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Sometimes, unexpectedly, I catch a whiff of something that smells like my late grandmother’s chicken paprika.
It might be when I wander into my mum’s kitchen. It might be when I wander past a laneway full of restaurants. And just like that, I’m transported back to the huge, British farmhouse kitchen of my childhood.
The room was always warm from the cast-iron AGA cooker and usually carried scents of soup, roast meat and vegetables for Sunday lunch. We could look, and sniff, but never touch. This was her domain.
Granny Medi, as we called her, was a spectacular cook in a traditional Hungarian, homely style. Despite all the delectable main courses, it was always her rich, cold creamy rice pudding with raspberry sauce and buttered, sugared almonds that I longed for as a chubby six-year-old. Not a slimming dish. But a piece of heaven, all the same.
Those Sunday lunches in the mid-80s weren’t quiet affairs. My grandfather’s wealthy brother, George, often came from London, or even Germany, for the meals.
And while we dined, the adults yelled their political and social opinions across the table at the top of their lungs in thick accents, waving their arms around to make a point. (Only as an adult, I realised not all families dined in such a din.)
Mum’s family were Eastern European Jews who had fled the Holocaust. Some family members—including my grandmother’s mother Priva, her older sister Elizabet, and her baby boy—had perished.
Of course, I never understood this horror as a child. That somehow the delectable food was a way for my refugee grandmother to stubbornly imprint our connections upon each other and bind us together. We are family. We survive.
In this COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been thinking so much about crisis and how food can act like a mirror of the state of humanity. At least, as long as we are willing take a good, hard look at it.
What we saw in the news was that at various points since coronavirus hit Australia in late January, were people emptying the stores of staples like pasta, flour and frozen vegetables. They fought over rolls of toilet paper (yes, I know that’s not a food!).
Personally though, I noticed something else. A story that wasn’t really being told. Food became a way to care about others.
People dropped bags of lemons on the doorsteps of neighbours they had never met. They dropped off frozen meals to those who were sick, lonely or isolated. They offered to pick up groceries.
Last year volunteers from Foothills Community Care, based in the Dandenongs, delivered 9,000 meals to folks in need across eastern Melbourne. But during the pandemic, those same volunteers worked around the clock to bump production right up and deliver 30,000 meals. (A friend works there, which Is how I heard about it.) Yes, food really is love.
Other punters hosted dinner parties on Zoom so they could still “meet up” with friends and family. Or they decided it was finally time to perfect their sourdough.
In the latest episode of the podcast that I host, Seriously Social, one of Australia’s eminent food historians, Barbara Santich from the University of Adelaide, reflected on the complexity of food in times of crisis.
“I know food can be value-laden, but it can also be value-neutral and I think that is one way in which it can help, in a way, break down barriers, but reinforce community.”
As Barbara’s quote suggests, food can also drive us apart. As a single mum and a freelancer, my business was initially hit hard by the pandemic. I’m not alone in this. According to Roy Morgan, 60 percent of businesses have been affected by COVID.
In order to successfully make up for those losses, I was compelled to send my children to the supervised school site and work many extra hours. Photos of other people’s perfect sourdough on Instagram made me feel like crying.
To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure why. However, Barbara deftly articulated it back to me in her interview. To her, the sourdough baking was near-competitive and served as a display of privilege.
“Not everybody who was making sourdough bread. It was those who had the knowledge, those who had the means, those who were allowed to work at home. Not everybody could work at home. Essential workers couldn’t work at home. They couldn’t make sourdough. So, it was confined to a certain group of people that might be described as having cultural capital and gastronomic capital.”
The food historian also helped me look back on other crises in history and compare it to this one. And frankly, in her eyes, we didn’t fare too well.
From Barbara’s viewpoint, we were panic buying because we’d lost the skills to make do with what we had. She believes these were skills that our forebears—who lived through two World Wars and The Great Depression—did have.
“So why did we hoard? Yes, probably out of panic, but also because we are so used to having plenty that we no longer have the skills to substitute nor, perhaps, the determination to ‘make do’.
“That availability [of food] almost 24 hours a day, in some instances, seven days a week has been with people for so long that they’ve forgotten how to make a meal out of almost nothing,” Dr Santich says.
The full podcast episode featuring Professor Santich and other guests talking about food, connection and crisis is available here: podfollow.com/seriously-social/view.