October 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Bad behaviour

By Gay Bilson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

My daughter, who is in her thirties, was doing the dishes. I began to dry. You can’t have a conversation with a dishwashing machine. We were chatting amicably until she said, “Mum, I don’t want to upset you, but I’m not comfortable with taking the soup to your friends when you know there is chicken stock in it.”

The day before, we’d received a phone call inviting us to lunch at Milang, on the near terminally depleted Lake Alexandrina. I offered to bring mussel chowder, of which we had a bucketful in the freezer. These friends are vegetarians but I have been witness to them eating fish more than once, though not in their own home. It was only after I put down the phone to R, my friend, that I remembered the chowder had chicken stock as its base. I then admitted this to my daughter, adding that saying nothing would cover the problem. I’ve cooked vegetable meals for these people before – including, once or twice, soup with chicken stock in it. I’d said nothing and they had enjoyed the soup.

It occurred to me that I should have kept the presence of the stock a secret from my daughter too. But I hadn’t. In fact, I’d expected her to be happy to collude with me, because she will eat anything within organic reason. We argued at the sink or, rather, I spluttered and she stuck to her guns. I angrily said the secret was none of her business but she, logically, said it was now because I had confessed it to her. I said that the stock was made from free-range organic chickens and was so weak that the amount in one bowlful of chowder was negligible. And it wasn’t as though I was maliciously using chicken stock in order to deceive them. Dishes done, my daughter stomped off to her room and I stewed.

I realised that if I took the soup and said nothing, I would not only be lying by omission to R and her partner, but would be placing my daughter in an even worse position: knowing about the chicken stock, she would have to collude with my silence during the meal, all the while believing I should have told them. It was also possible she would feel bound to tell them, and if so, where would that leave me? A generous but deceitful donor of food – outed, shamed!

I rang R. She told me she thought my daughter deserved a citizen-of-the-year award. I laughed and said I wouldn’t tell her so (though I did). Bring the soup, R said. Other guests were coming, and she would decide for herself whether to eat it. Telling her made me feel better, and telling my daughter that I had told R made us both feel better.

Prior to lunch, we stood with R in her kitchen. While stirring the soup, she made light of her ethical position, saying she had decided when very young not to eat meat and had simply stayed on that course. “But you do eat fish?” I asked, knowing I had served her fish in the past. R replied that she only eats fish so as not to make a fuss when she is dining with others away from home.

On the one hand, R was playing down the notion that she was righteously strict. But on the other, what she told me emphasised her strongly held principles. Of course, I was exhibiting a fair amount of righteousness myself, both in argument with my daughter and now in R’s kitchen. In fact, I was reverting to my ‘what you don’t know’ attitude. By the time we sat down to lunch, molehills seemed to be turning into mountains again.

The mussel chowder was ladled into five bowls by R, who then returned to the kitchen for her bowl of soup: something appetising with tomatoes and vegetables. She made rather a point, I thought, of wishing us good appetite and hoping that we would enjoy our chowder, which only drew attention to the fact that she was refusing to eat it. But it was possible that, being residually grumpy, I had misinterpreted her. Then R’s partner, who had made good bread in his wood-fired oven, stirred his chowder and said, “I can smell bacon.”

Lawksamussy! I had completely forgotten that the chowder included pancetta. Of course it did, it was a chowder, after all, and traditional chowder always uses bacon or some cut of cured or smoked pork. Near to blushing, I implored him not to eat it. But he smiled and said that the aroma reminded him of his childhood, for he is Dutch by birth, and he was comfortable with it. The two other guests asked for second helpings – whether for enjoyment’s sake, or to pour balm on a fraught situation, I shall never know. We talked about other things.

I have no quarrel with people who make a decision not to eat meat or fish, even when these food sources are grown by the rules of Slow Food: good, clean and fair. I am sympathetic to their stance and admire them for it. Then again, in the interest of convivium and courtesy, I do hold that compromise might sometimes cause less distress (though I have no real comprehension of what vegetarian distress entails). The fact that I did not use chicken stock with malice aforethought does not lessen my immoral decision to lie by omission – a petty crime thwarted by an upstanding daughter. Forgetting that there was pork in the chowder seems to me now to have been unforgivable (because the forgetting was stupid), although it did allow R’s partner to show a great kindness by eating it. In the end, on every count, I am the one who behaved badly. Yet I can’t resist wanting to qualify this badness, which only shows how tenaciously we mainstream eaters hold to tradition.

We had taken a cake as well as the chowder to lunch. Sugar heals.

Gay Bilson
Gay Bilson is a writer, literary critic and former Sydney restaurateur. Her books include Plenty: Digressions on Food and On Digestion.

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