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An interview with Gaye Poole
In the preface to your book you mention your childhood memories of Laguna Guest House, where you grew up. You also speak about your early ‘atypical exposure to food as service’. How much has your childhood influenced your adult interests and your decision to write a book about food?
As I say in the book the guest house, Laguna Guest House at Noosa Heads in Queensland, was a huge formative influence on me. Not only the conduct of the chef and the waitresses and the communion of the dining room but all the activities - New Year's Eve parties, beach parties, mad hat parades at Easter time, sing-alongs, indoor carpet bowls, ping pong (table tennis), impromptu concerts and dances were all a part of my childhood. I think that is why I am so interested in the traditions of indoor games such as charades. Even my attraction to performance and my theatre career was in part a desire to achieve a sense of camaraderie that comes from creating something with other people that is bigger than yourself.
The decision to write the book was not directly arising out of the guesthouse experience; however, the consciousness of the importance of food preferences, food politics, food as performance and so on was certainly instilled in me from an early age. In every family each individual has a completely different food behaviour and relation to food and this becomes and integral part of the broader family dynamic. I wanted to look at how film handled food issues, food meanings and food behaviours. As I discuss at length in the book, food is at once so basic and so eloquent.
Your book was published in 1999. Between then and now you’ve probably seen many interesting films containing ‘food scenes’. Do any of them stick in your memory? Do you think that you might like to discuss any of them in your book?
One film in the tradition of the 'chef films' such as 'Big Night' (mentioned in my book) is a recent film called 'Mostly Martha', set in Germany. It deals with two chefs of very different temperaments - one German (Martha) and one Italian. The workaholic German chef has to take responsibility for her sister's daughter after the mother is killed. The little girl is so grief stricken she refuses to eat Martha's cooking. The relaxed Italian chef instinctively and cleverly 'tricks' the girl into eating some pasta one day in the restaurant kitchen when he hands her the bowl and says he must attend to something - she finally eats with relish.
The two chefs learn from each other emotionally and in terms of the traditions of their respective national cuisines. There is a charming scene when the Italian chef and the little girl prepare an Italian meal which, they instruct Martha, must be eaten as a picnic on the living room floor, with no plates - just forks and fingers. Gradually Martha becomes less hypersensitive and less dogmatic about her standards of food preparation and service. Again we see the power of food to impart a kind of wisdom about the way we live and respond to events.
Having spent some time in Poland do you recall any memorable ‘Polish food experience’?
Yes there some distinctive Polish food moments. As a vegetarian, here are some of my favourites: Barszcz z uszkami - the combination of the clear and tangy beetroot soup with the vegetarian pierogi works so well. The hot dish of cabbage and mushroom was delicious ( can't remember the Polish name). Poppy seeds rolls are not so sweet but very appealing. There's a great restaurant in £ódŸ called Ci¹goty Têsknoty, which served the most wonderful vegetarian pierogi. Now I am feeling quite wistful remembering all these things.
Some of the dishes which you mention in your book have rather mysterious names. What’s a ‘Sara Lee’, for example? Do you have any names of the dishes that you especially like (as names not as dishes)?
This is a brand name. Sara Lee makes cheese cakes, chocolate cakes, carrot cakes which are frozen and may be defrosted. The particular brand named became so ubiquitous at Australian barbecues or casual meals (especially the Sara Lee cheese cake) that now you say 'a Sara Lee' and everyone knows it is a dessert which is perfectly acceptable, convenient but not home made and not very sophisticated.
I will mention these dishes but it does not mean I like these dishes -
- 'pie and pea floater' - a pie on a bed of mushy peas
- 'toad in the hole' (a dish of sausages in a kind of batter baked in the oven - not a favourite);
- 'mock fish' - a kind of fritter which evolved as 'poverty food' from depression days. You could have either 'mock fish' or 'mock chicken' which contained neither fish nor chicken and tasted like neither. It consisted mainly of potatoes - I guess the idea was to try to form the potato cake into a consistency and shape that was a little reminiscent of a piece of fish.