The Family Recipe

by Christopher Raja

imageStay happy and get fat like the laughing Buddha. In India we often associate a full stomach and fat people as being prosperous and happy. Ganesha’s big belly is believed to contain the entire universe within it.

Food is something we can all relate to. We all eat. It gives us our sense of identity. Plenty of families still meet over the dinner table, mothers pass on recipes, and Sunday roasts are often the scene of many a family saga. While for other families life can be cruel and they simply can’t afford food. Children go hungry and cupboards remain bare.

So many books we read as children acquire greater profundity because of their descriptions of food. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll has the most memorable tea party. Everyone remembers when, Alice encounters the March Hare and Mad Hatter having their tea and, ignoring their reservations, she joins them. Unbeknownst to her, however, the Hatter is being taught a lesson by Time.  As a consequence, time has stopped at 6 o’clock, ensuring the March Hare and Mad Hatter live in a tea party forever.

image_3Books, and our personal and collective experience, remind us what a luxury food and tea is for many families in the world. Some of my favourite authors have written books that have stayed with me over the years that deal with children going without food. Oliver Twist and The Christmas Carol come immediately to mind. Who can forget the nine-year-old Oliver, being “issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays”?

Having lived in Alice Springs and Calcutta I am routinely shocked by the effects of poverty and malnourished children. I can’t bear it when we make so much of cooking shows, for example, yet lots of families go without food, Internet, dentistry, spectacles and clean water. If we saved the money spent on war we could alleviate hunger on our planet.

In May, in addition to blogging about the Darwin literary festival, I will be on a panel at WORDSTORM talking about food with some terrific writers. The panel is called The family recipe and the discussion will circle around how food and family and writing meet. The kitchen is the engine room of most families and in Darwin, I will be joined by Toni Tapp Coutts, Beth Yahp and Indonesian author Eliza Vitri Handayani and we will be decoding how exactly food helps us write about family, in all ‘its intricacy of ingredients and flavours.’ Food is after all the ‘fabric of family’.

image_1The panel should be interesting. We are a diverse group of authors. In A Sunburnt Childhood Toni Tapp Couts has written about her childhood, growing up in the Northern Territory on the massive Killarney Station where her step father Bill Tapp was a cattle king. Beth Yahp’s Eat First, Talk Later is a memoir about Malaysia, about love, betrayal, home and belonging. Eliza Vitri Handayani’s From now on everything will be different is a love story set in contemporary Indonesia and it is her first novel to be published in English. For all of us, food is clearly important and appears in our writing.

On reflection, food features a great deal in my writing, the connections are not always obvious to me but they are a telling factor in each story I write and add to the understanding of character and setting. In the play, The First Garden, which is set in Alice Springs, the main protagonist Olive Pink likes to eat kangaroo, rabbit and goannas, an acquired taste for ‘bush tucker’ that she has developed through her friendship with the Warlpiri and Arrernte people of the central desert.

image_2In the YA novel The Burning Elephant much is made of kitchen scenes, cooking and eating. Often, as I am working on a scene, bitter-sweet or spicy, intuitively I find where there is food there is drama. There is such a scene, for instance, in my novel where the young protagonist Govinda is having dinner with his parents that the family cook Mumbles Singh has prepared. On one level, it is an ordinary, domestic scene. A father, mother and son are eating at a dining room table. ‘The food was plentiful: there was a lentil dhal in a stainless steel bowl, a combination of kale and spinach leaves…’ On the other hand, the scene is full of tension. Nothing is explained but simply by describing the food, the taste, atmosphere, cutlery, more is conveyed.

I don’t know why I chose to be on a panel talking about food. I do know that I love food. I’d choose a good crab curry over any literary or sporting event. If, on any given weekend, I can’t decide on an event to go to I’d choose the event that is most likely to be catered. It has something to do with the pleasure of it all.

image_4Similarly, food lends itself perfectly to writing. I like the vocabulary of food. It arouses all the senses and works more on a subconscious level. Writing underlines the importance of sensory experiences in conjuring memories. We are what we eat. It is a cliché but it’s true. Every cell in our body was formed by the food we ate and the water we drink.

Anyway, The Family Recipe will be on Saturday 7 MAY 3.30pm at Browns Mart Courtyard. I look forward to seeing you there.

To download a full copy of this year’s WORDSTORM program click here.

 All images (C) Christopher Raja