Friday 31st August – New York City

Friday 31st August

9.33am

Two loads of washing done and currently tumbling away in the dryer downstairs in the basement laundry. $2.00 a wash and $1.80 per 30 minutes drying. Apart from setting the alarm to remind oneself to go get the stuff, I reckon I could get used to this system. Though it needs to be said that the laundry is insufferably hot and stuffy in Summer, which it currently is here.

My sister and her partner are flying home to Australia today. Luggage is in various stages of being packed. Bags of rubbish, recycling and donating sit in different parts of the apartment. US friends came over this morning to comb through accumulated kitchen items for the taking. Bottles of olive oil, hardly-touched spice packets and half-empty packets of nuts made it into their grocery bags. Stacks of baking accoutrements remain on the kitchen bench while plastic storage containers were snaffled up.

New York City is such a transient place that this ritual is common as people move to and from the metropolis. These friends moved from Texas a year ago. Others I met have been here much longer, though it seems that everyone came from somewhere else first. Six months here was enough for Simone to feel the need to bake. This is one sign she isn’t a native New Yorker, whose kitchen is usually just a place to dish up take-out meals.

Preparing your own food is an act of self-determination. How thick I cut the bread? To butter it or not? How long I cook the eggs for? – these are all small decisions that we make each day according to own individual desires. While there’s no denying that there’s a certain freedom in eating out, it is something that I rapidly tire of. Maybe I don’t want to get dressed to go out and search for food. (In place of ‘get dressed’, feel free to substitute ‘put a bra on’ as essentially that’s what I’m saying.) Even answering the door to a food delivery can be more than I’m up for at times. Other times, I’m excited to find a café or restaurant where I can prop by myself, chat with the wait staff or read a book. Taking my time to choose a meal, the appropriate drink to go with it and savour the luxury of the whole experience.

When I prepare food for myself, I don’t have to consider that someone else may want some of the perfectly ripe cheese I bought. I can stand at the bench and pop one slice of jamon on my mouth for every piece that makes it to the plate. I can butter the thick slice of crusty bread before liberally sprinkling salt crystals over it. And finally, no one judges me for over-filling my wine glass which saves me a return trip to the fridge in the middle of my meal, thus rendering my food vulnerable to my cats.

Letter to Gay Bilson

Letter to Gay Bilson

Dear Gay,

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.

New York City, NY – Monday 5th September – part 2

Approaching the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue, colloquially known as Museum Mile for good reason, the building holds none of the magic that the Guggenheim art museum commands. From street level the brick pattern neutral coloured exterior is just another sheer building face with nondescript gaps for windows. If you’re able to step back and look up without falling into the road, you’d see the fussy decoration of an over-sized French townhouse.

Outside the front door is a black suited security guard. This is a sight I’m getting very accustomed to by now. As I attempt to enter he places his arm in front of me so that I walk into it.

‘I’ll need to search your bag, ma’am,’ he announces as settle back onto the lower step, bumping into Steve. I open the zip expecting a cursory glance for guns and explosives. Clearly a man who takes his job seriously, the guard lifts my wallet, tissues and other unmentionables in pursuit of who knows what. Snuggly packed into an external mesh pocket of my handbag is a half-drained bottle of water.

‘You can’t bring that drink in here, ma’am,’ I’m advised brusquely. How the word ma’am can come across so aggressively, patronising and outright rude is beyond me. I am not sure I’ve ever used the word before in my life and I’m not about to start with this trip. Both sir and ma’am have been levelled at us often this trip with so little apparent meaning.

I breathe out slowly but deliberately. ‘Am I able to leave it with you?’

‘No, ma’am.’

I don’t move from my place on the doorstep and proceed to drink as much as I can. I offer it to Steve who on this occasion declines. Try as I might, I can’t quite finish it after a filling breakfast. Watching my every move silently, the guard looks away as I pour the remainder to the side of the entrance, only steps away from his position. Perhaps I should water the tree buffering the footpath from the road but I don’t.

‘You’ll need to check your bag before entering the gallery, ma’am,’ he calls out after me as I push past. At the base of the stairs, I remove my bag from around my neck.

‘Is this where I check my bag?’ I ask but am answered with a hand palm facing me fingers directing me to my left. A young lady, perched behind a bench looks up from her phone as I approach.

‘Is this where I check my bag?’

‘Yes, ma’am. That’ll be two dollars,’ she answers with all the enthusiasm of a teenager working the overnight shift at a McDonalds drive-through.

‘Okay. Just let me grab my wallet,’ I say pulling my bag back towards me before rifling through it.

‘Just a reminder that photography is forbidden in the gallery,’ she smiles and doesn’t smile simultaneously. ‘And don’t forget to visit the gift shop on our way out.’

I pay, collect my card and we head back to the foyer. A white marble staircase circles up and to the right, a black botanical-motif iron balustrade following it. In front of the staircase is a reception desk and the owner of the hand, who speaks as we attempt to climb the staircase.

‘Where you wanting to visit the gallery?’

‘Yes,’ I respond, thinking that it is rather stating the obvious.

‘Admission tickets can be purchased here.’

‘We’d like two tickets please,’ Steve interjects over my shoulder in an attempt to save the receptionist from getting his head bitten off.

‘Any concessions?’ he inquires.

‘Actually yes. I have a student concession card.’ Realising it is in my wallet which is now ensconced in the bag/coat check room, I consider my options. My dogged frugality wins out over my short fuse and I replay the procedure to save myself US$10. I’m unsure if it is worth it.

Some galleries and museums in America have a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ policy but not this place, at least not today. Traveling can be expensive. Obviously airfares and accommodation are the bulk of the expenses. In my lifetime though, airfares have become substantially more affordable. In the twenty years since I first began travelling, the price of my plane ticket has remain unchanged, regardless of inflation. The price of petrol, however, has increased by two-thirds. I sometimes wonder if it were more accessible, would more people travel. Perhaps they’re happy to stay at home, to stay in their knowable, predictable towns. I’m the kind of person who needs to save up for a holiday otherwise the stress of handing over a credit card every time outweighs the joy of the travel. Eating breakfast in and grabbing food from a market or grocery store also helps to ameliorate the ongoing shelling out of money. So yes, the saving of US$10 has a wider impact than its immediate perceivable action.

The collection at Neue Galerie includes decorative arts, sculpture and fine art pieces from various Austrian and German artists. Steve has brought me here for one reason only – to view the paintings of Gustav Klimt.

When Steve and I met through an online dating website, my profile name was Klimt. I had previously attempted online dating to greater and lesser success in the prior few years before meeting Steve and had learnt many tricks of the trade. One of which is not to give away any identifying information in your moniker or profile. Yes, you want to stand out from beachandsmiles76 and lovestolaugh71 but I always looked at a profile name as the first impression. I like to make a good first impression. One that draws curious and intelligent people in for a second look.

By choosing the name of one of my favourites artists, I felt I was sending a message about who I am as a person (artistic, slightly left of center) and also who I was looking to connect with (that might be harder to pinpoint in a few words). Needless to say, Steve heard my message loud and clear. I’m not sure if the entire time we’ve been together he’s been looking for some original Klimt artworks to direct me towards or if it was a fortuitous twist that he discovered the Neue Galerie here in NYC.

Either way, we find ourselves mingling with a couple of dozen other visitors on a glossy tiled floor, in a cool dark long room. Ten or so pieces drawings and paintings hang solemnly behind glass around the room. A few plinths in the middle display sculpture of marble and bronze but I barely glimpse at them. I step swiftly past numerous pencil studies to get to the main subject. There are too many people in my way. Can’t they go away and leave me alone with this woman I’ve traveled so far to see. I decide to do another lap of the room, this time pausing at the pencil studies, admiring the energy and fluidity of his line work. Various poses with body twisting first one way then another, her face barely even blocked in and yet it cannot be anyone else but her. I see a break and decide to take another run at it.

Adele Bloch-Bauer. She is unmistakable – dark hair piled high in folds upon her head, elongated neck swathed in a jewelled choker and her pianist-perfect fingers awkwardly held in front of her. A chaotic mosaic of triangles, squares, eyes and swirls envelope Adele, merging her dress with the background. Gold leaf dominates the oil paint, elevating the portrait to somewhere near religious icon status. I smile to myself. ‘Nice to finally meet you, Adele,’ I say under my breath.

Later, I descend to the bathroom below street level. One thing I quickly learnt as a tourist is that you take toilet stops when you can get them. Incongruously, it is here outside the ladies bathrooms that I find a life-size poster of Adele with a sign next to it encouraging selfies and the gallery’s social media platforms so I can tag myself in.

What do you get when you cross an engineer and a design graduate?

What do you get when you cross an engineer and a design graduate?

A book cover artist of course.

Another Word Con and more engaging presentations from a variety of professionals in the publishing industry. Though I was saddened not to listen to Justin Heazlewood’s session (and more importantly get him to sign my copy of his book ‘Funemployed’), day one was full of fun and facts.

Rob introduced us to Marisa and Puja from Hardie Grant Egmont, specifically from their YA and middle-grade fiction. Though not a field of interest to me, I enjoyed the dissection of the publishing process.

Andrew presented a session exploring the space between flow state and focus in our contemporary, increasingly distracting, society. Robyn Doreian’s guest Cate Blake from the Penguin Random House imprint Viking proved a popular guest. With a focus on middle market and literary fiction, Cate pulled back the curtain on the submission process and emphasised the importance of being involved in literary competitions. Venetia bravely pitched her completed novel, putting into practice exercises from the previous semester. If I had a completed manuscript or even a firmer grasp on my project’s thesis, then I am sure that I would have also pitched.

Emma Noble was the final guest for the day. With a background in the publishing industry in various roles, she currently runs her own business as a literary publicist. Overall, Word Con 4 is a ripper of a mini literary conference. I enjoy the variety of presenters and the range of positions they can talk to within the publishing industry.

I found Puja’s contribution to the first session the most engaging. Puja’s varied background, including an engineering degree, reinforced for me the obscure nature of many career paths, my own included. Through the publishing subjects, I have managed to combine my innate visually creative inclinations and the book embryo I am birthing. As with Puja, every step that I’ve taken professionally has led me to this point though not necessarily via any predetermined plan. As a side note, she was completely charming to speak with after the session.

vibrant

 

Long live long-form

Our school puts on a great little event called Word Con at the end of each semester. We get to listen to a range of presenters on a range of topics, most of which are of interest. Monday’s first session was an interview by Robyn Dorian with Andrew Mast of ‘themusic.com.au’ and its print version. Apart from getting me thinking about what constitutes a magazine and some reminiscing of the second-hand record store I used to hang out in as a teenager, I found Andrew great fun to listen to.

Andrew had a lot to say about monetizing the website, metrics the website generates as well as the fact that although they started out as an independent, the music is now viewed as somewhat mainstream. Not being much into music myself (blasphemous, I know) I was heartened to see the website devotes space to other tangents such as art, film, culture and comedy.

Long-form articles are also gaining ground – great news for those writers in the audience. I’ve been hearing a bit of this recently. There are apps that aggregate long-form articles for reading at one’s leisure. The irony there is that I much prefer to read things of length not online but by holding a paper product in my hot little hands. Oh,well.

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