Cooking The Books

Bites & books with Cher Tan



Cook: Pesto pappardelle
Book: The Town (Shaun Prescott)

2018 started off strangely: the holidaze went by in a flurry, then it was slap-bang into 2 weeks of 40-hour work weeks, leaving me with a sense of disorientation in unchanging Adelaide.

The Town provided some respite. Shaun Prescott's dry, maudlin prose reanimated the general mood, my own self-pity and the narrator's merging into one sad sodden pile. Interestingly, Prescott's book was also the first by a white author I had read since the beginning of 2016 (I wrote briefly about this journey in Catapult here)—amidst the hype, I had to know if I would care to read another white author again. It turned out that its suburban gothic outlook was exotic in a sense that seemed familiar yet very far-removed. The town's locals were nondescript white people I have had contact with, complex in their simple ways. I say this with a slight facetiousness.

Despite The Town's setting being an abysmally scary tiny country town somewhere in the middle of NSW, I couldn't help relating bits of its nature to Adelaide. I moved here in 2012 from the big smoke, and as much as I try to divorce its size from its character, the place hasn't ceased to look or feel less like a country town. Between 2015-2016 I lived in an apartment with my partner in the middle of the CBD, and for $100 a week (each) it felt like I conducted my activities within an inner-city suburb that year.

The bland characters in The Town talk about nothing; local publican Jenny's irritated dismissal at the narrator's curiosity reminiscent of the times I would relate a conversation about a mundane facet of life to a piece of art in a thoughtful way, only to be met with disinterest (insinuated here: "don't be a wanker"). They also do a whole lot of nothing: local alternative Ciara's faux-worldly, anti-intellectual busywork comparable to some people I know, their deliberate routines fulfilling a sense of inner purpose, yet ritualistic to the point of meaninglessness. Prescott isn't afraid to weave slangy colloquialisms into his sooky self-effacing prose either: words like "bash" and "prick" sit alongside "an indictment" and "same trajectory". "They're towns, Jenny told me. Of course they're there." made me laugh out loud for ages. He's taking the piss, but seriously.

More often than not, I call Adelaide "Toilet Town", especially as I prepare to sever my ties to it and return to the big smoke. Laughing at the city openly in front of its defensive denizens is not borne out of a superiority complex, but rather an exercise in seeing the responses you elicit. I refuse to keep face with someone who could be related to someone else I work with in order to "keep the peace"—when everything is three whole degrees of separation "keeping the peace" can unwittingly turn into "losing yourself".

But as Prescott writes, "no town continues to just be a town", and as the people in it either leave or build upon it its disposition will continue to change. Already, more and more migrants are settling here in conjunction with its selling-point as a lower-tier, less expensive city; in the last 3 years I've seen more and more niches come out of both food and art which points to something bigger. I may only be able to count on one hand how many friends I have in my midst who will truly enjoy and understand a brunch of yum cha with me, but luckily we have pasta.

I have a sentimental fondness for pesto: it was one of the first things I learnt to cook (and then gradually perfect) by myself. My young feminist self had finally warmed up to the idea of cooking (it wasn't oppressive!), while my white-leaning self hoped to distance myself from the Chinese food my mum had cooked for me up till then (it's oppressive!). It felt like I was cloistered in the language of power. Being able to cook anything from mapo tofu to braised soy pork belly now, the unencumbered-ness that seemed limiting a decade ago is now viscerally embraced.

We come full circle and build homes within ourselves.