“The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.” ~ Michael Pollan
If you had asked me to create a memorable meal when I was younger I would have had the cookbooks out in a flash, planning some elaborate and fanciful spectacular. Menu planning for ‘Spectaculars’ runs in our family. We used to call going to my grandparents for dinner ‘a trip to the Palace’; all of us dressed for dinner, the table set with the best china and crystal, flowers, music, wine, and lovingly prepared food of restaurant quality. As a child I grew up turning melons into piles of perfect tiny spheres for one of Mum’s ‘Annual Christmas Creations’, or hollowing out endless half loaves to make little toasted bread baskets for prawn salad.
I still love a party, and planning something special, but I’ve come to realise that it’s not just about the food. It’s the experience – the people, the situation, the sharing.
Here are some of my most memorable meals:
Ben and I ran into two charming elderly brothers on the veranda of a tiny country pub in the middle of nowhere. They were staying in a shack down by the river and suggested a spot a little further along as a good place for us to camp. On a whim I invited them to dinner, and cooked a camp oven roast with all the trimmings, bread and butter pudding and home-made custard. They brought an empty cereal box full of live yabbies (little freshwater crayfish) as a gift, and entertained us with stories all night. The next morning while we were making breakfast our dog Charlie, who was still a pup, found the box of yabbies and spilled them all over our swag, and then ‘played’ with them. We couldn’t get the stink of yabby guts out of the sheets and had to throw them away.
On the day that my beloved grandmother Marga (Queen of the ‘Palace’) passed away, my sister, Mother and I sat with her as she took her last breaths. Afterwards my sister and I went for a walk and ended up in the courtyard of a little cafe in New Farm, where we ordered a very late lunch of ginger-beer, toasted ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches and hot drinks. We sat in the sunshine on this glorious Brisbane afternoon, not really talking, just sharing space and taking comfort in each other. The waitresses were so kind, and brought us tissues when we both kept eating with tears sliding down our cheeks.
The best hot chocolate of my life was at a little outdoor cafe in the medieval city of Gubbio in Italy. I was travelling with my husband and some friends but had taken time out to sit on my own and write. Was I alone though? No! I was sitting on the terrace with Gubbio laid out before me, surrounded by flirty Italian waiters, while the shopkeepers called greetings to me. That hot chocolate was sublime, but it was also flavoured with the romance of that ancient city.
During a trip through the centre of Australia a few years back, we got flooded in on a remote stretch of road with several other motorists. We all camped on the road, glued to the radio for the weather and road updates, and pooled what food and drink we had with. Dinner was an interesting affair of chips, chocolate, lollies, sweet biscuits, sausages in bread, baked beans and instant noodles, washed down with beers and cups of tea sweetened with condensed milk. Our dining area was a huddle of folding chairs and eskies under rigged-up tarps in the pouring rain. It was cold and wet, but we had a lot of fun and met some interesting people!
Last year I took my good friend, Carly-Jay Metcalfe to visit one of our neighbours. Gordon’s an old farmer with many a story to tell, and he’s dad to another very good friend, Shannon. Our farms are opposite each other, separated by a river which is low enough to cross over in our gumboots at the shallowest section, if it hasn’t been raining. We came bearing home-made scones, jam and whipped cream, and Gordon made us a pot of tea that any CWA stalwart would have been proud of – Gordon’s tea is a bracing brew. All afternoon we sat in his humble kitchen, laughing and sharing tales. The food was fresh but not fancy, and there was not a tiara in sight. But it was one of the best afternoons on record.
When I look back, my most treasured food memories aren’t really about the food at all. A meal can be a main event, but what makes the occasion memorable for me is the joy of a shared table.
What’s your most memorable meal?