One Question Quiz
Getty Images
Getty Images

KaiDecember 18, 2023

One last spoonful before I say goodbye

Getty Images
Getty Images

As she prepares to bid farewell to The Spinoff, food writer Charlotte Muru-Lanning reflects on the art of turning kai into words.

This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.

This is the last Boil Up of the year, and it also marks the last one written by me as I will be finishing up at The Spinoff at the end of this year.

Before I sign off one last time, I wanted to tell you a little about a dinner I hosted last Friday. A few months ago, a curator friend invited me to collaborate with a local chef in creating a one-night dinner in the gallery. The idea was to consider what kai Māori might look like in the future and devise a menu and dining experience for 25 people.

As it happened, the chef had to step away from the project just days before the event, presenting us with quite a significant problem. As Nigella Lawson once wrote, “I am not a chef. I am not even a trained or professional cook. My qualification is as an eater.”

But the show had to go on. My curator friend and I decided to adapt the initially planned menu to something we both could manage and cook. We simplified the beautiful yet complex dishes to match up better with our non-professional cooking skills. Somehow, we pulled it off; as far as I could tell all our manuhiri left happy and well-fed at the end of the evening. Manaakitanga, through full bellies and tasty kai, was, after all, our main concern.

However, in the midst of ensuring we had bountiful kai, fretting over whether or not our jellies would set, organising overnight deliveries of rēwena bread, slicing pumpkin, debearding mussels, driving across town to source specific bottles of wine and frantically setting tables, I had no time to reflect on how I would convey the meaning behind the meal to our diners.

Reflecting later, I realised the dinner was a true expression of this newsletter through the language of food – in a reversal of turning kai into words, this was about turning words into kai. We poured wine by Māori winemakers I’ve interviewed previously and our tables were scattered with parāoa made by Whanganui-based baker George Jackson, who I’ve interviewed twice in this newsletter about his efforts to make rēwena bread mainstream.

Broader themes that I’ve regularly returned to here were included as well. A big pot of mussels steamed away in the background before being dished out to our guests, alluding to questions around customary kai practices and sustainability. I have constantly tried to find intriguing nooks in kai Māori histories here, and so we made a range of jellies that have curiously cropped up repeatedly in my research around kai Māori. Even the table settings referenced stories from my mum and archival images of tables at my marae laden with almost comical amounts of food.

On our tables, indigenous ingredients like horopito and kawakawa shared space with more contemporary ones now common in te ao Māori like Raro (in the form of jelly) and instant coffee (in the form of madeleines). This contrast referred to the idea I’ve emphasised in this newsletter: rather than fixed and unmoving, the definition of kai Māori is ever-evolving and diverse.

I’ve dedicated a significant amount of space in this newsletter to talking about kai Māori, because it should be the starting point when we talk about food in Aotearoa, and because we don’t talk about it enough. Like many others, I share concerns around recent attacks on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and more specifically tino rangatiratanga. To me, these concerns are not disconnected from how all of us in Aotearoa eat.

If you’ve read this newsletter before, you’ll know that I don’t write about food sans politics. I have written each of these newsletters with the belief that we can live in a country where our indigenous culinary traditions are reinvigorated and that Māori have sovereignty over what that looks like; that we uphold the vital importance of our natural environment; that those who do the work to ensure we have food are properly rewarded for their labour; that we treasure all of the unique food cultures and traditions that exist in this country; that we all can access kai that is dignified, that is good for our wellbeing, that reminds us of home; and that we’re all allowed to take part in celebrating our food. Food informs how we relate to each other and how we exist together as a country. The way we cook and eat and do the dishes together, then, is a template for how we might live with each other going forward.

Now, if you’ll forgive me for being a little mushy here, I can’t sign off without saying a big “thank you” to a few people. Firstly, there are the various people at The Spinoff who conceived of the idea of a food newsletter and laid the groundwork to bring it to life. It would be remiss of me not to thank editors past and present Alice Neville, Emily Simpson and Madeleine Chapman, all of whom helped meticulously refine every draft of this newsletter since its inception. It might not seem immediately obvious from some of the messier drafts they have sometimes been faced with, but I have learnt so much from every single tracked change.

On the occasion that I’ve taken weeks off, the newsletter has been left in the capable hands of a number of other editors and staff writers. They, irritatingly adept at juggling a million other tasks, kept this newsletter chugging along. Simply being around my colleagues, with their big brains, kindness and curiosity, has informed everything that’s gone into this newsletter. I’m still gobsmacked that The Spinoff took a chance on me, from intern to a full-time writer, and entrusted me with quite an incredible amount of freedom to write this. There were many, many Thursdays when I wrapped up a newsletter draft, convinced that my musings had finally veered into a realm too bizarro, too far, that I’d reached the limit of what my editors would let me publish – yet, somehow, that day never arrived.

To the interviewees, sources and other writers whose ideas and words have graced this newsletter, I’m so grateful. Everything I’ve shared here stems from reading, listening and absorbing the words and mātauranga of others. And finally, to you, the readers of The Boil Up, I’ve felt really privileged that you’ve welcomed this newsletter into your inboxes each week and shared your thoughts with me.

Rest assured that, even though I’m moving on, The Boil Up isn’t going anywhere. As I make the shift from the writer of this newsletter to a subscriber, I’m looking forward to watching how it evolves with fresh hands.

Indeed, this also means I won’t be around for our new editorial series What’s eating Aotearoa? – a project I’m stupidly excited about. I’m so proud that The Spinoff has initiated this project that recognises just how vital it is that we delve into the food landscape and even prouder that so many readers have thrown their support behind it. Undoubtedly, I will be cheering from the sidelines next year each and every time a story in the series is published.

In the inaugural Boil Up, I jotted down my vision for what it might become: “a shared table where we can gather to break bread and contemplate the meaning of food in our lives.” It’s been 81 newsletters since then and I really do hope this has been a hākari or feast that everyone has been able to take part in along the way. It’s the last bite of this meal, but all that really means is that the promise of new tastes and flavours is just around the corner.

Keep going!