A recipe is a thing to come back to, again and again. Like a home, like a feeling. A favourite poem. The last time I was suffocated by everything, I put myself to work memorising ‘Sonnet for Christmas’ by Judith Wright. It was a rainy day in the summer heaviness, I looked out the circle window of the Bargoonga Nganjin library on Brunswick Street. We are winter-caught, and we must fail, said the dark dream, and time is … and time is … (looking back to the page) … overcast.
Mum cooks quinces forever. They turn from wood to a kind of sand, with vanilla bean syrup and Pauls ice cream. And then there’s the getting out of the butcher’s paper. I feel ill. I can stomach a lot of sweets though and I try to put a lid on things. The quinces come from the tree of one of mum’s three friends with the name Jen. Jen lives in Port Fairy and quinces fruit in spring, mainly, but mum wouldn’t go there just for the quinces, and she might not necessarily get them if she did go. It’s a lucky strike.
There are a handful of familiar faces out the window. Monty from Monty’s Bar, an old housemate and my friend from Auslan class who works at Piedemonte’s. People have jackets on their heads. A girl who is splashed when a car drives through a puddle, laughs. I smile too, for a moment, but a mouse doesn’t want to be found in her hole. ‘Unseasonable rain we’re having’: a woman in the library doesn’t know that the four European seasons don’t apply here. The quinces know.
Sometimes it is easier to follow a recipe for mushroom noodle soup than to put on a brave face. But only once have I made the soup. It requires soaking dried mushrooms and cooking various ingredients in different batches, removing them from the pot and so forth. Classically I do a slap-dash job, and there are usually a lot of replacements: dried porcini for dried mixed mushrooms, three onions for one, vinegar for lime. I have made the resolution to follow a new recipe every week. I have made the resolution a few times. Extend the repertoire. It’s a bit of a faff-around. You have to soak the dried mushrooms then boil them then scoop them out and ‘save them for later’. Just type ‘mushroom noodle soup’ into DuckDuckGo.
Then ‘Sonnet for Christmas’ becomes for me like a song from a break-up. Or the smell of asparagus ever since I spewed it up that time. Something heavy. I sat with the sonnet all morning by the window.
I always remember this line from a cooking show: ‘Pistachios are the unsung hero of the dish.’ They were talking about some kind of creamy topping for a steak. It may have been the incorrect use of the phrase, I can’t remember. In my experience, pistachios are rarely unsung. But I understand why you would want to say something like that: the unsung hero of the dish. Maybe humour is a crutch. It’s harder to be serious. I don’t think it’s better to be serious. I don’t know that you can choose. Writing can be hard like that.
The librarian is restacking a book from the ‘For Dummies’ series.
This is my fall-back, but I warn you: you may have tried it yourself before. A pot of rapidly boiling water, well salted. A whole packet of fettuccini, no matter how many are eating. But before you put the pasta on, put olive oil in a pan, despite not having chopped the onion or garlic. Chop the onion and garlic and balance it all on the knife to carry across to the pan on the stove. On another burner, put the eggplant directly on the flame. Maybe move the pasta water pot to a back burner and the eggplant to the front. If the garlic’s burning, turn the flame off. Luckily a housemate has a tin of tomatoes. Take the eggplant off before it’s quite perfectly soft, peel the charred skin into the sink. Mash it all around in the pan, turn the burner back on, add the tomatoes, salt, pepper and paprika.
The pasta can go on now too. Try it five times to make sure it’s ready. More oil to serve plus lemon, rocket and any kind of cheese if you have it. Or savoury yeast flakes. Any combination is pretty good.
If the stove is broken you can cook the pasta in an electric kettle and the rest in the oven. With the kettle, boil it, snap the fettucini in half and put the pasta in. Wait a minute then turn the kettle on again. Repeat a few times. My housemate taught me this.
If the stove stops working suddenly and is electric, check the fuse box first. Save the kettle. •
Sarah Hall is a writer and editor who lives on Wurundjeri land. She is editor in chief of The Sum Times.