Postcards from the Edge of the Plate (Part 1)
“Food as a passion, a gift, a means of revenge, even source of power –….Women weigh up the loss of a lover, or the loss of weight; they consider whether hunger and the thought of higher things are inextricably linked; they feast and crave and die for their appetites, or lack of appetite” – The Anger of Aubergines : Collected Stories of Women and Food – Bulbul Sharma, India, 1998
Women’s Work, Women’s Business — watching TV.. surfing channels, noting the high frequency of images of women and food – food commercials of course, but also soap-opera women ‘doing lunch’ in an up-market city restaurant, to village women & girls in India, pounding grain in huge shallow pits, tossing the pounding pole to each other, chanting in a complex dance. Jamaican women harvesting bananas. Bangladeshi women planting rice. Mexican market-women selling vegetables.
Women’s Work, Women’s Business… More postcards, tourist snaps, 30-second news bites. Russian women standing in food queues. Chatting with a neighbour in the frozen food aisle of my local supermarket. Refugee women in some warzone preparing AID mash. Suburban backyard barbecues with women around the food tables – helping to toss a salad, or hand finger-foods to a toddler. Picking grapes – teenagers summer job – in awe of the Italian women – laughing, talking, sweating – stripping the vines for the higher-paid ‘table grapes’, teaching me my first lessons of hard-labour in high summer heat – ‘No drink. You get sick. Suck on a grape, keep mouth wet. But you no drink, you be sorry” Shelling peas, stringing beans in the kitchen with my mother, I squirm to get outside. Sleep-overs at friends houses, stunned by rituals of fathers, boys served, fed first. Women, girls must wait their turn.
Women’s Work, Women’s Business… Childhood on a small farm. Dawn on a winters morning, warm, frothy full-cream milk from Betsy, our family goat. Being violently ill from overdosing on wild watermelon at age 5. Never eat it again. Men killed the chickens, us women plucked them, gutted them, “dressed” them. (Why do they call that “dressing”?) Shooting game, rabbits – sneaking fruit, corn from farms. Separating the milks by hand, hand-churning butter, squeezing cheeses.
Women’s work, Women’s Business. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts agonise for weeks, months over weddings – the catering arrangements are Serious Business, Women’s business, Women’s Work. Fires, floods, disasters – armies of women cutting sandwiches, filling thermos flasks. Women’s Work, Women’s Business. False dawn in an inner city industrial district. End of shift at the biscuit factory. Giving my boxed share of broken biscuits to the women with kids, swapping recipes for biscuit bakes in our breaks.
Women’s Business, Women’s Work Backpacking with an English girl through Australia’s deep north, we haul netloads on the prawn trawlers, stopover in Bali – the Indonesian women filleting fish in long, cold sheds above the beach. Hungry women, famine in Asia, Africa – women are the last to die, but the first to feel its pain, as they wait their turn behind men, children. Women and girls must wait their turn.
North-west Australia. Isolated mining town – Iron ore country, Hammersley Iron Mines – H.I.M. trucks pepper the roads of red sand, red desert, red coastline – 12 young white women, British, Australian, Canadian, Swedish, German – serving breakfast, dinner in the single men’s mess – pays well, very well. A girl’s gotta eat, No? Do the maths. 1,000 single men, 12 women – pick one each sistren, or you’re free-for-all. Balancing several layers of breakfast trays of greasy eggs on our arms, Croatian cooks slapping floured handprints on our bums. The wives in the married men’s compound glare at us, one or two nod politely, hosing their lawns in their transplanted suburbia in the desert. Judy, with her classy British accent speaks up ‘Anyone for tennis after brunch?’. We laugh.
Lazing, sunning on the beach between shifts, the men lunch underground, we nibble stale pastries, quibble over canned fruit – the black women, abandoned by the H.I.M. men who spent the night ab/using them, on their own stolen land, walk past us on their return journey to the Reserve – 10 dusty, red iron-ore hot kilometres inland. We give them the cans of fruit. Promise to give them more.
The Personal is the Political. Food is Personal and Political.
University years. The big city. Private-school sophisticated city-girls sneer at my ignorance of restaurant etiquette. Student households, endless arguments over PC foods, grocery shopping, kitchen work. We define our status, class, race with Food.
Vegetarian or not, kibble-wheat & rye breads, we argue the politics of Marx and Mitchell Munching Muesli. Stories of visits to India, Thailand, Fiji discuss the spirituality, the transcendence of curries, nasi goreng, rice and coconut. Waitressing in a Mexican restaurant – meals part of the deal. I am sacked for constantly munching nachos & tacos. Sharing sweets, nuts, savouries in bed with a lover. On the dole in Newcastle, waiting for the cheque to arrive. I rescue carrot peelings from the bin, fry it in honey. Another time I stirfry soggy cabbage with vinegar, oyster sauce, vegemite broth – throw in the remains of an old packet of noodle soup. I tell my sistren the story of how I failed Home Science in high-school, laughing we eat my invention anyway, hunger really is the best sauce. We name it Australasian Sauerkraut.
Watching a film – Puberty Blues – the girl narrator mentions the ritual of the “surfer chicks” going to the cafe to buy burgers, chips – (for the boys).
Its ‘not cool to eat in front of the boys’ she says, so the girls gobble their food down on the walk back.