I have never been so happy to see the beaming, smooth-skinned face of Nigella Lawson as I was last Thursday night. In a hotel room in Dunedin without internet, I felt both cut off from my own life and usual means of communication, and overexposed to the news coverage of the Christchurch earthquake. The news coverage was utterly necessary, important, and it goes without saying, heart-breaking and disturbing. But an episode of Nigella and her outrageously un- ‘Heart Foundation approved’ fare was much appreciated escapism. The Domestic Goddess was making buttered duck with a side of butter, followed by chocolate icing with sprinkles of cake. Her presentation of such comfort food was pleasingly familiar and reassuring.
It may seem trivial to link cooking, especially baking with all its frivolous associations, to such tragedy. But food is love. The home-made gift of baking, or the offer of a meal says ‘I care. I made this for you. I want to support and nourish you.’ It’s been touching to hear of the amount of bake-sales that have been held as fund-raising events, and efforts to get baking to those in Christchurch.
My favourite gatherings with friends are always pot-luck dinners where everyone turns up with some dish, and usually (hopefully) a long story about how the dish came to be; the drama of getting the right ingredients, the explanation behind the missing chunk of the pie, or why what began as casserole has now morphed into something between canapé and kebab, but is really very good if you’d like to try it, and oh please do try it so I don’t feel like a complete failure. The best friends are the ones you can share the failures with. When I made a disastrous batch of fudge to give as gifts last Christmas, only my nearest and dearest were subjected to the ‘I know these taste terrible, but you’ll love me anyway’ bags of off-cuts and sad crumbly bits. A friend is engaged to a chef, who is currently doing amazing things at Capitol. When I went to stay with them, I woke up to a sweet note from my friend saying that the chef, who’d come in at 2am from an 18hour shift, would like to make me breakfast. It may have been more a case of the poor, blurry-eyed chef being asked to make this very hospitable gesture by his fiancée. But he loves her, she loves me, a fantastic breakfast was made and thus the circle of love and food continues.
Food also makes us feel at home when we’re away from the familiar. I suspect that half of Vegemite and Marmite’s sales come from well-meant mothers sending jars to overseas offspring to smear on their toast and think of Godsown. Pineapple Lumps and their equally chewy cousinsPinky bars and the intriguingly named PerkyNana’s also are probably kept in production in part through this sort of assumed patriotism. I’m not sure that these gooey, chocolate covered candies say anything good about New Zealand food culture, but my Belgium’side sister will soon be receiving a bag of P’Lumps in the mail from me. What better way to say ‘I love and miss you’ than a sack of sugared-up E numbers!
While I was in Dunedin, the city was undergoing the annual arrival of students. I overheard a phone call between a first year student and what I presume/hope was his mother. The conversation centred on the young man’s belief that his living residence was a rip-off because he wasn’t there for half of the three daily meals they provided (due to various drinking/sleeping commitments), and that he wanted to spend his money as he chose, because dammit it was his money and he could do without Dad telling him how to spend it. The mother’s response seemed to be soothing, and I could almost hear her getting out her baking things to send him a care package of cookies to get him through the trials of the first year at university. Food is love, and long may it stay that way.