FoodStuff - a good idea at the time

By John Lethlean
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John Lethlean, culinary critic

John Lethlean, culinary critic


Some get it with clothes. Others recorded music or books. Several males I know find themselves drawn deeply into temptation every time they go within garden hose distance of a Bunnings.

That overwhelming urge to acquire something in the hope it will prove useful down the track. The triumph of want over need. Something that seems a really good idea at the time.

And there are those of us who have a similar problem with foodstuffs; the urge to buy something with a view to working out what to do with it later. A retail itch to be scratched.

My pantry stands testament to the problem, an Aladdin’s Cave of crap that seemed a good idea at the time. Glutinous rice; all manner and viscosity of soy sauces from Indonesia to Japan and China; pulses I’ll never soak; pasta shapes that will never get boiled; palm sugars in five different shades. There’s a Japanese section but that seaweed has been there two years now and I’m still not sure what to do with it. And why do I have three unopened bottles of mirin?

There are packets of spice mixes to make pho, and others to make dashi. Same old story: it seemed like a sensible purchase at the time.

And this is not an affliction confined to non-perishables. Odd fish, strange fruit, unloved vegetables and funny bits of animal have all come home with me on a well-intentioned whim, only to find themselves in the compost bin, the freezer on a never-ending cryogenic journey, or the rubbish. Some people see raw materials and the possibilities; some of us just see raw materials and get excited anyway.

And so it was grand final morning when nipping over to the Italian butcher’s shop for sausages should have been a simple and relatively modest procedure; of course not. Went for snags, came home with… snags, and a Barossa chicken (just in case), a stack of beautiful bacon and the most magnificent-looking rack of pork you ever did see; seven ribs, skin ready for crackling and all that marvellous pale muscle just waiting to be eaten. It was love at first sight.

And was the fact I’d no idea about cooking a rack of pork getting in the way? You already know the answer.

I figured I’d learn on a gentle stage – home – and if I screwed up, well, lessons would be learned, it wouldn’t be an entire disaster. The other white meat (as it used to be branded) was a box I needed to tick. So home it came, a candidate with no immediate vacancy.

Then the phone rang and with that, an invitation away for a few nights with kids (it was school holidays) from mate. As cooks go, he’s a great friend; I figured that even if I got the pork horribly wrong, he’d still be happy and grateful, so this little pig came down the coast too.

The point of all this is that pressure to perform is the enemy of debut kitchen performances. Expectation equals anxiety; you have to be comfortable your audience will laugh with you, not at you, to reach full potential. Creative unshackling. And all was running smoothly, I was rather looking forward to the porky challenge.

Then somehow, our little Tuesday night dinner – two blokes, four kids, one rack of pork – got derailed. “I bumped into so and so on the beach,” said my host, referring to a woman he knew and her friend/assorted kids. “What about we have them for dinner too?”

He was my host. I was pumped to tackle the pork. What could I say? Worse, “so-and-so” turned out to be someone with a public profile, a celebrity of sorts in her field, respected and admired. I could feel the porcine pressure mounting. Then even worse still: “Yeah, she’s really into food and wine too, you’ll get along famously.”

“Great,” I said. Nothing better than a celebrity discovering you’re a fraud. And being a holiday house, there wasn’t a cook book in the joint.

I phoned a friend, or at least a chef; he talked me down gently. Salt the scored rind, he said, put it on some root vegies, splash a bit of white wine around to stop them burning, blast for about 20 minutes, knock back the heat a bit… But from 250 kms, there’s just so much you can do on the phone when the variables of heat and weight are thrown into the equation.

Either I guessed the weight incorrectly (scales in a holiday house?), the oven ran hotter than it suggested, or both. And I suspect both.

With the celebrity and her friend salivating in porky expectation over pre-dinner asparagus and Alsatian riesling (their impressive contribution) the piggy, unbeknown to me, was quietly cooking himself into oblivion. Oh he looked the part alright when he emerged, all tanned and blistered of skin, bones sticking out but… Inedible would be taking it too far; but tough would be accurate. Very accurate.

I sensed potential, but if I were fed pork like that in a restaurant, there would be cross words.

The guests were good about it really. And they did bring a cracking apple crumble.

The wine helped a lot too, and after the subtle humiliation of the roast, the wine became a case of need rather than want. I drank away the piggy blues, my mate and I, a dumb thing to do on a Tuesday night, really.

But like the pork, so many things before it and almost inevitably many more into the future, it did seem like a good idea. At the time.


From a collection of John’s food writing 2005-2008.

Follow John Lethlean and Necia Wilden on Twitter as they eat and drink their way around Australia


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August 20th, 2010
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