sunday style: growing up foodie

The article first appeared in Sunday Style magazine. As the third generation in a family of Aussie food royalty, Kate Gibbs' culinary path was set.  Brains in black butter sauce please. My mother put her birthday order in for the dish she wanted, more than anything else, when she turned 15. So my grandmother ordered in the brains at the butcher, and they got to work in their kitchen in The Rocks. Together they prepared a cerebral concoction my mother has always described as “a kind of soft pillowy scrambled eggs”. When I was growing up, this story blew my mind.

There was a kind of celebrity of food in my house long before the chattering, twittering class gathered around the food industry and started Instagramming everything. We weren’t impressed that my grandmother was Margaret Fulton, or that my mother Suzanne Gibbs had written twenty-something cookbooks. We were impressed by the Himalayan chicken rubbed with ground rice and spice sitting in front of us at the table.

My mother, like many others all over Australia, was usually the one in the kitchen. Massive steaming pots would promise good things, ladles full of things, bowls of Malaysian curries and English puddings, miraculous sauces that could be mopped up with bread. A lifted lid would reveal a simmering Chinese master stock, red and black and spiked with anise, a side of pork belly in its depths. Crackling would glow in the oven, salted and blistering.

Once, that stock was simmering for a bloody bag of raw chicken feet my mother had prepped. Seeing me recoil, she held a chicken foot up like a puppet, pulling its gory tendon so the claw opened and closed behind me as I ran from the room screaming.

Another time I heard her giggling at the wooden kitchen bench, her back to me as I approached. I pressed her for the joke and she spun around, holding a foot-long raw beef tongue to her face with one hand so it appeared to dangle from her mouth, her eyes wide and terrifying. With her other hand she made the tip of the tongue move up and down: “What’s wrong darling? Give me a kiss.”

I’d prop myself up on the kitchen bench and marvel as she pulled the skin from the cooked tongue in one piece. She’d slice it like a fillet of beef, and serve the tender meat with pomme mousseline and sautéed silverbeet. I was enthralled by the process, the real ingredients, the chemistry, the flavours and textures. I’d swing my feet and ask questions, turn up my nose and dip my finger into spices.

I knew it was photography day before I arrived home from school. My sister and I could smell it from the street. Casts of thousands took over my house twice a month. Black bags filled with lenses, the dining room table moved outside for better lighting, beautiful media people writing in notebooks and crossing the names of dishes off lists, ironing linen and scattering parsley. My mother would be cooking and making notes in the kitchen, offering us leftovers of food already photographed. My grandmother would make a joke about the Vietnamese summer roll being too big and phallic, everyone would laugh. A photographer would be set up outside, shaking polaroids and lining up rolls of film, his runner holding a massive reflector as a stylist delicately balanced a meatball on a curl of pappardelle. And then my grandmother would comment that you never using a spoon to eat pasta and everyone would jump and fuss over the food again. I wanted to do this when I grew up, all of it.

I get that saying “I’m not a foodie” is as ridiculous as a hipster’s “I’m not a hipster” claim. But I don’t want to be lumped in with foodies, a term I associate with bloggers fawning over macaron. And then I look down at my iPhone: A picture of a tangled bowl of tonkotsu ramen, garlic oil, menma and a halved soy egg sitting on top, is my screensaver. When I eat out I describe the food in 140 characters or less. I obsess about the best lense filter app for my homemade raspberry friandes.

But there’s a difference, and it’s a fine line I know, between squealing about a box of pretty cupcakes and the wider swath of the young and urbane caring about what they eat. In my teens, my peers were happy to eat burritos, and not the good kind. An abiding interest in food was something for snobs, and my poached chicken sandwiches with watercress, flaked almonds and homemade mayonnaise at school were considered odd and fussy.

In my twenties, bothering about food was like being into golf, it was stuffy and got in the way of what everyone really wanted to do: drink. But now food is cool. Even better, extraordinary, real food, packed with flavour and made using quality ingredients is cool. What I love about modern discerning epicurean fashionistas is that they’ve turned a fusty hobby - eating amazing food - into a youth-culture phenomenon. Kids today: they’ll go for a Schezuan jellyfish and cucumber salad, a couple of beers, and call it a great night out.

The other day I was writing a recipe for stollen for a food magazine. I macerated the fruit and called my mother to borrow some citrus peel. An hour later she called me back with a recipe she wrote for one of my grandmother’s cookbooks from the 1970s. I made my stollen then I made her stollen, as a comparison. Then I dropped in to give her a taste of both. I found her in the kitchen. She had two stollen in the oven and was slicing into another with my grandmother. Three generations were gathered around the kitchen bench.  My grandmother told a story about the time she had stollen in Norway with an ambassador for Germany. She spreads the butter on thick, “so I can see my teeth marks in it”. We debate and wonder: More yeast, less marzipan, no glace cherries, currants are better than raisins, snow sugar is better than icing sugar, make two loaves with the same dough, more butter please. There’s icing sugar and citrus peel dusted over the bench. It has always been like this, and I wish it always could be.

This article was published in Sunday Style magazine in August 2013.