Annabel Crabb has a word for the ‘panicky shoving-of-things in cupboards’ behavior that happens the moment the doorbell rings—when your friends, who were instructed to come over for dinner at seven-thirty, have actually, arrived at seven-thirty. And though you asked these nice people over, because you do, in fact, genuinely enjoy their company, you cannot help but curse them under your breath for being punctual friends.
This frenzied state is what Crabb calls “crydying”. It could include hissing at your kids to set the table with the good china, and fast. And, it might involve glaring at your spouse—an obvious telepathic message to plunge the still room-temp bottles of white wine into the freezer, pronto.
If any part of this scenario sounds familiar, Special Guest: Recipes for the happily imperfect host, the new cookbook from Crabb and her London-based best friend, Wendy Sharpe, is for you. It’s the antithesis of the competitive culinary show offs on TV cooking shows—excluding the British Bake Off, of course. Though Crabb is mighty fond of a fiddly dish, Special Guest celebrates the idea that cooking for others is meant to be an act of generosity and joy. One that needn’t be elaborate or stressful. Crabb and Sharpe share time-saving hacks for entertaining with down-right delicious recipes to ensure we don’t let life get in the way of sharing good food with our nearest and dearest.
“One of the great things about writing this book with Wendy is that we had the same childhood in the Adelaide Plains,” says Crabb, who remembers making spanakopita together and experimenting with slices after school. “In many ways the recipes that we chose or developed were like a little code between us, like going through a school year book.”
One dish in the book called ‘BBC’, is inspired by an edamame, marinated bean curd and pickled cabbage staple at Ying Chow, a beloved late-night Chinese restaurant in Adelaide, where all the dishes are written on sheets of paper taped to the wall. “Wendy decided to reverse engineer that sucker because she lives in London and can’t get it anymore,” says Crabb. “Wendy played a blinder on that one. It makes me remember all the times we’ve eaten there together.”
Special Guest is their second book, written largely via email from their respective sides of the world. Besides collaborating with her best friend, writing about food was deeply pleasurable for Crabb and a change of pace from her previous authored books. The Wife Drought, The Rise of Ruddbot: Observations From the Gallery and Stop at Nothing about Malcolm Turnbull, have revolved largely around political issues, gender equality and politicians themselves. “Politics is so full of subjectivity and people have radically different recollections of the same meeting or set of circumstances, so if you’re trying to record a political moment for history you have to interview ten people to get what you think is the closest approximation to a fair account of what happened. Usually no one is happy with that account,” says Crabb. “No one gets as riled up about a recipe.”
Crabb is fond of turning expectations on their head. Her hit-series Kitchen Cabinet, was just as much about food and interviewing as it was about context. “I think the context in which you have a conversation with someone is overwhelmingly important,” says Crabb who is excited by how people’s behavior changes in different situations, particularly in their own home, cooking dinner, compared to the bright lights of a TV studio. “I like to do long interviews, preferably with a bottle of wine, so there’s space to talk through their defense mechanisms.”
Crabb’s always seeking to get beyond the political rhetoric with her subjects, drawing out their thoughts on the things they haven’t thought through yet and the things they didn’t know they wanted to say. “Food is a part of that equation because it’s such a uniting human need,” says Crabb. In an individual’s brain, food is associated with disclosure, friendliness and respect—an association Crabb uses to her advantage. Though she’s been criticized for the polite format of the show. “I’m not going to barge in and kick things around and call them a bastard and a hypocrite because they’ve said one thing and now they’re saying a different thing,” laughs Crabb. She believes she gained a lot from the trust inherent in sharing a plate of food with someone.
“I’m always interested in hearing people’s reasons for believing in the things they believe,” says Crabb. “I would make a terrible politician because I’m full of doubts as a person. I don’t have super strident views.” Crabb describes herself as someone who’s likely to listen to both sides of an argument and then say, “Hmmm, I see what you both mean”. “Though I’d be a rubbish politician, I think these things make me a good journalist because I’m interested in all sides of a story.” She’s particularly fascinated by how we’re all born without preordained beliefs. Then, bam, 40 years later there’s a group of people in politics and they’re usually passionately divided. How did they come to hold those opposing views? What life experiences got them there?
“I would make a terrible politician because I’m full of doubts as a person.”
“People can say they find politics boring or that it excludes them but I think most people are a bit interested in politics when you get talking to them,” says Crabb. The historic swing in the Wentworth by-election towards Independent Dr. Kerryn Phelps, away from the Liberal Party’s Dave Sharma, was a stunning reminder of the power of people’s political engagement. It was also an example of how democracy was designed to work: if you’re unsatisfied with local leadership and the parties they stand for, your vote does have the power to boot them out of office.
“For politicians, Democracy is supposed to be about compromise and sitting down with people you don’t agree with, listening to their point of view and working out how you can work together for the sake of the county,” says Crabb. “But that’s something we’ve lost with the two main parties, who are more concerned about getting re-elected.” People looking to punish these parties and signal how fed up they are, are looking for alternatives like Phelps.
Perhaps politicians should take a leap out of Crabb’s book. If there’s a common through-line to the projects Crabb takes on, it is, “Can it be useful?” With the Parliament House documentary, The House, she thought, this is a building that we all pay for, yet the public is excluded from about 90 per cent of it. Her idea was to bring people inside the areas where you’re not normally allowed to take cameras, so people can see inside and feel invested in the goings-on there. “Democracy doesn’t work unless everyone’s involved, so anything that can open up that world and invite people in, is worth doing.”
Similarly, her Back in Time for Dinner show, urged people to consider how our society has changed through the lens of food, as well as how domestic labour has changed over the last half a century. Crabb hopes her new show, Tomorrow Tonight with Charlie Pickering encourages people to challenge their own assumptions about the moral judgements they make. She wants the big issues to become personal—for viewers to think really methodically about how they might react to certain technological advances, geopolitical events and other moral conundrums. Ultimately, asking ourselves whether we, as a human race, should be go down this road or not?
Crabb’s friendships and creative time in the kitchen are a welcome respite from the antics of politics and imagining cataclysmic world events. Crabb’s popular podcast Chat 10, Looks 3 with Leigh Sales was a way to formalize catching up. As for her long-distance friendship with Sharpe, their conversations have always revolved around learning from each other and sharing what they’re cooking. Though Crabb enjoys recreating her best friend’s recipes, she misses the real thing. When Crabb’s first child was born, and they both happened to be living in London at the same time, Sharpe cooked for her for a week. Every morning leaving a basket near the downstairs door of Crabb’s London flat with something fabulous for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just last year, despite Crabb’s gruelling schedule covering the Royal Wedding for the ABC in London, she braved the traffic to visit Wendy for lunch before flying back to Sydney. “Wendy had cooked about eight dishes from the cookbook, for me and our friend Jo. She’d totally over catered like a mad bastard. But to finally be at her house and eating the food cooked by her, the culmination of all our conversations, was a treat.”
By day Sharpe is a technical editor for The Lancet, a peer-review medical journal. And while Sharpe brings her precision to the kitchen, Crabb is a little more improvisational. “I love cooking because I love experimenting and seeing some crazy dish and wondering how I could put that together my way,” she says. One of her favourite cookbooks, a gift from Sharpe, is Mark Best’s Best Kitchen Basics. Inside she recalls a recipe that calls for 47 egg yolks and another for salt-cured kish fish ham. Both ideas Crabb finds thrilling, though don’t expect recipes this elaborate in Special Guest, which is all about making hosting less daunting. “Wendy laughs at me when I undertake massive projects because she is not the lover of the fiddly food, but I am the lover of the fiddly food.” Crabb recalls throwing a baby shower for Sharpe when they both lived in London. To irritate her friend she made an entire spread of miniature food including mini quail egg benedicts with tiny English muffins made from scratch. “It was hilarious. Tell me that’s not a good idea?”
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