Denis Welch: Dreary duty and repulsive habit

Tart and Juicy: Food Stories from Australian and New Zealand Writers
Michael Gifkins (ed)
Vintage, $24.95

When some people write about food, they do it so mouth‑wateringly that you have to raid the pantry immediately. With one or two exceptions, none of the 20 writers in this collection achieves that effect. On the contrary, most of them dwell so oppressively on the obligations of eating and the mechanics of digestion that you never want to look another forkful in the face. A reference in the first story to the “blank hole of the mouth” waiting to be filled sets the tone: by the end of the book eating seems at best a dreary duty and at worst a repulsive habit. It’s not even clear that many of the writers like food very much, if at all.

That may be a consequence of the expectations aroused by the title. In fact, only two or three stories are about food per se and the rest are about the usual range of subjects you’d expect to find in any short story collection: sex, power, betrayal, greed, fear, anxiety, shame, fantasy, crime and irreconcilable differences. (Doesn’t anyone ever write about happiness or hope?)

In general Michael Gifkins has chosen not “food stories” but stories in which food is the context or the motif of something far more important. Fair enough, but it makes the book seem more like a publishing gimmick than a meaningful anthology. The connecting thread is so tenuous that the collection might just as well have been called “People Stories from Australian and New Zealand writers”.

Having said that, there’s some excellent reading and for New Zealanders the book also is a useful introduction to the 10 Australian writers whose contributions make up half the contents. Particularly impressive is Beverley Farmer, with a beautifully observed story about a schoolgirl whose Greek father and Australian mother have broken up. The swiftness of their emotional abandonment of her is caught first when she prepares her father a birthday dish of kalamari only to be told he’s going out on the town that night; and then when she calls her mother ‑ “Mummy, it’s me. Can you come over for just a while … Can you, please?” ‑ only to be rebuffed. Alone, she eats the squid and drinks retsina, fantasising about the impossible man who will one day bear her away.

Also memorable is “Mandarin” by Peta Spear, a richly textured tale in which a slightly crazed character called Quinlan drives manically through the night in a late‑model Saab 900 Aero stinking of overripe fruit. All he eats is overripe fruit. Typical of Spear’s prose is: “He drags a sweating, bloodstone plum out of the crushed brown‑paper bag and sucks it into his mouth. The taste explodes, fetid and sweet.” Drags, sucks, explodes, sweating, crushed, pulp, spurts, grunts ‑ such words are typical of the book as a whole, suggesting a preoccupation with food as sex and sex as the ultimate act of digestion. Spear gets the flavour just right.

“Mandarin” seems positively homey, however, compared with Mike Johnson’s “Harmony of the Swine”, a sickening vision of a future in which thousands gather under pleasure‑domes to watch anorexics force‑fed in cages and dangling pigs dipped into vats of frothing sulphuric acid. This is designed to illustrate the reductio ad absurdum of the view that “all life is one vast food chain on all levels of being”. It’s cleverly done and will probably, as Gifkins suggests in his preface, put you off pork for life.

Why Gifkins included three stories about whingeing tourists in Spain, Greece and Egypt is harder to understand: these petty tales are about service rather than food. Another, “From Soup to Nuts”, by Chad Taylor, is about very poor service indeed, so poor, in fact, that the humiliated diner is driven to act out the ultimate revenge fantasy on the offending waiter. Clunkily written, this kind of thing can only be recommended to restaurant patrons with abnormally low patience thresholds.

Food, glorious food … amid stories by Albert Wendt, Elizabeth Smither, Sheridan Keith, Jane Westaway and Craig Harrison, one finds images of live shrimps banging drunkenly about in wine; recipes for pumpkin soup, liver provençale and French toast; hints of cannibalism in the Remuera heartland; and memories of school stew, “thin and mean like washing‑up water”. But the overwhelming impression is of the sheer slog involved in preparing and absorbing the stuff that keeps us all going and, as Smither says, after building to a point of frustration in her story, “Dégustation Domestique”, “Why not mash everything? Why not pills?”

The last story in the book is probably the best. In a brief, intense evocation of the experience of catching kahawai and taking them home to cook, Patricia Grace proves that the most satisfying way to eat food is to go and get it yourself from nature’s larder:

“When it is time we lift the fish carefully into bowls and strain the water into a jug. We break up the bread on the board and heap the vegetables on to dishes.

“Then we sit down to celebrate.”

It is a perfect way to finish the meal of this book, after the disappointment of most of the earlier courses.

Denis Welch is a Wellinqton journalist.

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Posted in Literature, Review and Short stories
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