Essay

In Isolation with Stephanie Madewell

Location: Cleveland, Ohio

The potatoes are ugly. Shrivelled, with powdery, puckered skins. Knobbed with ghostly growing fingerlike sprouts. In other times, I’d probably throw them away. But peeled and chunked, they look all right. I steam them until a poke with fork breaks them into fluffy clumps.

I am making rats—my great-grandmother’s name for a type of gnocchi, rolled by thumb into a distinctive shape, like squashed little pillows. As a child, I loved to horrify friends by nonchalantly telling them rats were my favourite things to eat. No one in our family has any real idea where the name came from. My mom and I, swapping Instagram videos of women in Italy making pasta, saw someone using the same motion to make raschiatelli—a different sort of rat?—but Googling revealed they are a type of cavatelli, and the recipe is completely different.

I haven’t made them in nearly five years; not since my son was born. Too time-consuming, too fussy. Now, of course, those negatives are bonuses—anything to fill the hours. And I was hungry for something. I didn’t quite know what. In the early days of the stay-at-home time, jittering with nervous energy and disbelief, I kept clicking on links to recipes promising comfort. How absurd, really, to think that some specific combination of ingredients could offer any sort of comfort during catastrophic collapse, but I couldn’t help it. And just as absurdly, the recipes made me irrationally mad. There was the obvious aggravation: food writers, trendily besotted with heritage beans and imported tinned fish, sheltering with optimised pantries stockpiled with magical semi-esoteric ingredients, were clearly living in an intensified version of their usual alternate food reality. I had plenty, myself, but I did not have what they had, and that gap—in other times something I find both aspirational and exasperating—had a newly bitter edge.


A bowl of beans; a poundcake; endless loaves of sourdough bread. I felt like a small child, shaking my head no, no, no, irrationally wanting someone to offer me the just-right thing.


But more upsetting was the fact that none of their recipes said comfort to me—me personally, me selfishly, me sitting in my house, reading articles about the average timespan between the appearance of a cough and intubation, the numbers of ventilators and ICU beds. A bowl of beans; a poundcake; endless loaves of sourdough bread. I felt like a small child, shaking my head no, no, no, irrationally wanting someone to offer me the just-right thing.

Rats were a treat. Gram made them for us in her shabby little kitchen. Always one potato per person (it was a cheap meal), but there were a lot of us, and it was an enormous amount of work. She peeled potato after potato with a plastic knife and boiled them in a big cheap pot, then pushed them through the ricer into a heaping, steaming pile. She’d dump in flour while the potatoes were still screaming hot, and put her hands in to mix it all into dough, impervious to the heat. Then she’d roll it out into long snakes, slicing it fast into inch oblongs we’d push with our thumbs on the floury boards she laid on top of the Formica counter. There would be tray after tray of rats, nested on floured cotton dishcloths, ready to drop into boiling water. As soon as they floated to the top, she’d scoop them out into the heavy ceramic bowl with its puddle of tomato sauce. I probably ate thousands of rats as a kid.

I rice the potatoes and let them cool a bit (I don’t have Gram’s asbestos hands). I start adding flour; I cheat and add an egg to help things come together. The flour is always a guess, depending on the potatoes. There has to be just enough flour for the dough to hold together when the rats are cooked. Too much makes them leaden. Too little, and they dissolve into a cloudy broth of potato particles. And you only get them right by making them again and again and learning what the dough should feel like—firm but soft, not sticky, but not dry.

My rats are not perfect. A few dissolve; the water clouds. Some are gummy. But a few are just right—tender and pillowy. I eat them with my mom’s tomato sauce, another beloved food I can’t quite replicate, because she uses different ingredients every time and adjusts it by taste according to whatever best suits our moods and noodles, and add a small heap of grated parmesan.

As I eat, I think about recipes. The recipes I click on, even now, are written by people who have everything they need, and most of what they want. They can let five bananas brown for banana bread, use a pound of premium chocolate for cookies, spend whatever to get the wild salmon or the tin of imported tuna to eat on seeded crackers. Even the beans are a luxury item. But I don’t want those things right now. The food that comforts me was made by people—women, mostly—who lived within hard limits. Within those limits, they mastered the sort of cooking a recipe can’t help you with, and that was the comfort: knowing that you could take sprouted potatoes and flour and a few tomatoes and time, and turn it into something that fed the whole family, that held them until the next meal.


By Stephanie Madewell

Essay

In Isolation with Jacinta Mulders

Location: Canberra, Australia

It comes to me while I am crossing my living room: the yellow crunch of fried batter surrounding a white fillet, the tang of vinegar, licking salt from my fingers.

In usual times, there would be somewhere in Canberra I could go to eat fresh fish and chips: I’ve heard that Snapper on the Lake in Yarralumla is good. If I were feeling zealous about it, I might have driven to the South Coast. In Eden last winter with my family, I ate battered flathead on a slatted wooden table near the port, in view of the flat, grey sea. But no-one is driving anywhere. Eating in public places is dangerous. In the evenings, I boil brown rice and eat it with something from the fridge: a cube of feta preserved in oil, last month’s pumpkin curry I defrost and eat, begrudgingly.

The newspapers say that during lockdown, people are having wilder dreams. I can believe it. The physical restrictions on my body cause desires to strain outwards against their confines. Subtle longings for food balloon into jagged urges. I don’t just think of the food I can’t eat; my mind begins to drip with the people, locations and landscapes I associate with particular meals.

When I think of fish and chips, I’m reminded of the year I lived in Norwich while I was studying towards my Masters at the University of East Anglia. Norwich is a small place—many of its streets are wandering and medieval. At the intersection of Pottergate and Lower Goat Lane, right at the heart of this cool, sweet clutter, sits the Grosvenor Fish Bar. Here, people eat their fish and chips on metal chairs in view of a nail bar, a pink-lit bohemian pub, and a 14th century church called St Gregory’s.

My usual order was cod or haddock and chips—lemon sole or rock if I was feeling adventurous—with plenty of lemon for the fish, and salt packets and sachets of tomato sauce for the chips. I listened with curiosity to the orders ahead of me: mushy peas, curry sauce, toad in a hole (a kind of sausage in the middle of a Yorkshire pudding), fish cakes. I came to delight in the weekly specials: the ‘Five Quid Squid’ (crisp hoops of squid with a pot of pale yellow, creamy garlic aioli), the ‘Big Mack’ (battered mackerel, lettuce and tartare sauce pillowed in two halves of a white roll) or the ‘Wako Taco’ (steamed cod frilled with lettuce, cheese, salsa and sour cream, trussed in a wrap).


The physical restrictions on my body cause desires to strain outwards against their confines. Subtle longings for food balloon into jagged urges.


In the quiet evenings, people would gather in the street outside Grosvenor’s. Some tore open their packages of butcher’s paper to eat the hot contents under the eaves of the pub; others bundled them into their coats to take to family at home. My favourite time to eat fish and chips was in the evening. I loved breaking open the batter to flake apart the fish and look at the sky over the church as it clocked through pale shades of blue, orange, pink and violet, somehow joining with the food to become part of the experience of the meal.

When people from Australia came to visit, I took them to Grosvenor’s. The place gained the approval of my Mum, as well as two friends from Sydney, each of whom ordered things I had never considered before: scampi, which came out battered and large, and grilled fish with fried green tomatoes. My friends and I would go there before nights out and eat our fill before kicking off to wherever we were headed, the headlights on our bikes blinking.

Attending Grosvenor’s took on the tenor of a ceremony. I remember the warm smell of beef shortening—oddly cosy—which I have since come to associate with other fish and chip shops I encountered in England: usually on the Norfolk coast or at wound-down Victorian seaside towns. In Norwich, we went to Grosvenor’s in all seasons: during summer, when the evenings were long and humming; during winter, our hot mouths blowing steam and filled with chips. It was cheap, comforting food.

Some kind of fish and chip shop has existed on the site of Grosvenor’s for 90 years. I deduct decades in my head: it would have opened sometime in the 1930s. The fish shop, then, has seen the phases of twentieth century history—wars, the blossoming of the sixties, the turn of the millennium—and it is still standing. In these restricted times, not only are my memories of Grosvenor’s a reminder of the world’s richness and expansiveness, but the shop proper, when thinking about it, is a kind of stalwart reminder that no phase of things is final.


By Jacinta Mulders

Essay

In Isolation with Alice Bishop

Location: Melbourne, Australia

So many of us work hard to want for different things. Whether it’s resisting that second glass of peaty weeknight whiskey; or the promising glow of a dating app (when you should really be sleeping); or the lift of a sneaky cigarette, long after you’d promised your partner you’d quit; we all focus—sometimes obsess—on a redirect. Food, for me, was something I had to learn how to want, and to need, healthily again.

During the first few days of restrictions I picked up an extra packet of short-crust pastry for our freezer—along with an extra brick of salty, silver-foiled butter for the fridge. Our cupboards were neatly stacked with tins. I have been thinking about how this food stockpiling, along with the alone unknown of restrictions, for many—stretching out ahead—gives extra space for disordered eating and obsessions to bloom, along with other things.

Thankfully healthy for almost a decade now, I have been reflecting on my seven years of bulimia—about the white-noise crackle and rush of those days that turned into nights, then weeks then years. I know I wouldn’t have been okay if I’d have still been sick during the pandemic, and that so many people—right now—aren’t.


Sometimes seen as the gluttonous sibling-disease to anorexia, bulimia is too often portrayed as a vanity illness, a vice, even: something to be guilty of, rather than something to have suffered from. There is little discussion of the blood and the debt, the tightening chests or the sugary vomit. The scars across the first two knuckles of my right fist are a reminder, though: purging, it’s a violent thing.

It still feels like a small wonder that I keep forgetting my bulimia—about my almost destroyed teeth, or how my bones had started shifting to chalk. I don’t think about broken vessels and endless bloody noses, about all those drains I vomited into: hours, weeks, months, years. The hospital cocoon, which—in the end—saved me, has become a distant blip. It’s as if it all happened to a different person, someone who once bleached her usual terracotta hair into nothingness, who couldn’t quite look passersby in the eye.

But, as Lucinda Williams sings, “Who I am now / [Is] who I was then.”


That first buttery first bite of a weekend croissant; a sip of chocolaty stout on a tired June afternoon; hot, salty chips eaten straight from paper: isolation has encouraged me to think about how big it is that I can quietly—openly—again enjoy these things. There are no jacket pockets of hidden crusts, calorie maps, or flashing bathroom (bedroom and living room) scales. There is not the constant hum of hungry highs and sugared veins, of stomach bile and bathroom shakes.

I love toast the most, now. Bread. I love pepper on corn, and the crack of fridge-cold peppermint chocolate. I love that last spoonful of soy-cereal-milk from the bowl. I love eggplants roasted in garlic oil. I love being able to sit with a feeling of fullness without guilt, without a crackly existential fear.

This. This is maybe the best thing.


Wants bloom—sometimes take over—during quarantine. Maybe, like me, you feel the pull to turn to them to numb other things: boredom, worry, loneliness, self-doubt, fear. Usually okay with alcohol, since lockdown I’ve found myself craving a warming glass of shiraz at 3pm. Swiping on Bumble and longing for connection—I feel loneliness rush in. Food, it’s not so much of an issue anymore but thoughts do, sometimes, surface.

As Leslie Jamison writes in her book on alcohol addiction—along with her own strained relationship with food—Recovering:

Sometimes my sister-in-law and I went to the grocery store and loaded our shopping carts with sweet things—boxed coffee cake, mint chocolate chip ice cream, pink champagne—and binged on it all, just for the relief and escape of total indulgence, putting things into our bodies to remind ourselves we weren’t anywhere near dying.”

I’ve been there. Maybe you have too?

Maybe you’ve been there with alcohol or, like me, with spending money I really don’t have. Maybe you’ve been there with a rush from meeting strangers and sharing everything—but also nothing—too soon, with with tinsel-shining friendships that’ve long since left? Maybe, like me, you’ve been there with the softness of getting high—endless Sundays—on an ex-boyfriend’s navy-blue couch. Maybe with Netflix, or the false promise of packet-hair dye? Maybe you’ve been there with credit card debt.


“Never let go of that fiery sadness called desire,”  Patti Smith says. But I’ve had to let that forest-fuelled firefront burn down to a glow. I try, now, to channel that hunger into other things: into short stories and essays, gardening and fresh sheets. Into listening and sharing, taking notice and saying no and also—yes.

Instead of a whole block of cheap cooking chocolate—eaten secretly, hungrily in some Coles carpark—I’m well enough to now focus on just two simple squares, sitting with the softness of cocoa butter lining the roof of my mouth.

Maybe, instead of waking up next to a stranger, Southbank, after midnight—furry-teethed, dusty-headed—you’re at home, soaking in the comforting warmth of an after-dinner bath. Maybe, instead of sugar-free soft drink and endless pale pink packets of Sweet ‘n’ Low, your new snack selections actually nourish you.


For me, being well again—I can now enjoy the things I loved, before I got sick. Lockdown because of COVID-19, and being always so close to the kitchen, hasn’t been a stress but a comfort. Instead of rushed transit lunches—shitty Coles salads eaten at my desk—I’ve loved:

  • Vanilla ice cream, scooped by a dishwasher-warm spoon
  • Slices of pear eaten with crumbling chunks of sharp cheese
  • A teaspoon of crunchy peanut butter straight from the jar

Ruby Tandoh, of initial Great British Bake Off fame—in one of her many works on eating, health and guilt—recently quoted the Ellyn Satter Institute:

Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way.”


I don’t always look at my body in the mirror now and feel something salty rise in my throat—hardwired into my bones through my younger self’s commitment to turning myself into something else, someone different: smoother, smaller, yet somehow still more.

When I take my clothes off in front of someone new, now, I barely remember the years in which I couldn’t even look at myself—hiding my body in deliberately fogged bathroom mirrors; under secondhand floral Savers dresses, sizes too big; wrapped up in towels, doonas; or under the fog of too many beers.

I know seven years of illness and disorder, for some, is just a blip. But there were many years where I thought recovery was some distant shoreline glitter—a place I would always look out to, yet never reach.

But I’m here now, and it’s a relief.


Again, though—and of course, as with any rear-view recovery—there are still moments which creep in. Feeling lonely and peeling two eggs in the sink, I catch myself counting the calories of each sun-yellow yolk. After a long bath one night I look at my soft body in the bathroom mirror a little too critically—extra time, for me, can sometimes turn into this. But self-talk has been better to me lately:

“No, this is not who you are now. This is not what you do.”


Since lockdown I’ve have been cooking more—roasting blue-cheese potatoes in the oven for my flatmate, Mim. She’s been preparing garlicky cream dips, lentil soups and pies with words plaited into the crusts. Our small apartment smells like roasting onions, and wintery soups—7pm.

A wedge of a friend’s delivered lime-cream pie, buttery crusted, sits in its plastic container in the fridge. We share small creamy bits of it after dinner, along with cups of tea and a cooking show we both like to yell at—some kind of ordinary release.

“When this is over let’s not change this,” we say to each other, “let’s keep cooking for each other: proper meals.”


Bulimia is not a word I used to be able to even say aloud, but after being well—for almost a decade—it’s lost its teeth.

Maybe isolation means you’re struggling with that old dusty whiskey bottle—looming gold from the top of your fridge. Maybe you miss the rush of someone new; the lift of a shared cigarette, then a chest-to-chest night and a good morning kiss. Maybe you’re trying not to eat a whole family packet of salt and vinegar chips, or an online shopping cart is emitting a low hum of hope you know—soon—will morph into a guilty dread.

We’re all working a bit harder on our wantings during this unknown—living them, reflecting on them. But we’re human, it’s what we all do; and together, talking about it, we’re more likely to get through.


By Alice Bishop

Recipes

Liam Pieper’s Stone Soup Recipe

Ingredients


  • Two small onions whole
  • Three handfuls of pearl barley
  • Two litres chicken stock (the nasty vegan powdered stuff is fine, don’t be a snob)
  • Two tablespoons of vinegar
  • One tablespoon of butter
  • Six tablespoons of olive oil
  • One large onion, peeled and finely diced
  • One head of garlic, peeled and finely diced
  • Assorted vegetables (whatever you have in the fridge: leek, carrots, swedes, broccoli etc), finely diced
  • One cup frozen peas
  • One cup frozen corn kernels
  • Fresh herbs of your choice (parsley, thyme, rosemary, bay etc), tied in a bouquet garni (optional)

Method


1. Gently peel the small onions, then wrap them tightly in foil. Toss the wrapped onions in the superheated pan until the skin inside is blackened. Remove from heat and leave aside to cool.

2. Put barley and stock in a pot together, with two tablespoons of vinegar and boil hard, then simmer for an hour until the barley has softened and thickened the stock.

3. In a stock pot, heat a tablespoon of butter and six tablespoons of olive oil over a low heat. Sautee onions with a pinch of salt until soft, add garlic for another minute, and then pour in the barley and stock.

4. Add assorted vegetables (except frozen peas and corn), bring to boil, then simmer for 40 minutes. Add the chargrilled onions and bouquet garni.

5. Add the frozen peas and corn, simmer for another minute, and remove chargrilled onions and bouquet garni.

6. Serve with bread, butter and pistou.


Read Liam Pieper’s essay here.

Essay

In Isolation with Nic Dowse

Location: Melbourne, Australia

Last week, on a now rare trip in the car, I took a detour down a quiet, suburban street in North Melbourne where one of my beehives is hosted. This is a special street. It has a broad, four-metre wide nature strip that divides it in two, which is planted with a grove of twenty or so Ironbark trees. 

Ironbarks are a variety of eucalyptus renowned for having dense, hard wood and blood-coloured sap that seeps between the deep furrows of their rough bark. They are also renowned, in this little beekeeping bubble, for producing a monofloral variety of urban honey – something rare in Melbourne. There is an abundance of diverse botanical life in this city and its suburbs, and bees (much like humans who feed on a broad and varied diet) thrive here. This is perhaps counterintuitive: we often don’t see the city as being a place where nature thrives. But bees and many flowering plants in Melbourne do.

The honey from these bees is usually a polyfloral variety, made from the millions of flowers in the city’s urban forests, public parks, gardens and university grounds and, of course, the backyards of avid gardeners. As a result, the nectar that Melbourne bees gather is delicious but tastes like the flowers of an entire suburb rather than one particular floral variety. Fitzroy, Carlton and North Melbourne have seasonal variations but, for someone who knows their honey, it tastes like Melbourne urban honey – floral, medium-bodied, golden, sweet, happy.

Right now, the streets are quiet and empty. I take my time driving alongside the row of Ironbark trees, arm on the car’s window sill, head craned up to look at the foliage. I don’t see what I am looking for in the first few trees I pass. Perhaps it won’t happen this year? Perhaps my dates were wrong? But just as I start to give up hope, there they are. Flowers. Pink flowers on the first tree. White flowers on the next. Red flowers too.

While we are inside anxiously following news reports, or baking sourdough bread, or watching Netflix, or learning new stretches, the bees are working. They are probably enjoying the cleaner air, the unkempt lawns and weeds that have gone to flower, and the general lack of human activity as they quietly forage for fructose and glucose in the city’s flowers. And the trees, with their deep memory and underground network of intelligence spread through networks of roots and mycorrhizal networks of fungi, have probably noticed, in ways we will never quite understand, fewer rumbles in the root zone normally created by traffic; less heavy metal contaminants being pumped into the air from those same vehicles; and perhaps more bird species that, generations ago, were pushed out of their range, but are now returning to take advantage of streets deserted of humans.

The reason this street is so special is that there are so many Ironbark flowers that the bees don’t have to fly far to gather this nectar. This appeals to one of the fundamental rules that bees observe: efficiency. They seek food from the closest source possible. And, because it is mid-autumn and many flowering plant varieties have finished blooming, the honey the bees make is dominated by the nectar of the Ironbark flowers. This is what defines a monofloral honey variety. 


While we are inside anxiously following news reports, or baking sourdough bread, or watching Netflix, or learning new stretches, the bees are working.


Last season the Ironbark honey was a very dark reddish-brown. In the jar, it looked black. It tasted stronger and less sweet than the typical polyfloral varieties. Of the thirty or so hives I manage, in thirteen locations, this is the only black honey the bees produce. 

While we are inside, the bees go on, working hard to produce a surplus of honey that is out there, now, in that hive. And today, in sunny autumnal conditions, I will drive over to the hive and see what they have been doing. Bees are calm in autumn. They have fewer babies to defend. They have plenty of honey. If it has been a good season, there will be more honey in the hive than they need to feed themselves through winter. If that is the case, I will remove eight frames of honeycomb in the top box, and the timber box itself, and reduce the height of the hive from three boxes to two. This will reduce the overall volume of the hive, but leave the bees with two boxes packed with honey. The smaller space will be easier for the bees to keep warm during the cooler months. And the reduction in real estate means that moulds, wax moths and hive beetles will have fewer dark corners to hide in. 

At the end of the job, when the freshly extracted honey is dripping through the filter into the storage tank below, I’ll open the tap, pour off the first jar of the batch, and sample the honey for the first time. There is some cultured butter on the window sill in the sweet spot where, during these cooler days and nights, the butter is never too cold and hard, or too warm and soft. A generous amount of sour butter on good sourdough, some sweet honey to cut through the fats and provide balance, and just two or three granules of rock salt to enhance it all – this is my isolation salute to friends currently in their kitchens sipping wines or coffee and chatting with me on their phones.

Next spring, when the honeybee family needs room to expand, I will put these empty frames, and the box, back on the same hive. The bees will get to work cleaning the honeycomb cells and repairing them, then fill them with brood, pollen, and honey. And we beekeepers will monitor and, if required, guide the process – checking for signs of good health, troublesome diseases and expanding and contracting the hive, as the seasons dictate, to keep the insect superorganism happy and productive.

This seasonal cycle will continue, regardless of the pandemic. It has been this way for millennia. It reminds us that the nature of biology is one of cycles – of life and death, of decline and regeneration, of creative destruction. And, in these strange times, I hold onto that thought.

The honey is black, but the mood is good.


By Nic Dowse