Tag Archives: culture

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!

Capturing stories (and working for the greater good)

Around three months ago now I finished full-time work in order to have the time to focus on two endeavours. The first was my fiction writing, this had been tainted by working in a role that eschewed imagination, and moving to the country has given me wider horizons in which to let my imagination gallop and play. The second was my supporting role in a new company, a venture whose goals were more compatible with my morality and world views. A business which believed in the cultural value of stories.

Cards two

I’m a huge believer in the power of a good story. That’s both blessing and curse as a writer, as it inspires me to want to write great books, but it means that rather than simply telling a tale, want to weave ideas through the text which might inspire, transform, or at the very least inform, rather than structuring them like a film and hoping for a movie deal. I feel a need to honour all those story tellers that came before me, because I know how important their contribution was to my world.

When we are young, if we are fortunate, then we had a relative who would induct us into the world of guided imagination. They might have told us stories from their past, or stories from their imagination. They might have read us tales from thick books, compilations of fables curated by Aesop or the Grimm brother’s, maybe they ad-libbed a little as they read, or added in sound effects or frights, perhaps they changed voices for the talking bear, the frustrated witch, or General Woundwort. Those recited words can play a huge role in our development, helping us counter arachnophobia (Charlotte…), inspiring us to travel (every Irish, Norse and Navajo legend I ever heard), or simply inspiring us to learn to read ourselves, so that there was never ‘one last story’. Not while there was a functioning flashlight in the house.

As we get a little older many of us learn to read ourselves, and we begin to choose our own stories. I remember finding a copy of Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’ on the book shelves of a holiday house one wet summer. The thick book had the infamous movie poster on the cover, gaping shark jaws open below that late night swimmer. I’d anticipated sharks and drama, I hadn’t expected sexual explicitness. I took to reading it outside or at night, where my blushing resisted invocation or at least detection. And when we leave school in order to become the protagonist in our own tales, hopefully we continue to read. I have found solace, wisdom and inspiration in books my whole life, worlds to escape into, and things to bring back from them, into my own narrative. Including a little from Jaws.

The company I’m working with exists to assist with people with the preservation of stories. We work to create copies of items of enduring cultural value, and enable those copies to be shared with people separated by time or distance. We make detailed copies of cave paintings, maps, books, artworks and carvings. Similar endeavours around the world are mapping ancient civilisations from the sky, or using technology to help rebuild the walls of ancient temples, jigsaw puzzles with one tonne pieces. Efforts are being made to capture everything from baseball cards and comics to death warrants and viking longboats, as they’re all vessels for stories.

My daily tasks for the company vary, sometimes I’m driving to small coastal towns to capture fragile maps, more frequently I’m processing thousands of images, from fashion drawings to diary entries. But a two things I’ve encountered in the past week helped me understand the value in capturing so many aspects of culture, as I colour correct yet another photo. First I was reading through the ‘About us’ page on ‘WikiLeaks’ for information for an article, and amongst their principles was ‘the improvement of our common historical record’, and this idea sat with me. Then last night I was reading a few passages from a book called ‘Woman who run with the wolves’, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She talks of the importance of information passed from generation, as myths and stories, and how so many of these have been altered by the dominant society, stripped or altered so suit the dominant religion, or sense of morality of the time. And in the process we lose important elements of the original story. And I realised, we can’t let the recording of history be the province of a select minority. That has led to one-sided tales, to distortion, to the eradication of cultural elements, and often to the elimination of the female perspective. Instead we need to capture as wide a gamut of society, of culture, as possible. The hauntings, the messiahs, the sasquatch, the unicorns, the trolls, the elves, the barbarians, the werewolves, they are so much of who we were, and who we might be.

So I’m proud of my two paths. I’m pleased to have continued to write every day, to try to improve my story-telling craft. And I’m proud to be working with Heritage Studios, with creative people, helping capture other people’s stories across the Pacific.

If anyone would like to support Heritage Studios in their story-saving mission, please look us up on Facebook, and like us if you like what we’re trying to do!

https://www.facebook.com/HeritageStudiosNZ

Hellooo Europe. And Britain.

Icelandic PONIES

I’ve only just got it. Really, really got it. I’ve figured out that I travel for the interactions with others, the scenery really is just a set of backdrops. Iceland prompted this realisation. It’s a wet wee isle, entertaining scenery, but nothing hugely different to what I can see back home, at least in summer. And certainly not as dramatic as some of the visual splendour I travelled through in the US. But the people, the stories told by the people, the self-deprecation, the feisty humour. Smashing. A tour guide led a small group of us through Reykjavik the day we arrived. She told stories of christmas trolls, believing in elves enough to move motorways and the surprise election of the current mayor of the capital city (a stand up comedian). She lovingly took the piss out of her compatriots, and I knew I wasn’t in America anymore. This was an arts university graduate working for tips, and she was genuinely witty in her second or third language. Not even on brewery tours had anyone been this engaging in the States.

Elvish Tour Guide

I love that Iceland is so proud of their gene sharing with the Viking hordes. They quietly, almost reluctantly admit that their own Viking heroes were largely sheep farmers and horse breeders rather than raping, murdering pillagers. They sell Norse God action figures and install huge longboat sculptures on the foreshore, and their mythologies are woven into their lives. They seem a very self-assured people, fighting International conventions to ensure whale meat remains available in restaurants. I’m from a tiny island in the middle of nowhere too, but we have a nationally tendency to be somewhat apologetic about what others might see as our short comings. Icelanders have a depth of pride that maybe kiwis can learn from.

The Maori people back home have a strong mythologised culture too. Legends provide children with strong heroes, moral guidance and a sense of belonging.  I found that many Americans were ignorant of the tales of the Native American tribes, which is a great shame. I loved the myths of so many countries as a child, and I was proud that my country had our own. But lately in New Zealand general access to our mythic heritage may be under threat. The cultural icons of the Maori people are being assessed for copyrighting and trade marking. As a result I’m starting to lose confidence in my right to claim any degree of allegiance with what I see as my own cultural heritage, seemingly because I’m a whitey. Where in Iceland their stories and legends are a unifying point of cultural pride, I hope that in New Zealand they don’t end up contributing to divisions between people.

I didn’t have nearly enough days in Iceland, but at least my flight out was bound for another entertaining stop, London. Every time I accidentally on purpose end up in the shining jewel of the British empire something fun is kicking off. This time I did a search for “beer festivals” just a day or two before I flew out of Denver, and lo! The biggest beardy weirdy drinking convention in the British Isles was kicking off from the day I arrived. Yes please! London Olympia was lined with 800 beer, cider and perry (pear cider) taps, pork scratching vendors and bratwurst stands. The London Craft Beer Festival was having its debut outing the same weekend, but we decided to kick it old skool in hopes of avoiding over-hopped new world styles. We had no regrets as we sipped at creamy stouts and comfy brown ales. It was one of those events you wish you could teleport all your mates to. We shared a pint with one of the Scottish brewers, many of the smaller breweries had only one pint on tap (out of a total 800), and their alcohol architects were at hand to talk up their wares. The event was more about tasting than boozing, and there wasn’t a single screen showing football…Good on ya English beer brewing fellah’s and pickled fish vendors.

Beer fest

London was another briefish four-day interlude. Gatwick to Dublin is a quick hop, and then it was a skip to the bus lanes, and a jump to Castlepollard in Westmeath. I’ve been living in Castle Tullynally for a week now, helping with the gardening and tourist shepherding. I was shocked to find it only took 48 hours to get used to waking up and looking out the boudoir window to see white and grey towers and the arched gateway. I guess that’s a positive thing though, running a huge mansion looks like exhausting work, and the place probably costs even more than a two bedroom flat in Wellington. I’m enjoying being able to wander down to the vegetable gardens and harvest fresh beetroot for tonight’s chocolate cake though. And on the way back to the kitchen I pass donkeys, llamas and battlements, and I reflect on how fortunate I am to get to call another place home, even if briefly. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Republic of Ireland, again it’s a people thing. It’ll be interesting to see how some time living with the locals shifts my perspective. And of course there’s some lovely scenery.

White tower