Essay

In Isolation with Candice Chung

Location: Sydney, Australia

The restaurants have opened again. We’re in the middle of a dance. I learned, listening to a podcast while I watched instant noodles grow fat in a salty broth one day, that we’ve all become bit players in something called ‘the hammer and the dance’. Since the bloom of the virus, we’ve been living by this invisible pendulum.  

In my tiny kitchen, I thought it sounded like a Russian play. The lockdown was the ‘hammer’, the podcaster explained. “Bam, everybody has to go into their houses,” the staccato of his voice taking on a sportscaster’s pace. “But once you get the deaths down to a minimum, then you begin the dance.”

It was a hard thing to reconcile. That our freedom to return to our favourite eating spots hinged on the nation’s death toll felt odd, if not altogether dystopic. I listened to the rest of the podcast at my coffee table, my pandemic lunch spot, and thought about real hugs, real ramen, and eating at a real restaurant. I thought about leaving the tight borders of my own flat; free from the Orion’s Belt of where I ate, worked, and slept.

But months of being kept at arm’s length from the world has also made me wary of getting close again, and the idea of breaking bread in public has started to feel like setting foot in an ex lover’s place—familiar, yet quietly unsettling.

In isolation, I’ve been craving a different mealtime dynamic.

I miss the strange intimacy of watching other people eat. Living above an alleyway cafe helps. The changing sounds of the crowd used to be my constant. I never needed a clock to tell time, just the swell of coffee and all-day breakfast orders booming from the takeaway line. Some mornings I would wake up to the smell of brisket being cooked for the week’s toasties. A garlicky yawp from the world that I looked forward to—even as a vegetarian—when all else turned grim and quiet.

There are rules to being a good mealtime observer. In restaurants, one must live by the code of aggressive disinterest. No flashes of joy or shock should cross the face as we take in a neighbour’s order, their salt intake, and the wittiness of their conversations. Did they laugh more? Or did we? Are we building the kind of life that leads to a plate of dry lasagne on a Monday evening while our shadow self (Table 6A, excellent beanie) splits a dessert with someone so pro-kiss that they must be either enviably drunk or French?

I have taken notes on nights like these. After all, my work depends on it. What else must a journalist do but mark the happy sighs or annoyances in the room as we lay bare our desires to strangers for the briefest moment, in the most foundational hope to be looked after, to be fulfilled?

Author Edwidge Danticat captures this off-kilter, communal vulnerability in her short story,In The Old Days, when her narrator Nadia describes the conversations she’s overheard at her mother’s Haitian restaurant from a table that’s out of view:

I heard men and women declare their love for each other then listened as others confessed that they had fallen out of love. I heard parents explain the birds and the bees to their kids then leaned forward as a girl at another table revealed to her mother and father that she was pregnant. […] Why did so many people think they could confess the most shocking things to each other over a meal?

The truth, it seems, is that we are at our most unguarded when we eat. I think of all the times I’ve sat across from a crush, my own plate untouched, watching as their face softens—a borrowed intimacy owed to an arbitrary pancake or a messy taco that’s comically hot, unpredictably hands-on.  

But not all watching is quiet, passive. In my inner city apartment, after months of hiatus from the eating world, I start looking for a fix of the easy communion I’ve missed, and stop at a Mukbang video made by a blue-haired YouTube star named Soy.

Like all live-stream eating channels, hers is a show-and-tell of enormous meals eaten alone while chatting casually, sometimes distractedly, to a loyal audience. This particular clip features dishes from a Vietnamese takeaway spree: a chicken pho, turkey noodle salad, a ginger-glazed wild salmon, and a plate of sweet, smoky-looking bò lúc lắc (or ‘shaking beef’).

Then she reveals the reason behind that meal: that her Vietnamese grandmother had passed away in the pandemic, and being stuck on the other side of the country, she had no way of attending the funeral, or letting loose her grief. The video is her one-person wake. And we were invited to it.

I watch, dumbstruck, as she turns the act of being watched into something wholly open, participatory. In watching her eat, we’re asked to sit with the raw shock of her loss—sharing what seems unsharable across a virtual table, a solitary meal. 

Later, I meet a friend on Houseparty. Through my phone, I watch her reheat leftovers and nurse the spicy stew in loungewear I’ve never seen. I crack an egg into a frying pan as she speaks, hot oil hissing as the glossy white bubbles and the edges crisp.   

At the sound, my friend freezes.

“Wait—are you in the bathroom?” she asks.

In the fluorescent light, with only my face visible against the cream tiles of my kitchen wall, I instantly understand her confusion. We’ve shared countless dinners and brunches in real life, but neither of us have been inside each other’s homes. I pan out my camera to show her the noisy culprit—and vow to say something next time I live-fry anything on the phone.

In isolation, this is our new dance. Rather than sharing what’s on our plates, we bond over deeply domestic parts of our days. We play out mealtime rituals in parallel, and bear witness to each other’s needs as grief and gladness continue their quickstep dance.


By Candice Chung

Essay

In Isolation with Bre Audrey Graham

Location: London, England

Eight years ago I left home and moved to London. I’m not really sure what that version of me—eighteen years old and uncertain of what she wanted—was thinking when she chose to do it, because it feels so far away from who I am today.

Recently I’ve been clearing out USB sticks full of files and old boxes of photos gathering dust in drawers. In them I can see my cheeks swell and shrink depending on the season, my hair colour shifting in shades, the contents of my screenshots differing in line with who I ached for at the time. Across those eight years, only the walls in which I lived stayed the same. The flat had too many rooms and a bathtub as big as a bed—and it had a garden, most importantly one that kept growing in spite of my neglect.

While the trees and the hardy greens always weathered both winters and heatwaves, one thing returned every year without any effort on my behalf: a tiny pot of mint. I’d bought it from a supermarket the first summer I moved in and it had sunk its roots into the soil of a raised bed and went wild. Its leaves lingered long into January and by the time May came around every year, it was a lush tangle of peridot green. Even though literally everything in the world has changed since twenty-twelve, this mint has mustered on.

Last month, I left the garden and moved out of the place that was my home for so long. On my last afternoon in the emptied-out apartment, there was a heatwave. The city sweated as I drank the last beer I had left in the fridge for that exact occasion. After doing the final checks, I went outside in the scorching heat to water the garden one last time.

I soaked the pots of roses that grew up the ancient wall and bloomed every June with apricot-coloured, sherbet-scented flowers. I made sure that the bottlebrush my Dad bought me to remind me of home had just enough water to feel like it was still in the hemisphere it belongs in, and then finished by turning the hose on to the now flowering mint bush. The warm water from the hose hit the leaves, and the scent of damp soil and the fragrance of mint filled the humid air.

It was the scent of my grandfather’s garden. Everything came to me all at once: around the back of the garage, to the left of the Hills Hoist, was where the mint grew. Three years ago when Poppy, my grandfather, was sick I was able to go home to Australia to be with him. The week I arrived he was still walking, week two he was in a hospice, and by week three I was holding the weight of my grandmother at his funeral. Like everything else lost in time, when he died, the mint that had grown in his garden did too. 


The warm water from the hose hit the leaves, and the scent of damp soil and the fragrance of mint filled the humid air.


Amidst the confusion of the pandemic, I’ve tried not to think of how far away home has become. Watching people on the news every night lament not being able to be with loved ones when they’re ill is an unfathomable agony amongst it all.

At Poppy’s wake, we ate pies. He was a pastry chef, a job he had almost his whole life but had retired long before I was born. I was too young to taste the ones he’d made in the factory that sent him deaf, but it didn’t matter because I had something better—I had his birthday cakes. One year, he piped a delicate pastel pink mermaid tail onto a Barbie doll that sat atop a chocolate popcorn-covered cake in a sea of bubble-gum blue jelly, giving life to a doll that had never lived. He could spin sugar into roses and roll fondant over Christmas cakes as if it was as light as silk. He could make things that even in my most confident moments of cooking, I would never get close to creating.

If I was ever offered entry into an alternate universe where cancer didn’t kill him, I would scroll through my phone and show him the photos of all the ornately iced cakes I love and he would show me how to pipe puffs of cream and reimagine roses from a bag of sugar sprinkles. Standing in the garden, I thought about the birthday cake I’d just ordered for myself and what colours I wanted the icing to be. I turned the hose off and sat down, suddenly overwhelmed.

It wasn’t just the mint, it was everything. Saying goodbye to the kitchen I learned to cook in; the walls of the apartment that had heard all of my crumbles and triumphs. I watched the sun reduce the water from the hose into smaller puddles along the tiles and waited for them to dissipate into nothing before I got back up again. It dawned on me that in this new world, crossing streams and seas to get home to Sydney in an emergency would be impossible.

In those two weeks I had with Poppy, I got so much before he was gone—I read him a feature I’d written in a magazine about a place he loved, I watched while my Mum nursed him and sliced roasted potatoes and lamb for one of his last meals at home. My Nan still lives in the house where the Hills Hoist swings and the mint no longer grows. She’s too frail to hang the sheets on it anymore and where the herbs used to spread, just weeds wander.

The last time I talked to Mum and she told me that Nan’s latest blood test was bad. This is where it starts, blood is at birth and the beginning of ends. I know I can’t get back home this time if she deteriorates.

Before I go from the garden, I pull a handful of mint out from the roots along with a few of the roses and take them across town to the new postcode where I live. It’s opposite a park but I don’t have a garden anymore.

In my new kitchen, a place I’m still working out how to cook and move within, I smash the mint into a green pulp in the marble of my mortar and pestle. I swirl it into seltzer with a drop of rose water, a generous glug of gin and a sprinkle of sugar. If I am surrounded by what tastes and feels like home, I’ll feel closer on every call—a combination of closed eyes and the right flavours. There is so much in memory. And though everything we love will change, wet mint and sugared roses will always smell the same.


By Bre Audrey Graham

Essay

In Isolation with Charlotte Guest

Location: Geelong, Australia

There is a theory that Pythagoras wouldn’t eat broad beans because they look like dicks. Sheathed. The beans, that is. Or, apparently, because beans look like the gates of Hades. Maybe also because they are destructive, or like the nature of the universe, or symbolic of the oligarchy. This is according to Aristotle. If you asked Pliny the Elder, he would tell you not to eat beans because they contain the souls of the departed. Porphyry is more aligned with Pythagoras’ thinking and writes that if you split a bean, leave it in the sun, and come back a while later, it will smell like semen. Cutting the flower of the bean when it starts to blacken and putting it in an earthenware pot for ninety days will result in either a child’s head or female genitalia.

Today has been Bean Day. Yesterday was Honey Day. I am researching food in antiquity for the novel I’m writing so I don’t make any glaring errors like serving fish to the poor. Class decided what you ate and how much of it—just as, intersecting with race and gender, it does now. Flour, for instance, became less efficiently sieved the poorer you were, and therefore contained higher portions of phytic acid, which inhibits vitamin and mineral absorption. The poorer still, the less flour you had in the first place. I remember the aisles in Woolworths from the end of March: the ransacked shelves. No rice, no pasta, no flour. A lone elderly man looking lost and confused where the baked goods used to be. The Church had to stop its soup kitchen for fear of spreading the virus. But then where were the homeless going to eat? Perhaps tomorrow will be Flour Day.

I consider the significance of the broad bean as I plunge my hand into a bag of Harvest Snaps, which the packet assures me is a healthy snack of baked peas. Heavily seasoned, sure. But baked, not fried. The Harvest Snaps will be my lunch, because I don’t each much for lunch, and because I hate cooking. Even the thought of assembling things on a plate, like nuts and fruit, fills me with a sense of malaise. I wish I felt the joy others do at combining ingredients and plating up a meal. But I don’t. I can’t seem to enter the kitchen without sighing and picking at whatever morsels I can find that don’t require preparation before consuming. Pushing the limits of this method is how I gave myself salmonella poisoning some years ago. I am lucky, now, to have a boyfriend who so relishes cooking that he hasn’t complained once about preparing every single meal we’ve ever eaten. Yet.

There are two dinner party scenes in my novel; they act as a kind of frame. As in all societies at any given time, food in the classical world had two functions: nutritional and symbolic. Certain foods meant certain things. The apple, for instance, is laden with meaning. Apples appear in Greek mythology and suggest love and fertility. Pomegranates also gesture at the loins. Food and sex were intimately linked, as they are now. You had to be careful dining at a pub in ancient Greece and Rome, however, in case you were served human flesh passed off as pork. Galen of Pergamon writes with grotesque familiarity on the texture and taste and appearance of a person compared to pork. Ass, he writes, needs marinating for a long time before it is digestible. It took me a moment to realise he meant donkey.

Dinner parties were occasions to philosophise and proselytise, both in life and in the literature of the day. They were, they are, about gathering together. Eating is a vulnerable and intimate act. I remember learning years ago that the ritual of clinking glasses—cheers!—has its origins as an act of trust. To share food and drink with others is to open yourself up: your mouth and your soul.

I am halfway through Galen’s On the Properties of Foodstuffs, written in the second century AD, which is, admittedly, a few hundred years after the time of my novel. In the three books that comprise the work, he hierarchises food based on its value and abundance, with, to my surprise, bread and cereals firmly at the top. Cereals include seeds and legumes, rice, wheat, beans, barley, and so forth. All the things that vanished in the first few weeks of quarantine. I think of the man standing aghast before the empty displays at Woolworths. I imagine, for no reason, that he is Galen.


To share food and drink with others is to open yourself up: your mouth and your soul.


I have been writing about these people welcoming their friends into their home—hugging, kissing, clasping hands—to eat together, pass drinks around, laugh, and talk over one another. There are more than ten people in the room. And while I am not sentimental about the preparation of food—never having enjoyed cooking—I am sentimental about sharing it. I write these scenes of jollity and celebration, and I am alone on the loungeroom floor with a small bar heater. Its electric whine amplifies the silence. My characters embrace, and I haven’t touched another person, other than my partner, for months. I lived alone for many years and thank the Gods I am not alone for lockdown. I check in on friends who are, and their little digitised faces pop up, discreetly, on my screen. My phone is always on silent. Meanwhile, my characters make noise. My house is quiet. My characters, being Romans, wipe their mouths and sneeze and cough and roughly grab for food in a riotous mess that I cannot help viewing through the lens of social distancing and religious sanitising with abject horror. The person who last handed me a takeaway coffee was wearing a pair of blue gloves.  

Writing these dinner party scenes during quarantine has been a way to channel the wanting. The longing. The missing. It’s made me realise I crave the glancing touches of close friendship—a hand on a shoulder; a squeeze to indicate pride; an admonishing tap on the knee or forearm—something I wasn’t aware of before. I am now an advocate for the cringeworthy elbow-bump, because at least it’s something. To me, it says: hey, we’re solid.

Yesterday, Honey Day, I learned that Pythagoras believed honey on bread for breakfast was the key to a healthy life. I had manuka honey on toast for a snack. I thought about the bookshop where I work and the number of sourdough cookbooks we’d sold in the last few months. We had a free home delivery service whereby I would cycle books to people’s homes. I’m going to bake bread! customers told me on the phone. I flicked through these sourdough cookbooks before packaging them up to be delivered. Every introduction nods to sourdough as the “oldest form of baking”. One such cookbook, Sourdough by Casper André Lugg and Martin Ivar Hveem Fjeld, begins with the line, “Bread is older than metal,” and continues on to say:

… now there is a movement to reclaim good bread. This is not just a revival, nor just a moment of culinary fashion: sourdough has never been more relevant or exciting.

I cycled these cookbooks to customers isolating at home, who I wouldn’t see, even through windows, because I was gone, pedalling away, before they got to the door. I thought about the expression “to break bread”; its ancient origins. I thought about bread—food—connecting us laterally, to the people and the world around us, but also through time.

I have taken a break from writing. Shuffled to the pantry to find something to nibble on, like a rat, I suppose. I think about when restaurants will reopen again. That’ll be nice, to break bread in some halfway familiar environment. But not right now. Right now, I am in a home with reclining lounges (lectus), a feast laid out, light burning low, in the first century BCE. I am there, at the dinner party, transported through my laptop screen (light glowing low), and also here, on my loungeroom floor, eating nuts and dried fruit, alone.


By Charlotte Guest

Essay

In Isolation with Adélaïde Bon

Location: Provence, France

The decision was made in a snap: a garden, where could we find a garden for our six-year-old boy and our own sake, before getting locked in?

I was born and raised in Paris and, like my mother, I am a disastrous cook. Following recipes is far too boring, there’s always one ingredient missing for the complicated meals I have in mind when friends come by, and I never quite understood the subtle art of spices. A true Parisian—far too busy. Always up to something. Biking at full speed around town and arriving late and flushed red to meetings and rehearsals.

My meals are just like me, overcooked. There are so many things you can do, instead of staring at the pan. Usually, since I love food and endless meals, I rely on others: restaurants, catering, friends, my husband.

A few days before confinement began, we took a stack of books, the trumpet, a few clothes and rain boots, gave Niels the goldfish enough food for a month, watered the orchids, borrowed my parent’s spare car and drove south, to my brother’s house, in Provence.

There we were, four adults, four kids, and meals three times a day, isolating in France’s paradise garden where everything grows. My husband and I took turns preparing lunch. One would work in the morning while the other turned into a schoolteacher and cook.

Since we’re both quite stereotypical bobos (a Parisian term for the bourgeois bohemians who gentrified the north of the city, eat organic, despise plastic, and practice yoga), we went to the village searching for local vegetables, fruits, honey, olive oil and goat’s cheese. We picked wild rosemary and thyme in the fields close by.


I was born and raised in Paris and, like my mother, I am a disastrous cook.


We went to a roadside stall three days a week and had to choose between glorious vegetables and fruits that had just been harvested, and only travelled for a couple minutes after being picked from the land. We were all wearing masks in the line, but you could tell everyone was salivating when the first strawberries arrived. Paradise, I told you.

And so I started cooking. I cut, chopped, peeled, browned and roasted. I kept it simple, the bright, fresh taste of tomatoes, eggplants, zucchinis, asparagus, melons or figs making up for my lack of knowledge. Slow-cooked ratatouille. Tian de legumes. Scrambled eggs and asparagus. Salade niçoise.

While I was discovering the peace that lies in taking time, my husband revealed himself: lapin à la moutarde, artichauts à la barigoule, pavlova à la meringue maison, tarte aux fraises à la crème patissière, and other wonders. We’ve been together for eleven years and I had absolutely no clue he was such a chef.

We stayed in Provence for three months. I had never been away from my hometown for so long and found I did not miss it. The food was too damn good. Do you know strawberries are crunchy when they’ve just been picked? I certainly didn’t and couldn’t stop eating them.

Of course, it was also a time of anxiety, of uncertainty, of tensions. Sad and bad news. Projects collapsing. Frustration. And I sucked at teaching class to my kid.

But we would walk in the forest every day and see leaves slowly curl out of their buds. We had every meal in the garden, alongside birds and butterflies. I’m pretty sure it’s thanks to the nature around us and on our plates that between four adults and four kids, none of us ever broke into too big a fight.

I am thirty-nine, and this spring was my very first spring.


By Adélaïde Bon

Essay

In Isolation with David Matthews

Location: Sydney, Australia

I’m on a snow-capped peak, wind whipping around me, the air biting, cloud pressing in. I draw my bowstring and loose an arrow into the night sky. It whistles through the air and strikes its target: an eagle, riding the updrafts. The bird plummets. I scramble down the cliff-face and slip what I find into my pouch: dinner.

Eating in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is foremost about survival. Gathering wild plants or hunting wild animals is as much a part of the game as plot or exploration. Apples, mushrooms, deer, fish—all of these literally restore your life force. If you don’t eat, you perish.

Outside the game, in lockdown, I spend part of my days scrolling through cut-price pieces of meat on Vic’s Meat online, wishing they sold sweetbreads or tongues or something more interesting than dry-aged primal cuts. Parts are spent ordering (cut-price) premium fish and crustacea from Nicholas Seafood, ticking a box for whether I want scales on or off (on), guts in or out (in), lobster dead or kicking (kicking).

Other times I’m immersed in The Wild. By day I stalk boar through the forest and spirit eggs from birds’ nests. I snatch at fish schooling just under the surface of creeks and rivers, pick wild herbs and gather mushrooms growing in the shadow of a cliff hang. Come nightfall I fend off deadly skeletons and swarms of bats, frantically swallowing mushroom skewers and tree nuts to replenish my health. I kill and eat a fox.

Here on The Great Plateau the world is sparse. There are no people, just a maleficent spectre swirling around a far-off castle, tribes of Bokoblins—big, kinda stupid beasty things—the spirit of an old man that keeps appearing, and me. Everywhere there are hints of a once-thriving civilisation: I chance upon a lake and see a wharf collapsed by the swirling current. I find a recipe journal in a dilapidated hut. I find an axe lodged squarely in the trunk of a tree.

I wander the wilderness searching for triggers for my shattered memories, and eating, always eating. I find rice in the verdant fields near Hateno, bushels of wheat in the Tabantha highlands, voltfruit and hydromelons in the Gerudo Desert.

IRL I make fish-fragrant eggplant. I feed Fernando, my sourdough starter. I cook and peel two beef tongues and fuse them into a loaf for sandwiches, and I poach a whole Murray cod and cover it in a herb dressing whisked together with fish stock. I cook dhal and temper it with coconut oil and cupboard spices that have lost their potency.


Cooking in restaurants ruined home cooking for me—there are no stakes, no urgency, no post-service comedown.


Food and cooking, and thinking about food and cooking, mark my days more than usual. I try to find cooking pleasurable, and sometimes I do, but mainly it’s a chore, even if I can’t stop. Cooking in restaurants ruined home cooking for me—there are no stakes, no urgency, no post-service comedown. Mainly, there’s just the thought that if I’d given it more time, or had better equipment, or been more precise, then what I’d made could be more delicious. My time as a restaurant critic has taught me to seek the good in things, but the chef in me knows better.

On screen the dishes pop with cartoonish appeal, in the same way the best cell-shaded soups and stews always manage to look like how you wish every stew tasted. (Watch this supercut of food scenes from Studio Ghibli films and tell me soup has ever looked more sustaining than stirred over live flame in Princess Mononoke, noodles more appealing than in Ponyo, or eggs and bacon better than fried in a cast-iron pan fuelled by Calcifer, the fire demon, in Howl’s Moving Castle.)

In Breath of the Wild a pat of butter melts gently over fluffy crêpes, layers of pure white whipped cream break up rows of wildberries in the centre of a layer cake, pumpkin pies are pert and neatly sliced, stews gleam and steam enticingly, salmon meunière—garnished sparingly with greens and what looks like tomato—is a handsomely darned piece of fish, skin on, with a buttery herb-flecked sauce spilling down onto the plate, and the omelettes are topped generously with tomato sauce like the finest omurice. Presentation, even if you’re eating for one, counts.

Dishes, too, are firmly grounded in Japan. The meunières and the soups nod to Japan’s French-style fine dining restaurants as much as to France itself, the flawless desserts, sweets and fruits—so esteemed in the country’s food culture—are staples, as are curry rice and rice balls. If my childhood was one where 4KIDS so heavily whitewashed the food in the Pokémon anime, it’s refreshing to know that 20 years later, kids, wherever they’re from, can grow up calling an onigiri an onigiri.

In the game, I stuff my onigiri with fish and mushrooms. I sweeten fruit with honeycomb. I steam fish in wild greens, glaze pigeons in salt and butter, and toss crab through rice and omelettes. I wonder if restaurant reviewing will return in the future, and what it’ll look like. Whether I care. The sun rises and sets, stars fall from the sky, the moon shines blood red. I keep eating.


By David Matthews