In Isolation with Bridget Lutherborrow

Location: Melbourne, Australia

A friend and I once found a full block of Crunch chocolate abandoned on a footpath, untouched and ready to eat. Many people had probably passed it by, but we didn’t. My friend shoved it into her rucksack to eat later. That night at a gig in Bondi, we found a Polaroid of a dark-haired girl with ‘je t’aime’ pencilled on the back, a memento I still have.  

Another time, a little drunk, hazily walking home on a Sydney evening, I found two unopened beers in a plastic bag on the street, still dangling from their four pack. I opened one as I walked home. The other I sipped on at a late-night writers’ festival event a few days later, tired and sticky, surrounded by friends. The fuzz of warm beer filled my limbs.

A world full of unexpected prizes, things that could land in my lap at any time, seems so far away in the winter of 2020, when I barely dare look strangers in the eyes, far less hold a piece of fruit in the grocery shop for a moment to contemplate if it is the one I want. I don’t even pick up a loose five dollars when I find one on the street.

My love for found food and drink is unusual to some, but by my reckoning if it’s packaged, sealed and still in use-by, it’s probably safe to consume. I’m lucky to not be afraid to eat food that I find because I’m used to having food that’s safe to eat. But I also ate that block of Crunch because at the time—on a student budget—even the price of a chocolate bar was something to be carefully considered.

Whether it’s in the supermarket or on the footpath, there is always a chance someone has tampered with something. Every piece of food we eat passes through many hands. At the supermarket, strawberries have been known to contain needles. Caramilk has been recalled for having traces of plastic. And yet, people don’t ask as many questions about the journey their food has taken. It is easy to take items from the shelf without much thought or emotion. It feels sterile and transactional, but there is comfort in the presumed reliability.

Does it bother you that you don’t know who has touched the orange you found on the street? Or can you consider it as good fortune, as something that fell right in your lap?

Finding a mango placed gently on a ledge and taking it home like a new baby feels like plenty.

I thought a lot about random found food during the pandemic. My love for foraging is not the same. Fig season hit right around March and I didn’t end up picking as many as usual, not sure how much I needed to clean my food, my apartment, or my hands. This year’s mushroom season was plentiful, and fell during the break between lockdowns, so I hauled baskets of saffron milk caps home for frying and pickling. But olive season passed me by while the second lockdown was in place. On my daily walks, I passed buckets of citrus and herbs, free, untouched. I longed for the days when it felt safe to eat something I found on the street.

It’s easy to romanticise foraging. There’s something about the practice that makes the world feel more abundant. But to me, pinching little meringue mushrooms from an abandoned high tea at the NGV feels just as bountiful. Finding a mango placed gently on a ledge and taking it home like a new baby feels like plenty.

During the pandemic, I saw people sending each other cakes, cheese and cocktails from local businesses, trying to spark the feeling of connection. I’ve had time to cook more purposefully, finding joy in caring for my food and myself. At the same time, references to weight, dieting, and eating habits have punctuated work Zoom meetings. I’ve felt more stuck with myself, more in my body, than usual.

For me, the highs of homemade focaccia and lows of work fat jokes are part of the same fixation. My love of food goes hand in hand with fear and regulation. I love to cook because I love to eat and create, but also because my relationship with food has often been about control. When I cook, I have control. Perhaps this is why foraging and found food are such a delight to me—I am at the mercy of the seasons and happenstance. I’m still stuck in my body, but it feels part of a bigger, messy thing.

I don’t yet know what this time will do to us or what will be left to hold on to. What I will focus on is one moment, as lockdown lifted, when I came across a basket of kumquats on a neighbour’s fence, with a note describing how the peel is sweet but the inside bitter, and instructions on making tea. I took four from the pile and let them rest in my palm, bright skins warm from the sun, fragrant when held to my briefly unmasked face. I took them home and placed them in the fruit bowl, thinking nothing much of it, but that they might taste good with gin. Perhaps all it would take for me to feel healed is to find a stranger’s lost Curly Wurly at my feet.

By Bridget Lutherborrow