Have you ever noticed that there is something about gratitude that preserves some of our finest memories? It’s the best explanation I can come up with for why I can remember so vividly every dish, plate or cake tin someone has dropped over to my house in times of transition or exhaustion.
I still remember the day our jetlagged family moved into a cul-de-sac in a town in New York when I was a kid, and a woman who lived across the road popped over with some delicious choc-chip meringues. We still bake them. Fewer people greet new neighbours with baked goods today, but the world would be merrier if they did. Then there was the spanakopita my friend Joe dropped around after my first baby arrived, the vegetable tahini pies Kimberley made during the last straits of my PhD, the tomato sauce and meatballs Josie boiled in a batch when my mother was sick, the brownies, ginger cookies and cheesecake Leigh delivered to the hospital when I was recovering from surgery.
The idea of cooking as a gift is even more striking in an era when diet seems increasingly wrapped in narcissism, and meal-creation too often oriented around a physical outcome. The message from many modern nutrition-advocates – armed with white teeth and Instagram accounts – is that we cook so we can have food that will make us look a certain way. Food must involve some kind of physical transformation; we are even regularly confronted by images of chefs with abs, a combination once as redundant as it was risible before the perma-tanned likes of Pete Evans appeared.
Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to look and be healthy. It’s just that the idea of focusing on the needs of others – without photographing or boasting about it – is so refreshing.
Which is why I was delighted to see Annabel Crabb’s new cookbook sweep onto our shelves with a gust of cheering air. Written with her oldest friend, Wendy Sharpe, it’s called Special Delivery, and it aims to provide recipes you can cook for other people. It’s so retro it’s almost counter-cultural. It doesn’t baulk at sugar or flour. And it reminded me of how skewed our attitudes to cooking have become – from the Master Chef factor, where it is about competition and performance, to the obsessive rigours of eating plans that somehow manage to combine self denial with self regard.
Crabb, instead, outlines potential candidates for her food deliveries. For new parents – with gentle pointers not to give anything that might cause wind in an infant, and a reminder that a breastfeeding mother has an enormous appetite – she suggests pea and mint tarts, spicy nuts, chocolate choux buns. One woman, she writes, “reported that a boozy trifle with a circumference as big as a bicycle wheel was the best present she’d ever received in her life.”
Then there’s the suggestion that it might be best to care for the carers and families of the unwell with items that involve little preparation – granola, lasagne and onion tart. We are told to remember medication can do odd things to taste buds. And then the thoughtful suggestion of quail eggs with dipping salts or goats cheese muffins if someone has poor appetite. There’s soup for the convalescing, moussaka for the bereaved and apricot slice for the overwhelmed.
To celebrate with the lucky, Crabb offers up a hummingbird-ish cake; for the unlucky who may have lost jobs, been dumped by lovers or found lice on their children’s heads again, there’s cocktails.
It was only after burrowing into this delightful book that I realised the idea of food-sharing is already a nascent part of the sharing economy – which has been roaringly successful with cars and accommodation – among those who wish to sell some of their excess food, as well as those who volunteer to cook meals for the lonely in their community.
Various sites encourage people to give or sell meals to people in the local area. What a brilliant way to meet and care for people.
A site called Shareyourmeal, which has spread from Amsterdam to New York, allows home cooks to sell spare portions of any meal to those who live nearby and can arrive quickly with a plate. A similar site called Cookisto runs in Britain. Dinnrtime offers the same service – along with possible courier delivery (by another sharing-economy start up involving locals.)
For volunteers who are happy to deliver extra portions to people who live near them, there is the Casserole Club, which started in Britain and is now being trialled in Australia by FutureGov. Intended to link the elderly with others in their community, the Casserole Club was launched a year ago in three Victorian municipalities and aims to expand further. All who can cook – and pass a police check and food-safety quiz – are eligible.
As Crabb writes in her introduction: “Food isn’t necessarily a big language; it doesn’t have the hyperbolic peaks and troughs of Italian, or German’s guttural heft. Sometimes, it is the most rudimentary lingua franca. A jar of muesli. Or a single serving of soup on a workmate’s desk. It can be quiet. But it says a lot.”
It’s true. And in the spirit in which this column was written, I’d like to end with some of the women who are deeply familiar with the concept of cooking for others: the Country Women’s Association’s (Victoria). The end of their motto reads: “let us not forget to be kind”.
Julia Baird is a host of The Drum on ABCTV.