Letter to Gay Bilson
You don’t know me though I like to think that I know you. In fact, I wish you were my neighbour. You’d hand me a bag of freshly picked broad beans still warm from the sun and tell me what to do with them – ‘Steam them lightly then douse with a glug of the good olive oil.’ I’d bring over dishes that I cooked and was proud of. You’d implore me sit at your kitchen table, the wood worn soft and shiny from years of use. No fancy dining room for you (ironic seeing dining rooms receive no less than six entries in your seminal book). Your table is writing desk, pastry bench and more. Only as I was departing, would you suggest a simple way to improve the meal.
I’m glad you are not my mother as we would butt heads and things would be too loaded.
But being my neighbour would be just fine.
I can tell you appreciate quality. The first time I came to learn about you was upon seeing your book Plenty: Digressions on Food in my local bookstore; its delicate duck egg blue cover, the thick decal-edged pages were so sensual in my hands, its essays meandering not in any timeline but according to your own aesthetic. Through these digressions I gleaned so much about you from your childhood home in Melbourne to your love of a simple congee. For five generous pages, you talk about this rice gruel, its history and its contemporary state, before giving us a recipe of congee to serve 250 people. I love that only a foolish reader would jump straight to the recipe.
Like me, you know the importance of small things. Your homage to Sei Shonagon’s pillow book in Plenty made my heart skip a beat. I also make lists of things that please, things that should be painted or things that are rare. Though I came to know of the pillow book through a movie of the same name, I’m sure yours was a more literary discovery.
I admire you for admitting your mistakes. In a piece for The Monthly you detailed an incident where you forgot the chowder you had brought to vegetarian friends contained bacon. The fact that they ate it anyway (the husband commenting that it reminded him of a dish from his danish youth) perhaps speaks of your culinary skill as much as their respect for your friendship. Admitting our mistakes is part of showing our humanity and our fallibility. I vow to be more human, more fallible.
If I come across your name online, I have to click through to the article. Your words are not overly complicated and always a sheer pleasure to read. You speak about food as a means of bringing people together across cultures as much as around the table. You champion knowledge of where our food comes from and how it is produced. Greater knowledge and greater connection to our food go hand in hand. Whether it’s an omelette constructed from a neighbour’s eggs or apples bought from the grower at local Farmers’ Market, we tend to respect food that we know more about. I am almost reverential towards the herbs I grow making them the star of the dish, instead of an after-thought thrown on top before serving.
An autodidact like myself, your writings are littered with references to chefs and food writers from years past who have things to offer us still. Twentieth century writers Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David share equal amounts of type with older, more established gastronomes such as Brillat Savarin and Escoffier. A recipe for lemon posset is given no less respect than a more intricate recipe for florentine biscuits. We both know that a healthy appetite for real food, devoid of numbers or fake fats, is key to a good life. Pastry hand made with almost equal parts butter and flour is not the devil. If we wish to be healthier, we should just eat less of it. I smile as I read this, snacking on creamy juicy papaya, the plate resting on an unstable tower of books.
Though you’ve run multiple restaurants, you now live quietly in rural South Australia. Literally miles from the competitive restaurant world of the big cities, you’ve managed to finally be alone. I, too, need to carve out time alone, particularly when my day job is also in the social realm of hospitality. Books and art soothe and quieten the voices echoing in my head after a day of others’ demands.
So perhaps it is to a peaceful small town one state over that I must relocate if we are going to be neighbours. South Australia has such a strong, local food culture and I have loved the times I have travelled there. But, if I’m to be honest, I’m not sure I can move so far away from my family. You see my daughters have just embarked upon adult lives of their own and I get to bake big vegetarian lasagnes to drop around unexpectedly. My sister-in-law regularly phones me up with a cooking dilemma that needs immediate answering. Also, possibly more importantly, what about my veggie garden? I’ve got several large fruit trees and a bay tree which I’m not sure would survive the move. My silver beet patch needs harvesting every few days in this warm weather and the potatoes won’t be ready til later in the year.
So Gay, maybe we could just be pen pals instead.