Jake the Muss, Katherine Mansfield and a jointed chicken feature in a shock new poll about food

Scholars have judged a new novel by a Wellington author as the fourth greatest work of New Zealand fiction to feature a description of food.

Nothing To See by Pip Adam, published this year, was given the honour at a literary symposium held in the weekend at the University of Waikato that attracted academics, librarians, publishers, editors and authors from around New Zealand.

The symposium looked at recent developments in New Zealand writing. Papers were delivered on gender, race, sexuality, and economics, without much comment or enthusiasm  – but a discussion on food writing sparked sudden interest, and a poll was taken to vote for the greatest-ever examples of descriptions of food in New Zealand novels and short stories.

Nothing To See was fresh in the minds of many who attended the three-day conference. Adams’s novel – a startling and original play on identity politics, with characters sometimes splitting into two people and then returning as one individual – is filled with meals, and eating, as the cast of recovering alcoholics spend what little energy and money they have on thinking up meals (there are several pages devoted to making a quiche) and ordering meals (there are several pages devoted to sharing tom yum soup at a cheap restaurant).

Scholars were tasked with finding the best five works of food fiction. There was controversy about the book judged fifth best: Once Were Warriors, by Alan Duff, on the basis of Jake Heke’s famous outburst, “Cook the man some fucking eggs!” In fact the line doesn’t appear in Duff’s 1990 novel. It was written by Riwia Brown in the film adaptation. But the symposium executive maintained that the line ought to be included in the list because of its link to the book, and because of its place in popular culture. Some panellists, notably those from the University of Otago, thought that was reckless.

CK Stead’s 1984 novel All Visitors Ashore was voted in third place. It was on the strength of the lyrical description of a summer salad made at Takapuna beach, by a character based on Frank Sargeson: “Farbo squeezes a lemon over the salad and tosses it so oil and lemon mix through … The sun is shining down in the garden beds out there where the lettuce and tomatoes and green peppers that are in the salad grew…The sun is shining on red peppers drying on the peeling window sills and on sunflower heads bristling with black seeds you can pluck out and chew for the oil…Farbo is putting out cold smoked fish with the salad…Farbo is putting cold potato salad beside green salad and saying he has some cold sausage – salami – if the fish isn’t enough…”

It was, judges commented, a kind of foundation meal for New Zealand writing, which Sargeson nurtured and brought into being at his Takapuna shed.

Katherine Mansfield’s 1917 short story ‘A Dill Pickle’ was voted in second place for its brief, profoundly sad mention of the pickle, offered to a doomed couple by their coachman at the Black Sea.

The work of fiction voted unanimously in first place was The Alpha Trip, a 1969 thriller by Graham Billing. Everyone in New Zealand literature knows about this book – although not for the plot, which is garbled and absurd, gallivanting hither and yon from Wellington to a woolshed to the Cook Strait, as Communists and Yankee spies battle it out. Its place in the canon is due to the author’s obsessive attention to meals.

Eg: “She brought with her a jointed chicken and some chervil and fresh tarragon. She coated the chicken pieces in egg and breadcrumbs and fried them slowly in a quantity of butter to which the herbs were added. When they were richly brown she added a glass of white wine and steamed the meat until it was done. She served it with small new potatoes sautéed in the chicken fat and covered with chopped parsley, and a very lightly seasoned tossed salad…” They have sex on the next page and it also reads like food: “Her hard nipples tingled in his palms … He slipped the light cashmere over her head … He planted himself where his fingers had first felt the full springs of her sex flowing”, etc.

Other pages are devoted to a grilled steak at the Lariat Steak Bar, fried chicken and chips from the Golden Chips Bar, and avocados, sole meuniere, chateaubriand, and chilled fresh strawberries with rich cream and a spoonful of kirsch at the Jolly Frog. There’s much, much more on the menu in The Alpha Trip; not a sex scene or even a fight scene is complete without a meal: “She hit him across the face with the wooden spoon she used to stir the soup.”

The symposium held their poll at The Chilli House at 247 Victoria St, Hamilton. It does the best Sichuan-style pork and chives dumplings.


Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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