Wed 18 Jan 2012
At first sight I was convinced The Hungry Girls’ Cookbook was made—with love—just for me. All hand-stitched and homespun, it was surely meant with untold affection for the creators’ closest family, friends and beloveds.
Of which I was none. So what’s love got to do with it? How did those Hungry Girls turn a cookbook into a keepsake?
The story goes like this…
While waitressing at a Flemington laneway café in 2006, author Rachel Pitts volunteered for kitchen duty when the cook threw in the towel. Armed with nothing more than a passion for cooking, she “made up a little and learnt a lot”, mastering the simple café menu until the travel bug begged.
On their return from overseas, Pitts and husband Leigh heard that the café was for sale. Ready for a new project, and with enough hospitality experience to get by, they asked Pitts’s high-school buddy-turned-graphic designer Katherine Bird, together with her husband Henry, to join them in the venture. Out of that tired café the friends created ‘Pepper’, which soon had the precinct jumping with great coffee and inspired local fare.
For the next four years their husbands ran the business while Bird focused on her design work, and Pitts edited cookbooks by day and baked brownies, lemon tarts, plum cakes and strawberry tortes for Pepper late into the night. But there was more on her mind.
“I was keen to write some recipes and I knew that Kath was a fantastic designer and illustrator, and Leah [another school friend] was a great photographer. We just thought, ‘let’s get together and have a go.’“
Around a café table, the three friends committed to a challenge. Their long-term friendship, “shared love of eating and enthusiasm for a good project” whet a collective creative appetite. And so, purely for the fun of it, and in the absence of any market analysis, three hungry girls from Warrnambool started making a cookbook.
Like their food philosophy, the process was slow: seasonal ingredients, simple techniques and immeasurable quantities of joy. The Hungry Girls scoured country op shops and grandmothers’ kitchens for photo props, and fed loved ones repeat meals, finely tweaked, for weeks.
Six months later The Hungry Girls’ Cookbook Volume 1 sat proudly beside Pepper’s till in all its hand-stitched, cloth-covered, recycled-paper glory. It featured twenty-eight pages of homegrown recipes, photographs and illustrations; from soups to pies and cakes to salads, each prefaced with its tale of invention, discovery and seasonal alternatives.
Beyond the café it swept through retailers, filling a gap in the market for tradition-worthy recipes in a handcrafted cookbook. What’s not to love?
The Hungry Girls’ Cookbook Volume 2 followed in 2008; a similarly heartfelt collection of vegie patch-inspired tastes from Ethiopia, Nepal, Spain, and home again. In true gourmet style, it was richer and more beautiful with age.
But wait, there’s more.
In The Hungry Girls Cookbook Volume 3, Pitts says they’re proud to have “taken it up a notch”. Holscher’s photography is more eclectic and brighter than before, Bird brings playful layers of collage and illustration to the pages, and Pitts has infused its distinct Asian flavor with recent travels to Cambodia and Laos.
There’s a vegetarian take on the classic mapo tofu “with heaps of soy bean paste and spring onions and chili”, and a chicken and potato curry from Laos that promises high rotation on your weekly dinner playlist. True to form, Pitts also throws Italian and middle-eastern tastes into the mix, with squid, orange and rosemary pasta, and tapas-style Persian carrots.
True to style, there are no intricate cooking methods or treasure hunts for ingredients. The basis of every dish is locally grown, seasonal produce combined to bring out unexpected flavours; imagine bitter brussels sprouts in a garlicky Greek almond skordalia. Pitts also delights in being clever about making things easy, like baked ricotta dumplings that put fiddly gnocchi to shame. She believes food should be accessible and exciting.
Beyond her backyard patch, Pitts loves to forage at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market for deli items and fruit, and at Footscray’s Saigon Market in Melbourne’s inner-west, for fresh tofu, herbs and Asian greens. She also credits the area’s thriving African culture with some of The Hungry Girls’ best recipes.
But she saves her most obscure creations for the Hungry Girls’ blog, where feijoa and lime meringue pie, fig and quark strudel, and wild mushroom soup reside.
My favourite Hungry Girls recipes lie between two stanley-knifed cardboard covers softened with polka-dotted cloth along the spine. Lemon curd cake; spinach and anchovy pasta; tomato, herb and chilli fish. Feed the love.
Shop for their cookbooks here.
Pia Abrahams has been at Dumbo Feather for the past six months, working with our editorial team, but leaves us this January to pursue other career opportunities. This is her final parting piece of work for us. She is a mother of three and a bonafide Hungry Girl at heart herself. We wish her all the best with her future endeavours.