boar sausages, in banana beer batter, at 2:00am, eaten to the sounds of our Welsh head chef playing Alice in Chains tunes on his jet-black guitar.

Since then I’ve cooked puddings at Scottish festivals, supported by spliff-rolling Spaniards. I’ve whipped up dishes from the gardens of an Irish castle, and I’ve woken in the early hours to help bake bagels in Jewish delis. But many of my favourite memories are set in my Sister’s kitchen, under her backpackers home in Derry. Whenever I spend time there we end up cooking a slow meal, maybe a course each, starting some time in the mid afternoon. By the time the hot trays are drawn from the stove, the heavy wooden table is surrounded by people from all nations, wine from New Zealand, and throaty laughter.

 

For me, cooking allows me an opportunity to create, to interpret, to participate in something universal, something which transcends linguistic borders. It is an endeavour of creation which always finds a grateful audience.

So thank you Dad, for teaching me that if I dedicate myself to my passions, then there are fewer gaps in my life. Thank you Mum, for being the one who taught us the value of communion and companionship, and for occasionally letting us eat our steak in slabs of soft, white bread. And thank you to all of you that I’ve shared a kitchen with. You helped me expand my creative boundaries, diversify my cultural understanding, and extend my range of curses.

Bon apetit!

Sounding the drums

Colour writing

It was half day through day one that I felt a ripple of relaxation shift through me. When the same thing happened the next day, I understood its source. I had given myself permission to write.

This three months of creative productivity  wasn’t an easy thing to commit to. It has meant dropping out of full-time work, and a consequential drop in my income. I’m not money-focused, so the numbers aren’t important. But I place a huge value on harvesting experiences, some of which consume cash. Particularly the ones where I board a plane with a belly full of anticipation, and a thousand dollar ticket.

And of course I have bills to pay, a share in both a forest and a house truck to pay off. So I’m working in an office two days a week to cover all of this. And coffee. But parts of me have had to be put on hold.

I live in a country which is not given to celebrating the arts. Our statues are rarely of philosophers, or novelists, or painters. The result of this is that patrons are few, novelists are rare, and “suffering” for your desire to create isn’t generally understood. And so the decision to simply write takes a combination of self belief, considerate friends, and a supremely understanding partner.

So as much of a thrill it has been to let my imagination draw me forward, I have also had to plan to make my writing a business. It’s a confronting realisation. As much as this 88 days is going to be about generating stories, it is going to have to equally be about self-promotion. I don’t have an agent, nor a publisher. I don’t yet have a track record of works printed in The New Yorker, or Granta. I need to earn my own reputation.

Writing is a quiet pursuit. Me, a keyboard or notepad. Maybe birdsong, or Lorde’s new album on a lower volume than it deserves. The world has no audible or visual clue idea that I’m unfurling scenery, painting characters, summoning mythology. For all they can see, my brow might simply be furrowing in lieu of Tinder responses.

When you practice with your heavy-grunge band, the world is alerted. A couple of beers, a wall of amps, and the wail of feedback, there’s no denying your output. When I painted murals around walls, an audience was assured, commentary was inevitable. But my words threaten to lie cold within the cage of my laptop. Colourless without a mind to project them, silent without a consciousness to voice them.

I heard a wonderful quote this week, though I failed to make note of the origin. Or the exact words. But it was something like “what a joy it is to remain hidden from the world, but what a crime it is, never to be discovered”. For five years I’ve remained largely silent about my stories. It’s time to start beating a drum. And over the past seven days, I’ve started to understand that I shouldn’t be beating it just for myself.

One of my tasks in week one, was a hunt for community. And what I’m finding, is that I need to be that community, as much as to find it. Once I find inspiration in someone’s talent, or tenacity, or imagination, then I need to make some noise for them as well. I can’t write as part of a band or troupe, but I know I can be an enthusiastic member of other people’s audiences.

So I sit in the shade of the seventh morning, listening to the thudding of my heart. I’m preparing to work not just on the foundations for my own success, but also to begin  contributing to the elevation of others.

Being a part of something (but not just anything)

Legs

Five days out from the pass through the Pyrenees, less than 100 miles from the French border, I was close to lowering my pack gently to the warm, dry earth and waiting for a bus. Just a fifth of the way through an adventure I’d been thinking about for nine years, I came uncomfortably close to giving up, and that moment of compounded doubt has been weighing on me over the past couple of months. With some time for reflection, my frustration and despondency was largely around what I felt was a lack of ‘community’.

For years now, my travels and experiences have been about engaging with new groups. I can bus and bike and walk between places, but it is the ‘dwelling within’ that I need. I love that feeling you get working, eating, drinking and dancing as part of something, a trailer park, a village, a castle estate. I like to feel as if I belong, even if for just a few weeks. I can see the roots of this in my teenage years. At around fourteen I moved from one class to another, away from all my mates, which began a period of angst tinged adjustment. I concentrated on my studies, and exam results were great, but I missed banter, camaraderie, teasing, and hearing that a girl might fancy me. So that summer I held a party, and made new friends. Once school restarted I spent study time remodelling the school’s furniture, learning a dozen ways to make imitation marijuana scents to frustrate teachers, and slipping out with Darren to go on a booze buying mission for his next party. My grades slipped a little, but the social rewards were worth it. I remember the slight disappointment as I saw what my compromise had done to my exam results, but I knew I had good friends, a long Summer (and Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘Appetite for Destruction’) to pull me through.

As I’ve continued to push, pull and swing myself through life, I have done whatever I could to ensure I was part of some sort of group, even if it meant occasional new compromises. I hung out with goths in the graveyard, moved from one country to another, changed jobs, grew my hair, cut my hair, dressed as an Orc at nights, moved into an artists squat, took up chainsaw sculpting, all so that I might be able to share my days and nights with good people. I draw so much energy from having others with whom I can laugh, apologise, confess my sins, indulge in new ones, and recite classic stories with over pints and chips. So it is very difficult for me to imagine how people manage without that sense of belonging.

On my fifth evening in Paris, several people attacked concert-goers, drinkers and diners, in a choreographed symphony of destruction. As I lay propped up against the wall in Montmartre, listening to helicopters and sirens, I kept circling back to ‘why’? What state of mind do you have to be in, in order to be drawn into a group that is willing to unleash such fury? And all I could think of was those people pushed to the edges of a society, those without that sense of belonging I find so essential. If I had grown up marginalised, harassed, even despised, if I didn’t have the support of family, friends, peers, what path might I have chosen? If the Hells Angels, or Jahovahs Witnesses, or local ISIS recruiters offered me a chance to belong to something, could I really be blamed for reaching up an arm and letting myself be drawn from the pit?

Of course I then rally against the idea of what I’d have to do, how I’d have to change my thinking in order to even get through some of the initiations for these groups. Paying money to advance to the next level of scientology, learning to refer to my workmates as ‘people capital’, beating a defenceless person with a crowbar. But then I remember all the small (or large) compromises I’ve made myself, in order to belong to something. And I think of the despicable ways I’ve seen some people behave within corporations, as if being part of a business excuses you from having to be human. When did that person’s need to feel like part of the management executive team eclipse their need to be kind, considerate and reasonable? How much time without positive human contact would it take, before I decided I was prepared to compromise my morality, my rationality, in order to get to share wear a uniform, secret handshake and ammo collection with a bunch of people who were just as lost and misplaced as I was?

The morning after that day of doubt on the Camino, the sun shone. I had discussed my difficulties into the evening, and I had decided to alter my approach to the journey. I realised that in order to find community I had to offer it. I took the time to talk with people who sat alone, and I offered my own stories freely, without expectation of reciprocation. And as seven days became sixteen, and one hundred miles became two, we all underwent testing times, physically and emotionally, and there in the cracks, that was where community grew. Because as our vulnerabilities were exposed, as we became part of each other’s solutions, and as our stories began to entwine, bonds were formed. And we all began to have faith that the next time we struggled to shoulder our pack and stand, that we would find someone standing above us, offering a hand up, and a smile of understanding.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all our sister’s and brother’s keepers. It is no good ignoring people that are struggling, or alone, or broken. Because it is when we feel that we no longer have anything to lose, that we are at our most vulnerable and susceptible to the will of others. We need to remember that people want the same things, no matter what language they speak, or what name they have for god. They want to feel important, included, valued. If you have friends, family, workmates, support, then maybe consider asking one more person to join the football team next winter, or come to your place for New Years Eve, or to the beach for a swim and ice cream. Because surely it is harder to grasp for the unthinkable, if you have friends holding both your hands.

I am back in New Zealand, back in my small community, where I have ready access to people, smiles, and ice cream. But over the past three months I was on the other side of the world, and most of the time I felt like I belonged, whether I was in London, Burgos, or even Zubiri. Thank you to everyone I met and walked with on the Camino Frances, I was honoured to be part of your journeys, your triumphs, your disappointments. And thanks to everyone I met afterwards, old friends and new, you welcomed me into your homes, your families and your Hip Hop album releases. Mucho gracias.