In Isolation with Lana Guineay

Location: Adelaide, Australia

The white muslin dress is already dry on the clothesline. Blue-green leaves of eucalyptus trees sway in the summer breeze. It’s hot. Summer in Adelaide includes at least one searing heatwave, the outback northerlies not biting but something worse—the deadweight of inescapable heat, sinking into your marrow. It makes things fuzzy. In the car, the door handle and seatbelt clasp burn my fingers. The asphalt horizon shimmers. Things that once seemed so important lose their vigour. I stay inside in the air conditioning, windows blinded against the glare, eating cherries cold from the fridge, and wish for a cool change.

Adelaide is an orderly city, one of planned grids of streets laid over Tarntanya, the open grassy plain home to hundreds of generations of Kaurna people. Today’s city is dictated by compass points, and its seasons are likewise predictable. Wilderness here is tamed into a ‘green belt’ of parklands circling the city, parklands that seem vast and gold by day, and turn dark and unwelcoming at night. There are stories of attacks. Adelaide’s too sunlit to be gothic, but it’s there anyway at times, that feeling of darkness in a place designed by a man named Light.

Cicadas shrill through my summer breakfast: pink frosted cake and fresh figs. I eat with a fork over the kitchen counter. I will continue this isolated summer of staying inside well into the next season, and the next, though I don’t know it yet. I’ve been sick—it matters very much with what—and I’m staying in place not just because temperatures are over 40C, but because I no longer trust my body.

One of the last public things I do before lockdown is visit the neurologist, who suggests an elimination diet to help ease my symptoms: certain fresh fruit, vegetables, meat. On the ride home I clutch the paper verboten list, and it is long and full of my favourite foods.

I’m inert, but the city has continued on around me with its summer art festivals, tourists flocking despite growing fears of a virus they say is coming here soon. One of the first confirmed cases is a viola player in town for the Adelaide Festival—he misses his concert, isolated in hospital.

Soon the players and the audiences are gone, leaving wide stretches of yellow grass where spiegeltents have been alive with dancing, singing, music for the last month. The smell of festive foods linger—deep fried oil, the sweet airiness of fairy floss, the tang of plastic-cupped mojitos and stale beer—then vanish with the jovial air.

March is over. By April we are a city in lockdown, though a gentle one, and as the heat finally lifts I stay at home, and like all food-lovers I ask: what will we eat?

The lemon tree has a golden year, bearing endless bright waxy fruit, which we squeeze, zest and slice, serve up in big dollops of tangy lemon curd.

What we eat is this:

Home delivered groceries by the boxful: spinach curls in bouquets, fluffy-haired carrots, plastic-wrapped bread, long fingers of cucumbers, ripe tomatoes.

Curries and pies and ratatouille and pasta made from the pantry staples Mat stocked up on at the local Indian grocery and greengrocer: cans of beans, tomatoes, and lentils, rows of homemade passata, plump sacks of rice I pat like a middle-aged stomach.

Fruity olive oil given to us by Mat’s family in the Riverland, making my fingers slick as I pour from the huge unwieldy jug into pans, pots, over salads.

Between my restrictive diet and the pandemic, we eat more seasonally, more locally, more consciously. As shelves in chain supermarkets empty of toilet paper, beans, tinned food and pasta, we’re prompted to ask: where, exactly, has our food come from?

Autumn comes in stops and starts. Icy mornings, warm afternoons. A cold snap gives me chilblains, though I still have tan lines on my shoulders. I can see the Adelaide Hills from our raised garden over my coffee (now decaf) in the morning, their gentle peaks nested in lilac clouds as their crops ripen and fruit. The orchards yield tiny sundowner apples, blushed with the first colours of autumn, and crunchy Packham pears. I make simple apple pie and eat it with fresh cream; the pears we slice into salads, poach in spiced syrup, and eat straight out of the jar.

The Central Markets are closed, but when Le Deux Coqs offers home delivery, I impulsively order glazed fruit tarts, golden buttery croissants and flans, crème brûlée, petite canelé, peaked lemon meringue pies. When the cardboard boxes arrive, I realise I’ve ordered much more than we can eat at its best, yet it feels opulent, a gesture of protection. I slice the tarts and leave them on the doorsteps of neighbours and friends.

By my birthday in May, we can have four people in the house with social distancing. M.F.K. Fisher once said that the perfect number of guests for a dinner party is six, but allowed that “three or four people sometimes attain perfection either in public or in private, but they must be very congenial”. And so we have a congenial dinner with mountains of Afghan food from Parwana. Though it’s sad when we pick up the plastic bags from the restaurant—lights off, tables upturned—we make a cheering spread on our dining table; platters of food and winking candles. The mantu dumplings and creamy banjaan borani topped with sweet tomato sauce, yoghurt and mint is so abundant, so mouth-wateringly good, the company so welcome after months of isolation, that the dinner feels like the answer to a prayer.

Winter comes, and with it we eat roasted beetroot and sweet potato; stacks of dimpled oranges on the kitchen countertop. My knitted jumpers take days and days to dry, our sheets so cold to the touch they feel wet. Our vegetable patch begins to produce: we toss salads with tiny, peppery radishes, cos lettuce, and tender baby spinach clipped from their neat rows. The lemon tree has a golden year, bearing endless bright waxy fruit, which we squeeze, zest and slice, serve up in big dollops of tangy lemon curd.

By July, restaurants and pubs are open again, but there’s a worrying outbreak in Melbourne. Our neighbour city returns to lockdown for another six weeks, people scrambling over the state border before it too is closed.

Midwinter solstice comes and goes, and though I don’t feel it yet, the days are getting longer and spring will arrive just as predictably as its predecessors. The garden will know it first. I greet one of our resident magpies —hello general, how’s your wife?— and look for the first signs of nesting. I watch the silverbeet leaves in the dark earth of the veggie patch. And then just like that, the signs appear. On our walk down by the river, I see the first batch of ducklings, early this year; and the first almond blossoms, the cottony buds reaching into the sky.

By Lana Guineay