It wasn’t much: a single mouthful of pork belly, perfectly cooked, with golden, glass-like crackling shining under a thin apple glaze, but as soon as I bit down and felt that crackling shatter under my teeth, releasing a rush of rich, molten fat that slicked my tongue with flavour, my knees went weak. If I hadn’t been sitting down I would have crumpled. The meat didn’t so much as come apart in my mouth as melt, soft and sweet and unbelievably tender. Every bite, every swipe of my tongue across my teeth revealed something new: a lick of savoury onion that had sopped up the salty reduction of pork fat and apple, a momentary twinge of pain as a pocket of hot juices scalded the inside of my cheek. I realised that the other diners were staring at me: was that me sighing as I swallowed, gasping as though I’d just been kissed?
I smiled shakily and wiped my lips, cheeks burning. Let them look. I didn’t care. Why should I? Good food undoes you, and I was undone, my thoughts racing, my heart pounding. Who was the chef? What had they tasted, what had they experienced that let them cook like that? What was the spice that was still prickling over my tongue, warm and numbing all at once? I had to know. I couldn’t not.
In case you couldn’t tell, I love food to distraction. When I was growing up, two things opened up the world to me more than anything else: cooking and books, more often than not about the former. Most of my bookcase is taken up with stories about food, recipe books and travelogues by famous chefs, and I love watching cooking shows: whenever I turn on the TV, I’m always sure to see something exciting, whether it’s Anthony Bourdain travelling through exotic locals on the way to his next meal or Heston Blumenthal’s latest guests giggling as they demolish a real gingerbread house. In today’s culinary world spectacle and presentation are front and centre, from pyrotechnics to dry ice to blatant trickery, disguising a perfectly edible hunk of beef as a charred cinder or delicately carving flowers out of fruit.
Of course, it’s no wonder that we interact with food this way. Food as theatre is a time-honoured tradition: the Romans were famous for dinner parties involving exotic ingredients and ejaculating cakes, and in medieval Britain, dressing up a bull’s testicle like a plum was second only to the music hall in prime entertainment. Not much has changed over the years. None of us are ever going to get invited to one of Heston’s Feasts (except in our wildest dreams,) but we can tune in to ooh and ahh over the giant wobbling jellies and chicken-flavoured curried ice cream. In Iron Chef, watching the titular masters scurry back and forth under pressure while cooking this week’s exotic ingredient takes up most if not all of the running time, and Masterchef is as much about the tribulations of the contestants as it is about flambé and Marco Pierre White’s recipes for roast pigeon. Flavour is given little more than a passing glance: after all, we’re never going to eat this food ourselves, so discussing the taste of the marvellous-looking dishes combusting, dissolving and steaming for our pleasure would be a waste of space. And yet, whenever I see Matt Preston jamming yet another mouthful of pasta into his quivering maw and mumbling about the piquancy of the sauce, I can’t help but feel that these shows have missed the point.
Food, the act of eating, is an incredibly intimate experience. Whenever you cook food for someone else, whether it’s for friends at a dinner party or your partner still asleep in bed, you are sharing something of yourself with them. Every dish you cook is a reflection of your gastronomic preferences, your likes and dislikes. Most of the time we’re not even really conscious of it: we may add some extra chilli to a curry because we like the spice or leave our pasta boiling for a few seconds longer to get the ‘right’ texture. Everyone likes a different balance of flavours, and more often than not it’s something so intimate, so peculiar to you, that you yourself may not be aware of it on anything another than a subconscious level. It can be influenced by so many things: culture, religion, sensitive teeth, the way your parents made you honeyed milk as a child, the time you ate roast crickets while you were travelling… all of these things go into your own personal ‘taste,’ as unique as a fingerprint. And it doesn’t stop at people.
When I was younger, food opened up the world to me. My family were bitten by the travel bug long before I was born, and when they came back from overseas they were always filled with stories. Mum told me about America and the dingy heart of Los Angeles. Dad waxed lyrical about Scotland. My cousins flew all over the world, from Vietnam to Singapore. And here I was, a frustrated teenager stuck in Australia with far too much time on her hands. If I couldn’t see these places for myself, I at least wanted to capture a sense of what they might be like, but with just my family’s stories to rely on, I always had the sense that I was missing something.
Then Dad gave me a sip of his whiskey one night. Scotch, single malt. It scorched my tongue, dry pennies, honey and a burning rush that warmed me from my throat all the way down to my stomach. As I forced myself to finish the glass, all I could think of was how cold Scotland must be for something this fierce to be so loved, and suddenly Dad’s predilection for spices and hearty, warming meals made a lot more sense. Not long after that Mum told me stories about the Yum Cha halls of Hong Kong, how noisy and chaotic they are, the clatter of plates mingling with yelled conversation over the sound of countless rumbling stomachs as carts of steaming food rattled slowly between the tables. When I found out there was a Yum Cha place in Canberra our whole family went together, and even though it was a relatively quiet restaurant and the dumplings were a bit soggy, the lively exchange coursing around the table, punctuated by a fight over the last chicken foot and the heavenly juiciness of a perfectly done lobster dumpling, gave me a glimpse of what those halls might be like.
Once I started tasting places in food, I couldn’t help noticing the people who cooked it. Whenever I make pasta carbonara, my immediate thought is, ‘Mum taught me how to make this,’ over a gas stove in a cottage where the walls in the bathroom were cracked and possums came down the chimney. Roast chicken? Roast chicken in my house will always be Dad’s Roast Chicken, capitalised because he makes the gravy with wine, reducing and mixing in offcuts and caramelised scraps of vegetable in a way I’ve never seen anyone else do. My stepfather showed me how to make satay chicken pasta by letting me prepare a different ingredient every time he cooked it, and I heard that he’d died that recipe was the first thing I thought of: chicken thighs, curry paste, tablespoons of peanut butter and lots of chilli. It’s a part of him, an echo of what he loved in a bowl of filling, slightly-too-sweet pasta.
So what did I taste in that delicious pork belly, that magical combination of flavours that left me breathless? Simply put, it met all of my tastes. The crunch of the crackling, the texture of the meat, the subtle dance of flavours across my tongue… it didn’t suit my tastes perfectly (there was a little too much chilli for my liking,) but it was so close it left me trembling. It was as though someone reached inside me, pulled out those secret tastes that I’m still trying to figure out myself, and put them into a meal that engaged all my senses at once, from the moment I saw it on the plate until I swallowed my last bite. Even though I never met the person who cooked that meal, I felt like I knew them, and that they knew me inside and out. That sort of connection is what I want to see when I flick on a cooking show.
If I’m going to watch stories about food, I want to see intimacy. Give me the rush of cooking, the thrill of eating, the connections created by sharing food and the pure and perfect sensuality captured within a flawless culinary creation. Food is so much more than a spectacle: it has the capacity to bring us together like nothing else in the world. Is it any wonder that the candlelit dinner is such a prevailing romantic trope?
After all, if the cook has paid attention to your tastes, they’re essentially serving up your heart on a silver platter.
Image: Todd Quackenbush
Callie Doyle-Scott was born in Tasmania in 1990, but has since travelled around Australia: she currently resides in Canberra. A graduate of RMIT University’s Creative Writing program in 2013, she never quite lost the study bug: her speciality is culinary history, specifically that of Victorian England and Japan throughout the ages, though she loves to research old folktales in her spare time. Callie started writing stories when she was ten (her first being about a cave that could turn people into animals,) and was first published in Dickson College’s CLIO History Journal with two articles on Renaissance heroines Caterina Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia. While studying, she went on to found and edit Verity La’s Out of Limbo project (an online archive devoted to the coming-out stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex individuals,) and participate in Bryce Courtney’s final writing masterclass in 2012. Since then, she has written articles for the Verity La and Writer’s Bloc webjournals, and hopes to establish a wider portfolio over the coming months. She is currently working to finish the draft of her first novel, a gastronomic fantasy entitled Soup for the Moon, in the hopes of approaching a publisher by the end of the year.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.