Food Night: Because One Thing Always, Always Leads to Another

Natasha and Victoria

Let’s blame it on good friend and partner in crime Natasha.  She put me up to it.

I was organising our monthly craft night, when Natasha dropped one of her typical, quiet, by-the-by bombshells. “If you want to do something similar with food,” she said, “I would be keen”.

There are plenty who know of my fondness for food and cooking.  A quick look at my figure and a guinea pig could work it out. But fewer know about my mania for organisation. Natasha is one of them. So, if you think about it, it was downright irresponsible. Roughly the equivalent of telling a convicted arsonist that someone should build some bonfires for Guy Fawkes Night or taking a kleptomaniac shopping in a coat with deep pockets.  You didn’t make them do it, but you knew darn well what would happen.

Over the years, I’ve met others who share my obsessions.  Take my former lecturer and friend Margaret. (The black and white images and salsa picture are hers).  Margaret and I shared some adventures years ago when she was researching and I studying at the same German university.  I already had a cookbook problem, but Margaret made me feel it was OK.  She suggested new titles, pointed out the possibilities for posting books home cheaply via the Bundespostsack.  We cooked together.  We ate out.  She facilitated.  Or perhaps we were simply co-dependent.

I met Stacey when she started seeing an old university friend about 15 years ago. We hit it off immediately. Something about the way she followed me out to the kitchen where we talked about this and that and family.  I knew she was one of us when she showed up at the annual New Year’s Eve party with a great slab of Kikorangi blue and Falswater crackers.  Over the years there have been countless dinners, birthdays and  holiday celebrations, one helping the other with the cooking. Often my favourite part of the evening is in the kitchen with Stacey, working amiably side by side on the menu of the day.

My sister Victoria is 12 years my junior.  We’re very different people, but at the end of the day, fruit of the same tree.  She may not take it to the same lengths (yet), but she’s been bitten by the same bug.  How many people do you know who will walk from one end of the CBD to the other just to find the better sushi place for lunch?

As for Natasha, she and I bonded over countless lunches, morning teas, piroshki making sessions and other fundraisers for the local Russian Orthodox parish.  If you’re going to put on a ball with a 5 course supper for 110 in a hall with one domestic stove and an indifferent water heater, you want Natasha with you from the planning through to the bitter end. She is a voice of reason, yet where others will reach straight for the too hard basket, Natasha never discounts a concept until we’ve worked through the possibilities.  In a world full of naysayers, this is a rare quality in a friend, and a brilliant one in a fellow foodie.

These women form the hard core of Food Night.

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Top: Natasha and Victoria with the Paella,  Above: Later at the table Stacey and Victoria

It was not as easy to arrive at a formula for Food Night as it was for Craft Night. Craft Night cohesion comes simply from togetherness.  If you don’t feel like making anything you can just hang out for the conversation.  It really doesn’t matter.

Run your foodie group without more planning and you run the risk of it turning into one of those pot luck dinners where there are 7 pasta salads, 2 rice salads and a garlic bread. You might not starve, but without some co-ordination, you’re unlikely to come away with a transcendent experience.

For now we’re doing it this way:

  • We meet once a month at one of our houses to cook and eat a meal together.
  • We have a theme for each month.  This can be a particular cuisine, ingredient, course, festival – whatever you are all interested in.  This month our theme was tapas.  The last time it was Vietnamese food.
  • You agree a menu for the night –  say everyone picks a dish. The host buys the ingredients for the meal and we split the bill.  Then only one person needs to go shopping and you avoid ending up with 4 bunches of coriander and 3 bottles of fish sauce.
  • As an optional activity to provide some inspiration (OK, so it’s an excuse), we meet for a meal earlier in the month, sharing all the dishes and thus tasting as much as we can. Dinner didn’t work for us, but we have adapted remarkably well to being ladies who lunch.

It’s a real treat to have friends from different compartments of your life together at once. Being with people who share your interest is plain liberating, then there’s another kind of familiarity that comes with doing, rather than just talking together.

We’ve started to talk about other things we might do under the Food Night umbrella as time goes on, for example a weekend away or a dinner for our closest family and friends. Who knows where this adventure will take us.

Our last tapas inspired food night menu: above left, seafood paella – not a tapas dish, but we wanted to give it another go anyway; above centre, potato and baby spinach tortilla; above right, the salsa to go with our cerviche (not pictured); below left, choux puffs with a goats cheese filling and drizzled with honey; below right, garbanzo beans (chic peas) with choritzo.

It really was a dark and stormy night.

It’s a long time since I was last ejected from a bar.

On reflection, I can’t recall it happening before, but surely I misspent sufficient youth that it must have happened, at least once.

Thursday evening, I definitely got turfed out of Havana Bar. I’d like to be able to tell you it was because my friend, Thor, picked a fight with the barman.  But in reality I was out with Thor’s mum and mums of other children in my daughter’s class. And the cause of our expulsion was that the roof had blown off Havana’s dining room, the restaurant guests were being reseated in the bar and we were out of luck.

hereisthesun-copy (2)           Havana Dining room

Left: Havana in better weather; Right: in the dining room with the offending section of roof (see skylight)

We understood, sympathised even, and, after sitting against the wall of the former worker’s cottage and feeling the force of each gust lift the whole structure up a couple of inches, or so it felt, were perhaps even relieved.

The weather hadn’t seemed that bad when we left home.  Dark?  Yes, Friday was the winter solstice in these parts.  Windy?  Yes, but it’s Wellington.  There’s a reason we have so many wind sculptures. Wet?  Also true, but none of us is made of sugar, and besides, it had taken a good number of emails to get this evening off the ground. We weren’t about to give up because of a bit of damp.  

I had not factored in how sheltered our house is.

We drove into the city around the bays. The rain, like the Zephyrometer, was horizontal,  one of my companions gaily explained how her husband had to stop and move a trampoline off the road to get home.  At traffic lights, the wind played with the car, like a kid blowing at a dead moth on a windowsill.

  zephyrometer

The Zephryometer: a bright orange wind vane.

Back out on the street, the wind was doing that thing where it kind of sucks the air right out of your mouth.  Fresh refuge was a mercifully short walk away. The Southern Cross looked warm and inviting. And it was.

Older Wellingtonians will recall the days when the Cross was a booze barn par excellence.  It was popular with students for the reasons that it was cheap and “relaxed” about age restrictions.  It was the kind of bar where the carpet was squishy and you kept a close eye on the barman to make sure he didn’t short serve your drink. It’s seen some variations since then, none terribly prepossessing.

Never my favourite spot, I haven’t been in there in over 10 years, so the place that greeted me on Thursday came as nothing but a pleasant surprise.  It was clean, warm, spacious yet still cosy.  The fire was going, and in the lounge area guests curled up with mulled wine and hot water bottles. Despite the weather and the size of the bar, it was quite full. The staff immediately found our group a corner in the dining area where we could all sit together.

An inveterate grazer, I was glad to see a range of small plates on the menu. But after last week’s steak debacle, I still had a craving to fill.

The small plates delivered to our table were attractively presented.  The larger meals were nothing fancy to look at. But my steak was indeed rare (they asked twice to check) and the cafe de Paris butter well flavoured and obliged by melting steadily over the course of the meal. No lump of meat sitting in a pool of melted butter as is sadly sometimes served. The salad was generous, fresh and, in blinding contrast to last week’s vinegar bathed travesty, subtly dressed.

The service was relaxed, friendly yet very attentive all without being overbearing, or overfamiliar.

If the place came as a surprise, there was more to come when I checked out the website later on. For me, this is a new high in family friendly.  On weekends between 10am and 2pm you can go for brunch and have your kids entertained by craft tables, toys and face painting.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays they set aside a space for parents and children to relax in the morning, with someone to keep an eye on the kids, and, if you’re still there later in the day, you can even score a free chair massage. For crafty types there’s a knitting circle on Monday nights.  

Why didn’t someone tell me about this earlier?  How could I not have known?

By the time we finished our meals and talked some more, the airport was closed, ferry sailings cancelled, trees were blowing over and we heard that 25,000 homes were without power.   Seemed like time to go home.

It was the worst storm my city has seen in my lifetime.  Roads along Wellington’s southern coast were damaged by 15 meter swells.  200kmh winds were recorded on Mount Kaukau.  The Kaitaki, a 1600 passenger ferry, broke its moorings with 50 staff on board and was eventually brought to anchor in the harbour.

Road Damage

Damage to Coastal Road

But you can’t keep a good thing down. By the next day the folks at Havana, like the rest of the city, were unphased, up and running again.   It would be a shame for something as trivial as a roof to get in the way of such a good place to while away an evening.   I’m just going to have to find another reason to get there soon.