I often feel a bit weird about the love I have for a literary character called The Anteater. He’s a pretty content little guy, whose life revolves around ant and strawberry milkshakes, practising the yo-yo, and hoping someone will one day pay him to be really good at the yo-yo. I was fairly delighted, then, when his creator, author Christina Neuwirth, agreed to be on Marbles Happy Things Live. Not only that, but Rita was psyched to interview her, so I got to sit back, relax and enjoy a conversation I knew would be thoughtful, moving and funny.
Read on to learn more about Christina and her happy thing. Just don’t blame me if you get hungry.
Rita: Tell us your happy thing.
Christina: My happy thing is and always has been, but more so now, cooking and baking food for myself and for the people around me, and then eating that food.
R: All glorious things. There’s something interesting you said specifically: making food, not just for yourself, but for others. Tell us about the joy you find in that.
C: I live with my partner and we share the cooking pretty equally, but I just get such a thrill when he thinks we have nothing left in the house, me then going into every single cupboard, then managing to make something. That sense of being resourceful. To me, that’s something I’ve always done and I learned it from my mum and my granny: using odds and ends that are around. He’s more a cookbook user. That’s a kind of magic. I feel very excited when I manage to make something from a cupboard that feels empty.
R: Learning how to cook from scraps and odds and ends in your kitchen and you maximising it is so valuable right now during the ’Rona.
C: All the stakes are so heightened. Something you said in the caption of the last post on your personal Instagram was about your mum having a purpose for every carrot. That’s how I feel as well. I really related to that sense of having a plan or a purpose for every single carrot in my fridge.
R: No carrot left behind. What’s the dish you’re most proud of that you’ve cobbled up from nothing.
C: A lot of the time, I’ll just be looking through recipe videos, and every now and then something will come up, they’ll list the ingredients, and all these lights will go off in my head and I’ll be like, ‘I have this!’ or, ‘I could improvise something from that.’ The thing that was the most surprisingly delicious was bucatini, but I used spaghetti with garlic-fried breadcrumbs. It was meant to be charred, but it was frozen spinach that I used. There were all these substitutions. It’s an Andy Baraghani recipe, obviously. I was so proud. It was one of those things that was so much more than the sum of its parts. I could’ve eaten the whole thing of breadcrumbs on their own.
R: I recently made Alison Roman’s cauliflower pasta and it was the same thing.
C: How was it?
R: It was amazing. I burnt the shallots a tiny bit, but that’s not her fault. It’s exactly what you were saying: the sum of its parts. It’s just random breadcrumbs that you have, random pasta that you have, and it becomes this wonderful dish. It must have such a calming effect knowing that you have that superpower. You can find food wherever you are.
C: I also just don’t like going to the shops. So if I don’t have to, I won’t. That’s the way I prefer to cook, to see how long I can leave it until the next shop. Whereas now, obviously, it’s a similar situation, but it’s so completely flipped on its head. The reason I’m not going to the shops as often isn’t that I can’t be bothered, there are other reasons now.
R: There used to be a time where I would play this game where I had a guest for dinner, and I would tell them to go into my kitchen and assemble some ingredients and I would cook something from it. Now it feels as though it’s constantly that game on repeat, but it’s not my choice.
You also told me about your favourite breakfast, but it’s a multi-meal thing.
C: My partner knows that when I’m very upset, this is the thing I want to eat. I think it’s four components: It’s mashed potatoes, because potatoes are the food of the heart. Baked beans. And then some steamed broccoli and some veggie sausages. And when I told Rita this the other day, Rita basically said it’s a fry-up, but mashed and with broccoli.
R: The more I think about it, it does make sense. Broccoli is the thing that gives it the veggie factor, so it’s not just protein. It makes it balanced. And I loved it so much that ever since you mentioned it, all I could think of was mash and what could I eat with mashed potatoes.
C: I went on a student exchange to Denmark when I was doing my undergrad, and I didn’t know that many people, and it was quite a lonely time. It was coming up to springtime in Denmark, but it was still snowy and very cold. I felt really alone with a lot of the emotions I was feeling. I would feel kind of angry or upset and I just wouldn’t know what to do with those feelings. Basically, anything that is the texture of baby food has a comforting effect on me. So I would eat a lot of porridge and a lot of mashed potatoes and a lot of plain risotto.
R: For a lot of people, their comfort comes from tastes or the other senses, like familiar flavours or things that look familiar, but for you it’s texture. Does texture play a lot in the food you like? You mentioned that you had Andy Baraghan’s bucatini with breadcrumbs and that’s a lot of different textures there. Is that something you enjoy?
C: I think so. Tonight we had the Nigella Lawson sesame and peanut noodles. They’re so good. I think it was Laura Waddell who posted about them on Instagram, and I trust all of her food opinions. I’ve been making them for a couple of years. I’ve made them a lot in the ’Rona because you just need to use a lot of store cupboard sauces. But it’s every single texture you want. It’s chewy from the rice noodles, and it’s soft, and it’s got a sauce to it, and it’s crunchy, and it has vegetables.
R: One of my luxury food purchases lately is a one-kilogram tub of peanut butter, so this would be an excellent use for it. Do you have any luxury purchases or special purchases you’ve made lately?
C: I’ve been buying a lot of blueberries. They feel like a treat. I’m not sure why, but they do. So I put them in the freezer and I eat frozen blueberries.
One of the other things I enjoy about cooking and eating food is that I feel there’s a real connection to me with the people who taught me certain recipes. I had a chance to write about that for the Nasty Women anthology a couple of years ago. I’m from Austria and there’s a lot of flavours and textures from home that I can’t really get here. You can’t get the kind of really hard rye sourdough, where the crust is so difficult to get through, but once you bite through the crust, there’s just glorious soft bread. There are a lot of different things from home I haven’t eaten in a long time, or that I choose not to eat anymore, and therefore I can’t get that emotional experience anymore. I’ve been really enjoying teaching myself recipes that I’ve eaten or heard about but never made myself.
R: I’m the same. I’ve been more homesick lately, and I’ve been taking out that homesickness in the food I make. You’re right, it is something you associate with memories of certain people in your life. And it makes you feel very much closer to them in a way. Are there any other ways memory plays with the type of food you make?
C: I have one pasta dish I made when I went to Leeds last year to house sit for a pal. She was preparing for a show at the Fringe and she needed somebody to stay with her cat in her house, and I had some uni work to do, so I went. I made a pasta alla Norma. Whenever I make it now, all I think about is that house in Leeds with the creepiness of ‘I’m alone in a stranger’s home’, but also the comfort of having made this meal for myself and I can feel the comfort in taking the time, making the meal, sitting down, and not feeling so alone.
R: And pasta alla Norma, for people who are not familiar with it, is a dish of pasta, tomatoes or tomato sauce, fried eggplant and capers. It’s one of those dishes that doesn’t seem like it takes time, but it does. You have to wait for the eggplants to sweat out all of their liquid, so it take a lot of time. Do you think there’s something meditative about that sort of labour-intensive food?
C: Especially frying eggplants, you just can’t rush it. The payoff from taking your time is so disproportionate to the time it takes to fry them. I do have a distinct memory of last year when I did a research internship in Melbourne. I was living with other people, and the kitchen was always quite busy, so I never felt that comfortable spending a lot of time in there. I didn’t know them that well, and it’s always a high-traffic zone. And again, I was asked to house sit for somebody with a cat – a theme in my life. In that place, it was the first time I felt fine to make something that would require me to stay in the kitchen for a longer period of time. I made a Thai curry with aubergine, and taking the time to fry each of the vegetables separately was possible for me there, whereas it didn’t feel that possible for me in the other place, just because of how I was feeling.
R: I think there’s also something you touched on in that, which is food as comfort, not just for yourself, but reflecting your comfort for other people. You cook for people you’re comfortable with, and you sometimes can’t eat in front of people you’re not comfortable with. Can you talk about that?
C: My first time visiting the UK was when I was 14. We went to Eastbourne for a week and I stayed with a host family. I was so nervous the first night that I couldn’t eat the peas. I think part of me felt I had to eat everything really properly, with a knife and fork, like I wouldn’t ask for a spoon to eat the peas. It was also the first house I’d been to that had carpets in all the rooms. I didn’t grow up with a lot of carpet around in Austria. Every single bite I would take of the peas, I would shake so much from being so nervous in this new environment that I would make it halfway to my mouth with the peas and they would then scatter onto the floor into the deep rug of the carpet. It made me really nervous. I do have a tendency of being quite shaky around people, and so I think that, for me, eating around somebody is a sign that I feel comfortable. If I’m able to make the journey of the cup of coffee from the saucer to my mouth, we’re good.
After this, Christina introduces listeners to her Anteater zine, a very sweet tale of the Anteater, who lives a gentle life filled with joyful moments.
Christina also reads from her wonderful novella, Amphibian, which is about a young woman working in an office which is slowly being filled with water as a means to increase productivity.
You can buy The Anteater here
And Amphibian here
For more about Christina, visit her website