I like to eat the low-hanging fruit. Twist plump figs from the neighbour’s tree. Soft-fleshed and strange. Just a lump of purpling skin like me. There is something in the act of admitting what you want that’s terrifying: this is at work when we eat. Eating is not just when you press your teeth into the skin of the fig and let its guts spill out. Not just that sweet mouthful of twisted pink and white tendrils. It’s the moments of planning, thinking of the tree out there on the corner, bulky in the sun. It’s putting the dog on his leash and checking for people on the street. It’s putting your hand up to that first perfect fig. The twist of your wrist, your fingers pressing lightly around the fruit. The release as it snaps from the tree. Its sap on your hands and the sensation of the knife sliding through, portioning it out in two so you can see its perfect yonic insides. It’s picking the right cheese to eat with it: a pungent washed-rind or semi-firm goat’s. Or slicing it up and tossing it in pieces through a salad with hot smoked trout. It’s the dead of winter now, and I’m thinking back to those figs and the summer sun and every warm, warm day and night.
Eating is a state of wanting, and there’s so much we’re told about the wrong and right things to want.
As the British food writer Elizabeth David observes in her food-writing collection Omelette and a Glass of Wine:
One of the main points about the enjoyment of food and wine seems to me to lie in having what you want when you want it and in the particular combination you fancy.
Publishing articles throughout the forties, fifties and sixties that pushed the boundaries of the food genre by not including recipes, and suggesting ingredients that were relatively obscure at the time, David comes across as a delightful curmudgeon with too many opinions. She dedicates an entire chapter of Omelette and a Glass of Wine to the difficulty of buying a full bottle of wine as a woman at a restaurant.
The state of food writing today is not something I wish to spend time bemoaning. It would be a bitter thing to do (though I do love a good negroni). Still, I will admit that some of it is highly bemoanable. Worse than bad food writing though, is an apathy for food altogether.
Things I love:
- Putting post-it notes in recipe books so I remember which things I want to make
- The Tasmanian CWA cookbook I bought in an op shop in Hobart
- Friends telling me every single thing they ate in a day
- Someone sharing their chips with me
Things I do not love:
- When people complain about or make fun of amateur food photography
- Jokes that belittle food intolerances
- When you go to cut the kernels of corn from the cob and they go everywhere
- Sweet chilli sauce on anything but wedges
- Jokes about not being able to cook
Only being able to make toast isn’t funny. For some people perhaps this is what they’re feasibly capable of doing to feed themselves. Go ahead and get fed however you can. Toast is good food. But joking about it like #adultingishard sends the message that you’re not prepared to care for yourself, or anyone else. Nourishment matters. When someone says they don’t know how to cook I feel the same way as when someone says they don’t really listen to music.
It’s not about good music or bad music, good food or bad food. It’s about good outcomes, and that can include pure enjoyment. I give you every encouragement to love your meat pie or KFC. It is a particular delight of mine on a long car trip to make my way through the drivethrough at Heatherbrae’s pie shop just outside Newcastle and order a pie to share with the dog. A lap full of crumbs is the surest sign of a good road trip.
Any approach to food that would deny you these things is far more dire than a boring blog post. The influence of diet culture, as well as elitism and classism, makes food aspirational instead of a fundamental part of our lives. Food is one thing we cannot escape, but the nature of the diet and lifestyle industries is to always leave us wanting.
I slipped a piece of paper with my fears written on it into the egg sac of a giant spider. It was Thursday night at Dark Mofo, and this was part of an interactive installation piece. On Sunday, after a grand procession, all the many fears would be burned in a ceremony that left behind only the orange outline of the spider’s web. I wrote without thinking: I’m afraid to admit what I really want.
For me, the biggest part of that fear is not being sure. What I need to do is learn to admit it anyway.
To want seems like a great risk, but to not want feels much worse.
To not really listen to music.
To never cook.
Elizabeth David started writing by making lists of the things she wanted to eat. Rations were still in place when she returned to England after World War II and winter was especially harsh. It’s no surprise then that she turned to lists. The things she wanted weren’t particular dishes, nothing elaborate. It was apricots. It was tomatoes.
Good food writing is all about desire. It’s about admitting what you want and why you want it. What we want isn’t always what’s best for us in another person’s eyes, but what we want is compelling. Knowing what another person wants is like going through their garbage, or seeing what they keep at the back of their underwear drawer. It’s Nigella in her silk nightgown eating an ice-cream sandwich in the glow of the refrigerator. It’s Ottolenghi’s endless worship of the eggplant, laying them out like little dolls to be adorned just so. It’s Elizabeth David talking about the cheeses, cheeses, so overwhelmed by want that she has to say it twice.
There is only one mushroom I know how to safely forage for: the saffron milk cap. The colour is irrefutable once you know how to look for it, the woody flesh curling up from the floor of pine forests only when the trees are over ten years old, only in autumn, only when there have been the right temperatures and just the right amount of rain. You’ll sometimes find them in fruit shops or markets a little after Easter, marketed as ‘pine mushrooms’ and going for upwards of $40 a kilo.
When I’m walking with my dog I study the mushrooms springing from the side of the road, forlorn that I can’t scurry them home to fry in butter and garlic. I can’t be sure what they are or if they’re safe to eat. According to experienced forager Diego Bonetto only five per cent of Australia’s 5,000 species of mushroom have even been described. I want to be able to eat them with ease, without fear. But this is always the difficulty with food. It is not always easy. There are so many things we are afraid of.
If in doubt, leave it out: this is what was drilled into us at the mushrooming workshop I attended with a friend back in 2016, where I first learned where and how to seek out saffron milk caps. Sydney and the surrounding area had been warm that autumn, so I came home with only a few in the bottom of my basket. They bruised blue on the trip home and I had to rinse them of dirt and pine needles, but even when fried until the garlic was burnt, their flavour was earthy and warming.
On one trip, the national park where they can be easily found was unexpectedly closed and we had to drive to some local wineries to salvage the day. The next time, I came home with so many my pee started to turn bright orange from the vego bourguignon I’d made. No matter the outcome, there’s something to be said for the mission. Driving an hour and a half out of the city to a foggy mountain and losing sight of your companions among the imposing stripe of trunks. The feel of wet leaf litter underfoot. Carrying a basket. Carrying a knife. The small acknowledgements of other foragers when you pass each other, like passing another queer person in the street. Perhaps no one else sees you or gets it, but that one lady with a wicker basket wants to know what you’ve found today.
Still, many others will try to talk you out of mushroom foraging. This is sensible advice. It comes from a place of concern for your safety. Of love. But there are so many times when being told how to treat our bodies does not come from a place of love, though those doing the telling will insist it does.
Elizabeth David spends much of her writing talking about food she dislikes, yet this is often an indicator of love when it comes to eating. Think of Anthony Bourdain’s disdain for brioche hamburger buns. It’s a fine line you tread when you tell people how they should eat, particularly when you’re in the privileged position David held. She takes pains to point out her lifestyle as a food writer was not glamourous, that most of her enviable travel and eating habits were paid for from her own pocket. Yet she was also a white English woman, and while by no means rich, she still had a local servant during her time in Egypt. Her recipes, though often simple, were not necessarily accessible to the lower classes in Britain at the time. She may have written out of a pure love for these foods, but as contemporary British food writer Ruby Tandoh has discussed at length in her writing and on Twitter — packaged foods keep people alive. Our food culture needs to shift so that the mindfulness we’re encouraged to apply to eating salads and drinking enough water can also enrich our lives when packaged mac and cheese is what we need for the nourishment of our souls, for getting to next pay day, or simply for convenience.
When a friend warns me to be careful in my mushroom foraging I know it’s out of love. Love and fear. I too am afraid of the stories that say a family of five was killed by a mushroom from a field. I’m nervous to the point of panic if faced with a large group of people in which nobody is making a decision about where to eat. But driving out to the forest to stride among the trees looking for the night’s meal is one of the most pleasant ways to spend a day, and now that I know just one kind of mushroom I can identify, the eating is safer than the drive to find them.
This is an excerpt of a piece that originally appeared in full in The Lifted Brow #39. Get your copy here.
Bridget Lutherborrow is a writer, editor and food nerd currently living in Melbourne. She's soon to graduate from a PhD in creative writing, for which she completed a novel manuscript, ‘The Slow Act of Forgetting’, a work of queer historical fiction about Scottish lumber jills.