Living Steak. From conception to plate

On the weekend of 19 October two far from mainstream writer’s events – festivals if you must – are being held. I’d like to link them with this post.

 In Sydney, the second edition of Barbara Sweeney’s  Food & Words, for writers and readers who love writing and food to talk to each other and to learn more bout writing and food. The piece below was originally delivered as a speech at last year’s Food & Words.

 And the second is the Watermark Literary Muster, held at Kendall on the central coast from October 18 to 20, and dedicated to writing on nature and that evokes a sense of place. This wonderful event, which runs the whole weekend was started by Eric Rolls and is continued by his widow Elaine van Kempen and others. It is growing in stature and importance, as I hope Food & Words will. You can find information  both events here www.watermarkliterarysociety.asn.au and here www.food&words.com.au

That picture below is of a much younger Eric Rolls than I knew. As I look at it, I wish I’d met that vigorous, larrikin poet then. 

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In 1997 I was working at the then new  Weekend Financial Review as the editor of a lift out life and culture  section. We called it The Fin, with a shark’s fin the logo: our motto – always on the move, always hungry.

One of the most important of a remarkable troupe of food writers I assembled was Eric Rolls, whose then just published trilogy A Celebration of Food and Wine I had read, admired enormously and reviewed. I had also met Eric and his wife Elaine, and valued their friendship.

I want to tell the story of a story. A story that Eric submitted to me – all my food writers had a pretty open brief – which he called Living Steak. The story of this story’s reception tells much of the culture of that journal,  and explains why it was such a bad fit for me.

That troupe of writers about food I assembled included, apart from Eric, Gay Bilson, Claudia Roden, George Biron – we were the first to publish George – Stefano Manfredi and many others. Wine writer Tim White wrote about food books, technology writer Charles Wright wrote on the then preposterous idea of the $40 main course.

I wanted a section, I told the editor at the time,  which was edgy, and disputatious. My model was The Spectator under Charles Moore, here you’d have Matthew Parris and Paul Johnson spatting from either end of the book. They wanted bland. They wanted a guide on how to spend the mostly ill-gotten gains of their fat cat readers. They got it: today, that section is called Life & Leisure. Today, the whole edition is looking pretty shaky. But that’s not what I want to write about. Just setting the context.

Eric’s piece began with a recipe for a fried steak draped with stilton cheese and a red wine sauce. Typical Eric to begin rather than end  with a recipe.

From there, he moved on to rail against  The Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation (now MLA) for banning the display of carcasses at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.

He wrote “It – the corporation – believes that associating meat with death is ‘a deterrent to domestic consumption’.  Food has true wonder only when its origin is known.  The hands of the grower mould the flavour.  Meet a steak from conception to the plate.”

And that is what the guts of the story was about. The courtship by  a Murray Grey bull of a Hereford cow, the consummation of that courtship, the birth of the bull calf, his brief life and his death. Described with Eric’s characteristic muscular and poetic prose. For example:

‘Not yet ready, the cow ignored him.  She moved off a few metres and continued feeding.  The bull nudged her now and then to let her know he was still there, after a while he tried to mount.  She stepped away smartly, leaving his penis foolishly prodding air.

‘Murray Grey began to walk backwards in front of her, shaking his head, bumping her shoulder to shoulder. Hereford gave a short angry moo, bit off more grass, shaped the wad in her mouth, swallowed.  She turned away from him, took four more mouthfuls then, flicking her head to see where the bull was, she backed up to him.  He mounted, worked his hindquarters, gave a mighty thrust and sank back on four hooves.  Hereford arched her back and experienced a vigorous and visible orgasm. Murray Grey stood resting.  Now that the initial urgency was over he looked about to check where the rest of his thirty-three cows were.’

Well. The furore that caused at the WAFR. The scorn, the derision, the anger. It was quite extraordinary. All  these blokes in their suits who’d slip round the corner to Kingsley’s at lunch to chew on a slab of red meat could not take the reality of where it came from and how it was made.

And I’m pretty sure that it was the bovine erotica more than the description of  death that incited their anger and derision.

But that was Eric Rolls, a writer the like of which we had never seen before – and probably never will again. A farmer, a poet, a historian, a nature writer, a lover and a sensualist with an unblinking gaze. Writing about food, he was all of these.

The first book of his I read, long before I met him, when he was just another vague name in that long list of Australian writers you have heard of but never read, was Celebration of the Senses

Now, if his tale of cattle mating, birthing and dying offended the business scribes at the AFR, this book would send them into a frenzy. In writing about it in his excellent obituary for Eric in the Sydney Morning Herald, the historian Tom Griffiths said it was a book that ‘some readers found confronting.’ I’ll bet they did.

It begins with the birth of his first son Kim to his first wife, Joan, and ends with Joan’s death. Along the way  it forensically examines all the senses through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and fingertips of the writer in extreme close up.  It dissects pornography with the same curiosity and keen vision it brings to the sounds of the Australian bush.  It takes us to the jungles of New Guinea during the second world war and into the caves where Champagne is made. It is a book of ineffable wisdom. But every word, every anecdote reminds us that as he wrote at the end of the book: ‘An animal is its senses. They are its assessment of life, its total capacity. Man is an animal. Our intelligence is a distillation of the senses, an appraiser certainly, but never an impartial judge.’ In describing  trying to quell Joan’s doubts about the surgeon having cut her after the birth he writes: ‘One never knows if words comfort. Doubts are generally insoluble in words. They persist like lumps in sauce.’

On food he is particularly compelling, because as Barbara Santich so perfectly defined it, “Gastronomy is at the confluence of the senses and the intellect.” And that is where Eric Rolls lived. At the beginning of the taste chapter he writes: ‘Top lips taste sweet, bottom lips acrid’ which leads him, tangentially, to ‘A Trobriand island girl, honey-skinned, runs out of the sea with water hanging in her crimped pubic hair. She places a piece of ripe fish between the lips of her vulva and shakes herself. “Are you hungry?” she asks. “Here is fish seasoned by the sea. Do not bite harder than you have to.” This leads, logically if irreverently,  to a long and fascinating dissertation on salt.

In the trilogy  A Celebration of Food and Wine, he examines each piece of fruit, each animal, vegetable, herb, and grape by holding them up to the light of his curiosity, his knowledge of history and farming, turning them this way and that and then fixing them to the page with relish. His meditation on apples begins by telling us ‘It is unlikely Eve tempted Adam with an apple’ because ‘Apples are food not incitement.’ It moves to London, at the time when the EU had decided that only eight apple varieties were ‘acceptable trade’ and a farmer who defied them. It runs through the taste and seasonality of rare breed apples, gives us a poem called Sour Fruit Song (‘I left Bramley apples hanging on the tree/ I should have stayed in London/ But I had to come away) then segues to Granny Smith, swerves down to Tasmania and the grafting of apple trees then  on to the behaviour of apples in storage.

Reading Eric is like a conversation. A conversation with someone who knows an awful lot and wants to share it with you – not a know all but one consumed by curiosity and the joy of life. In his discursive method, his soaring, swooping and swerving, allusion, quotation and digression he reminds me of another Australian writer – Gay Bilson.

Eric Rolls’ writing is the antithesis of most food commentary today. His assertion in the introduction to the piece that sent the journos at the WAFR into a frenzy sets up his basic position:b ‘Food has true wonder only when its origin is known.  The hands of the grower mould the flavour. Eric Rolls  sits in the opposite corner to food as fashion, Masterchef, The Next Big Thing, celebrity chef worship, chef’s hats and gushing food blogs.

It was Eric who – without knowing it – persuaded me to start writing more about where food comes from than where it ends up – more about the farm and the farmer and less about the plate and the cook. Eric, and, I guess, my father, who was also a farmer if never a poet. And in doing so I found a  fascinating world away from the table. To follow the food back to its maker and meet the maker makes sense, as he said, of the whole process.

At the end of a Celebration of the Senses he says ‘It amazes me that in the history of literature no other writer has estimated his senses.’ He goes on to say ‘A good writer always risks himself, but this was written with bared nerves.’

Let me finish with the demise of that bull calf from the beginning:

‘So Bull Calf travelled to auction with fourteen of his half brothers and sisters on the back of a truck.  From there he made a final journey to abattoirs.  He smelled death before he met it and was lifting his head, looking for escape, when the stunning hammer hit him between the eyes.  He felt no more.  He dropped, a chain hoisted him on to a moving belt, the slaughterman cut his throat to bleed him, he was skinned, gutted, examined by a meat inspector and shunted into the chilling room.  An Italian butcher bought him who knew how good he would taste.  For seventeen days his carcass hung in the cool room then the butcher quartered him and hung the pieces on display in his shop.  And when finally his customers put his steak on their plates, mother, farmer and butcher had taken turns to nurture it for nineteen months.’

We need more of that kind of food writing – writing with grit, blood, guts and sinew. And less bland tasteless instant mash.

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