Annabel Crabb on seasoning, sharing and savouring

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

AC              Annabel Crabb


AC              Well, I hate going to the dentist. No, I don’t have cold showers. What you just… A monster. You’re looking for ways in which I might go out of my way to make myself horribly uncomfortable. No, I don’t look for physical suffering in life.

AL               My name’s Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, a podcast about living a happy, healthy, and ethical life. Although I’m a politician and an economist, this isn’t a podcast about politics or economics. It’s about living a good life, which is an idea that goes back to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. What Aristotle meant by a good life was the life that one would like to live, a life with pleasure, meaning and richness of spirit. A life that most of us were trying to live until everything else got in the way.

                   In this podcast, I’ll seek out guests, not because they’re smart, but because they’re wise. I’ll speak with writers, athletes, and social justice campaigners. With people who’ve been lucky, and those who’ve experienced hard times. I found their stories fascinating, and I hope you do, too.

                   Few people seem to enjoy life as much as Annabel Crabb. She writes witty newspaper columns and thoughtful books. She’s created television shows Kitchen Cabinet and When I Get A Minute with Leigh Sales, and does a radio podcast called Chat 10 Looks 3, the title which I think is a nod to Chorus Line, if I’m not mistaken. She has three children, Audrey, Elliot and Kate, and seems to manage to spend a surprising amount of time with them.

                   Annabel’s latest work is a cookbook titled Special Delivery, Favourite Food to Make and Take. Co-authored with Wendy Sharpe, it’s not just a set of recipes, it’s also a love letter to the art of cooking.

                   One of the reasons I’m doing this podcast is because I want to find people who know more about topics than I do. And what could be a bigger knowledge gap than between Annabel and me on cooking? I love food, but I’ve never been much of a cook. Annabel gets so much pleasure from it that I want to learn more. What role can cooking play in a good life?

                   I also want to explore different philosophies to living a good life, and I think I may have found Australia’s leading proponent of the epicurean philosophical tradition. I’ll come back to that. Annabel, thanks for joining me.

AC              It’s a pleasure.

AL               What’s the first dish you cooked?

AC              I think probably scones. Probably scones. I grew up on a farm, and my mum’s a great cook. And periodically, there’d be massive cooking assignments that would be about cooking for shearers and stuff like that. The farm calendar does rather pay attention to food-related events. You need vast infusions of food for shearing and for harvesting. I remember a lot about cooking in a farm kitchen.

AL               How old where you when you were cooking scones?

AC              Probably three or so. Cooking with children is a particular art. You have to… If you’re a good cook, you have to really suspend your sense of control-freakery, and let people do it in a slightly messier way than you would. And that’s a really hard thing to do. And I often think back to my mum, who was a great and gracious accepter of toddler help in the kitchen. She was highly patient with us and…That’s perfect, darling, let’s run with that lumpy scone. I have to fight to maintain that level of Delphic calm, but I’m definitely there now, I think.

AL               Break that down a little more. How have you gotten better at teaching kids to cook?

AC              When I first started cooking with my first daughter, who’s now nine, I think I was a bit like, let’s make gingerbread. No, no, no. No, no, you need to cut it like this.

                   And there is something that is issued to children when they’re tiny. It’s like a universal memo that if you roll out a sheet of gingerbread dough, for instance, and you give a kid a cutter, they’ll go straight to the middle. Whereas everybody knows, if you’re making gingerbread shapes in an economical way, you’ll start at the edge and fit in as many as you can. But if you’re three, you’ll go straight to the middle and make one shape, and then screw up the rest of it.

                   I think patience is something… If you love to cook, and you love to be in control in the kitchen… I really enjoy having a kitchen to myself and being able to belt out food. You have to make an adjustment for slow cooking, which is cooking when you’re teaching somebody else how to do it, and allowing for many, many false starts. But there is a certain pleasure to that, as well, as I learned over the years.

AL               Are there particular dishes that you remember were important in your own learning to cook from your mum?

AC              I remember learning to chop things and thinking, having no idea how it was that my mother could chop things so evenly. When I watch my kids doing it now, they love to be around a really sharp knife. Within reason, I like to give them a go on the sharp knife. I’m right there. But you’ve got to learn how to do that stuff. And really, the only way to do it is practice. There is no other way to learn how to chop things with any kind of discipline. It’s like writing, I guess, holding a pen.

                   I remember learning how to do that, and making biscuits and cupcakes and things like that. Great for kids, because they love the mixing, they love the egg cracking, they love all of those constituent parts. The sifting, where it’s like you’re snowing over a little bowl. All of that stuff, they really like.

                   And that stuff is ready fast, its creation is full of drama, and then you put it in the oven and then it’s ready to eat 15 minutes later. They’re all good things. Pancakes, too, are pretty good.

AL               Does your mum have a signature dish that you still enjoy making?

AC              Oh, my mum. Yes. Look, there are so many things of hers that I make. The one that I am obsessed with that has weirdly enough become the dish for the cookbook that people most approach me about, is these spicy nuts that she makes. They’re kind of like a bar snack, really. You get a whole pile of nuts, and you get a single egg white, and you whisk it until its fluffy, and then you roll the nuts around in the egg white so they’re all coated. It’s like this fabulous kind of glue.

                   And then you sprinkle a mixture of sugar, salt, cumin, curry powder, controversially, and black pepper, and a little bit of cayenne if you want them more spicy, and a little bit of cinnamon as well. And you roll that through the mix and mix it all until they’re all coated and then you bake them in the oven on a tray. And what you end up with is these roasted nuts that have a really hard, crispy, spicy layer on the outside.

                   You would be in favour of the nut, right, because you have that economics analysis of the food that you eat. And you’re looking for things that are high in protein and high in nutrients. So a nut would be perfect for you.

AL               I guess so, yes. It’s not that pleasure’s irrelevant. I would love to see those sitting in the supermarket and think, I’ll grab a set of those.

AC              Well, you could make them quite easily.

AL               I could, but I guess that comes to the question of when cooking is a chore and when it’s a pleasure. For me, I don’t cook a lot, and normally I find its work. Is it ever work for you, or is it always just play?

AC              I don’t think it’s ever work. It doesn’t ever feel like work. And it’s because I find that it connects lots of bits of me together and in a weird way, it is an economy for me, because it allows me… Ever since I’ve had children, and I have quite a busy job as well, I really treasure any activity that can allow me to achieve a number of things at once. And with cooking, because in my house the kitchen’s the centre of the house, we all hang out in the kitchen, around the kitchen table.

                   It means that, if I’m cooking, the kids are there, I’m chatting to them, they’re helping, so I’m hanging out with them in a really nice way, but also at the end of it, there’s dinner for them to eat. So it feels like a really good use of time, because I’m really enjoying it. I find cooking relaxing. I’m not one of these people that finds it stressful. And that’s for a bunch of reasons. One, I’ve had a lot of practice at it, and because I love it, I keep doing it.

                   But not everybody feels like that about cooking. And you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t like about cooking. I can’t bear yoga. Some people are really in to yoga, and they find a special place where they can reconnect with themselves, and they walk out of there feeling peaceful and rested. I, if I go to yoga, I sit there thinking, oh, my God, this has been half an hour. I could have done lots of other stuff with this half an hour. I’m not really suited to that sort of pursuit.

                   Whereas, if I’ve just made a load of sausage rolls to put in the freezer for kids’ lunches, I really feel I’ve enjoyed cooking that stuff. And I also have the satisfaction of knowing, all right, I’m prepared, there’s food in the fridge to be deployed at a second’s notice if I run out of time at a later date.

AL               Do you have failures? Have you had great culinary failures, and are you good at dealing with those? Or are your failures now pretty small slash non-existent?

AC              I tend to… I’m a home cook, I’m not a aspiring cordon bleu chef, I don’t do a lot of stuff with xantham gum and all that sort of gear. I’m not a master chef. Can I spherify this or whatever? I cook out of curiosity, really. I cook dishes that I know the kids love, that are my regulars, I cook all the time. And then, if I see a great ingredient, like we have a really good market around the corner from our place that has really great vegetables. And so if I see a vegetable that I don’t see all that often, I’ll grab it and then I’ll build something around it.

                   For instance, yesterday I was at my local market and they had these baby fennel, these tiny little, sweet little baby fennel. And I love fennel, so I snapped up some of those, and when I get home, I’ll experiment with those. I’ll do something with them. I love fantasising about what I’m going to use this ingredient for. If I’ve got a great ingredient, I’ll think, what can I build around that?

AL               So the shopping itself is also a part of the pleasure?

AC              Oh, yes.

AL               Or only at markets?

AC              I like to be… I’m not a big fan of the supermarket.

AL               I was going to say, few people get great joy from wondering the aisles of Woolies.

AC              Actually, the weird thing is that my partner, Jeremy, he loves a supermarket expedition. He’s a very methodical person, I’m more shambolic. So he likes to… He never forgets anything. If I go to the supermarket, I’ll wander round and go, wow, tinned beetroot. It’s ages since I’ve had tinned beetroot. So I’ll get a tin of tinned beetroot. Or I’ll see something, ah, extraordinary. There’s some kind of cheese or something. And so I’ll come home with this very interesting but not entirely practical bundle of groceries.

                   Because I’m all about, oh, that’ll be interesting, what can I do with that? Whereas Jeremy is really much more switched on about, actually, we need toothpaste.

                   And he actually quite, I think he has a… He quite likes the peace and quiet of going to a supermarket and filling an order, and coming home with it, and then deploying the things that he’s bought on the shelves. And then thinking, right, we’re sorted for laundry powder. He’s really good at it. And I’m a bit terrible at it, and I get a bit sort of, oh, I’m over this supermarket already.

AL               And I have this third experience, which is about a quarter of the time I find myself choosing a product of the shelves and noticing the person next to me going, oh, that’s what my local MP orders.

AC              That can’t be any fun.

AL               It’s sort of weird, right? Often you get these lovely conversations but a visit to the supermarket is you feel you’re on when you’re at the supermarket.

AC              Right, you’re being judged for your purchase. I’ve never really thought about that.

AL               But fresh food markets sound like unmitigated joy for you.

AC              Oh, yes, yes. The unpredictability of them is great. And it’s what you lose with the retreat of seasonal food. You can get strawberries all year round. You can get watermelon all year round, for God’s sake. Which you could never get when I was growing up. In this country town, you’d get whatever was in season if you were lucky.

                   Now, you walk into a giant supermarket and you can get passion fruit or anything, winter months, no problem. Someone’s making it somewhere. I like going to markets just because I’m a hopeless hippy, but also because I like seeing the thing that’s just been picked and knowing that it’s in season. And accepting the challenge of how do I make something delicious out of this?

                   For instance, the other day I walked… It was a week ago. I walked into my local market and this great organic fruit and veg purveyor there had a head of romanesco, which is the most fabulous… It’s like a cross between a cauliflower and broccoli. And my friend Wendy, with whom I co-authored the book, has been nagging me for about six months to roast a whole head of romanesco.

                   It’s the freakiest thing. It looks like a robot cauliflower. It’s pale green and it’s got conical little florets that are quite closely packed, so it’s like a cauliflower that’s been fed through a bitmap machine.

                   She’s had great success with roasting it whole in a hot oven and then putting some sort of pesto all over it and then serving it on a plate with a knife stuck in it. And she keeps saying, you’ve got to make this. I’m like, I can’t find romanesco, it’s not anywhere. They don’t make it in Australia. And then she’s googling where it’s grown in Australia. Open your eyes. It’s got to be around here somewhere. Anyway, I found one. It’s good.

AL               Are you a locavore? Do you like eating things that are grown within close proximity to your home?

AC              Yes. I am very fortunate in that I live in Marrickville, which is the epicentre of food at the moment. People are constantly setting up gin stills around the corner, which is obviously very helpful. So there’s lots of locally created stuff. The market that I go to, the fruit and veggie purveyor that I go to comes from Orange, which is bit of a drive away. I’m not dogmatic about it, but like a lot of people, I enjoy the process of food and knowing a bit about where it came from and being part of that creative process, I suppose.

AL               How do you know you’re getting better at cooking?

AC              That’s a very good question. I don’t… I am pleased when I come up with something that I’m proud to give my friends or whatever. I don’t actually do a lot of dinner parties or anything like that. Mainly because my house is so messy, I can’t be bothered tidying it up. That’s part of the good life, is just not tidying all the time. Life’s a bit short.

AL               Yes.

AC              So it does mean that I don’t have one of those sparkling houses where 20 people could drop round and I’d just whip up a something or other. Because I’ve been too busy trying to find the dining room table, which is only really cleared for state occasions.

                   But I think I know I’m becoming better because I have techniques in my head that make me know how I could turn this ingredient into something great. And I think some people are instinctive cooks, but you’ve got to feed instinct with experience to remember that this is a really great technique to use with that vegetable, or that this and that flavour goes together. I don’t eat meat, so that has taught me to be a lot more imaginative with vegetables. I eat fish, though, so that adds a protein to the situation.

                   But I love finding out freaky new things to do with… One of the most interesting events that I went to in the last year was a dinner commemorating the fact that this is the United Nations International Year of the Pulse.

AL               I had no idea.

AC              It is. And apparently, it was the Year of Quinoa in 2012 and that absolutely rocketed quinoa to stardom. So the pulse people are all hoping that it’ll do the same thing for them. Anyway, there were lots of really interesting people at this dinner who grow pulses. And pulses are like dried… A dried bean is a pulse. A bean is a legume, but a dried bean is a pulse. So it’s all those things that you buy in a bag that are dry and then you cook them somehow, make them soft.

AL               Right, so it’s the bean equivalent of grapes turning into sultanas?

AC              Yes, it is, right. And chickpea. Like your dried chickpeas is your classic pulse. And I met someone who was making chickpea tofu, and this person could also make chickpea milk. And they gave me this great piece of information, which I did not believe at the time, but I have since checked and tried it, and it works, which is…

                   Did you know that you can make a vegan pavlova using the brine from a tin of chickpeas? I am not joking.

AL               Which most people throw away.

AC              Right. So you drain off the brine, you keep your chickpeas to do whatever you do with chickpeas with, and then you put it in a mixer, like a stand mixer, and you whip it with a whisking attachment. You could do it with a bowl and a whisk if you’re incredibly fit, so probably not you. And what do you know? This slightly gloopy brine whisks up and it holds the air just like whites do. So it looks all meringue-y, and then you whisk castor sugar into it, just like you do with egg whites.

                   And there, before you know it, you have this stiff, fluffy mixture, that looks, I am not kidding, exactly like beaten meringue. And then you bake it in a… Flatten into a disc, spread it into a disc and bake it and it is exactly like a pavlova. So strange.

AL               You sound like you desperately want someone to come over for dinner who is a vegan pavlova lover so you can try this. I can hear you [overtalking].

AC              My brain is going, I’ve got the vegan pavlova but I can’t put cream on it because vegans don’t eat cream, so it would have to be maybe coconut yoghurt? I love working out how to adjust dishes to suit somebody else’s requirements.

                   A very dear friend of mine was diagnosed with celiac disease recently, and she was the world’s greatest cheese sandwich eater. And I cook a lot for her, because she doesn’t cook a lot herself. And so I’ve been obliged to adapt a whole lot of my recipes to be wheat free. And it’s such a fascinating challenge. And in some cases, things that you make with a gluten-free substitute are actually better than the original.

                   So in our cookbook, we’ve got a recipe for Wendy’s grandmother’s ginger fluff sponge, a great and challenging sponge. Because you know, you’ve got to get the sponge right. I’ve made it now with gluten-free flour and cornflour, and it’s actually a better texture. I find it easier, because you don’t get that toughening of the gluten that makes, can make a sponge go a bit leathery.

AL               So it sounds like next time you invite me over for dinner, I should say that I’m allergic to everything that doesn’t start with the letters A, K and L.

AC              Throw me a curveball, yes. Actually, I think the tricky ones are the Jains. They’re a tricky religious group to cook for, because they only eat things that have fallen from the trees naturally. They don’t harvest anything. I think they’ve got… I’m probably absolutely getting it wrong, but I remember having dinner with a Jain person once and going, whoa, that must be really hard.

AL               Here’s some berries I prepared earlier.

AC              Yes, exactly.

AL               You write in Special Delivery that making food for others says, I care enough about you to spend a bit of time making something delicious. Let’s do rapid fire, best dishes for a bunch of situations.

AC              Oh, okay, yes.

AL               Best dishes for a new parent?

AC              Oh, something that can be put in the oven and reheated at their leisure, but that has plenty of protein and a bit of heft to it, so… I mean, I think, I’ve got this great chickpea bake that… Well, actually, it’s Wendy’s recipe. And it is tomato and onion and chickpeas and lots of cumin, made into sort of like a stew and then you fold some spinach through it and lots and lots and lots of herbs. And then you put it in a casserole dish. And then on top, you slice all this halloumi and lay it over the top, so it’s like the crust.

                   You bake it, and you’ve got this incredibly delicious cheesy crust and the quite piquant, almost Moroccan-y chickpea bake underneath. Some people, you know, chickpea bake. Thanks, Neil from The Young Ones, but actually, it is a really compelling dish. People can’t stop eating it. But it’s great for a nursing mother, too.

AL               Beautiful. For your in-laws?

AC              If I had to choose a kind of… Normally when my in-laws are coming over, there’s lots of people, because my partner is from a big family. And we’ve had a lot of luck with roasts and stuff for them. Jeremy is a massive big event cook, he really likes to cater for a lot of people with a large chunk of meat. I think it’s because I don’t eat meat that, when there’s lots of people coming around, he’s like, aha, carnivores strike back. We’re in the majority.

                   Seriously, yesterday when I was coming to Canberra, I did all this panic baking with leftovers from his roasts from the weekend, because his mum came over and couple of siblings. And he just over-catered so we had about, seriously, 700 grams of roast beef left over, which I made into a ragout pasta sauce with my new pressure cooker, which I only got a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been absolutely hammering ever since. I don’t know why I haven’t had a pressure cooker up to now, but, wow, it’s a really good thing to have.

AL               I’m starting to realise Annabel Crabb and food doesn’t do rapid fire, but this is good.

AC              Yes, I know, sorry.

AL               No, no, no, this is great.

AC              You just want me to say names of dishes.

AL               No, no, no.

AC              I just witter on, sorry.

AL               I did, initially, and then I heard you describe them and now I’m just really hungry. It’s been a while, but cooking for someone, for a romantic, potential… I want to say first date, but you don’t typically cook for a first date, so cooking for a romantic, special person for the first time.

AC              I would always go seafood. I love a bit of a…

AL               Why’s that?

AC              I don’t know. There’s a bit of theatre about seafood. Plus it’s a beautiful… It’s light, like if you’re feeling the love a bit, you don’t want giant, giant meal, right? I don’t know. I think a lovely, maybe a roasted prawn or… My ideal long preparation dish involving seafood is making pasta. Making tortellini with a… Lobster, if you can afford it, but prawn mousse inside. That’s pretty amazing.

AL               Oh, that does sound good.

AC              Yes, it is. But you see, I really like process. I like… Because cooking’s often about time, right, and I think that when you cook something for somebody, it’s like a gift of a little parcel of time. So that’s why I wrote that thing about it’s a demonstration. It’s like hand-making someone a card instead of buying one, or whatever. It’s not really about the thing, it’s about, you are significantly important to me and I spent all this time making you this.

AL               Yes.

AC              And part of it is also knowing what that person likes and taking something, or giving something to them that will suit their… Where they are in life, or what’s happening to them. I’m going through a rash, on Wendy’s advice, of making homemade hot chocolate for people, where you…

                   If you know that someone doesn’t drink coffee or maybe is just needing a bit of nourishment and a little bit of a friendly pat, then a little jar of homemade hot chocolate, which you could make by whizzing up chocolate and cocoa and then other things that you can chuck in. Like a little bit of sugar but also last one I’ve been making is orange zest and cardamom. So it’s a little bit spicy and it mixes up very nicely in some warm milk to make an instant hot chocolate that is a bit of a gesture thing.

AL               So the tailoring isn’t just around allergies, it’s also around needs?

AC              Yes. So if someone’s sad, or you know that they’re spending a lot of time looking after a sick relative or something, maybe you can give them something that’s easy to make but that is a bit of a… I don’t know. A bit thoughtful.

AL               What about for a hangover? What do you cook for a hangover?

AC              Something massively fried. I love fried food and I just… It’s my go-to. I wouldn’t go to chocolate or even to cakes or something. I would go to something that involves a fried cheese, really.

                   I’ve got these corn fritters where… I love corn in anything, really. But I make these corn fritters that have got lots of corn in them, but also some grated halloumi for that saltiness and then some lime zest for some sharpness, and then lots and lots of coriander. And when you fry those up, they’re all golden and crunchy and a bit fried cheesy as well. That would be my number one hangover food.

AL               And for a funeral wake?

AC              Look, tragically I can answer that straight away because my father-in-law died last year and we did all the cooking for the funeral and… Actually, it was a really cathartic experience and if you are in that situation… My partner’s got a big family, lots of brothers and sisters. Everyone’s helping. It’s good to have a job that you can do where you think, I’m being helpful. I don’t know what to say to anyone because it’s sad and awful, but here’s something I can do that’s helpful, and that is cook a giant mass of food.

                   And you have to be thoughtful about people who are standing around already feeling a bit awkward. So you need something they can hold in their hand. I think I made lots of pita crisps, toasted with some spices on them. And then I made a smoked mackerel pâté to put on them. Jeremy and I also got very ambitious and made duck pancakes, which we regretted halfway through, because duck pancakes are quite labour intensive.

AL               Do you have much truck with some of the new food movements? Wendy’s a scientist. Are you into molecular gastronomy?

AC              No, I’m not, because I’m a bit, I’m probably a bit slapdash for that. I do follow recipes, but then I always adapt them to my own personal taste and I’m not massively a precision cook in that way. I don’t like, I’m not governed by making something that looks exactly perfect or whatever. But food movement wise, I don’t know.

                   I get a bit annoyed by the paleo thing. I’m a bit of an everything in moderation fan, really. I can’t imagine that the pathway to happiness absolutely lies with renouncing wheat. Unless your villi in your intestines are telling you that you have to. I think that one of the glorious parts of life is romping around and trying this and that. And the idea that you would forbid yourself endlessly from doing that is a bit of a bleak prospect for me.

AL               So similarly with organic food, you’re not [overtalking]?

AC              Although, that said, I don’t eat meat, so there you go. My carnivorous friends would say, what, you fraud, you don’t eat chops, or whatever. I don’t know, I don’t miss it.

AL               For ethical or dietary reasons?

AC              Well, I grew up on a farm and we did a lot of our own butchery and… I don’t know. I think when you grow up on a sheep farm, you end up eating a lot of mutton. You export the lambs, eat the ewes. So you get a lot of really sheepy sheep. And I don’t know, I was just never really into it. And then I think when I moved out of home and went to university, I was about 16, I don’t think I really… I don’t know, probably couldn’t afford meat, and I just didn’t eat it.

                   And then I think I happened upon a personal rule where I thought, okay, I will eat anything that I’m prepared to kill with my own bare hands. And so I eat fish, because I’m happy to knock over a fish or crustacean, but chicken and anything north of chicken, I let live.

AL               I turned vegetarian for six months as a kid after my mum…

AC              Until the girl was in the bag. That’s what normally happens.

AL               Much too young for that. I was 13 and my mum had a whole lot of prawns, and as you drop them into the boiling water, as you well know, they make a squealing sound, which sounds as though they’re making their last…

AC              [Overtalking] prawns.

AL               Exactly. So I turned vegetarian for six months, and then one day, just without thinking, picked up a hamburger and it was all over.

AC              It’s normally the bacon sandwich that turns them round.

AL               Oh, yes, love the bacon. Do you, when you talk about food movements, are you… You comment in one of your podcast episodes that when you see a dish showing up on airline menus, you know it’s past the peak. What’s the stage at which you turn your nose up at a dish?

AC              I don’t really get… I like to… I think food’s a bit like fashion. You wait around and all of a sudden, flares are back in. I think food’s a bit like that, too. For instance, the other night, for my mother-in-law, I made a variation on Crêpes Suzette. I love a pancake. And it’s not a super-fashionable thing to serve anymore, a crêpe. But I actually think that, as a dessert, they’re just so great. This one had a sweetened cheese in it.

                   When I travelled around Poland when I was in my 20s, I used to… There was not a lot of vegetarian food in Poland, so you eat a lot of potatoes. And these amazing pancakes called Nalesniki. Probably offending the pronunciation gods there, but… There was this beautiful one that was… It had sweet cheese in it and a squeeze of lemon on top. Just so tasty. And I’ve recreated those in my head so many times since and I actually did it properly on Saturday night.

                   I bought some sweet cheese from my local Lebanese bakery, so it was actually almost like a rose watery-scented cheese and I put them inside, chunks of it inside crêpes. And then made an orange caramel with orange juice and some sugar and water. And that went down a treat. And I thought, yes. Big dob of ice cream on top. Hello, 1970 whatever it was when somebody last made Crêpes Suzette.

AL               Nalesniki is back.

AC              Yes. Yes, yes.

AL               When you’re out at a restaurant, what’s the way that you approach the menu? For example, I always look at the menu and think, if I’m dining at a good restaurant… It’s a rule that Tyler Cowen, the economist, [unclear] has never failed me.

AC              How surprising that you would have an economic theory on how to order at a restaurant.

AL               Here it is. At a great restaurant, the lasagne will survive, whether it’s good or bad. The chicken parmigiana will survive whether it’s good or bad. Because there’s a bunch of risk-averse customers who are ordering familiar dishes. But the strange, wacky, wackiest dish on the menu, the combination of beetroot and duck, is only there because it’s great. So find the thing that looks least appetizing and order that. What’s your rule?

AC              That’s a really good idea. I do think that there is… You need to, if you know anything at all about the restaurant and you know what they’re famous for, or you know what their signature dish is, you should go for that if you’ve not been there before. Because that will be the thing that is there because it’s genuinely great and because people who go there regularly will not give it up. A dish in a restaurant for which its regulars will fight to the death, is going to be a good dish.

                   It’s actually hard for people who run restaurants and develop all these signature dishes, because it means that they can’t ever take them off. If you look at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant, The Fat Duck, in the UK, it’s been making snail porridge forever, which even though the surprise and thrill’s gone out of it for most people, the people still want to eat that dish. So it can be a real trap.

                   I have a few pre-existing prejudices and there are some things that I love so much that wherever I see them, I’ll order them. In fact, whenever I go out with Jeremy, he always says, well, I know that you’re ordering number three entrée or whatever. So anything that’s a crudo of fish, raw fish sliced, a carpaccio of fish is… I will instantly be attracted to that, because I love really, really fresh seafood. and if that dish is going to work, it’s got to be really, really fresh. Sometimes I’ve got to tear myself away from ordering the obvious in that way.

                   An unusual combination that I haven’t seen before will always draw my attention, too.

AL               If you’re going round in a circle ordering and a friend orders something you were going to order, do you switch?

AC              Yes.

AL               Why?

AC              Because I want to see what they all look like, so I want to give myself the greatest opportunity to view the largest number of dishes.

AL               But this is food you’re going to eat. That suggests you’re placing quite a large value on what it looks like.

AC              No, it’s not what it looks like, it’s the ideas. Because sometimes I’ll see something and I’ll think, ah, look at the way that person has made that mushroom. For instance, only a couple of weeks ago, I was at my market that I keep talking about and… It’s the Addison Road market in Marrickville . It’s built up over the years since I moved into the area and it’s now this really… I can do most of my vegetable shopping there every weekend. There was somebody who had the most beautiful Jerusalem artichokes there.

                   Now, I’m a bit nervous about Jerusalem artichokes, because they’re knobbly, they’re a bit grubby, you’ve got to peel them and then there’s nothing left of them. But these were these beautiful, clean, bursting-looking Jerusalem artichokes and I grabbed them, thinking, right, I’m going to do something with those. Anyway, I roasted them in the pan, put some butter in the pan, cleaned off any knobbly bits, of which there were many, and fried them. And they’re a really buttery vegetable, so it’s quite indulgent to fry them.

                   And then I put stock over them and then covered the pot until the stock was all absorbed in cooking the vegetables. And then sliced those into a salad. Now, that it something that I was obsessed with, because I had eaten at Mona, the gallery in Tasmania, and seen these incredible golden buttery-looking, glossy, shiny, burnished Jerusalem artichokes. I thought, God, they look so great. And I knew before I ever tasted one that I wanted to make them look like that.

                   So sometimes you get a visual cue, where you see something that looks so great, that you’re then driven to try and work out how to recreate that.

AL               I still think you could have achieved the same thing by walking slowly back from the bathroom and checking out what’s on other peoples’ tables.

AC              Yes, but you see, people that you don’t know are always a bit less excited about you prodding and poking their dish and saying, look, can I have a forkful of that and… Just for testing.

AL               If there’s one person in Australia who could get away with that, it’s you. When I think about your philosophy on life, it seems to fit most naturally in the Greek epicurean tradition. The followers of Epicurus, 300 BC, pleasure… Life is about maximising pleasure and minimising pain.

                   And the epicureans are very much in counterpoint to the stoics, who were about higher meaning, logic, reason, all that kind of thing. Do you see yourself as an epicurean, as somebody for whom the maximising of pleasure for you and your friends is at the heart of living a good life?

AC              I don’t think it’s quite as hedonistic as that sounds. I do think that, particularly when you’re trying to do several things at once, i.e. be a good parent and work fulltime. This is a great problem that lots of people deal with.

                   You have all of these things that you’re doing, elements of which make you very, very happy, but you have parts where they clash and parts where you think you’re not doing one as well as you would do if you were doing that thing exclusively. That brings stress and tension. It’s not hedonism. You’re having it all, in that kind of hackneyed phrase.

                   But because you’re also trying to do it all at the same time, it’s hard. There are times that are really difficult. And so the joy, I think, comes from the occasions where you’ve managed to bloody pull it off. Or where you think, okay, I’m pleased with what I’ve achieved here and how I’ve done this. But, oh, my God, I still forgot sports socks, or I feel really bad that I left work early, or whatever. There’s elements to that busy, contemporary life that mean it’s never hedonism.

                   You’re aiming for maximum pleasure for all concerned, but of course, to create pleasure for other people can involve a certain amount of personal sacrifice. But ideally, pulling it off can create a very deep, underlying satisfaction, which means it all comes out in the wash, if you know what I mean. So I don’t think I’m quite in line with your ancient colleagues, because I don’t think that I live life with a disregard for, or an avoidance of pain or difficulty.

                   I think it’s about finding a road that provides you with joy and satisfaction and allows you to survive the difficulties with a smile on your face.

AL               But the smile on your face seems to be… Well, first of all, you do a lot of it, and secondly, it seems to be extremely important to the way in which you see the world. I did City2Surf yesterday, I took a bizarre joy in the fact that I was pushing my body so hard that I was close on the edge to throwing up for the second half of the race. My sense of…

AC              Now I’m smiling, because you’re an idiot.

AL               My sense of you is that that is not something from which you would derive deep satisfaction.

AC              No. I would not run until I felt like throwing up. That’s right.

AL               What is the hardest thing… Do you pull back from pain in any sense? Are there contexts in which you look to… Or are there, do you have cold showers?

AC              Well, I hate going to the dentist. No, I don’t have cold showers. What you just… A monster. You’re looking for ways in which I might go out of my way to make myself horribly uncomfortable. No. No, I don’t look for physical suffering in life.

AL               How do you stay healthy with all of the wonderful food that gets produced in your house?

AC              Well, I chase three children around, mainly. I don’t overeat. I am always active, but I don’t…

                   There’s a lot of research about this, about what happens with women when they mix work and family, and there is a really strong pattern that the first thing that goes is things that women do by themselves, like leisure, exercise. It’s the first thing they give up when they start to get pushed for time. I used to jog and exercise. Not to your, frankly insane, levels, but I don’t anymore because I would have to get up so early in the morning, and that would be the only…

                   I used to go for a run in the mornings, but my children all get up so early and I’m so loathe to sacrifice time with them. And besides, if they woke up and I was unaccountably disappeared, they’d tear the house down. I think I’get back to that at some point, exercising more. But at the moment, it seems like a bit of time that I can’t find in the day.

AL               Yes, little ones are amazing.

AC              Yes.

AL               In those first few moments of the day. My three-year-old was sitting on the bench today when we were making coffee together, talking about what the clouds were doing and what he’d been doing over the weekend. And just opening up in a way that he doesn’t late at night when he’s a bit tired and cranky. I get you about the opportunity to waste in the morning.

AC              I think the most physically challenging thing I’ve done is give birth to three children, and I found that such a fascinating process. I really… Enjoyed it is a really weird word to use, but I was… I found it a really absorbing process. And I decided not to have drugs, because I was interested in that process. And I found it demanding, insanely demanding, but fascinating. Because you’re experiencing your body doing something so whacked out. It’s really, really… Yes.

AL               Childbirth’s definitely one for the stoics rather than epicureans.

AC              Right, exactly. I feel like I’ve got to come up with something in the stoic ledgers. Stick around, think I’m laying around feeding myself peeled grapes all day. Or hot chips, which is what I prefer.

AL               That segues into one of the things that’s sometimes said about Kitchen Cabinet, which is that you’re so often looking for the best in people. The standard critique of Kitchen Cabinet, which I’m sure you’ve heard a dozen times, is Annabel Crabb goes to Pauline Hanson’s house and discovers she’s a really lovely person who cooks a terrific Thai red fish curry. How…

AC              How do you know I’ve already shot that?

AL               How do you deal with that challenge of not just creating good television, but also finding a little slice of inner truth about someone you’re speaking with?

AC              Well, not everyone will like the thing that you find about them. But the idea behind the programme is to relate to this person that you see on the television as though they were a person that you were going around to have dinner with.

                   And I observe the rules that people observe when they go to someone’s house for dinner. You’re polite, you are enthusiastic to an appropriate degree about their décor and the cooking, and you want to know about them. You ask them questions about themselves and see what they say. And I’m interested in the responses.

                   I always think it’s revelatory in a different way from a normal television interview to see what people talk about when you are not a threat to them. You’re just genuinely interested and you’re asking them questions. You find out about how they see themselves, and how they’d like to see themselves. And also what they talk about when given an opportunity to talk about anything at all.

                   It is a much softer form of interviewing, but I also think that, in a democracy, no matter how much you despise Person X who’s been elected, you cannot disregard the fact they’ve been elected.

                   If you’re going to be serious about democracy, then I think it pays to be genuinely interested in anyone who is a product of that democracy, otherwise you don’t understand what the electorate’s doing. And that’s why I will never say, oh, I’m not interviewing that person on Kitchen Cabinet because I can’t bear them. Because someone’s elected them and I think if you’re going to be serious about taking democracy seriously, then you have to be equally interested in everybody that that system coughs up.

                   Not as a voter. You can absolutely put someone last. But if you’re… Particularly if you’re working for a public broadcaster, and you’re making a programme that is finding out more about politicians, then the moment that it becomes about me deciding that I don’t like that person, I don’t like that person, then it’s not really what it claims to be.

AL               Oh, I didn’t have in mind that you wouldn’t… That you’d rule people out, it’s the question to which you move on the level of pleasure and enjoyment and… Well. When it comes to culture, the stoics think that culture is about living a good life. The epicureans think culture is purely for enjoyment. So I guess it’s that mix of entertainment and news that you’re playing in.

AC              Yes, that’s true. Yes. But I often think that the snobbery about the entertainment… About combining entertainment and news can create a real… I don’t know. You’ve got people who think that politics can only be understood through the pages of the Financial Review, or whatever. You’ve got to be incredibly serious and every part of the content has to be about administering the medicine of dense policy information, or whatever. But I think that it’s worth opening whatever doors you can into the democratic process.

                   And I’ve never had a problem with politicians that go on FM radio and do all those sort of stunts that often they do around elections. Because I say, yes, right. You’re going to find the voters where they live. It’s like door knocking.

                   And so, if you make a show that’s about going into someone’s house and talking to them and maybe different people what that from the ones who would watch the 07:30 programme, then great. If someone sees something that they think is interesting about a political figure that makes them want to find out more about them, or makes them understand a bit more about why they do the things they do. Or makes them see them in a different light, then I think that’s fine. It’s not like we have limited bandwidth for coverage in this country anymore.

AL               You’ve done a huge amount through your career. You’ve basically played in all kinds of aspects of media.

AC              Like all good hedonists do.

AL               Or all good stoics. You’ve done an extraordinary amount. Is there anything where you would look back and give a piece of advice to your teenaged self?

AC              I think I would say work out whose opinion you care about and whose you don’t. That’s one of the things that I’ve probably learned over the course of my career is… I mean, seriously, if 15 years ago you’d said to the junior political journalist me, oh, one day you’ll do a show where you cook with politicians, I’d think, oh, my God, that’s just… How hackneyed. I thought you were a feminist. Also, how fluffy.

                   But I also now think that I… When I started, when I proposed the idea of Kitchen Cabinet, I thought, oh, God, it sounds like the weirdest idea and people think I’m an idiot, and increasingly I couldn’t care less about that. Some people probably still do. But I think if you find something that you think is worthwhile and you enjoy doing it, and you know that some people find helpful, then that’s a good level of satisfaction to be able to achieve.

AL               Annabel Crabb, thanks for the conversation.

AC              I’ve stuffed up really badly, haven’t I?

AL               No, that’s great. Thank you.

AC              Thanks, Andrew.

AL               Thanks for listening to today’s episode of The Good Life. If you enjoyed this programme, please rate us on iTunes. Next week in the programme, I speak with Jack Heath, perhaps the calmest man I know, about suffering, survival and the role of meditation in a good life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.