After watching a rather emotionally intense film on a long-haul flight, I decide to switch to an episode of Simply Nigella. It reminds me of the comfort provided by turning on MasterChef at the end of a tiring day of teaching and meetings. The only caveat is that this is not the simplistic comfort of nostalgia for lost homes and cultures, even though it may have some link to a real or imagined past. In my case, it combines leisure, domesticity and research, and who could resist such televisual versatility?
The said episode begins with Nigella Lawson reveling in the pleasure of both consuming and making food, and stating how comforting it is to begin her day with avocado on toast and the daily newspaper. She even goes so far as to call it the ‘fabric of her life’. Only the domestic goddess herself could get away with a ‘recipe’ for avocado toast on prime-time network television (that happens to also make its way to in-flight entertainment)! She does, however, add dill to her version, and garnishes the darn thing with such pretty-looking radishes that one has newfound respect for that humble root vegetable.
Smashed avocado on toast also happens to be the much-maligned food staple of the Australian hipster – it can be found on most inner city brunch menus, and has even been appropriated by Maccas stores in suburbia. Despite frequenting these cafes for flat whites and wifi, I rarely eat avocado on toast outside the realm of my own kitchen. In fact, for someone who once ate muesli bars for breakfast, I now derive great pleasure in picking just-ripe avocados from the local grocery store, making sure I have just enough time to smash some on a piece of toast every other morning, and add lemon juice and pepper. It becomes the fabric for a day which may or may not go my way, but at least I kicked it off with a bite of comfort.
I can’t recall precisely when this food choice became comfortable. It may have been when an ex insisted on having avocado rather than store-bought guacamole on his toast. However, I don’t associate my attachment to avocado toast with an individual or an event – it has become something I have made into my own ritual. Nor is it a simple case of wanting the cultural capital accrued to having avocado on toast for breakfast in contemporary, middle class Australia. Perhaps this is not dissimilar to people who make and consume certain foods, or watch food television to derive sensory pleasure rather than acquire/demonstrate skills or cultural know-how. It may not be possible to entirely dissociate this from the formation of middle class taste cultures, but affective attachments to food and food media cannot be solely explained by the desire to appear more upwardly mobile.
Further in the episode, Nigella reveals that she has just returned from a long-awaited trip to Thailand, where she saw many unfamiliar vegetables. She then shows us snapshots of said produce, highlighting her interest in ‘green and pink’ things. We also see a picture of her with frizzy hair at the beach, and are thereby let into her world like an intimate friend dropping by for a snack and a chat. The snack in question is her take on stir-fry – she makes Thai glass noodles with prawns in a dark sauce consisting strong spices such as whole cinnamon and aniseed. In the moment of tossing together the noodles and sauce in the wok, she explains that this is not so much a case of using unfamiliar foods, but using familiar ones in unfamiliar combinations. So, while the avocado on toast in the previous segment was a straightforward case of comfortable food, the Thai noodles embody the comfortingly unfamiliar.
It would be easy, again, to offhandedly dismiss the ‘comfortingly unfamiliar’ as white middle class interest in exotic food catered to their palates, and served on a platter in inner city restaurants (Ghassan Hage’s moniker for this phenomenon is ‘cosmo-multiculturalism’). I am not sure that Thai noodles are the recipe for anti-racism or more inter-cultural interaction. At the same time, what we understand as Thai cuisine is too popular in Sydney to be unremarkable. According to a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Pad Thai is the city’s most popular take-away item. In fact, Pad Thai might be to Sydney what pizza is to New York, and Chicken Tikka Masala in to London. On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was craving Thai flavours and came across a blog post by as Australian traveller suggesting that only one restaurant on the island came close to matching the Thai food available in Sydney.
Sometimes a desire for the unfamiliar can become the fabric of life. When and where is a matter ripe for research, and food television.