28 November, 2011

Sewing and reaping

Mr Fothergills - an Australian seed retailer - has an 'ad' in this month's Gardening Australia magazine. I put ad in inverted commas as it's quite clearly designed to look like an article, with no branding on the page but plenty of text.

The text focuses on two things: that Australians, on average, don't eat enough vegetables; and that part of the reason for that is their high cost. The ad claims '5 daily serves of vegetables for a family of four can average well over $1,000 a year'. The alternative, of course, is to grow one's own, and to that end the ad contains a table listing half a dozen of Mr Fotherfill's seeds, their estimated yield and the cost per kilo of yield, versus the average supermarket price of the same product.

I'm a strong believer in urban sustainability, growing your own, locavorism etc. But I'm surprised to see a company that ostensibly shares the same values presenting such a biased version of cost. First of all, I don't think $1,000 a year, for four people, is too much to pay for vegetables. Secondly, why do vegetables have to be 'cheap'? I think this is a great misnomer of our time, the cost of fresh produce. People are rejoicing that bananas are back down to $2 a kilo. Remember when they were more than $15? It was terrible!

Well, it was frustrating that a couple of bananas cost several dollars, but a cyclone had wiped out an enormous portion of supply. Lower supply + same demand = high prices. It's really simple market economics. And, frankly, I think $2 a kilo is an absurdly low price for a weighty product that doesn't grow within a thousand or more kilometres of Melbourne.

As Alla Wolf-Tasker - chef extraordinaire at the Lake House - says, 'There is no such thing as cheap food'.

A part of the marketing strategy for many supermarkets is advertising products that cost less than they did a year ago. I've always found that a bit strange, and the message I get from it is that we can't take their word on what a product 'costs'. Fresh produce should not sit at a fixed price. We should not expect to always be able to get apples for $6 a kilo or tomatoes for $4. We recognise that with the products that are still acknowledged as seasonal - mangoes, grapes, berries etc. But it goes for all of them.

Mr Fothergills does have a point though. Even though they ignore the cost of potting mix, plant food etc in their pricing of produce grown from their seed, at least a vegetable grown in your backyard demonstrates a truism more certain than market economics - you get out what you put in.

20 November, 2011

Vitamin WTF

VitaminWater are going all out with a new set of billboards advertising VitaminWaterZero, an improvement on VitaminWater10 because it's low calorie. That's a relief, cos all those calories in water have been bothering me...

Let's wind back a step here. They are advertising low-calorie water. Water. The stuff that comes out of the tap, made up of hydrogen and oxygen, rather than a bunch of carbohydrates that want to make friends with your hips.

I've been pretty flabbergasted over the last few years as these super-waters started, ahem, flooding the market. Bottled water is bad enough, with each 600ml bottle requiring about twice that much water to manufacture and distribute. Even advertisers tip their cap to the industry that has made so much money out of the ultimate free commodity.

But any product, no matter how successful, needs innovation to keep up the buying trend, so the gurus at Coca-Cola (Glaceau, who puts out VitaminWater, is a subsidiary of the soft drink giant) put their heads down and came up with stuff to put in the water to make it better for us. Advertising for VitaminWater is admirable - it's Gen Y styley with plenty of social media presence, and products spruiked to help in situations from hangovers ('get perky when you're feeling murky') to workouts ('more muscles than Brussels'). There's even VitaminWater 'uncapped' which sets out, armed with 600ml bottles of pick-me-up, to uncover the latest in music, sports and fashion.

The original VitaminWater10 range, with products names such as Focus, Revive and Spark, is pitched as a 'nutrient enhanced water beverage'. The liquid of life is improved with an alphabet of vitamins and flavours described as both fruit and 'other natural'.

They push the healthy line pretty hard: in the products area of the VitaminWater site, the interactive feature allows users to 'rollover to view nutrition info', which merely enlarges the front label of the bottle - already clearly visible - to zoom on the list of vitamins and additives such as taurine and chromium. It's a simple nutrition panel - it must be good for you!

So where, in amongst the -ins, -ines and -iums are the -oses? Where does sugar come into this? It seems pretty extraordinary that enough sweetener had been added all along to make it worth their while to bring out a whole new range that in effect spruiks the unhealthiness of the original product.

And it shits me that the conglomerates have carte blanche to take over the 'healthy' soapbox with 'enhanced water' (come on, it's a ridiculous phrase) when in fact that enhancement is in no small part sugar, the ingredient against which genuine health experts are fighting an uphill battle.

Hotbeautyhealth.com can't get enough of it. 'No more worries about high calories in our favorite beverages because Glaceau has come to the rescue creating Vitamin Water 10!' They spruik its benefits of only 10 calories per serving (although there are 2.5 servings in a standard bottle) and mentions three times how tasty it is, and as many times how 'natural' it is. 'Sounds unreal!'

My oath it does.

06 November, 2011

Fructose free III - at what cost?

I give great credit to Sacs in Westgarth. Formerly the wonderfully named Silly Yaks, this cafe and foodstore serves a full range of food suitable not only for a coeliac diet, but also for those avoiding fructose.

A range of breads, pasta and ready meals are available from the freezer, and the cafe offers pies, pizzas and sweets, all marked out as FF or GF. They even offer tarts with forbidden fructose-laden fruits, wherein the fruit has been cooked with dextrose, which binds with the fructose to carry it across the stomach wall, hence avoiding the deleterious effects of fructose malabsorption.

But...and this is a big but...their takeaway products are horrendously expensive. I ducked in this morning to look for some gluten-free breadrolls (pack of 4) so I could partake of burgers at home, as well as pastry to wrap around the mince we bought in readiness for sausage rolls. What would you expect to pay for two such pantry staples?


That's what the guy at the counter asked for. $10 for the rolls, $20 for the pastry. Most of their products aren't marked with a price, perhaps to avoid screams of the nature I swallowed as I calmly handed over enough food to feed myself for a week, in return for two pantry items. As I left the store, I imagined other uses for that $30. I could:

  • See two films at Nova as a RRR subscriber, and get a choc top
  • Buy one and half six packs of beer
  • Buy two bottles of very reasonable wine, or three bottles of Gran Sasso from that place on Lygon St
  • Travel to Yea and back, and back again, on the bus
  • When Tiger's in a good mood, fly to Tasmania
  • Buy three pairs of shoes from Green Collective
  • Revamp my summer wardrobe at Savers
  • Revamp my entire wardrobe at Salvos
  • Pick up a desk and drawers at Don Boscos
  • Eat at Don Dons five times
  • Get two courses and a glass of wine at innumerable Melbourne restaurants
Instead, for that money, I have two meal components, not even two complete meals.

Now, grumbling aside (and I confess that as I left the shop I was pretty grumpy), let's consider what this actually means. The food we stock our pantries with, despite protests to the contrary, is, in the main part, quite cheap. A large proportion of the population can't satisfactorily process a lot of wheat, yet white flour is a staple of our diet. It's cheap and easy to grow, harvest and mill, and it has just the right amount of stickiness - or gluten - that we've come to expect in everything from bread to muffins to pastry. And, thanks to monoculture farming, it keeps the costs of those types of products low.

So it's pretty scary when you step outside the protected world of mainstream groceries. Firstly, to discover how many alternatives there are - rice, tapioca, soy, barley, oat, buckwheat and maize flour to name some - and what the cost of production and distribution is when you don't have the back-up of a large corporation.

You can't just replace wheat flour one for one with another choice - to get a reasonable consistency you need a mix, so there is more involved in product development. And, not everyone likes it, so the market is smaller. However, not everyone likes stomach cramps and headaches after a sandwich either, so people like me who are trying to lessen health problems are faced with elevated costs for alternative items, in part because mainstream costs are kept so low.

Think about bananas. When they're $17 a kilo people get angry. But that's what they cost when supply is low. When they're $4 a kilo, noone's thinking about the fact that they're still travelling thousands of kilometres to fill the market in cooler climates. The cost of food isn't a static one, yet supermarkets push prices down on lead items as if they can control the weather. If stores stocked a range of bread products, the white flour options might cost a little more, but the alternatives would almost certainly cost a lot less.

I'm still thinking of other options for that $30, and while the cost will make the sausage sandwich I've got planned for lunch a little tougher to swallow, I can take some comfort from contributing to the possiblity of alternatives one day actually breaking into the mainstream. And the lack of physical symptoms afterwards will feel pretty good too.

27 October, 2011

Where's your kitchen?

An intriguing part of the cafe boom around Brunswick is the forebearance of installing a kitchen. It's a pretty vital part of the food-service industry, but many venues go instead for a food-preparation area of grill and sink behind the counter, with as much bench space given to the coffee machine and its accessories.

The breadth of cafe options in the area owes thanks to that decision - it is, of course, about cutting start-up costs, making it possible to make rent and offer high-quality coffee with a small range of breakfasts and lunches, often under or around $10.

But, when the crowds arrive - as they inevitably do in Brunswick - the limitations of the set-up become more obvious, with 45-minute waits for breakfast orders, since only one or two items can be prepared at once.

It's a relief to visit somewhere like Mixed Business in Clifton Hill to see a cafe with closer to a 50-50 split between customer and kitchen space. A kitchen laden with colanders, steaming pots, aproned and hatted cooks is discreetly visible at the back of a single, large, light room. Filled with mish-mashed wooden furniture, it's an echoey space, but customers are given enough room that conversation is still an easy proposition.

Similarly, a recent lunch at Pope Joan was over refreshingly quickly, since their enormous food-prep area - with a separate room at the back and a finishing station at the front, often staffed by owner Matt Wilkinson - gives them capacity to cope with the endlessly eager crowd of customers.

Congrats to said Mr Wilkinson also, for recently being crowned Australia's best sandwich maker. I can attest that the ones on offer at Pope Joan are fantastic!

17 October, 2011

Cheap as chips

Down at Bridie O'Reillys, Friday nights are a bargain...for them. How does only getting a fifth of your meal sound? (Maybe one of the loads of 'give aways' is the chance to win the other 80%...)

Click on the pic to see in larger detail.

12 September, 2011

Hungry City - Carolyn Steel

I've rarely enjoyed the pleasure of a non-fiction book that brings together so many of my favourite themes for consideration.

I came across Carolyn Steel as the presenter of the keynote address for this year's State of Design festival. Steel is an architect by trade, but some years ago started researching how the design of our cities reflects, is influenced by and (especially in modern cities) ignores our relationship with food and its supply.

Steel is a rapid and enthusiastic speaker, unable to resist delving into tangents, then berating herself for not sticking to the vital facts in her allotted time. Despite both the restrictions and diversion, she did an impressive job of precising much of the book's 300 pages of content in an hour. Steel is clearly intimately engaged with her subject and it's a further credit to her that the book is so nuanced; she doesn't run away with passionate polemic, but her message is forceful regardless.

So what is that message? Hungry City argues that we cannot persist with building cities that ignore the realities of food supply. The 'sustainable city' is a common theme in today's media, whether in discussions about more bike paths, urban gardening or solar power rebates. Steel's argument, however, is more fundamental than that. It's not about improving what we have, it's about rethinking design and paying closer attention to the chains of power that control the supply of food around the world.

This is also about much more than food miles, which themselves aren't a new phenomenon. In Ancient Rome, the citizens dined on delicacies from as far away as Egypt and Spain. Steel traces the history of town- and city-building back to Sumerian times, when the first zoned habitable areas appeared out of a need to store and trade grain. (Ironically, it was our evolution to eat grass, rather than just meat, that was the first step in the journey that led to today's megalopises - we were no longer limited to town sizes that could be supported by the amount of livestock within walking distance.)

The story travels from Sumeria to Rome to post-industrialisation, to the development of the shopping mall in mid-20th-century America, the decline of independent stores in Britain and absurd zoning allowances for megamarkets, all the way through to a futuristic city of vertical factories. It's a lot to stomach, but in a fulfilling way.

01 September, 2011

'Small World' - Matt Beaumont

In 2000, Matt Beaumont published e, a novel written entirely in email exchanges between the employees of an ego-drenched London advertising agency. Its humour and observations would appeal to any fans of The Gruen Transfer. I've followed his work since that first novel had me chuckling and referencing for days.

Where There's a Will continued the vein of comedy, but added a more bittersweet twist. It tells the story of Alvin, a perennial do-gooder, whose philanthropy is out of kilter with the cynicism and solipsism of those around him. It featured some wry and worthy observations, but the plot relied a little too heavily on coincidence and circumstance.

Enter Small World, wherein Beaumont combines key elements of both of those earlier novels, to varying effect. Clearly not one to be too limited by straight prose, but wanting something other than a modern 'epistolary' novel, Beaumont presents a story told from a dozen different perspectives. The first-person narrator switches within scenes, within pieces of dialogue, introduced simply by the character's name and a colon.

It's unbelievably off-putting at first, and my experience of this novel very nearly ended within twenty pages. We firstly meet a group of three married couples - tricky enough to remember who is friends with whom, who is married to whom, who fancies (or indeed stalks) whom. The perspectives then branch ever further: a policeman arrives at the house where the six are having a dinner party, and enters the first-person milieu. So does his girlfriend, who's the PA to one of the Original Six, a HR manager. So does the nanny of the HR manager, and the nurse she sees at the hospital when she takes her young charge for treatment. The nurse is the mother of the boyfriend of the shop assistant for another member of the Original Six (who is being stalked by the husband of the HR manager).

It's a complex latticework, and one that does stretch the boundaries of credulity a little bit. Some characters seem to be there just to add to the complexity - not all of them manage a distinctive voice, nor do all their stories contribute significantly to the overall plot momentum. The differences between each character voice are subtle for the most part, and that's one of the most curious elements of the novel. Normally books with multiple perspectives present each voice in large chunks, giving the reader time to get to know the character through their voice, mannerisms and reactions. With such rapid changes between perspective, there would be no narrative cohesion if Beaumont did that: the language remains much the same; at least it does between the white upper-class characters who make up the bulk of the cast. When it comes to Jenka, a Czech nanny, Beaumont is cruelly stereotypical and patronising, giving her broken, comedic English and furnishing her only with a desire to have her nose reshaped to look like Charlize Theron.

But what of the story? Just as this group of characters is implausibly connected (it would seem only ten or 15 people provide all the services and action in north London) their lives contain the melodrama of a daytime soap. Characters die, get attacked, have surgery, almost lose family members, end marriages, lose jobs and generally have a pretty shit time of it for much of the novel. For most, their saving grace is the power of the people around them to help, whether friends or strangers.

Beaumont weaves a tight web of interactivity, and with so many characters funnelling their experiences into the plot the reader is presented with several stereotypes - of mothers (or women desperate to be mothers) in particular. The connections between the characters do become ridiculous, especially with a long lost half-sister finding herself (unknowingly) on the same hospital ward as her sibling, although they live hundreds of kilometres apart. Perhaps, however, Beaumont was aiming for archetypes. With so many characters to empathise with, they need to be quickly sketched so we know who we're dealing with as the narrative perspective continually changes. (At times the perspective changes mid-dialogue just to give us a first-person reaction that could as easily have been described in the third-person.) The intended effect was perhaps to remind us of the propensity to find love and support in any of our relationships, and that anyone we meet could be connected to us in a way that means they deserve our respect and attention, rather than admonition and judgement.

Of course, attendant to that is the idea that people who do bad things could just as easily be closely connected to us. The 'bad guys' in Beaumont's novel are not fully redeemed, although they do reach a state of contrition.

In some ways, this novel can be compared to Christon Tsiolkas' The Slap (which has done very well in England), in that it details the machinations of a closely connected group of (mainly) young people, who are as connected to their urban environment as they are to each other. It does have some provocative themes. A character undergoing IVF is frank about the negative effect of the treatment on her emotions and the unfair impact this has on her husband. It has a character to match Harry, Tsiolkas' most hateful creation: Keith the policeman, an unsatisfiable arsehole of thwarted ambitions. Nannying and the respective responsibilities of paid help versus parents get a look-in as well.

The novel's ending is far brighter than much of the dark humour that has pervaded throughout, but given the licence taken with all these intersecting lives it's hardly surprising that things end up unrealistically cheesy as well. Beaumont manages to create enough intrigue for us to crave a conclusion, but I'm not convinced that this story and its message were strong enough on their own, separated from the conceit of multi-perspective narration.

17 August, 2011

Not so supermarket

Is there nothing supermarkets can't offer? Along with an astonishing special (who doesn't need five pairs of tissues at once? And how happy is this guy to be offering them?), they're also helping out with basic maths. That's right, five boxes for $5 equals...$1 a box. A division worthy of its exclamation mark.

Thanks Woolworths.

Only question is, how will I fit them on my bike?

09 August, 2011

'Little Sister' - Aimee Said

Al Miller is in Year 10 and living in the shadow of her pretty, popular, super-talented, super-respected older sister Larrie, who's about to do her Year 12 exams.

Using this simple, and common, story basis, Aimee Said has crafted a young-adult novel that covers an admirable number of areas of teenage angst, from identity to popularity to sexuality, in a plot that is both modern and believable. Said is young enough to remember what high school was like, but old enough to bring a degree of wisdom to her book. Most impressively, Said's novel doesn't patronise teenagers, but rather respects the issues it raises.

Social networking is a key issue in the novel. Facebook, blogs and mobile phones are used in the way that landlines and letters were when I was reading John Marsden: that is, the book doesn't draw undue attention to modern technology; it simply includes it as the current medium of communication. A particularly effective technique is included an imaginary status update for Al at the end of each chapter. There's a message in that technique: Al isn't putting those updates on Facebook; they're too personal, too honest. It's a reminder (as with several more overt plot points) that we still have multiple means of communication, and the internet is not the place to share everything.

Relationships work strongly in this book, without doting on backstory. As Al's best friend, Maz serves an archetypal role as the voice of reason. It's a common device in YA fiction - the more-sensible best friend - but, again, it's important as a reminder of the power of true friendship, of the existence of multiple opinions at a time when self-centredness can seem the only sane way forward. Al and Maz are friends with boys, and while there are romantic sub-plots for both of them, male-female friendships are presented without undue examination. I also liked that the backgrounds of the minor characters weren't unnecessarily fleshed out: one is wealthy, one has no father figure mentioned, but these aspects didn't need to be emphasised. The characters are granted idiosyncrasies, however, such as stinky feet or a predilection for counting cats. In a novel so concerned with identity, these touches help remind its target audience that we are all unique.

Most significantly, the book explores teenage sexuality in an exceptionally mature and empathetic fashion. 'Woman-identifying woman' is the school counsellor's uber-PC term for lesbians, and it's a subtle jab at society's ongoing awkwardness around terminology and acceptance. The book looks at the experience of coming out from several perspectives: those of siblings, friends, bullies and, admirably, parents and other adult figures. Social media, sexuality and science collide for an effective examination of how a teenager not only figures out who they are, but how they are going to tell the world.

I'm so impressed with Said's use of language, and repeated terms that capture the essence of exploratory adolescence. In her earlier novel, Finding Freia Lockhart, the titular character regularly took time out for 'boogie breaks', dancing to her heart's content in her bedroom, often until interrupted by a 'death stare' from her cat. The death stare is replaced in Little Sister by the stinkeye. As in the first novel, swear words are kept to a minimum, with 'shiz' proving an effective replacement (although the one use of the f-word in Freia nails a cathartic moment!). She makes great use of strikethroughs and brackets to add asides to the reader, again paying respect to her audience in acknowledging that they understand what's going on at a deeper level.

I found Little Sister laugh-out-loud funny at times, but it doesn't trivialise adolescence. The problems of identity and peer pressure are genuine, and pressure on young adults is surely only increasing as the global village shrinks ever further and we increasingly express and share our emotions via pixels. This novel is both quietly cautionary and strongly affirming.

Monsieur Truffe and friends

Monsieur Truffe: 351 Lygon St, Brunswick East; (03) 9380 4915
Kumo: 152 Lygon St, Brunswick East; (03) 9388 1505

The Resurrection: 135 Lygon St, Brunswick East (no phone)

What's happening in Brunswick East? Everything, seems to be the answer.

This isn't the first time this blog, and many others, have talked about the changes to the northern end of Lygon St. In the five or more years I've lived in this part of the world, a string of cafe, bar and restaurant owners have made this part of town their own, joining several pioneers and stayers in the industry already here. Either all those people are very savvy in their business models, or East Brunswickians are generous with their custom. Very few of the places whose birth I've witnessed have closed and some of them, even years after opening, can be tough to get into at times.

It appears the second half of 2011 will see a whole new wave of big names making Lygon St their home. In the space of 24 hours I came across three new 'name' venues opening along one stretch.

First up is Kumo, an izakaya and sake bar. These Japanese style 'pubs' are pretty hot right now - Maedaya in Richmond and Izakaya Den in the city have garnered plenty of press attention. It's a smart move opening up on the stretch of Lygon already home to Rumi and Bar Idda - this part of Brunswick doesn't do a lot of 'cool Asian'. There's Thaila Thai, sure, and neighbourhood spots such as Satay Anika and Kake di Hatti. For Japanese, there's Matsumoto down the street and Iku Yakitori on Sydney Rd.

But Kumo is run by a 'Japanophile', Andre Bishop, who studied sake in the land of the rising sun. It's early days: Three Thousand mag reports they opened on 5 August, and their website is still 'coming soon'. From the exterior though it sure looks the part, having completely rejuvenated a corner spot that used to be a kids' toy store.

Better known in Melbourne hospitality circles is Jerome Borazio, he of Jerome's Bar, the Laneway Festival and Ponyfish. He's opened a new bar - also with a soft launch on 5 August - across the road and down a bit from Kumo, busting in on The Alderman and Atticus Finch territory. You can find more details on Facebook.

The third is the triumvirate is Monsieur Truffe, which has its existing home on Smith St, Collingwood (another stretch of real estate making like a Monopoly set with restaurants popping up like hotels). Thibault Fregoni has opened an atelier, wherein he will make artisan chocolate from cocoa beans, a first for Melbourne. On sale are a variety of high-end chocolate products (truffles, button, 'thins'), along with a small cafe menu including Noisette bread and croque monsieur. The small menu is at odds with the size of the cafe - this place is huge! Warehouse sized, it features two large communal tables, several smaller tables with banquette seating, and some bar stools from which you can look at the chocolate making machinery.

Their mocha is an intense, deep, dark chocolate and caffeine fix that will have you humming until well into the afternoon.

04 August, 2011


500 Victoria St, North Melbourne; (03) 9329 5228

Degustations really are gourmet at its best.

The first time I settled in for a degustation I couldn't wrap my tongue around the pronunciation. True, I was in Italy, and struggling to keep up with the emphases as I grappled with languages across Europe. We drank Montepulciano and Vernaccia di San Gimignano, appropriate as that was the very town we sat in. We snacked on sumptuous plates of meat while looking at this view:
Degustation experiences have been thin on the ground in my homeland, but I had the pleasure of one recently, on a weekend redolent with indulgence.

A close friend visiting from Sydney, who used to live in Melbourne, realised that there was no reason not to spend an entire weekend between bars, cafes and restaurants. An excellent notion of gourmet travel, to my mind. I happily signed up for the full tour, the highlight of which was an eight-course degustation, with wine, at North Melbourne's Libertine.

We lined up at 6:30 and rolled out, suitably stuffed but also wonderfully nourished, after 11. It doesn't get any better than sitting in a plush room - in this case at a table with wedge-shaped chairs that looked like pieces of pie nestled in a Trivial Pursuit token - and having kind, informative people bring you food and wine for four and a half hours.

We started with an amuse bouche of pumpkin and cauliflower soup. This simple taster stayed with me so that the following week I endeavoured to make it for dinner with the same velvety creaminess. I thought I was pretty generous with the dairy, but it wasn't a patch on this offering, which was as rich as it was petite.
The dishes proper started off-season, with a plate of slivered artichoke and courgette with chevre, toasted grains, quail egg and salsa verde. Great colours, with the vibrant greens of the veg and verde clashing against the brighter egg and cheese. The grains add both textural and colour contrast.

Wine: 2009 Fontenille blanc, Sem/Sav blanc (Bordeaux)

The next plate was matched the colours of the first nicely, but presented a different flavour spectrum. This time we have King George whiting with avocado mousse, almond, radish, lemon olive oil. Avocado is a smooth substance as it is, and moussed it was quite sublime. The thinnest of radish slivers added extra crunch (as did fish bones in one of the dozen pieces of whiting delivered to the table).
Wine: 2008 Labet Bourgogne blanc Vielles vignes, Chardonnay (Burgundy)

For many, fine French dining is synonymous with rich, decadent foods such as foie gras. I was at a table with several veterinary scientists, and we debated the merits of that cruel and indulgent dish. Our waiter informed us it was only on the menu as it was so close to Bastille Day - the chef doesn't cook it otherwise, but he was still using up the 14 July supply. It came in two forms - foie gras brulee and mousse - served with with olive dust and apricot smear. Highly enjoyable in the mouth, if not on the conscience.
Wine: 2007 Gunderloch Redstone Riesling (Rheinhessen, Germany)

After that indulgence it was time to cleanse, with this rather unusual shot of basil seeds
Happily more recognisable food was on its way: roasted duck breast and leg with persimmon Armagnac jus, peas and baby leeks (well, leek). This was my favourite dish of the evening. It looked great on the plate, with a scattering of Brussels sprout leaves. The jus was rich, the peas were sweet, and the meat was succulent.
Wine: 2007 Willm Pinot noir (Alsace, France)

More meat followed, this time Moondarra wagyu steak with pied et paquet, sauce bordelaise and potatoes. The rest of the diners had made a no-offal request at the start of the meal. Me, I'm pretty partial to the extra bits of animal, and through the pied et paquet the chef snuck some onto our plates. In the traditional Marseilles version, this is a packet of tripe and trotters. Ours came across as more of a dry sausage in uncooked casing. It did it for me, but not for most of the table :)
Wine: 2005 Ch√Ęteau Lucas Cote de Castillon. Merlot/Cab Sav (Bordeaux)

And so we came to the end of the savoury side of things. That didn't mean we were at the end of the good stuff. Au contraire, on the way was this marvellously named, and marvellous tasting, cumquat and Cointreau souffle, with a simply delicious dessert wine to savour alongside.
Wine: 2007 Tendresse de Jurque, Gros/petit manseng (Jurancon, France)

A few apple jellies, madeleines and marshmallows later, we were on our way into a chilly night, deeply satisfied.
The whole meal, wine included, was $150. Without the wine its $95. Given what we could have spent on a three-course fine dining meal with a bottle of wine or several between six of us, I think this represented superb value dining.

'The Hippopotamus' - Stephen Fry

Recently I had cause to answer the question: who do you rank among the cleverest minds of our time? It's one of those frustrating enquiries, for which you know you've come across candidates, but put on the spot it can be hard to come up with a good answer, one that doesn't seem trite or obvious.

A day or so later, the perfect answer came into my mind: Stephen Fry. He is, irrefutably, a clever man. And one who has used being clever as a means to a very successful career. Watching him weekly on 'QI', one can never quite tell how much of the copious knowledge he spouts comes from research he's done for that specific show, the notes on the cards in front of him, or simply out of the larger-than-average font of knowledge that encompasses his brain.

In The Fry Chronicles, his autobiography, Fry endeavoured to affect a humility, a sense of 'Oh shucks, I'm such a lucky chap, I really don't know what I've done to deserve this good fortune'. He's routinely generous in praise for his friends - Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Ben Elton (a joke-writing machine), Douglas Adams etc - and just as self-deprecating about his own talents. At the same time, he can't escape the fact that he's in a position to share his life story in a form that is likely to sell very well indeed, because of the very gifts he's keen to downplay, even dismiss. He must, of course, be acutely aware that he is, in fact, famous and that he's using the skills that have brought him to fame to his advantage.

The Fry empire covers making documentaries and TV series, acting in a few films, hosting a quiz show and stage shows, tweeting, and writing screenplays and novels. The Hippopotamus tells the story of Ted Wallace, a cantankerous old upper-class poet, fired from his job as newspaper drama critic, who is sent to the palatial Norwich home of his old school chum Michael Logan at the behest of his goddaughter, to investigate and report back on 'miracles' seemingly performed by the Logans' son. The hippopotamus of the title refers to Ted himself - he is a fat, wallowing, difficult creature.

Stephen Fry is a man for whom I have a great deal of respect, but this is not a good book. This novel is an expurgation - it's Fry getting out all the witty turns of phrase, all the horrid toffee-nosed characters whose seeds have been planted in his writerly mind as he mingles ever more frequently with the highest British society. It's a chance for him to write about women salaciously, and frankly, it's all quite appalling.

The storyline is absurd, and isn't at all helped by the multiple storytelling methods. Ted is hard enough to like, without his characterisation coming variously from his own voluminous letters to his goddaughter, first person narration, third person observation and stitled dialogue from other characters.

Here's Fry, as Wallace, describing lunch:

Luncheon lies between the servantless breakfast served from tureens and the formal fig-feast of dinner in ceremony as in chronology. The library serves as the muster station and pre-prandial lapping-pool of choice; thence we are gonged to the dining room for solids....the imbibal of anything stronger than iced water is uncommon
Language and topics throughout are trite, contrived, pompous and pretentious. Entirely suitable, perhaps, given the class of Brits Fry is depicting.

There's also a scene with a horse that goes where Daniel Radcliffe presumably didn't go on stage in Equus. Call me squeamish but it was a bit more than I was up for.

01 August, 2011

Are you mad about Harry?

HP VII 2...sounds more like a printer model than a movie. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2) was released, I made no effort to organise to see it. I felt my patience had been exhausted by the franchise, and I had never reconciled my cynicism at them splitting the last of the movies into two parts.

I've wondered many times why I found that decision so insupportable. While I assumed it was done purely for financial gain, I don't know that that's the case. To be fair, though, they were only able to choose to split it due to the outrageous success of the proceeding six movies. And the extra box-office takings couldn't have been entirely absent from their considerations.

Could I give the production team credit for wanting to do justice to a book whose release was more anticipated than perhaps any in history by alloting it five or six hours on screen rather than three? Well...not after seeing part one, which wasn't even a film, but rather a lot of stitched together CGI and (admittedly) effecting camera techniques wrapped around an uncohesive plot. When you look at the fifth and sixth films in isolation, it is galling for the audience - the arrogance of the film house to make something that absolutely doesn't make sense unless you've followed the rest of the franchise closely. That would be OK if we viewed Harry in a cinematic vacuum - if there were dedicated cinemas that just screened each instalment (and it's kind of surprising that there aren't). But all eight of these films have gone into the mainstream, up against other films, whether blockbuster or independent. And as an audience member I feel that something that grosses hundreds of millions of dollars - at the expense of smaller productions - should make sense in its own right.

I have heard the argument that the Harry films perhaps present a paradigm of movie-going for the new generation, who don't need to be fulfilled at the cinema. Anyone who saw Part 2 (which I did, at another's instigation) was bombarded with advertising for merchandise around the film (which almost saw me give up and leave before the film even started). For the game- and tech-savvy audience member, perhaps the film is a taster for what's to come on Nintendo, or their own explorations via social media. It's a fair point. Again, I don't know if it's true, and it certainly doesn't speak to my preferred version of movie-going.

Knowing I was going to see the last of the films, I borrowed Book 7 to read it again. I hadn't yet finished the section of story portrayed in the first film by the time I saw the second. Being more familiar with the story, however, was definitely a help and I did find myself far more taken with the final instalment than with the two preceding it. Despite that, however, I wasn't nearly as taken with the film as I was with the book, which drips with angst, remorse, guilt and longing on every page. While the movies are hard to understand for what they leave out, the book is laden with detail as Rowling winds up the intricacies and complexities of this multi-thousand page story.

And therein arose again some of my angst. Even with the split into two, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the movie, still left out a lot of story, and a lot of explanation. In my opinion, it could have been a great, single film. Viewers have argued that Part 1 allowed the filmmaker to establish the boredom and frustration inherent in the search for Horcruxes. A filmmaker worth those kind of box-office takings shouldn't need an extra two hours to do that. We could have had angst, arguments and action in one memorable three-hour instalment.

What Part 2 did do for me was push buttons. I wept and blubbered my way through all the revelations, which made it a good emotional experience, but one I didn't need to wait an extra year for. When it finished I felt like we'd reached the end of the longest movie ever made, which in some ways we have. An eight-part continuation of a single story is as good as unprecedented in the movie world.

26 July, 2011

'The Tipping Point' - Malcolm Gladwell

Non fiction has crept into my reading habits, seemingly of its own volition. It's partly come from maturing interests - wanting to know more about the social issues I believe in than what comes from media and conversation.

Although it's the medium I mostly write in, I don't always enjoy reading it, and often find it frustrating. The genres of non fiction are just as diverse as those of fiction, and I don't mean only the breakdown between biography, sport, science etc. Tastes and styles bring as much to bear on the reader experience.

I tried reading The Brain that Changes Itself, because it came up so repeatedly in conversation. I couldn't gel with the book's style at all. It seemed to oversimplify, to talk down to its audience, and while that may have been a conscious decision to expand its market, I don't come to the topic of neuroplasticity expecting to be patronised rather than challenged.

I started The Accidental Billionaires, but as recorded it was more about sensationalism than story, and I was after accurate history rather than cobbled conjecture.

I came to Malcolm Gladwell via many recommendations, and his subject matter held a lot of promise. The Tipping Point examines social epidemics and how behavioural trends - whether in retail, business or a neighbourhood - go viral. For a lot of the book I was conscious of that familiar non-fiction malady, wherein the author seems to contradict themselves or not take into account a glaringly important element in the point they're trying to prove. Gladwell always managed to come back by the end of the chapter, however, and correct or explain himself.

Even while Gladwell was frustrating me and I was feeling dubious about his thoroughness, I found I kept bringing him up in conversation. This is part of what has made him such a successful author - he takes parts of society that we perhaps had never thought to analyse, but which are nevertheless familiar and recognisable, and constructs believable, relatable pscyho-social theory around them. The world really is full of Connectors (someone about whom you'd say 'They know everyone'), Mavens (the people you turn to when you need information or a good recommendation) and Salesmen, the three personality types critical for spreading a social epidemic. Some of the studies he cites are fascinating - like the Gore company (manufacturers of Gore-Tex) who have discovered that business camaraderie and effectiveness drastically reduces with working groups of more than 150 people. Sometimes, though, I couldn't help thinking, as apt and interesting as many of his examples were, one or two studies in the history of social behaviour does not a law make. I guess, though, if I wanted proof, I'd be reading his journal articles and academic papers, not a book for the mainstream.

It seems that sometimes in non fiction the author asks you to suspend your beliefs for a little while - just as sometimes in fiction you need to go along with some poetic licence to get the plot and/or character where they need to be. Perhaps, once I learn to read for fiction techniques in non fiction, rather than just using them in my writing, I'll find it less frustrating.

20 June, 2011

New York - American classics

The great thing about travelling to New York is that you're not really in America. It's historically one of the most liberal regions in the country, and New Yorkers will tend to introduce themselves as such, not as Americans. The various boroughs and neighbourhoods of the city are so delineated they're like individual states within a small country. Small in size only, though - if New York were its own country, in terms of population it would be in the top 60 countries in the world, just behind Sri Lanka and only a few spots below Australia.

So, in travelling to New York, we weren't expecting to experience the worst of American cuisine too frequently: overlarge meals with melon-sized baked potatoes oozing over half a cow, while cheese the consistency of clingfilm tries, and fails, to melt, all washed down with a soda the size of a petrol tank. By and large, we experienced excellent modern food in New York, but we did hit up against the occasional American classic.

If you've read any American kids' books you know that they love a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. One of the great secrets of childhood is that they don't mean jelly, but jam! Who'd have thunk? And who'd have thunk it'd be so darn good? No wonder they're all eating it:At Bagel Express, you pick from a dozen or so types of bagel, and, alongside all manner of fillings, are about 20 'spreads and smears' (the latter of which is never comforting to ask for!). I ordered this spread on a whim as soon as I saw it on the list, and it works better than you might think - but check out how much there is! I couldn't get my tongue off the roof of my mouth for hours :)

When it comes to bagels, my favourite bagel shop name was in Boston - Finagle-A-Bagel. I love it because a) it rhymes, b) 'finagle' is such an awesome word to say and c) to finagle is to get something by deception, which seems an unlikely, but kind of charming, choice of name for a shop!

One thing we didn't get in America at all was enormous serving sizes. Part of the confusion around that may be that America inexplicably uses the word 'entree' in place of main, as on this menu from Russell House Tavern in Boston.An 18oz ribeye steak is not a 'beginning' to a meal in anyone's book (except maybe Elvis'. And, to digress momentarily, has anyone else noticed the Elvis sandwich, with some variation on peanut butter, bacon and bread cropping up around town? Auction Rooms, Red Door, Bluebird Espresso...). We did sample said steak, however:along with the seared arctic char, a fish whose texture falls in between trout and salmon:
Actually, I tell a lie. There was one meal that involved an unbelievably large serving size. Carnegie Deli is one of those places I knew about, and put on my to-do list, without having any idea how or where I'd heard about it. Finding ourselves peckish for lunch on the way to Central Park, it seemed serendipitous to divert a couple of blocks to grab a pastrami on rye.

If you know what you're in for, I'm sure Carnegie is easy. I didn't, and felt as out of my depth as if I were ordering in a Hebrew-only restaurant. What I came out with was $17.37 less cash, and this behemoth:I made so many attempts at making a dent in this thing, but given it was impossible to pick up and eat like a sandwich from your lap, I essentially just picked at pastrami all afternoon. And I've gotta say, it was fucking good pastrami.

Easily the worst meal we had in the States was at Bill's Bar and Burger, at the Rockefeller Plaza. Other than said lunch, it was undoubtedly one of the best days of the trip, with a trip to MoMa in the morning, extended views from Top of the Rock, and dinner at Babbo that night. The burger was in fact so bad that it was almost cool to have experienced it.

It is many years since I've eaten anything prepared under the golden arches, but it turns out the taste of a McDonalds burger stays with you even longer than the trans fat, and this sandwich took me right back. Sweet bun, grotty patty, and just look at the cheese, which looks more like yellow cling film than a dairy product. Thanks for the extra pickle, by the way - something about a balanced meal?

If that hasn't turned your stomach enough, check this out:On the Amtrak train from New York to Montreal, the dining car offered 'fresh' sandwiches. Pictured above is the ham and cheese version, and this is the ingredient list:
Luckily the views and seating made up for the shortfalls in food on offer.

New York - food shopping

Travelling in America for the first time is like experiencing a walk-through guidebook that explains references from TV shows and movies. Not that I saw a Twinkie while I was there...I still don't know what that is. Or the joy of Pottery Barn. But I did have graham crackers sprinkled over a frozen yoghurt.

Seeing Whole Foods supermarkets put me in mind of Reality Bites: (Lelaina to Troy): 'Oh Troy, that'll never happen. They would never hire you at Whole Foods!'.

In general, I love visiting supermarkets overseas, and at least in this case everything was in English so I could actually read what all the products were. That didn't make the shopping experience any less surprising, however. The Whole Foods is an interesting beast - it promises sustainability and commitment to quality, local produce. Which is great, except that the place is enormous, with every department on a scale that seems entirely at odds with their professed philosophy.

America is full of contradictions like that. For a country battling massive obesity problems, they're incredibly open about what is in their foods, and quite calorie obsessed. Of course, there are two problems there: knowing what's in your food means nothing if you don't know what you should be avoiding, and calories are far from the most important thing to consider in ensuring you're eating healthily.

To give an inkling of the Whole Foods, here is merely their mushroom selection:Over a dozen types and, in the bottom left of the picture is their egg range - not just chicken, but quail and duck too.

Alongside a riotously colourful fresh produce section, complete with a map of local ingredients, they had pre-chopped vegies - both individual and mixed - available to buy by weight. Similarly, at the Granola Bar you could weigh out all your preferred muesli options to combine at home. The serve-and-weigh bars kept coming: salad, hot desserts, hot breakfast, They even had jars of egg white and pre-boiled eggs.

For the vegans, how about some Cluckphrey Chic-a-Roo chicken nuggets, that, of course, aren't chicken, although they manage to look and sound as scary as a McNugget!

The more-is-better theme so amply demonstrated by the mushrooms at Whole Foods continued in our food shopping. A place very high up on my to-go list was Eataly, Mario Batali's Italian food emporium. I knew it was big - Batali is a chef with an empire of 16 restaurants, bars and shops in at least three states - but I didn't know it was going to be massive. Think of the Mediterrenean Wholesalers, but bigger, flashier and full of tourists and Upper West Siders. Eataly has a coffee bar, confectionery section, meat counter, deli, pizza bar, fresh produce, a birreria, fresh pasta...even a manifesto.

Coming from a suburb where often the smallest and least showy cafes have the best reputation, it took some time to adjust to the city that came up with the Bigger is Better idea.
We also ate at Batali's flagship restaurant, Babbo. That was an experience filled with its own flamboyance. More on that to come...

We also sourced a meal from Chelsea Market. It's right next to the Highline, and a great way to spend a warm New York evening is to devour food from the former while people-watching on the latter. Our dinner came from Buon Italia, who served up Italian meals and cooked vegetables by weight. Note to travellers: remember that pounds and kilograms are not equivalent amounts! $14.99 a kilo is fine for slices of parmigiana, cooked mushrooms etc, but when it's actually $14.99 a pound that makes it $40 a kilo, which is getting into current banana-price territory :)

And one quick food-shopping find: Burdick Chocolate on East 20th St, just off 5th Avenue a few blocks down from Eataly, does these adorable individual chocolate penguins and mice. They come boxed singly, or in groups, and let's face it, are way too cute to eat!

19 June, 2011

New York - brunch

They love to brunch in New York. And when I say brunch, I mean something more than just a snazzy word combination to describe a mid-morning meal, something more than ordering off the breakfast menu late in the day.

Most cafes have a completely separate brunch menu, available only at set times on the weekend, normally something like 11-4. In most cases, the menu also covers cocktails - often one (or more) is included along with your meal. It's a dining tradition I'm quite keen on and its absence on these shores is leaving my Sundays feeling a little bland and disappointing in comparison.

The only frustrating thing about New York's winning brunch arrangements is that they're only available on weekends - even as happy-go-lucky tourists you can't take advantage of a quiet Thursday to knock back a few complimentary bloody marys with your poached eggs. So, when it came to the weekend, brunch was our priority tourist destination.

Within 36 hours of landing in New York, we'd been to Brooklyn twice. Our initial, jetlag-avoiding meander south from Houston Street led us to City Square, site of the striking Municipal Building and start of the Brooklyn Bridge. Never one to let debilitating tiredness and crazed melatonin levels get in the way of a travel opportunity, we duly crossed said bridge, and found ourselves incapable of much more than an atrophied rest in the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Even the attractions of a Calexico cart couldn't lure us to our first sample of street food.

The next day we crossed the river again, via subway this time, to hit the Brooklyn Flea Market, featuring the Smorgasburg food market. I held myself to a doughnut at the markets, however. As Brooklyn is gentrified by up-and-comers escaping the $800K median apartment price tag in Manhattan, it's embracing the cafe culture big time, and I had a whole list of possible places to brunch at.

One was Milk Bar, famous in these parts for having an Australian, indeed Melbournian, barista, who can make a 'proper' latte. Seems the Americans are loving it Aussie style too - the place was pumping full when we went past.

Instead we trudged (jetlag and heat don't really put a spring in your step) an extra couple of blocks to The Spot, home of the unlimited mimosa brunch. That's right - you promise to pay them $12.95 and in return you can pick anything off the menu and they will refill your glass with bubbles and orange juice as much as you like. Rather than the hiss of the coffee machine, this cafe resonated with popping corks.

The thing was, we were both ragged with jetlag, and unlimited drinks coupled with fatty food on a hot day was probably a recipe for....well, indulging in the crazy, nonsensical kind of things you do on holidays, really.

So, SG went a safe option with the pancakes, for which the customer could choose their own filling, his taste running to strawberry and blueberry. The great North American condiment, real maple syrup, came jugged on the side.

Without elaborating, the waiter advised that the 'French toast Spot style' was pretty special. I figured, when in Rome, and all that, and ordered according to his recommendation.Thank you, I will have my French toast deep-fried. The special addition was the cream cheese on the inside. It really wasn't that bad, and let's face it, we were drinking all the sparkling wine we wanted for the price of a sandwich at Earl, so there wasn't much to complain about.

To celebrate this, our first New York brunch, and to recover from imbibing alcohol and ingesting plenty of fat, sugar and dairy midday, we promptly went home and went to sleep :)

The next day we went back for more, this time keeping it much closer to home, needing only to trudge four doors down from our apartment to Jane. This was a fancier place than The Spot, overrun with good-looking Villagers. We perched at the bar, and spent as long picking a complimentary cocktail (raspberry champagne) as the food.
Here we have corn 'pancakes' (the discs sitting under the eggs), topped with perfectly poached eggs, maple chicken sausage and tomato hollandaise. Alongside are the home fries (it took us a while to hit upon genuine fries, rather than wedges). The maple sausage in particular was delicious. I love maple syrup in baked beans, and discovered in America what wonders it can do for meat as well.

Prune came to our attention via a friend's recommendation. It's in an unassuming street in the East Village, and I think exemplifies New York's weekend dining scene. Rammed inside, anxious groups hovered outside, awaiting and cursing missing friends who prevented them from being seated. The hostess ran the show with authority, in some cases seeming to fit people in at whim. The cafe's popularity was proven by diners who arrived unfazed by the prospect of a 40-minute wait.

We were seated within a couple of minutes (must have been of those hostess whim things). I'd been after something straightforward - a toast and scramble kind of thing, with cocktails, of course. The menu didn't present as straightforward, and it soon became clear that this was a cafe that took brunch very seriously. They've nailed the idea of a mix of sweet and savoury dishes - often both elements on the one plate - to fill the late-morning to early-afternoon eating requirements of cashed-up kids on the weekend.

Our choices were thus:Dutch-style pancake, with blueberries and coulis, served with sour cream and Canadian maple bacon. This was so delicious. The pancake was risen in the oven, rather than a pan, and it was like sitting down to a sponge cake for breakfast. The blueberries soaked right in, and offset by the salty, smoky bacon, it was just divine.

This was on the menu simply as 'spicy chickpea stew', but it was so much more. The (not very spicy) chickpea and tomato stew does form the basis, but sitting atop are two wonderful things: crumbed poached eggs, which held their runniness throughout the meal. Astride the plate are two pieces of flatbread, spread with the most decadently salty olive butter. I'd have paid the price of admission just for that.

So much for scramble on toast!

New York - pizza

I'm sometimes surprised at how habitually SG and I eat pizza when we're away. We make it and/or order it at least once a week when we're at home but even so, whenever we're travelling, it comes up on the food menu pretty quickly.

We tried three pizzas in New York. We started on our first night, languishing under the burden of jetlag and envying the rest of the city their enthusiasm for Friday night. We ate at Benito II, in Little Italy. It was hardly a little out-of-the-way find, but walking was tough enough, let alone hunting down and discerning between restaurants.

We got their primavera pizza, offering seasonal vegetables, which turned out to be broccoli, mushrooms, and beans. Green beans. Not a toppping I'd seen on a pizza before. The topping choices were weird, but the base and the overall dish were fine. The base was thicker and crispier than we're used to, and quite biscuity.

Two Boots pizza was a food option I'd noted from a random article in the New York Times I'd read months before eating. We came across an outlet in the food court beneath Grand Central Terminal, and a slice each provided the perfect snack/dinner before heading for a late-night visit to the Empire State Building.
This is their pepperoni and mushroom pizza, and for ready-sliced pizza in a public transport food court it was pretty darn good. Much more in the thinner, floppy-base style than the other pizzas we tried while away. Two Boots are all over the city - worth checking on the basis of this sample.

Across Thompson St from our apartment was Arturo's, clearly something of a Greenwich Village institution. Customers spilled out to the sidewalk tables every night, and the sounds of live music and carousing from the inside bar and restaurant slipped through the door with the constant coming and goings. A New York ingenue, who could have been anything from 16 to 30, perched on a railing outside the door and guided customers to their preferred type of table with precision - heavens forfend another staffer seat anyone or bring them menus.

Their pizzas, despite our hostess' assertions that they were the 'best in Manhattan', really weren't that good, to my taste. They weren't bad, they were just in that older, thicker-based style that doesn't get served up in many pizzerias or trattorias round these parts. The meat didn't seem to be anything special, the cheese was just cheese (though not as oily as you get out here, at least). They're big on the coal-fired oven over there, and I don't know if that's imparting less distinction to the dough and toppings.

What was most notable about our meal at Arturo's was the arrival of this fire engine. It clanged past, then braked and deadset reverse parked right in front of the restaurant. It made enough noise that the boutique-dressed and coiffed lady next to us, who hadn't disengaged from her iPhone to talk to her partner or partake in ordering food, had to head round the corner to continue her conversation. Six firies jumped down from the truck and headed in for a slice of pie.

17 May, 2011

'Crossing to Safety' - Wallace Stegner

Who is Wallace Stegner? He's a twentieth century midwest American writer, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. He's renowned in Utah, where he grew up, and commemorated at the west-coast university where he taught creative writing with a writing award.

But he's not an author who has received much attention in Australia. Crossing to Safety was his last novel, released in 1987, a full fifty years after his first. According to the book jacket, Australia started at the end with Stegner, as this was his first title to be published here. It carries endorsement from no less than Tim Winton, who calls Crossing to Safety a 'wise and good book...I with [it] was one of mine'.

It is certainly a book of an old writer. (Stegner was almost 80 when it was published.) It's a reflective story, beginning with Larry Morgan arriving at a remote Vermont lake compound with his crippled wife, Sally, to meet their lifelong friends, Charity and Sid Lang. Charity is terminally ill, and, as befits her character, has summoned those closest to her in her final days to farewell her life as she decrees. It's obvious much time has passed since the two couples last saw each other - a gap born of argument or disagreement, or the reality of dispersed living?

Gentle tensions exist throughout the book. Stegner has a storyteller's mastery of suspense. Not edge-of-your-seat, monster-under-the-bed suspense, but rather genuine drama, a level of engagement that makes you care if characters are about to be hurt or disappointed.

What is most apparent in this novel's style is that it is a straightforward story. Yes, there are two timelines, but they rarely intersect. For the majority of the novel we are in the thirties, when pregnant women drank and a hotel cost a couple of bucks. Stegner recounts the relationship between wealthy, effervescent Sid and Charity, and poor, ambitious Larry and Sally in measured tones, taking his time over details. About two thirds of the way through he starts to drop hints of a drama to come, which is duly played out in the novel's last third.

You notice while reading it how rarely a novel these days is able to simply tell a story. Stegner allows himself one trope - Larry, the protagonist, is a writer, and he comments on the process of writing within the story, which, we assume, he is in fact penning in character as a memoriam of a lasting friendship. It's a little cliched, particularly in the beginning of the third act, when we return to modern day and Larry and Sally at the Langs' Vermont lakehouse. The Morgans breakfast with Sid and Charity's daughter, catching up on the events the reader has missed in the many years not recounted in detail. For a few pages, it's straight exposition dressed up as dialogue, and it jars a little. Mainly because up until then Stegner has relied on the poetry of his own prose to reveal intimacies, rather than characters delivering it in straight voice. But perhaps any hint of cliche only comes from so many authors repeating this style in the literature of the last thirty years.

Although the novel is adamant about its time setting - the Depression is a significant backdrop - it resonates more than once with issues that reveal themselves as timeless. Take this dinner-time discussion with 'Uncle Richard', a publisher whom Charity is hoping to woo into taking on Larry's novel:

'Uncle Richard...suggested that publishing was not a charitable enterprise. He named six titles on his fall list that he would be unable to publish if he weren't able to count on the sales of this one that Sid thought shouldn't have been published at all.

Being an academic table, we began deploring the level of popular taste. Only junk seemed to sell. Wasn't there any market for good, serious, intelligent, well-written books? There must be. Couldn't you count on a good book's finding an audience - small, maybe, but enough to carry it?'

e-books face a lot of competition for the role of being the end of the printed word.

16 May, 2011

Fructose free II: good and bad

On a low-fructose finding trip to the Organic Wholefoods during the week, I had a win and a loss. The winner was this bread:

Part of the Ancient Grains range, it's made from barley flour. It took a bit of research to confirm this as fructose friendly. It didn't come up in a lot of lists, which either meant I shouldn't be eating it or it just wasn't common enough to be counted. Interestingly, googling 'fructose' and 'barley' returned a lot of mentions of Subway. It's certainly a sweet bread, and I can imagine it contributing to those sickly fast-food buns.

The loaf is so delicious I'm still doubting its health value. And it actually comes with decent-sized slices. One of the problems of seeking alternative breads is that you so often get tiny loaves that are a struggle to make into sandwiches. It's years since I bought bread at a supermarket, but at $4.70 I'd say this loaf is giving some of the big bakers a run for their money.

The loss was this block of chocolate.
When you were a kid, did you ever sniff a jar of cocoa, then eat a spoonful, disbelieving that the smell and taste of something could be so opposed? This chocolate tastes like that cocoa. Which is fair enough, given the chocolate we know and love only tastes like it does because of all that sugar. But I'm endeavouring to cut down on sweet snacks, and thought this could substitute for my sugar addiction. As it is, I'll either cook with it, or douse it with some rapadura sugar to add the sweetness back in! I'll be better off sticking with organic chocolate that eschews processed sugar, and there are options for that within this same brand.

12 May, 2011

The hard stuff

There's a street in my 'hood that I refer to as the place where architects get to try out their first drafts. It's a dead end, and each of the twenty or thirty houses have been built to a completely different, and often quite eccentric, design. There's a Tuscanate three-storey villa, a prison-like edifice with all its windows facing the creek and bathroom slits facing the street. Some are boxes: four walls, all right angles, no eaves, no bay windows, nothing to break the brickwork. There are shadier bungalows and, at the end of the street, a McMansion, replete with double entry doors and floor-to-ceiling, black-tinted windows.

Regardless of design, each house has been built to take up every centimetre of the width of its block. They're all free standing, but the gap between neighbours isn't much thicker than the mortar between bricks.

Walking through it today, I could have renamed it the Street the Hard Waste collectors forget. Out mouldering in the rain were a few old lounge suites, embarassing artworks and dried tins of paint. Close enough to every house had at least one television out the front. In the case of the McMansion there were four, plus a hard drive and a DVD player. One house was disposing of a food processor, blender, upright vacuum cleaner and various other plug-and-plastic kitchen appliances.

We have one telly. And have had the same one for over five years. I can't imagine having four to give away. As they squat in the rain, or tip forward to shatter on the pavement, or succumb to rabble-rousers, it's depressing to see how quickly they become unusable as an appliance, when it will take generations for them to return to what they were made of.

Please tell me there's an artist out there with a submission in to take all these tellies - and their embedded energy, plastic and water - and turn them into a worthwhile art installation.