Tracksuits and Shiitakes.

My first instinct in exploring where my interest in food originates is
to look to my family, and there are possibly dozens of stories I could
tell that relate my food journey to them. Perhaps it’s that I have been
feeling wistful and nostalgic for my University days at WAAPA, or that I
have been thinking silly romantic thoughts, seeing and writing about
Romeo and Juliet (the ballet, in particular) that my memories have
instead turned to a short, but important friendship from the past. The
story is only marginally food related, but bear with me. I do believe
that the most subtle of influences can make all the difference in the
shaping of a life and a passion.

Second year at the WA Academy of Performing Arts where I completed a
Diploma in Performing Arts (Dance) was tumultuous to put it mildly. It
was a year of injury, self doubt and self discovery, the changing nature
of friendships and a loss of innocence. The beginning of the year always
comes with the reuniting of friends and lovers, interstate students such
as myself arriving back with only days to spare before classes begin.
There would be many familiar faces to greet, but performing arts brings
high drop out rates and many don’t return. Similarly, strange new faces
appear and intrigue us. Charles was one such face.

Already a practising architect, Charles had come to WAAPA to study, what
was it now? Arts Management? I know he was interested in the Directors
course that only accepted one student each year, but he had come to
study something else entirely and then weirdly, as he had no training,
fell into the Dance course and as a result, into my company. We danced
together and even collaborated on an Artrage festival project:

He had come from a town in Northern Queensland, on Shakespeare Street,
I’ll not soon forget, and had the strangest English accent that made
“husband” and “muscles” sound like “hoosband” and “moosles”. He also
said, “yeah?” at the end of sentences, which some would now find
irritating as hell, but I then thought was so cool. He wore his hair
long in a plait down his back, had a high forehead and a big smile. He
always gestured expansively with his hands, rode a pushy with a basket
on the front and wore tracksuits. All. The. Time. Which looked
positively ridiculous on his broad shouldered, narrow hipped frame. But
he carried it somehow. These days he would have been called a hipster.
But he was just Charles.

I don’t have a memory of how the friendship came about. It wasn’t just
me, but a group of my dancer friends that he fell in with, but I do
remember that we spent a lot of time together. Here’s where the food
comes in, thanks for sticking around.

As is often the case as a student, leases finish, friendships and
relationships end, people leave and moving house is common. In almost 10
years living in Perth I moved house more than 13 times. Charles was the
same and my memory of his houses blur into one now, but they were mostly
within walking distance and I would find myself there on a weekend
evening, or a Sunday afternoon. We would often cook together, or rather,
in those days, we would talk in his kitchen while I watched him cook. He
would have a shelf or mantle lined with old coffee jars filled with
things I’d never seen. Whole spices, strange tea, and the thing I most
remember, dried shiitake mushrooms. I remember watching him tumble a
small handful into an earthenware bowl, cover with boiling water (from a
stovetop kettle, of course) and wait for them to plump up before
removing their stalks and slicing the fragrant things into whatever
delicious stir fry or other amazing dish he was preparing for us. He
showed me how to use the liquor, carefully avoiding the gritty sediment,
to boost the flavour in the dish.

He used dried apricots in his apricot chicken in place of the sloppy
canned variety, and it was with him that I first saw someone cut the
lobes off a capsicum and slice the vegetable lengthways. Before that, I
am sorry to admit, I used to chop the poor creature cross-ways and
clumsily hack the rings into pieces. I would sometimes trot after him to
a continental store or local market and watch him buy a small, strange
assortment of things - fresh pasta and bread, some soft cheese, a herb
of some sort, then watch him team it all with what he had in his pantry
or refrigerator and whip up something astounding. We both had big
appetites and I remember that his food always tasted wonderful.

I would help him prepare for house parties, making mulled wine by
throwing orange peel, cinnamon sticks, cloves and brandy in with
whatever cheap boxed wine our student budgets could afford. We would
spend our nights watching foreign films, eating weird chocolate and
drinking wine or real coffee. Sometimes we listened to Prince. And
always conversation. He had a unique way of looking at things, and found
beauty in the strangest of places. He was the kind of person to collect
a rusty nail and a coin from a building site and find a way to display
it that looked beautiful. He would carry a note book around and found
people, things and buildings intensely interesting. I’m making him sound
like a wanker, but he wasn’t.

He gave me unexpected advice about the most difficult of subjects, and
surprised me at every turn. One Sunday afternoon I ended up on his door
step unannounced after a particularly difficult evening when I had no
one else to turn to and he invited me in for home made pizza which we
ate in the garden while we talked about sex and relationships. Everyone
should have a friend like this at some time of their life. I suppose I
loved him in my 19 year old way, but he was much older than I and would
have sensed my naivete and inexperience. I supposed I must have held
some fascination for him too, but it never ventured beyond friendship.
Typically he fell in love with one of my best friends, and while our
friendship remained, it was never quite the same.

Although I stayed in Perth many more years to work professionally,
Charles came and went with my friend, and alone to Tasmania, China and
to the UK. Here’s a postcard he sent me from his travels;

He opened with this:

*"This is a photo of you, Angela. I can tell you from the others on the
street by your eyeliner that holds up the lantern. Or is it the tail of
your handwriting?"*He wrote to me from bookshops and beaches, and we
kept in touch, until we didn’t anymore.

I caught up with him in London years ago, this same friend and I slept
in his insanely tiny loft we had to stoop to move around in and we
reminisced about old times. He had cut his hair and wore non tracksuit-y
type clothes, but he was just the same. We had less than 4 days in
London and I think we had planned to spend a night drinking whisky and
talking shit, but my friend convinced me to go to Soho to have a dull
dinner with someone I didn’t care for. I still regret that.

I’ve often thought of trying to contact him. I still have his parents
address and I know he has a FaceBook account, but I am a stubborn old
bint, and refuse to join that club. He would probably get a kick out of
reading this. I would ask him if he wanted his flatmates copy of Vladmir
Nabokov’s Lolita that he “lent” me (it’s falling apart now) or the LP
of Head on a Door by the Cure back. I would tell him that I still
slice my capsicums lengthways, that I use dried apricots in lots more
than just apricot chicken and I always keep a coffee jar full of dried
shiitake mushrooms in the pantry. I would thank him for teaching me that
the kitchen is for talking, creating, teaching and learning and that
food can be the gateway to conversation and friendship.