April 4, 2011

The Secret Rituals

04 April 2011 | by Andrea Frost

“Dear Kate, I’m so sorry. I wish I could be there to help. We could go for some Peking duck and pinot noir and you could tell me all about it”.

It was as much comfort as I could give in a letter to someone so far away.

My friend in London is separating from her husband of ten years, the patient and adorable man she convinced to move to London, after moving him to Sydney soon after their term in New York, while studying in Melbourne. I guess she was hoping to satisfy her ennui with where she was. Perhaps she thinks where she was, is where she is.

I met Kate seven years ago at business school where we bonded quickly over partying, opinion and food. She always seemed more single than married, in the way that single people are spontaneous, spirited and have full access to their own diary. Since then she has roamed the world until she finds a city charged enough to take her on, then, she dives in and rolls around in it like a baby in a bath. When it teaches her something new, changes her a bit, gives her something to think about or, I have often wondered and sometimes envied, just looks familiar, she moves on. This gusto for the new makes her an adventurous friend and even better dining partner … if you can catch her.

Aside from watery function meals between classes, our first meal together was at Pacific House, a place we discovered we both knelt to for its lo-fi interior, quality cuisine, and underground foodie credentials we both knew but didn’t admit to. A culinary ‘Snap!’ that connected us. Ten days together on a study program in Shanghai only cemented it. We ate our way around Shanghai, taking risks, sharing plates, helping navigate a path around the city to help feed and explore each others appetites.

These experiences meant “some Peking duck and pinot?” was an invitation to a tradition as savoured as Christmas.

It occurred to me that so many of my relationships were born on food and wine pairings that have defined and nourished the friendships over years.

Tracy was the first friend I shared a dining ritual with. We dined at a pasta joint in Chapel Street back when visiting stars still flocked to the strip. We made two bowls of gnocci Alfredo – dissolving puffs of pasta knuckles covered in cream, bacon and shallots, fluffy white bread and carafes of house wine last for hours and hours. Lucky the waiters thought us cute. Six years ago she had a baby and for some reason that escapes me now but was important to us both at the time, we stopped talking. I emailed recently, opening with “Long time no gnocci”. We have since eaten together.

With Christine I regroup over a bowl of Vietnamese pho or Mexican, she’s the only other person in Melbourne who thinks Mexican is a legitimate cuisine without a hangover; Jack and I enjoy a steak or Chicken Parmigianino from a gentrified Port Melbourne pub with a monster South Australian Shiraz and a “few off the wood” while we wonder where Maple the bar fly and the XP bookie have been relocated to; Amelia a mother of four who cherishes her free time and good food, won’t eat seafood for main so requires premium meat, good red wine, and sincere service; Anne is particular and needs planning but when she is there she devours food with such grace and pleasure it is sometimes distracting. She can be led on wine choices and is generous in what she is prepared to pay for good food. Just don’t rush her.

They’re not all old rituals either. Chris and I are just starting a tradition of a 12-hour lamb dish and a hearty bottle of red from an inner city eatery. He emailed recently, having had his first child this year, “Nearly ready for some lamb and a bottle of red.” That’ll be the third time; I guess this makes it tradition.

I am not sure if these are my friends and so we eat, or if they are my friends because we eat. I suspect the latter. I have little time for those who put a frugal mood on what I can order at dinner … “Let’s just get one dish and if we are still hungry at the end we can get another”. Or, “You eat, I had something before I got here”. Or the death knell, “eating is cheating”. What do these people love?

A good dining partner is precious and rare and in the right relationship it seems impossible, even disloyal, to enjoy certain dishes without them. Why some form and others don’t is as mysterious, precious and individual as views on the afterlife. A lid for every pot they say.

Good dining partners should also be good listeners and selfless enough to dedicate whole dinners to you. A bridesmaid to your woe … or win … whatever the case may be.

If Kate were in town and not in London, this would be one of those times. We’d go to Pacific House for her. I would go with a bottle of pinot noir, something good from Kooyong or Bindi or Curlewis if I have any left. I might even start with a chardonnay or maybe a bottle of riesling. The moment we walk in the smells of roasted meats – star anise, plums, sweet sticky coatings – would comfort and distract.

I would make them seat us on the side against a wall and not in the middle where we are vulnerable to other peoples ears, the bright lights and open room already reveal enough. Until we were ready, I’d shepherd the waiters away with my eyes and not let them near if she was saying something hard.

I imagine she’d be overwhelmed and so I would order us the following, without looking at the menu; two bowls of seafood and bean curd soup; a deep fried quail in chilli and garlic; half a Peking duck (if she wanted that, I find it too filling); fish with ginger and shallots or stir fried beef with fried crispy egg noodles replacing the sloppy rice ones to give it more structure. Either wine would go, besides, there aren’t really courses here, just a food rush until the end. If we really felt like sitting in for a night, a mudcrab with ginger and shallots, swimming in the tank until we ordered it. We’d roll up our sleeves, and talk and gnaw and suck the meat out of the claws and drink and get messy. Maybe the clumsiness of eating the crab would lighten her mood. I’d also get some special fried rice even though Alex the host would say it was too much because we already have the noodles with the crab. I’d order anyway.

Over time, getting stuff off her chest and the good food and wine in, she would feel better, we might laugh about something absurd, that we were sitting there eating enough for ten men, maybe a story about that time she straddled the fake polar bear on display in the hotel lobby in Shanghai, and I hope she would feel better.

The thought of it makes me go to Pacific House one lunch time, alone, ordering a simple clean serve of stir fried fish and ginger and pot of tea. As I am eating, I think of Kate and wonder how she is going, if she is sad in London in February. I decide to write her a letter. At the table I start …

“Dear Kate, I’m so sorry. I wish I could be there to help. We could go for some Peking duck and pinot noir and you could tell me all about it”.