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Garden of Eating

Garden of Eating

WORDS BY GRACE JOHNSON

We all remember our first time. I remember the first piano piece I truly loved. I remember the name of the first horse I rode. I remember the first time I bought a book with the coins from my piggy bank.

And then there are first times I don’t like to remember. Those first times came later and were not all that pleasant. But I do remember the first time I truly adored someone, and it is the food we ate that tells the story.

It was by chance that we ever met. Anthony was forbidden from the start. He was the best friend of someone I had once loved. It hurt people and we knew it but we could not stop it.

It was my first time yielding to hedonistic impulses. I had never even felt such urges before. I was taught not to feel them. I was taught what happened to Eve. I suppose the same thing happened to me in the end. We were told of the temptation but we were never told how good the forbidden fruit must have tasted.

But I can tell you. It was over three courses.

I wore red lipstick and his leather jacket over my shoulders in the al fresco area of the Felix at Angel Place. There was a curious mix of Australian and French accents. Anthony almost convinced me that the waiters’ French accents were put on to “enhance the experience.”

I looked at the well-dressed women with their husbands and felt uncivilized.

Anthony smiled at me across the sheen of the cutlery and the bright smoothness of the white linen. The earring on his right ear reflected the warm light from inside. The tattoos on his arms showed when his sleeves moved.

The menu was almost entirely in French. The thought of ordering French dishes made me look downwards and press my lips shut. Anthony smiled again but now only with his eyes. I felt myself give him my hand. He would lead me through this and what we were doing.

“We’ll have a full portion of the steak tartare to start,” he said. His voice was so sure that I felt small and new to the world, and my world was so very different to his.

But maybe the worlds of music and food are not so different, I thought. They are both sensual. They are both indescribable. Neither food nor music requires explanation, only the experience.

The steak tartare was coming.

“Food is not the same as music,” he said. I had been wondering aloud.

“It must be. It is all sensory. You lose yourself in it, even if just for a moment. But then again, you always lose yourself in the ephemeral.

“Yes, but you must admit that music is something else. It is something beyond all that we know. All that we have here, on this table and between us, is just earthly delights. Music is beyond.”

But you cannot share an experience of music in the same way you can share a plate of food.

The waiter placed the tartare between us with a bowl of sourdough croutons, diced pickles and onions, and three types of mustard. He topped the water glasses and left.

There had been an evening at the Conservatorium where the main hall was empty and Anthony sat on a chair on the stage next to the piano, a nine-foot Fazioli, and I had played for him. I had shown him everything I had within me. He had said he was in a trance. Now he was showing me something new.  

 

“It’s raw,” I said.

“Yes.”

“There’s an egg yolk on top.”

“Yes.”

“Also raw.”

“Yes, it is raw.”

I stared. His eyes crinkled on the side.

“Here,” he said. “I’ll make one for you.”  

He mixed the yolk into the mound of raw steak. The yellow shininess of the yolk coated the fresh redness of the steak. He took a piece of sourdough and spread the yellow mustard with a spoon. He took a spoonful of meat next and pinched the pickles and onions and, rubbing two fingers, sprinkled them on top.

“Try.”

His eyes were daring and encouraging me at the same time. I felt the waiter watching.     

Go on, I said to myself. You said you felt uncivilized. Well go on and try something civilized for once.

I bit half off. I chewed slowly. The mustard was sharp and the pickles were sweet. The onion was piercing and the meat was round and soft.

It was new to taste fully. I searched for each flavour and tried to taste them alone and together and in different combinations. It was like hearing a chord and trying to hear each note, then hearing the layers of sound.   

 

And only one combination, I thought. There are the other mustards to try, with or without onions and pickles, or with one and not the other, and with less or more meat, and next time I could try it with the sliced baguette on the table, and oh, good, there is wine coming. It is a Riesling from Alsace, Anthony tells me, and oh, how good the tartare tastes with the wine, and how exciting it all is to taste something new, newer each time, the taste never going and always getting better.

 

“Well, I have been playing music my whole life,” I said, continuing what we had been saying before, “and I can tell you there is nothing more I enjoy than this food and this wine right now.”

“I am glad. I will show you my pleasures and you will show me your music.”

I knew we would have a good life. We would eat well and drink well, and go to places where no one knew us. We would have a good life all to ourselves, away from the others.

 

I remembered sitting with him outside the first night we met. He told me about how Natasha had broken his heart. I told him about how Carl had broken mine.

Anthony had given me something and I was feeling differently. My head was spinning and I couldn’t sit straight. He was talking but I wanted to be closer to him. I tried to show it with my eyes but he kept on talking. I wanted to do more with him and I told him. He smiled. He knew what I meant.

“It is a nice thing to say,” he said, his hands holding the sides of my face. “’I want to do more with you.’ I am feeling the same,” and kissed me. “Is it because of what I have given you? Or the feeling is true.”

“No. It is real. With or without what you gave me.”

“Good,” he said. He began to look shy and he said it was because no one had looked at him the way I was looking at him.

“Let’s go somewhere else.”

The waiter came to clear the table.

“Did you enjoy that?”

“Great,” said Anthony.

“Yes,” I agreed.

“Where are your oysters from? I’ve heard there’s a lovely nutty taste to them.”

The waiter started on the difference between Sydney rock oysters and Pacific oysters. I looked over to the boy at the oyster bar. He was shucking the shells steadily behind a moat of ice cubes. I heard Anthony order a few of both types.

“You are trying many new things tonight,” the waiter said to me. “It is good. I like this spirit. It is good to try new things.”

It was busier in the restaurant now and the voices of the diners were accompaniment to the sound of Anthony’s voice. There was a red glow that came from inside the restaurant. The lamps glowed yellow. I watched the bartenders as we waited for the oysters.

Later that night we were in a bar in a suburb off Oxford Street that I did not know, and where no one knew us. We were sitting close together and I wasn’t feeling my body much. There was a soft dark light coming from behind the bottles and the bartenders were pouring liquids of misty green and orange-red. I was watching everything and he pulled my chin back to him softly with two fingers. I felt so much that I had to sit and feel it and look at only one thing so that everything else would stop spinning. I did not know what he was saying. I did not know what music was playing. I was feeling, feeling the smooth burning of the absinthe dripping down my throat as my hand gripped the cool wetness of a new drink. I was feeling something between us and be trying to resist despite wanting it badly, feeling he was doing the same, feeling the resistance get stronger as we got closer and the wanting was more and, finally, I felt my lips warmed by his and felt more and more as the lipstick went and there was only skin, and wanting there to be no barriers, just us and us and us and nothing else, and no, darling, don’t you want this, no matter the wine and absinthe, and don’t you feel heavenly and don’t you feel civilized with these coupe glasses, and couldn’t you just live in this moment for always and never go? Yes, love, now, now, have me now, angel, now and for all the nows to come. Wanting now, resisting now, having now.

The oysters arrived on a silver platter of crushed ice. I was not as shocked by the rawness now. The newness was becoming familiar.

Anthony showed me to loosen the flesh with a fork and squeeze a few drops from the lemon wedges, perhaps a teaspoonful of vinaigrette. He showed me to tilt your head back and let the oyster slide from its shell with the liquid. This time there was no hesitation. I did not stop to chew and it went straight down. It was a strange feeling and I was not sure about the taste but the new sensation was a taste in itself and I was enjoying it very much.

With the next few oysters came a strong taste of the sea. The cold Riesling took away some of the metallic taste and I enjoyed the difference between the thick texture of the flesh and the crispness of the wine. I knew my father would call me pretentious for thinking such thoughts, he who ate canned salmon with biscuits and tomatoes most meals, but I felt I had achieved something. It was the taste of something so strange and new that it felt forbidden. It was so unusual and exciting that it had to be. It was a moment of newness—cold, fresh, and almost alive.

I knew we would have a good life. We would eat well and drink well, and go to places where no one knew us. We would have a good life all to ourselves, away from the others.

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Later we were in the darkness again but with our bodies together now, with his back tense and arms tight and the feeling in my legs loose. I was seeing colours in the back of my eyes in the high moments, feeling all there was to feel. I felt faint with how deeply I felt for him and a part of myself went out to him and for once I was not be scared about it being lost in someone else.

“Oh,” he said, “it feels so good when I am loving you. Everything that I felt watching you play came forth just then. When I am with you, I am under a spell, especially when I am loving you.”

Anthony ordered again.

The main course was not as exciting as the first. I had the gnocchi with tomatoes, corn and goat’s curd, washed down with a glass of red wine. He had the lamb leg. Dessert was a coconut parfait with passion fruit. It was all very nice but familiar. The excitement and novelty of the tartare and the oysters did not come with the rest. But it was still very nice. Fading, but nice.

Anthony ended things soon after. He went back to taking things to make him feel differently. He came to feel differently about me. I saw him again when he gave back my books. I don’t think he read them. He looked much smaller, ashamed of what he had done to me, or to his friend, or to the girl he betrayed to see me. I didn’t know how much it had hurt Natasha. But I knew how it hurt me now. I remember thinking I saw him crossing the street and feeling sick and hollow inside, missing the feeling I had when I was with him and sorry I could not find it anywhere else. But he could not help chasing new sensations. I remember at the end he had said to me, “I have my pleasures. You have your music.”

Several months later I went back to the Felix. I felt the empty feeling leave as I sipped the cold liquid from the oyster shells as I sat in a corner booth, alone for the first time.

 

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