"Even after buying 4000 containers, the shelves looked like something out of 'Hoarders'" … Chrissie Swan. Photo: Julian Kingma
So we're on the move. We sold our house a few months ago, have bought a new one and the removalists have slotted us into their schedules. That sentence rolled off my fingers and on to the keyboard in such an easy fashion it could almost be assumed that the last four months have not been an unmitigated hell. Oh, they have! But they are behind us and we're on our way.
We had most of our life in storage already, but the bits and pieces still in our house had to be moved by someone - that is, me - and frankly I was overwhelmed by the task. The smallest things filled me with anxiety. For example, peering into the fruit bowl, I noticed the contents were: one wizened lime, three bread tags, a toy, 25 cents in change, a tube of cold-sore cream, a pacifier (out of action for a year) and two sachets of artificial sweetener.
Not so different from what you'd find in any house, I'm sure. BUT HOW DO YOU PACK THESE THINGS? It made me almost nauseous to realise I had to touch all this ... stuff. All of it. Every piece. I had to touch it and wrap it in something and put it in a box and classify it in some way with a texta word and then move on and touch some more ... stuff. And repeat this exercise until there was no more stuff in the house. Coffee was needed.
Instead, I hatched a plan: I'd go on a throwing-out frenzy. And, given it was garbage night and I had the room to spare in the wheelie bin AND my baby was snoozing, I decided to tackle the pantry first.
Bottom shelf was cans. I gave them a cursory glance and threw out the evaporated milk. I did this because I have recently become friends with some really Italian Italians. They're the real deal. And I'm sorry, but YOU tell them I've toyed with the idea of using evaporated milk in my once-a-year carbonara to save seven grams of fat. And while you're at it, make room in your bed for a horse's head. So tinned milk = gone.
On to the other four shelves, which had been a hotchpotch of categories for the past year or so. It drove my partner mad, but I just couldn't keep any order in there. Even after buying a label writer and 4000 containers with lids, it still looked like something from the TV show Hoarders.
The first thing I saw were packets of unopened gluten-free crackers, and I started to smile. I never expected it, but what started as a massive cull ended as a nice walk down memory lane. The gluten-free stage!
Into the green garbage bag went gluten-free crackers, weird yellow penne and a bag of self-raising flour/concrete. I clearly remember buying all that stuff (and more) after reading an article about wheat being evil and making us all fat. Seems the key to staying thin was stocking up on gluten-free food ... because it was inedible. And if you couldn't actually eat your dinner, chances were you were going to come in under your daily kilojoule limit. But, ah, the memories!
Let's move on to the authentic Asian cooking phase, shall we? Healthy! Flavoursome! Hell, there's no reason a chubby white woman can't turn out the same food as a seasoned Asian chef! Tucked away at the back of the pantry, I found a significant stash of products I had originally had to drive a long way to find. Not only that, I had to buy them from people who didn't understand me, nor care for my custom. Here was someone who'd watched a doco on Vietnamese street food and thought she was the next Luke Nguyen.
After spending $75 on exotic ingredients, I took 16 hours to create two bowls of pho. Still smarting, I scowled the next week when I saw someone happily exiting a shop swinging a takeaway bag FULL OF BUCKETS OF PHO for $8. So I opened that garbage bag for the leftover star anise, rock sugar, cassia bark and little squares of muslin. From now on I'd get my pho in a bowl made by someone who had a clue.
Added to that bag were two unopened packets of fried shallots, some Chinese chilli oil (like applying a salve of battery acid and bee venom to my tongue) and a half-used bottle of shao hsing wine (a must-have if you were to recreate MasterChef Alvin's drunken chicken – don't pretend you didn't try it, too).
My favourite thing I found was a hexagonal jar of pureed chestnuts and a matching bag of chestnut flour. I decided, as you do, that a chestnut layer cake would be my "thing". And I did make it. Twice. It took four hours each time, and it was unbelievably delicious. The ingredients were so special I could only buy them online direct from the farm that grew the chestnuts. The effort!
Really, this cake was the equivalent of an IVF baby. It was planned. It was wanted. There'd be no mistakes with a chestnut layer cake. And as I took stock of my life – busy busy busy now and busy busy busy on the horizon – I thought, "I'm never going to have the time to spend four hours on a chestnut layer cake ever again."
I couldn't bring myself to bin the puréed chestnut, so I put it back in the pantry. It's now my "aspirational puréed chestnut". I know that when that jar is gone, I will have found either some sanity ... or a single friend with the time to make me that chestnut layer cake.
This article first appeared in Sunday Life.