Illustration from Bad Manners website (aka Thug Kitchen)
Illustration from Bad Manners website (aka Thug Kitchen)

If ever a person had the ability to make tenuous links, it would be me. There are so many books about food: What to eat? How to eat it? Is it right for your blood type? Will it give you a condition hitherto unknown to medicine? 

In the era of over thinking I’ve decided not to overthink it and will concentrate on the weird and wonderful books that pop into my head when I think about food.

I’d better start with an actual cookbook. The one I use most, from before Alexandra Tylee wrote Egg & Spoon and made food fun and easy again, is Thug Kitchen. It’s swearily irreverent and funny and includes pictures of dogs doing a bit of skulking, begging and sniffing. The food is all vegan before vegan was cool and its philosophy is that it would be a good idea to feed our bodies delicious things that are good for it and quick to make instead of takeaway food that actually hates us. 

The vibe is spicy and colourful and flicking through my copy I see that the most stained pages are the Pumpkin Chili (the pureed pumpkin makes this taste like it has a litre of cream swished through it) and the Mango Curry in which one of the instructions is to huff in that goddamn delicious smell just as you add garlic, ginger and red curry paste to your veggies. Excellent advice as it turns out.

An interesting point of note is that the brains behind the TK brand are taking a bit of a look at themselves, their website stating that they originally wanted their name to “signal their brand’s grit in the otherwise polished and elitist food scene”. They’re re-evaluating the term thug in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. 

Now for my next dish. I’ll hide this one away in the middle because, although it’s completely about food it’s kind of … unusual. Hangman is the first in a series of novels by Australian author Jack Heath in which we meet Timothy Blake, an FBI consultant with a societally unacceptable palate. 

Timothy is brilliant at finding lost children and connecting clues and has a marvellously pointy moral compass, but he secretly indulges a deviant behaviour that turns the strongest of stomachs. This deviancy (you’re worried now, aren’t you) is rooted in his own childhood trauma and has led him to crave things for dinner that he finds difficult to acquire. A deal is struck with the bloke in charge of his FBI department; Timmy will use his considerable deductive powers for the good of America in return for…um…snacks. He doesn’t have to commit any crimes in order to feed himself, but things start to get a bit complicated. 

Hangman – and its sequels Hunter and Hideout – present us with a dilemma. How can we like Timothy so much – he’s kind, funny and self-deprecating – when society deems him a monster? These are tasty crime novels, bits of which you gleefully read with your hand over one eye. 

The Chilling Effect could be about refrigerated food, right? It’s not, but it’s a great story. 

This novel, by Valerie Valdes, is a comic space opera with a lot of action and some fabulously edgy humour. Think Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without all the standing about waiting for the disaster to be over.

In this novel, Captain Eva Innocente is the disaster. She’s got herself a great ship, she loves her crew to bits and she’s going on the straight and narrow after getting up to some pretty dodgy stuff. She’s in denial about her feelings for her engineer and her biggest problem is that the psychic cats she’s trying to deliver to the next planet keep hypnotising the crew and escaping. Then, disaster strikes! Eva’s sister is kidnapped and in order to get her back she must offer up her skills on some deadly and not too legal missions. 

The food bit in this novel, which is actually quite a minor part but one I thought quite cool, is that the ship has one of those brilliant machines like in the old TV series Red Dwarf, where you can ask it to make you any meal and it just will. 

NB – there’s a fabulous Aotearoa NZ novel in which the hero ends up pulling a large fridge around Wellington with her – it’s called The Ice Shelf and it’s by Anne Kennedy. It’s marvellously madcap and I very much wanted it to win the Ockham NZ Book Awards prize for fiction, but it didn’t. 

The Nature Activity Book by Rachel Haydon is genius and has a whole list of ‘food items’ at the front that you might need whilst getting busy. Wonderfully illustrated throughout by Pippa Keel, it makes you want to go outside and be a waewae kai kapua – an adventurer! 

It’s a book that has had a great deal of thought put into it and is specific to the landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand and the flora and fauna that is uniquely ours. There’s a whole section where we can use food for all sorts of things, including dyeing fabric (turmeric, beetroot, mint, red cabbage) and to see how polluted water gets into our food. There’s a bit about what birds eat with their differently shaped beaks and how we can attract them to our gardens with … you guessed it … food. Seasonal eating, Maramataka (the Māori lunar calendar), plant-based eating, egg carton seedlings – it’s all here. 

There’s a beautiful activity about sensing nature where you have to sit still and name things you can see, touch, smell, hear and taste. It’s technically a book for children, but we could all use a bit of this mindfulness, this (re)connection to nature, this sense of kaitiakitanga. 

It’s amazing how everything is connected to food. Whether you want to create a bug hotel, improve your expletive vocabulary whilst cooking dinner, or discover more than you ever wanted to know about anthropophagy, it’s all sandwiched between the pages of richly sauced tomes. What a wordy feast. 


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