Essay

In Isolation with Mikaella Clements

Location: Berlin, Germany

Leftovers


In the green cube, I do the dishes and pick at leftovers. Summer is unfurling easily, so most of the time the light is already fresh and gold, and now and then I get the grey mornings that are my favourites, everything cool and still around me. My flat doesn’t have a balcony or a useable garden but it does have big glass windows, and when the leaves come back it feels like living in a giant treehouse, lindens tapping against the panes, squirrels pausing on their branches to glare inside.

The first week of lockdown I found myself waking earlier and earlier: first eight, then seven, then six. I am usually a late sleeper and on weekdays I’d drag myself out of bed just in time to sling myself into clothes and aim for the train station. Now I have the luck to work from home, and my mornings are newly long. In them I call my sisters, read my book, wash the dishes.

In between I pick at the covered pan, the mouthfuls of whatever we ate last night, richer and saltier and deeper in their own existence than when they were first served up. Lemon potatoes gone cold, still flaky with salt; hits of Sichuan noodles, spice sharp and smoky at once; a guilty scrape of pasta and onions and cheese from the bottom of the pan. I like mouthfuls of past meals on their way to the fridge; breakfast in handfuls, or the cancelled shallot pasta sauce (won’t someone think of the shallots!) on toast with feta and parsley.

The giant mug of tea, of course, although this lockdown has been a startling, semi-obscene insight into how much milk we go through: we are drowning in milk. Thinking about checking Twitter and reading my book instead. I’m reading about heresies in late antiquity, about Augustine’s bleak faith lashing out like a whip as Rome crumbles. I won’t leave this room all day.

Chilli


When Onj and I got married in January, my aunt gave us a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbook The Food of Sichuan. Over the past month I have used it obsessively and lovingly, making a trip every fortnight or so to the Chinese supermarket on our corner where I can stock up on new pantry staples: fermented black beans, Sichuan peppers, Shaoxing cooking wine.

The best bit is the hit of red every time I open our cupboard: dried chillies spilling towards me, thick sedimented jars of chilli paste. It’s a pleasure to cook with handfuls of heat, spooning them on, mouth burning. Onj doesn’t like her food so spicy and so I make a gentler version, tell her, remember, your bowl is the one on the right.

“If you forget, just remember that I’m right for you,” I tell her grandly, and she makes a disgusting gesture at me.

Fish


When I get back from the market, Onj is on the phone to her mum, leaning over the kitchen counter, drinking coffee from the little East German cups we picked up at a flea market in another summer, when there were still flea markets. My mother-in-law watches over Facetime from Hastings as I unpack ciabatta bread, the Pflaumen-Streuselkuchen that makes a very indulgent weekend breakfast, and wrapped in another bag, eyes bulging against the plastic, two gleaming sea bream, which the Germans call Dorade.

“He cleaned them for me,” I say, as we slip them out onto the counter and take an immediate, admiring step back. “He cut them open and pulled out their guts.”

“That’s what he’s meant to do,” Onj’s mum says.

“We love the fish man,” Onj explains. “We find everything he does very impressive.”

As a child, I did not like fish very much; neither did my wife, and though I grew out of this fairly indifferently, she did not. I would eat fish if it was served to me, but I never sought it out, and Onj was much more actively opposed. She didn’t like the idea of it, or the weird flexing texture of it, a muscle that gave, like going at someone’s bicep with unexpectedly sharp teeth. For five years, without paying much attention, we steered clear. Then, on holiday in Sicily, we started eating fish, mostly for the aesthetic.

“Fuck,” Onj said ruefully, over a catch of the day served with lemons and shredded lettuce and red onions, because it was really fucking good.

Landlocked in Berlin, without much discussion of motivations or considerations, we started buying our own fish. We only buy from the market fish man, whom we trust implicitly and over-order as a result. First Onj cooked cod following a Bengali recipe from her aunties, staining her fingers turmeric yellow for days, the fish flaky and melting and somehow sweet. Then sumac and za’atar roasted monkfish, with a fattoush salad that we remade every day for a week. Then our Dorade: Onj fries it with garlic and cherry tomatoes bursting around it. When the lid is lifted after fifteen minutes, we crowd round gasping desperate, grateful lungfuls. It smells like the sea.


By Mikaella Clements

Essay

In Isolation with Liam Pieper

Location: Sydney, Australia

There’s a memory I have of my grandmother reading to me which I’m not sure is a real memory, or a chimera of one—fragments of life stored in the same part of the brain and sewn together over years through time and sentiment. The memory is of a children’s book called Stone Soup, a story she read to me time and again before I could read myself; back when a story had a way of growing more precious and soothing each time you heard it, when all stories were lullaby, when being read to was indistinguishable from reading.

The basics of the story are so: a penniless wanderer knocks on the door of a stranger’s home and convinces them that he knows how to make delicious soup by boiling a magical stone he keeps in his pocket. The wanderer puts the soup on the stove, and little by little he coaxes ingredients to garnish the soup from the stranger’s own pantry: onions, carrots, bones, spices, and soon, as if by magic, there is a rich soup in the pot.

Different versions of this story are found across European folklore. The identity of the wanderer, his host, the ingredients of the soup, and moral of the story change according to whichever culture it’s told in. The story, like the soup, tends to get saltier the further east you travel.

In Portugal, the traveller is a poor friar who finds himself starving on the threshold of the town of Almeirim. Too proud to beg, he pulls the stone soup trick in the town square. Little by little, the villagers make suggestions on how to improve the recipe, and bring out salt, potatoes and beans, chouriço, pork belly. The result is sopa da pedra, the thick, moreish Catholic comfort food. When the friar moves on, stone in his pocket, the villagers have learned a powerful lesson about sharing and generosity.

In the Hungarian version, the traveller is a starving soldier returning to his homeland, who then sells the stone on to the villagers at the end of the story. In the Russian tradition, the soup is made from an axe-head. The German version flirts with anti-Semitism, and involves a pilgrim on his way to Jerusalem who tricks a miserly household into handing over their hoarded foods to contribute to the stone soup. It’s this version, where the overwhelming lesson seems to be in the joys of mendacity, that made it to England, then Ireland, and finally, through Grandma, to me.

I was so taken by the legend that whenever my Grandma was making soup, she would trek to the garden, bring in a smooth round stone, and add it the pot, thrilling me insensible. Her soup was always a roughly improvised Scotch broth, a Celtic variant of the French pot-au-feu: a thick stew of barley and bone. A spoon dipped below the surface—an iridescent slick of oil and butter—would churn up a silt of wonders. Slivers of carrots reduced to mush, salty little bursts of potato that dissolved on the tongue, the surprising pop of sweetcorn and green peas, fresh from the freezer, barely ruffled by the indignity of cooking.

In my large, fractious Irish Catholic family, this was one of the few things we could all agree on—that the soup was transcendently good. Served with supermarket white bread and margarine scooped from an ancient Pyrex bowl, the entire table fall into a contented hush for the duration of the meal.

Grandma was the one who talk me to cook. I years spent toddling after her in the kitchen, convinced she was the source of all culinary knowledge. She showed me a trick with a tomato once: you slice the fruit in half, sprinkle salt on only one half, and wait five minutes. Taste the plain tomato, taste the seasoned one. Imagine my eyes bugging out of my tiny head as I realised that you can take a dull, sour, hateful thing and make it glorious with time and seasoning.


A spoon dipped below the surface—an iridescent slick of oil and butter—would churn up a silt of wonders. 


A later realisation, once I was an adult: Grandma wasn’t a particularly good cook. Just so-so, just proficient. She cooked the food I liked, and I liked it because she cooked it. Fish-fingers with lemon, oven chips with White Crow, lettuce drenched in Paul Newman dressing. All of it a tiny little gastronomic morphine drip. But most of all, the soup.

A generation ago the recipe called for beef bones, but then the 70s happened, and much of the family became vegetarian, and Grandma did too, and so the soup was adapted: an extra handful of barley, a little vinegar to leach the umami from the grain, to thicken the broth, to fool the carnivores in our midst. Everyone in the family asked her how she made it, and all of them had a recipe somewhere she’d dutifully tapped out on her typewriter. But none of us could ever recreate it. Every time I tried to make it, it came out wrong.

There was an interlude, a decade or so I was lost to the world, and when I returned, I began the process of getting to know my grandma as an adult. Her typewriter, a hulking Olivetti, now sat in the centre of her dining table. When my books were reviewed in the paper she would cut out the clippings and post them to me, along with little missives and memories from her life—books long passed the pulping point that she urged me to track down. At some point, she began to talk about how she would die. As the years passed it became one of the only things she would talk about.

One day she had ‘a fall’. Such a toothless euphemism for what it is. It’s a wild thing, when the woman who shaped you as an infant begins to fade from the world, the long-held dignities slipping away into a future that grew opaque and oily when you looked to it. When I visited, I would fix the tea, help her chop vegetables. One day, I asked her to teach me how to make stone soup again. I asked what she was doing that nobody else in the family could get right. She went to the back of the cupboard, slid some boxes out of the way and retrieved two cartons of Campbell’s stock. There was a twinkle in her eye, a touch of the confessional: “I don’t make the soup at all. It comes in a box.”

This, then, was the secret. It was right there in the storybook: the secret is mendacity, in pretending a thing is good and wholesome until the world makes it so. She died in the early hours on the day the first coronavirus case was reported in Australia. At the funeral, the various wings of the family gave separate eulogies. But we all spoke about the soup, how much we missed it. Afterwards, we stuck to our various corners at the wake and ate soggy white bread sandwiches, drank wine from plastic cups.

Perhaps you have been shopping during the lockdown. Perhaps, like me, you bought the ingredients for a mighty bout of self care and then found yourself too stressed, too besieged, somehow too busy despite having nothing to do to cook a decent dinner.

Things fall apart. Especially in kitchens. You will go to your fridge, and survey your broken kingdom of dreams, the odds and ends of vegetables, a near-terminal bag of green beans, a wilting head of celery, the sum parts of a planned ratatouille, now a monument to hubris. But all is not lost, it is never all lost. You will rally.

You will find at the back of the cupboard a jar of pearlescent barley. You will boil it with stock, with beans, with a French trick with an onion you learned from someone you will never see again. With this, you will bring it all to life again. All the best recipes started as salvage, a monument to scarcity and improvisation. There are no rules beyond those we choose to adhere to. You will fossick in the garbage and the muck and you will create something perfect, and pure as the slick of oil on its oceanic surface. You will make stone soup.


By Liam Pieper

Essay

In Isolation with Nadia Bailey

Location: Melbourne, Australia

Late last year, before the pandemic hit, I travelled to Poland to live in Kraków for two months. In between haunting the coffeeshops of Kazimierz and trying to work on a novel, I spent a lot of time in the large communal kitchen of my residence, baking cakes.   

One morning I decided to make a lemon cake, the kind I like to eat still-warm from the oven, with a mug of black coffee. I gathered flour, butter, sugar, and lemons, and fetched two cartons of eggs—one containing the last of last week’s half-dozen, the other, full, purchased at the corner store that morning. I combined the dry ingredients, then took the last egg from its carton and cracked it open. I upended the broken shells over the ceramic bowl and stared. In the shallow well I’d made in the flour, there was no yolk. The egg contained only albumen, clear as water.

Troubled by this strange occurrence, I took an egg from the new carton and rapped it against the rim of the bowl. I pushed my thumb through the shell and cleaved it open. The interior slid out into the bowl, into the flour, and that uncanny, yolkless egg. Again I stared. The second egg had—improbably, so improbably—two yolks. Two yolks, yellow as supermoons.

Since then, I’ve thought about these two eggs often: one yolkless, the other double-yolked, that I happened to break into a bowl one after the other on a cold, crisp day in Poland. The experience left me somewhat disturbed. It had, unmistakably, the contours of an omen. More preordained sign than random coincidence. I felt, in the space of two broken eggs, the destabilising notion that the universe was not the wholly rational place I took it for.


I’ve felt in a corner booth what I imagine the credulous feel in their houses of worship: communion, awe, the possibility of miracles.


But cooking well has always felt like magic to me. I learned the basics when I was young but failed to ascend beyond that; when I cooked, my aim was to make something that would stop me from being hungry rather than with an eye for artistry or genuine nourishment. For a long time I’ve only had the need to cook for myself, and cooking for one is depressing if you let it be. It’s easier to pay someone to cook for you than learn how to care for yourself. It’s easier to eat distracted than confront the loneliness of dining alone.

Restaurants, then, are sites of wonder. It’s perhaps no coincidence that what priests and waiters do are both called service. Both in their own way are acts of devotion. I’ve felt in a corner booth what I imagine the credulous feel in their houses of worship: communion, awe, the possibility of miracles. For the duration of a meal—whether over a white drift of tablecloth or hastily wiped Laminex—you’re made to feel welcome. And it’s from going to restaurants I learned how to eat—what it is to cook with care and eat with pleasure. Without the training of restaurants, without the extraordinary skill of chefs and line cooks and waitstaff, how timid my palate would be. How narrow.  

Right now, I have no real measure of days except for in the proofing of dough, no measure of hours but the stretching and folding of a loaf in progress. Restaurants are shuttered, so I work within the confines of my own limited ability. I’ve been practicing. Taking interest in the process, improving though repetition. Isolation has given me time to learn how to properly poach an egg so that the white pillows around the yolk like a friendly little cloud. Time to spend hours fermenting beetroot into kvass and then kvass into barszcz, until you end up with a broth the colour of Snow White’s lips. Time to mix flour and water together until it bubbles up, tender and alive, and raises a loaf like a tiny messiah. These clumsy attempts please me, and make me aware of how much I don’t yet know.

I think about what it will be like when restaurants re-open; how badly I want to go to a city bar in the early evening, when it’s still empty and the staff are bored and helpful, and order a gin martini, very cold and dry—expertly mixed—with an olive. To eat a handful of hot misir wot wrapped in sour injera. To lean elbow to elbow with a stranger in a crowded pub, then pick my way back through a maze of tables, trying not to spill a generous pour of red wine. To walk through Chinatown on a winter night then eat a plate of hand-pulled noodles swimming in chilli oil. How badly I want to order something I’ve never tasted before and feel the thrill of the new.

For now, while I wait, I go back to making cakes, like I did in Kraków when I was lonely and missing home. I consult recipe books, bookmark the things I hope one day I’ll have the skill to make. I bake another imperfectly proofed loaf and eat a crust, still hot, with a curl of butter. That I can do this is its own kind of magic; the sweetness in the bitter.


By Nadia Bailey

Essay

In Isolation with Neha Kale

Location: Sydney, Australia

In the first weeks of lockdown, I wanted to cook with ingredients that sparked kinetic reactions. I wanted to make food that contrasted with the hush that had fallen across the world outside.

When I looked out from our balcony, our bustling inner-west street had become a theatre of one: a single car ambling towards Parramatta Road, a lone UberEats cyclist deliberating over whether or not he should enter an apartment building, a solo dog walker stepping on a growing pile of autumn leaves. I found myself foraging through the pink Tupperware container where our spices live in plastic packets with fading labels.

I scrambled fresh eggs bought from the café down the road with fried onion, green chilli and coriander. I toasted turmeric and mustard seeds in hot vegetable oil to make split-pea dahl, lentils turning obnoxiously thick and golden. Later I ate them in the sun with a tablespoon of good Greek yoghurt, knees covered with a crocheted blanket.

I delighted in the way the mustard seeds jumped up and down in the saucepan, the way they sputtered and demanded more attention, the way turning the heat up could make them a little crazy. They were awake, not inert.


I once had a flatmate who taught me that crushing basil leaves between your fingers released the herb’s flavours, made them aromatic. You do this, he said, right before you add it to what you are cooking—like the lasagne that E baked for the first time this week, puzzling over, but then nailing the béchamel.

Since then, I’ve been obsessed with the idea that ingredients can possess a secret language, that they can do different things in different contexts. That they can lead double lives.

Two years ago, during an especially memorable family Christmas back in Perth—a brown snake made a surprise visit during dessert—my aunt and uncle gifted us a copy of my grandmother’s recipe book. Inside were handwritten recipes for prawns pattia and dal ghosh, techniques written in curly cursive, titles made grand by quotation marks. (My grandmother, glamorous in pearls and fifties dresses, always knew her way around an accessory.)

Underneath, my aunt translated the names of her spices from Hindi to English. Jeera referred to cumin. Cloves were lavang, and dhania equalled coriander seeds. Cardamom pods—maybe the best spice of all—were elaichi. These are words that I didn’t know but knew. These were words that tasted different in my mouth even as they pointed towards the same thing.


“I try to avoid sentimentality and I try to avoid the easy cliché. I try to avoid any mention of mangoes, of spices and monsoons,” the Indian poet and journalist Jeet Thayil told NPR during an interview about his book, Narcopolis, set in the seamy underworld of 1970s Bombay, a city I was born in but barely know.

Thayil was onto something. When you’re Indian-Australian, cooking with—or writing about—spices is inherently risky. Spices can signify a readymade exotic. Too easily, they can become a symbol of immigrant longing, a means of enriching a narrow and neutered reality.

Thinking about this reminds me of a time, in my twenties, when I only wore Cheap Monday jeans, when I couldn’t bring myself to buy naan at the supermarket for fear that the cashier would think they knew me. A time when I was only too ready to tie myself in knots for people who didn’t love me, blasé—in the way of twentysomethings—of what I’d lose if I cleaved myself in half.

A few weeks into isolation, the actor Irrfan Khan died unexpectedly. I felt a grief that was inexplicable. We poured glasses of red wine and watched one of his films, Mira Nair’s The Namesake, based on Jhumpi Lahiri’s book of the same name. It follows Ashima Ganguli, a classical singer, who moves from Calcutta for her husband, an engineering professor, to the chilly suburbs of Massachusetts. In the book Ashima, missing home, combines “Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl.” She adds “salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper.” She wishes she could find mustard oil.

During isolation, I’ve found myself performing a similar kind of culinary tetris, scrambling for ghost ingredients to sate real appetites. Cooking with spices has shown me—more slowly than I’d like—that avoiding the sentimental, shirking the cliché in an attempt at self-preservation can be a way to erase myself, to kill the things that I truly want. 

On bad days, it feels like acquiescing to a culture that suffers from a failure of imagination, one that insists on our duality rather than our plurality, one that asks us to make a choice—immigrant or citizen, mother or lover, worker or human.

Over the last couple of months, the pandemic has rendered the lives and livelihoods of international students, new immigrants, gig economy workers precarious, untenable. All the illusions of protection have been punctured—the pressure to prove your worthiness, prove that you belong, prove that you can neatly assimilate, has been exposed as the scam that it always was.


Last Friday, a few days after restrictions started to ease, I cooked butter chicken. The mascot of Indian cuisine in the West, the dish is a good metaphor for the dangers of believing any food is “authentic,” the consequence of a single story. When it’s good, it tastes like it was conceived for a 16th century Mughal emperor, but was actually invented by a chef named Kundan Lal Gujral at a restaurant called Moti Mahal in 1950s Delhi.

I marinated the chicken in yoghurt and jeera, dhania, elaichi, the words floating into my head automatically. I simmered the chicken in cream and butter, ginger and garlic, relishing the way the way the spices sounded and smelled when they collided with hot fat. A friend came over for dinner and we gathered around our table, taking care to sit away from each other. We talked and laughed, listened to music from the nineties, savouring the pleasure of good food and good company.

The next morning, I stacked the dishwasher. I stuffed the packets of spice back into the Tupperware, taking care to wiping the residue off our counter. The light was changing. Outside, the street was quiet, but there were a couple more people crunching through the autumn leaves, the street no longer a theatre of one.


By Neha Kale

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