This is by way of a massive thank you to all the folk who answered the call to Bring a plate to the launch of my book Treading Water, because as far as I’m concerned, they are the three most terrifying words in the English language. Scary words like Make my Day! Mind the Gap! or, ‘Yes, you’re Pregnant! pale into insignificance compared with the dreaded words, ‘Bring a Plate’.
It’s a wonderful Australian tradition, and epitomises the combination of hospitality, sharing the workload, neighbourliness, and sheer competence that is found among my friends. But in a person of my culinary ineptitude it strikes terror. Because no one ever eats anything I bring! (At least I know to bring something, unlike my English pal, who took it as a plea for crockery and just brought the plate…but it was a nice one)
‘You’re being paranoid’, said hubby after my fifth failed attempt to wow them at Nursing Mothers, and I returned with my tragically still-laden plates. He had an ulterior motive though, because it meant he could happily tuck into the returned goodies: leaden scones, soggy tea-cakes, Anzac biscuits you could sole your boots with and on one auspicious occasion, a pizza that was so dry and hardened we hung it on the wall and told everyone it was a Mexican wall plate (this is true!) It stayed there for six months…even the ants wouldn’t touch it.
Why would he eat it? Suffice to say the competitive element of the bring a plate thing generated an improvement on the normal offerings. It’s not that I don’t try, I do! And I can turn out a dreary litany of spag bol, roast chicken, and lasagne that kept the family from starvation. If ever I happened upon a new recipe that worked, I’d be so thrilled I’d serve it up ad nauseam (literally), until they were all screaming for that marvelous spag bol again. Not all bad though. We’ve turned out a pair of kids that will eat anything and can cook most things rather well.
Can’t you read a recipe? I hear you ask. Yes I can, and if I make a massive effort, it will be edible, but not a patch on the people who just have a sense of it, who know what goes together, who know that exotic herb, (and can probably grow it in their window box), and their love of it, and casual audacity about what will go with what, infuses the food with flavour. It does! A plate of cheeses and grapes…my latest safe offering just doesn’t cut it.
And it’s a skill my friends pass off with such casual competence. After a massive year of house building and moving, one lot found time to leave a wonderful dish of beef cheeks with chermoula in our fridge to welcome us home from a trip. (What’s chermoula? Dunno, but it’s delicious). When asked about some delectable but elusive taste, another friend will say, ‘Oh, I had this at a restaurant…they’d added blah blah, so I experimented with it.’ And in between marking piles of books, cleaning the house, looking after kids, hubbies, parents and most of the neighbourhood, will turn out a spectacular feast…every night.
And, these accomplishments were displayed even more spectacularly at my recent book launch.
(Shameless plug…you knew it was coming!) The booze was the easy part, and just required boxes and boxes of wine to be delivered to our door every day. The fact that the postman thinks we’re raving drunks was a small price to pay for the conviviality it generated. But, given my own ‘issues’, the plea to bring a plate was made with some trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried. The food was absolutely fantastic and there was so much of it. And it’s not just the quiches and the dumplings, the meatballs and the roulade. It’s the idea that those three words invoked a response of such extraordinary generosity, kindness and people’s desire to bring along their friendship in tangible (and edible) form that was so special.
Renowned political journo Annabel Crabb has nailed it in her TV series ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ during which she routinely disarms the most hard-arsed politicians with food. They are prepared to risk becoming lard-arsed (sorry…couldn’t resist) in order to appear more human. Hard to hate a person in a frilly apron, no matter how draconian their policies. It’s a notion explored her new book, Special Delivery. Needless to say, she is wonderful with food, but also wise enough to know there is more to it, as she explains in a recent interview:
“Food is the internationally recognised culinary code for ‘I come in peace’. It is a language that says so much more than ‘Please let me in, Madam Speaker’. To friends and family, food can say everything from ‘I’m sorry you had a bad day’ to ‘Congratulations, you clever thing’. And it means still more when brought to the door.”
So maybe it doesn’t matter if the gingers won’t snap or the torte is a bit tart, it’s the thought that counts. OK, I’m thinking, profiteroles would be nice, or maybe some of those chilli lime shrimp cups. And naturally, I’m hoping like hell that someone else brings them!