In Isolation with Liz Breslin

Location: Wanaka, New Zealand

I slice the new potatoes on a diagonal into the pan, add some miso and all the leftover water from the kettle. While the potatoes shiver I read Fleur Jaeggy’s short story about Saint Angela da Foligno, medieval mystic and extreme-penance advocate. The ascetic and the goddess touch lightly, she writes. This is the second day in a row I am totally, successfully ignoring social media in the mornings, which feels so, you know, worthy.

Growing up Catholic in a small town without visible horizons, I did an excellent impression of worthy. I let the liturgy define me. Hunger is sacrifice is worthy is wake up and deny yourself until it’s time to kneel for the word made flesh. The body of Christ. The blood of Christ. Forgive me Father, for I. Fasting for the host on Sundays, the sins of Saturday clanging in my hungover stomach on not even coffee. A proper breakfast, after all these years, is still a small act of rebellion.

I turn the page. The tale turns to Agnes Blannbekin and the taste of Christ’s foreskin. I step away from the story. Turn Kate Tempest on and up. Because anyway, I’m a vegetarian and if I have a daily prayer now, it’s ‘Hold Your Own.’  The potatoes need more water. I poke them with the cleanest-looking knife. Carefully. I take the sanctity of non-stick surfaces seriously, and since I mostly cook with this one frypan, I like to rinse it and wipe it and not much more.

I make coffee, black, aeropressed. I swallow B-vits, iron, zinc and check Twitter. I’m standing up so it doesn’t really count. I add kelp to the potatoes. I think it’s kelp. I forgot to label the individual paper bags when I came home with panic-bought herbs. Was that only last week? Twitter says the Catholic Church are offering plenary indulgences in return for prayers and you can get this incredible deal for yourself or a friend. The water has bubbled away. Also there is a cat playing noughts and crosses. And some discussion about the porn-spammers who crashed the Zoom poetry show last night. I stab the potatoes harder than strictly necessary, tip them into the ridiculous yellow plastic colander I didn’t get ‘round to replacing in time, wait until my glasses have stopped steaming, and wipe the pan clean enough.

Fat is an indulgence and I have a homemade pottle of sage butter, wisely stashed at the back of the fridge. I carve out a couple of spoonfuls to add to the pan, with a slurp of olive oil, which, I’ve read somewhere, does something to a boiling point. I’m trying to recreate a dish I’ve eaten at, or from, Wanaka’s Big Fig – slow food, served fast; careless scooploads shared with friends, or strangers, in close proximity on benches, or solo by the lake. They call it creamy potato and mushroom gratin and I’ve always meant to ask for the recipe. As it’s a gratin I think I’m technically supposed to bake it in the oven for hours but it’s not like I have the time. I mean. I do. I have it in abundance. But I’m hungry now and can’t just nip down the road for my takeaway box to runneth over with delicious juices, so I’m in it for the one-pan fry.

A proper breakfast, after all these years, is still a small act of rebellion.

Mushrooms, firm and earthy. And there’s a withering eggplant on the shelf behind them that wants using. Wasting food is a sin and even though Stephanie Alexander doesn’t list mushrooms and eggplant as companionable in my worn and splattered copy of her stripy bible, The Cook’s Companion, nobody is watching.

I had a mild-to-moderate mushroom soup obsession when I was, maybe, thirteen. Night after night. Onions and mushrooms and marmite and water and cream. I remember cutting them, ragged, small, and mashing them smaller in the pan, set on a low heat on the front left electric ring. I think it was around about the same time as my peppermint cream phase, scrubbing hard at the practically indelible green food colouring marks on the bench. Mum was working hard, working late, always tired. I didn’t want to add to her burden. Also, God made my life a Pet Shop Boys song. Always watching.

The quest for worthiness leaves a hungry void. Of trust, of rules, of dichotomies.  Ascetic/goddess.  Insider/out. Alpha/omega etcetera amen. I only know how to cook with emotion. Slapdash hope. Hard-boiled rage. Packets, tins and takeaways are easy avoidance. At least I’ve learned how to eat without shame. I live, now, a knitting needle through the globe from where I grew into/out of the lies, in a 1940s cottage in New Zealand. Physical distancing. Borders. Horizons. Birds in the yellowing trees, neighbours who wave as they’re walking their dog. The kettle sings that it’s at a hundy, again. I set a second coffee in motion and prevaricate – Kate Tempest, Fleur Jaeggy, the news? In Fleur’s world, there is an angel, locked in a church, growing, looming, larger, stronger, over the years it has been ignored. Notice the movement of a stranger, says Kate. Hold your own and let it be catching. The news is numbers, never names.

The mushrooms, the eggplant are catching, burning up on the edges. I need more fat. I scrape the pan and eat the scraps from the spatula. I add olive oil and the drained potatoes. I pour in half a pottle of cream. It froths. Steams. How apt is the word reduction for today? How fortunate am I to have this plenty in this place? I tip half the gratin-enough into a low bowl, garnish it with a smugness of fresh thyme and eat it, sitting at the window, with a spoon.

By Liz Breslin