Michele Hewitson interview: Lauraine Jacobs

By Michele Hewitson

Pearls of wisdom from a food writer whose life, and kitchen, is ever so slightly imperfect.

Lauraine Jacobs at home in her 'rambly' but surprisingly good kitchen. Photo / Richard Robinson
Lauraine Jacobs at home in her 'rambly' but surprisingly good kitchen. Photo / Richard Robinson

Lauraine Jacobs, the reigning queen of the foodie scene, is hosting a Writers Festival lunch, on May 18, with Josh Emett. It has sold out, so the plug is not needed, but she'll give the festival one anyway. She is very pleased that there are foodie events at a literary festival because, "a large amount of the dollars spent on books are actually cookbooks. So I think it's really important that in a book festival, there is food somewhere". She would think that, of course. "Of course I would!" (See writersfestival.co.nz for other foodie events.)

She now writes the food column for the Listener and she's an unusual food writer. You get what you'd think was a fairly good idea of her from her column, and from her writing in Cuisine magazine where she was a contributing editor for 20 years until she got the push in 2009, and was "just devastated". She doesn't buy the magazine now. "No."

I have always imagined her, in an immaculate kitchen, in Remuera, probably, cooking and writing, while wearing pearls. She has a pearly, high-heeled sort of writing style.

At her house, in Remuera, she said, to her husband, Murray, the structural engineer and pianist: "She doesn't think I've got a very good kitchen!" Murray had built the kitchen. If I hadn't been by then been sitting in her actually very cosy kitchen for the past hour I'd have thought: "Uh, oh."

I had already been given the tour of the piano (I asked) and had a chat with Murray before he came down to play. This involved me shouting up the stairs: "How much did that piano cost?" He took being shouted at up the stairs very obligingly. I had sent her back into her kitchen where she said to the photographer: "This is going to turn into a story about him!" I thought it was best she didn't stick around to hear, from up the stairs, that the piano cost about $180,000 - it is a Steinway concert grand and is very grand. She had no idea, really, what it had cost; she thought about $100,000. She said: "Michele, keep going. Find it all out for me!" They have been married for nearly 40 years so their marriage will probably survive, but still! Imagine not knowing. She didn't seem much bothered.

I might have thought "uh oh" because she is known to be stroppy. I thought she was also likely rich and posh and, more than likely, Tory. She does live in Remuera, but not very poshly, really and there is the Omaha beach house, but it is at "the boxy end". She sometimes wears pearls. She was horrified by all of this. I know this because she said: "I'm quite horrified!", and she kept saying so.

She has only voted National twice in her life. She said, about living in Remuera: "Hmm. You know, it's very sad that one of the most beautiful suburbs of Auckland gets that label. You know, a lot of it is just very ordinary bungalows ... but one of the things that's distinctive about it is that they've got a lot of trees around them and there are people here who, I guess, they want their kids to be successful but in the same breath, I don't think success is necessarily money ... If you have a look on Twitter, I've already tweeted today about how angry I am that some wealthy businessmen think they can take over that development down by the harbour ... I mean, I think rich people often rip off ..."

Are they rich people? "I don't think so!" They might have been, but for that piano. "I would think that's the end of it!"

She wasn't wearing her pearls. I said that her latest book, Everlasting Feast, a memoir with recipes, is what a memoir with recipes written by Mike Hosking might be like, and could be instead be titled: My Perfect Life. It is about a childhood in which the school lunches are the envy of all of the other kids and the birthday parties ditto and the house is full of flowers and produce from the perfectly tended vege garden and then you grow up and go off to Cordon Bleu school and come home and marry the lovely piano-playing Murray and live happily ever after. She was horrified all over again. "How can anybody's life be perfect? There's always things that you'd do differently!" Well, what? She said, surprisingly, "I probably wouldn't be so stroppy." I'd have thought she liked being stroppy. "Oh, I suppose it's really nice if you're thought of as a really kind person, gentle. Do you think I'm stroppy?" I know she's stroppy and she knows she is. "I stand up for what matters. That's the important thing." She doesn't regret being stroppy at all! "No. But I suppose sometimes you think you say things that you think you could take back. Do you do that too?"

She once got stroppy with a certain editor of a certain newspaper magazine over his announcement that a certain restaurant would not be reviewed in the publication again - after the restaurant owner refused to have her place photographed until she had seen the accompanying review. The editor is my bloke. I told her this and more horror! I thought it was funny but she made me promise to tell him it was nothing personal. She was just defending her friend.

She has been very stroppy about newspaper restaurant reviewers and I thought we could have a good old stroppy ding dong about this, but she was, disappointingly, having a kind and gentle sort of day. I should do restaurant reviews, she said. This would have been blatant buttering up in anyone else, but I don't think she does buttering, except with good butter on bread that isn't made from ancient grains. She has one weakness and it is for white bread. Thank goodness. She's not perfect after all!

I have met her once before, at a do, and I had just been to Japan and told her I didn't like the food - all that raw fish. She looked at me, in what I interpreted as an imperious way, and said something like: "Why did you go, then?" As if, I said to her while sitting in her kitchen, there is no other reason to go anywhere other than for the food. She laughed and said: "Well, I do feel a bit like that!" Her whole life is about food (and her family, which is also about lovingly feeding them and so food-related).

She ought to be amazingly fat, I said, so why wasn't she? She said: "Why aren't I amazingly fat?" in a tone of absolute astonishment. She said, crisply, and possibly imperiously: "Probably because I go to the gym. I couldn't go this morning because you were coming Michele." I was stuffing half a chocolate eclair in my mouth at the time, but I'm sure that was mere coincidence. She had bought these but had made the perfect little cheese biscuits "for you. I didn't know if you were savoury or sweet, so I've got both".

Murray said: "You should have given her some food, Lauraine!" She said: "I did! I made those biscuits." "You should have given her something substantial," he said. I was rather glad he wasn't in charge of the catering. He makes a healthy sort of bread which is full of "ancient grains" and looks like a brick. I'd been a bit rude about his bread. He said: "I've got a few people who like it. The girls at the gym like it."

She and Murray both go to the gym; you can't imagine either of them as fat people. He said: "I go to Body Balance. Do you go to that?" I had just eaten the other half of an eclair and two or possibly three perfect cheese biscuits. She said: "Go on! You don't have to have lunch!" I liked her for having bought the eclairs, and for saying so. I'd have pretended I'd made them. She's not a show-off.

She can be crisp and a bit cool, when you meet her in passing. But while she might look a tad imperious - she is often photographed wearing her pearls and with hair like a helmet - she isn't. I imagined she had been head girl at school but I was wrong about that too. "Hell no. I was the girl who got into trouble." The trouble turned out to be that she was caught riding her bike along Gillies Ave reading a Latin book.

She is very funny, if often unwittingly. She told me she has never been drunk but Murray told me she has, once. On rum. She is sensible, and aways has been. She was in London in the mid-70s, but she was never going to smoke pot or run off with a hippy. She said her parents wouldn't have liked the pot, or the hippies, presumably. But she's not prissy, oddly. She is certainly not posh, or perfect. She wasn't at all offended when I said that her kitchen wasn't a bit as I'd imagined it to be. I thought it would be either all glistening stainless steel or, more likely, chi chi French country style. I was worried about that shelf. The one packed with jars of this and bottles of that and bowing perilously. She wasn't a bit worried about it - it had been built by a structural engineer - but, dryly, said that if I was lucky, it might collapse while I was there.

She said, to Murray: "She's been looking in my fridge!" I wasn't really interested in what was in her fridge, food I assumed, rightly. I wanted to see whether she'd mind. Alison Holst, who you might think would be a homelier sort of person, did. She didn't. She just said: "You're so nosey!" He said: "It's like the thought police are here!" She hadn't tidied up in anticipation of my being nosey. I would have, but I am far snootier than she is, which isn't hard, actually.

Their fridge, I have to say, doesn't owe them anything. The kitchen's corner cupboards don't shut properly. There was a saucer with rodent bait on the floor. She said, about the rat that came in: "It's not out fault! I mean, they come in!" She might be cross with me for mentioning the rat, but she had said, for at least the third time: "You know, it's not really a perfect life!" So I'm just trying to help her out. There was a jar of instant coffee on that groaning shelf. I pretended to be horrified. Had I ever heard of Elizabeth David? she asked. Well, she drank instant coffee and if it was good enough for Elizabeth David it was good enough for her. So. There. Is she stroppy? I asked Murray. "Well," he said, "I don't know about stroppy. She's not shy about expressing her opinions."

She said about her kitchen: "It's us. It's untidy and rambly and stuff is shoved in the corners." I think she's got a very good kitchen. It was like her - surprising.

- NZ Herald

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