The Colour of Food: A Memoir of Life, Love and Dinner
Awa Press, $12.00,
Back in the days when most New Zealanders ate the same stuff – mince, chops, sausages, a roast on Sunday – the possibility that someone might write a book about how food had shaped their life would have seemed only slightly less unlikely than the possibility that you might read it on a small electronic screen.
Food was much more utilitarian in those days. People ate it but they certainly didn’t write about it. Lettuce came in one variety, vegetables were served well boiled, and garlic was used sparingly – if at all. Butter and dripping were the cooking fats of choice. As a child I was intrigued by the unfamiliar smell in the house of our Jewish neighbours; I realise now that it must have been the smell of cooking oil.
Slowly, though, things started to change. Around the time that my mother was learning how to make apple strudel at a Continental cookery class – we’d never tasted anything so light and delicious – a much younger Anne Else was also starting to stretch her culinary wings.
I can’t remember what other “Continental” food my mother learned how to make, but according to Else’s thoughtful and readable memoir, The Colour of Food, her repertoire at the time included an exotic “Austrian” dish she’d found in a magazine: “veal stew made with coffee and raisins served with rice and small leaden dumplings”.
Else moved on, ditching the veal stew for more successful dishes, such as roast chicken stuffed with fruit from Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food, which introduced ingredients such as tahini and eggplant to Western cooks 40 years before Yotam Ottolenghi burst onto the scene. Else has gathered the memory of that chicken dish, and the memories of many other dishes, to write The Colour of Food, published as an ebook by Awa Press:
Since the day I left home to get married at the age of 19, what I have eaten and cooked and what has been cooked for me, have often seemed to hold the essence of who I thought I was or wanted to be, and how I lived with the people I loved
she writes in the introduction. “Food has also been a creative challenge and a daily source of sensual delight.”
In many ways, Else’s story is a typical one for New Zealand women of her generation (she was born in 1945). Early marriage, children, a gradual realisation that there was more to life than simply being a wife and mother, and her eventual reinvention as a writer and editor. But, as with all life stories, the individual details make it extraordinary – and in Else’s case the details are more extraordinary than many.
The Colour of Food is written in 10 chapters, each of which deals with a different aspect of Else’s life. Rather than telling her story chronologically, she moves back and forth in time, gradually introducing new biographical information. We don’t learn that she was adopted, for example, until chapter seven, in which she writes about her relationship with her birth mother, who turns out to have been a messy cook like herself.
In chapter six, she writes about the death of her second son Patrick in Sydney at the age of 18. For the reader this comes as a complete surprise – there has been no foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. Rather, we are introduced to Patrick in previous chapters as if this mischievous little boy, who once drained a tableful of empty wine glasses before passing out, will be a permanent presence in Else’s life. And while we meet her second husband, the late Harvey McQueen, very early in the book we don’t get to know him properly until much later.
What ties it all together and makes it work as a narrative is food. The food Else cooked as a young wife and mother in the 1960s; the food she ate when she lived with her family in Albania in 1972; the food friends cooked for her after Patrick died; the food she and McQueen cooked during 20 happy years together, and the food she has cooked alone since he died on Christmas Day 2010.
Else writes honestly and movingly about grief, particularly the grief of widowhood. But the tone of the book is measured and thoughtful, rather than frank and confessional. Else is good at evoking times and places, but her emotional landscape isn’t always so vividly drawn. She is more than usually circumspect when writing about the break-up of her first marriage to writer Chris Else – perhaps not unreasonably, given they both still live in the same area, though I’m not sure he’ll thank her for revealing that he sent her a telegram to tell her their marriage was over.
The Colour of Food is Awa Press’s first original ebook – and the first ebook I’ve read.
For Else, it was, a case of being e-published or not being published at all. According to an article in the New Zealand Listener last year, when Else first sent the manuscript to Awa, publishing director Mary Varnham told her that, although she liked it very much, she wasn’t sure it would sell enough to justify a print publication. Instead, she suggested publishing it as an ebook.
“I thought about it for about a week, talked to people,” Else was quoted as saying, “and decided an ebook in the hand published by Mary was much better than a possibly never-happening print book in the bush. And there is always the option of going into print later if they decide that’s a good idea.”
As a reader, I’ve been resisting going the ebook route for lots of reasons. They include laziness – setting up iBooks on my first-generation iPad in order to read The Colour of Food was just as much of a faff as I had feared – and also a reluctance to make yet another activity in my life screen-based.
But my reservations are more deep-seated than that. To paraphrase one of Else’s opening lines – “When I think about my childhood it’s the food I remember the most”; when I think about my childhood it’s the books I remember the most.
Some of my happiest memories are associated with books: the books my parents left under my pillow after a trip into town on a Friday night when I was a child; the books I read as a student; the books I read to my own children when they were small and the books I retreated into when they were asleep.
I like books. I like the way they feel in my hand. I like the sense of anticipation I have when I open one for the first time. I like the fact that they exist in the real world and that I can pick one off an actual bookshelf – as opposed to clicking on an icon on a virtual bookshelf – and lend it to a friend.
As it turns out, reading a book onscreen isn’t too different from reading a real book. Awa Press have thoughtfully provided a number of different font options for those who care about such things, and the pages are nicely laid out. You can even highlight passages and write notes.
You certainly can’t argue with the price – about a third of what you’d pay for a printed version – or the fact that being e-published has provided Else with a small but appreciative audience she wouldn’t otherwise have had.
But at this stage The Colour of Food is still the only book sitting on my iBookshelf. I’m happy to keep making the occasional foray into the world of ebooks, and I know you can’t fight against the tide of history. But until it’s clear that actual books have absolutely no future, I’m planning to stick with them.
Ruth Nichol is a Wellington reviewer.