Sunday, September 05, 2010

ARTICLE: On Hunger

Where did this all start?

I’m sitting alone in one of New York’s restaurants, spending nearly $500 on a meal. I won’t be going to the Empire State Building during the two weeks I have at my disposal. I did the same thing at another restaurant the night before, after doing the same thing for lunch at another restaurant. I’m not travelling alone, but I am dining alone, because my travelling companion doesn’t share my enthusiasm.

Was I born with this inclination?

I have a small wooden tub in front of me. It’s filled with a soft, triple cream cheese from France that contains a molten, buttery centre beneath the rind. I’ll eat the whole thing myself with nothing but the aid of a baguette.

Did something put me on this course?

I have spent an entire day in the kitchen, making a few things. For no one in particular. For no reason in particular.

Was it a combination of things?

I’m laying in bed, wondering what brought me to this point. It’s a point that a lot of other people are at. What, on Earth, possessed us to become “foodies”? It’s a horrible term when self-applied, yet an accurate descriptor for many people: people that happily spend hours in the kitchen when most others are out socialising; that happily spend all of their disposable income on food, when most people see it as a one-in-a-while treat; that feel an emotive response when confronted with the sight of a new restaurant, when most simply regard it as part of the ebb and flow of life.

Nature versus nurture is a term that springs to mind. Was I born “This Way” or did I become what I am today?

My earliest memory of food is standing in my family home with my babysitter. I don’t remember her name and I don’t remember what she looked like. She was young, I was younger. Five, maybe? We were in the kitchen. It was an odd kitchen; small, rapidly becoming dated. She was showing me how to make my own pizzas. First, toast some bread. Then add some tomato sauce, some dried oregano from the spice rack, some toppings (whatever was in the fridge) and some grated cheese. Place it under the grill. It was a revelation. I could make this whenever I wanted. This pizza—this thing that was so immediately satisfying—could be minem whenever I wanted it.

I can remember the food. I can remember her showing me. But I don’t remember her. Is that telling?

A few years later and my sisters have been born. A different babysitter is on the scene. I think her name is Jackie. I must be around 7 or 8. I dislike her a little because she has been employed to babysit my sisters, yet she still wants to know where I am at all times. Yet I adore her because she makes food that excites me. I remember the butterfly cakes: sponge cupcakes with cream, sponge cake wings and (sometimes) jam. Chocolate éclairs that would explode in my mouth. I swear I could have eaten a thousand of them. Marble cakes that astounded me because I was too young to understand the physics behind them. And roasts that, in my memory banks, are better executed than anyone in history. I remember her as old and quite overweight, hardly fit to care for young children. Was she kept on by my parents because of her cooking skills?

11 or 12 now. I have a group of friends that I see most days after school. For some reason, food is a part of how we interact. Sausage rolls after school become a ritual, like an after work beer. There are eating challenges. The once-dull confectionary landscape of frogs and musk sticks is being flooded with new brands and new sensations. One afternoon, everyone is over at my place. 2 minute noodles have become a part of our identity because we can make them ourselves. I make a batch for everyone, but add (for no reason) some herbs from my parents’ spice rack. Chives, I think. I feel excitement as I present them to my friends. Another time and we’re playing snooker. Non-alcoholic champagne (sparkling grape juice) has become an obsession for us. While we play snooker in the games room, I take an ice bucket from my parents’ alcohol cabinet and fill it with ice for our bottle of grape juice. We drink it from champagne flutes and feel grown up.

For some reason, I don’t have many food memories for a few years. But this changes tremendously when I’m 21. University has finished and I haven’t been able to immediately find a job. I find myself spending a lot of time watching television, and the shows that I gravitate to most are cooking shows. Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Iron Chef, Ian Hewitson and a host of others. I’m not sure what it was that drew me to shows of this nature. Perhaps it was the way they would stir hunger within me. But it wasn’t just the appetite. I would remember stupid facts about the food, like adding salt to garlic in a mortar and pestle would make it more abrasive and help it break down.

After many months of this obsessive watching I went on holidays with a friend to Melbourne. It wasn’t meant to be about anything remotely similar to food, but it was there where I had my true culinary awakening. We ate at restaurants that looked interesting and relished in the new flavours and delights that we ate. Looking back, it was always there, but it was here where food became truly thrilling. Laksa, Greek lamb, Vietnamese pho, it was all so damn good.

It was also where food’s accompaniment was introduced to me: wine. I’d never really been a wine drinker before this point. But a tour through the Yarra Valley, involving a lot of tastings, showed me that different varietals can be so... different. A bottle of fortified red wine blew me away, as did a sweet sparkling wine. I took them home and drank them with vigour, swearing that they tasted even better this time around. Before long I was subscribing to wine sites to get recommendations and going through bottles of various origin and style, consuming knowledge and fermented grapes in the process.

Five years after that and it’s become an obsession. Weekends are spent cooking recipes from all countries; celebrations and anniversaries are punctuated by fine food and wine; and far too much disposable income is spent in restaurants and bottle shops. It feels like I’m on a quest to find the perfect bite, or the perfect sip. But the more you have the more you realise that there probably isn’t such a thing; it’s more about experiencing gastronomy at a particular point in time. Restaurant menus will be different in ten years and wines will taste a little different. But the present can be consumed.

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