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Palisa Anderson Cultivates Joy
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Palisa Anderson Cultivates Joy
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Conversations
5 September 2022

Palisa Anderson Cultivates Joy

Interview by Kirsty de Garis

The second I sat down across the table from Palisa Anderson, at one of her Chat Thai restaurants at Circular Quay, Sydney, the conversation went deep. No lighthearted chit-chat to get us there — we went straight in. Palisa told me about the profound impact of losing her mother last year, and how she is continually processing her grief.

Palisa grew up around food and restaurants, and inherently understands the link between sharing a meal and its contribution to a life filled with meaning: food, culture and tradition meet at our dining tables every day. Palisa extended this relationship seven years ago when she bought a property in northern New South Wales and called it Boon Luck Farm: what started as a project that would supply her Sydney restaurants with the more hard-to-find ingredients essential to great Thai cooking grew into a complementary passion. These days, you’re most likely to find Palisa in a field, planting, harvesting, paying attention. The organic and permaculture principles she practices at Boon Luck Farm contribute to the sublime taste you’ll find on plates at Chat Thai.

This conversation took place over two days and three locations: at Chat Thai in Sydney’s CBD, but later on a Sydney Harbour foreshore walk on a bracing winter morning, then on to Palisa’s Sydney home, where she showed me her impressive kitchen garden. This garden isn’t what you would expect in a quiet street: life gallops out of the fruit trees in her front yard, and with pride Palisa shows me how she has nurtured living soil in this small patch of cheek-by-jowl suburbia.

Our conversation traverses territories — the relationship between eating and meaning, the deep peace she finds in working the land, and her continuing work to make sense of her mother’s life. We parted with a giant hug, as new friends.

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

Kirsty de Garis: You’re going to Thailand, to farewell your mum.

Palisa Anderson: It’s been over a year. I still feel really connected to her even though she’s physically not here. I talk to her all the time. And I see her. She comes to me in dreams. Mum decided to go back to Thailand and it happened that she was in Thailand and then she couldn’t get back. But I think in the long term she was quite pleased to have been getting medical care in her language, her mother tongue.

I can understand that.

But in doing that she wasn’t around most of the people that she had in her life, for the majority of her life. And then because of COVID, that was really hard. I wasn’t there when she passed away. But I was there for the majority of the time when she was still able to converse, because she was in a coma for so long afterwards. But death… it takes so long to metabolise. She was sick for about two years. I said goodbye to her so many times. When I was very young, she left Thailand to come to Australia and I stayed back in Thailand with my grandparents. In a strong Thai Chinese family if you split, the father gets to keep the children. So my mother came to Australia to leave that stigma of being a single mother behind. She came to Australia and worked for two years before she had enough money to come back, and get this, she came and kidnapped us. (laughs)

What?!

I know! She came back and did the passports, did the visas and everything without anyone knowing. One day she came to visit. On the weekends we were allowed to go and stay with her. In the back of my mind, I always knew my mother was there somewhere. My idea of her was that she was this angel in heaven, but she was alive. And I remember the day she came back for me, she was having tea at my grandmother’s table. I’d been picked up from school. And there she was sitting there, and she had this massive perm. As you do in the ’80s! And I thought, She is the most beautiful woman in the world. I want to go with her! I remember thinking, I’ve got to make myself really useful so that she’ll to take me to Australia. So I quickly grabbed a cloth and I started wiping the table.

How old were you when she left?

Two.

And then she came back when you were…?

Four. It took her that long to get the visas. I guess over that year she was trying to build up trust with my grandmother, that, “I will bring the children back to you during the weekdays. And they stay with you, they go to school here, around your neighbourhood. On the weekends I take them, and I’ll always bring them back.” But one weekend, no. We went to the airport. (laughs)

Wow.

Yep. And we came to Australia.

That’s a big story. I mean, you know that.

Yes, I know. I’m starting to slowly write these things down. Everyone approaches me for cookbooks and I think there’s so much out there already. I’m more excited by autofiction, so that’s what I’m writing.

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

Your relationship with food and eating and tradition and history — I’m interested to hear from you about that. My mum used to make Christmas puddings. And she’d make them for what seemed like the entire suburb. There was a production line, every December. The cakes as well. And these huge bowls that we’d use to stir the fruit. And then she’d go and distribute them around the neighbourhood. But she doesn’t make them any more, and that time is gone. At Christmas I feel this sadness. There’s something about food traditions. And you grew up wiping tables.

It must have been in the genes. It’s apt that my mum went into food even though she grew up middle class. She was considered in the upper echelons of society in Thailand. She wasn’t super academic, but she loved doing things with her hands. And she was creative, rather than fine arts artistic. She had such a quick, entrepreneurial head, she just knew how to observe people, to see their behaviour, and you need those skills for cooking. You need to be able to know what people want to eat. Hence why our menu has over 100 items. (laughs) There were many times when I discussed with her, maybe we should take some things out. Because how great is it to go to a restaurant and have one sheet and you don’t have to make decisions? But she was like, “No, Thai food’s all about choice. It’s egalitarian.” (laughs) And she’s right. I guess the thing about ethnic cuisine in a second culture is that you want to present the face of your ethnicity in such a broad way that it appeals to everyone. If you go to Thailand you go to shop houses, where each shop does one thing. That’s very normal in countries all around Southeast Asia and Japan. That family only does one thing, then you go next door and they’ll do something else. It’s almost like a co-operative, with a whole strip of restaurants. You’ll have one full restaurant because you might want to eat this thing to start off with. But then you go over there for your main course.

In Australia you don’t have that option. You can’t spend 50 years refining your recipe. Chai Thai restaurant is 33 years old now, and I am constantly thinking about how to improve it. That’s something my mother taught me, you never rest on your laurels. If you go to a region in Thailand and you find better rice than what you’re serving, the natural inclination is to swap over to that rice, isn’t it? Or, if the vegetables are sub-par, it’s up to you to go and find better vegetables to use. That’s why we have the farm now.

Tell me about that genesis.

We had been going to a lot of farms along the east coast and the northeast. From Darwin all the way down to Townsville. Byron was a family holiday destination that I would take my mum to. And she loved it because there was this grower there, Kenrick Riley, who we would see at the markets. Kenrick and another grower, John Picone, grew these fantastic tropical fruits and vegetables. And I think my mum started to see that it was a real possibility to grow these things on a smaller scale, but big enough so that we could always have constant production. She had an opportunity to buy a mango farm in the Northern Territory. When we walked into the orchard, there was not a single insect around. The thrum that is everywhere else in Darwin. There were no insects there, no ants on the ground. When I walked around farms in Byron there was grass, there was ground cover. The soil wasn’t left bare. With a conventional farm like the one we saw near Darwin, the problem is you’ve got your neighbours who are doing exactly the same thing all around you. We have this whole thought that, you know, we must buy Australian garlic. It’s good, of course, we need to support local farmers. But then you go to the areas where they’re growing it and there are boom sprayers everywhere and everything’s dead. Not a single weed in sight. When you walk around my farm, it’s wild. We leave most of the weeds where they are, to complete their life cycle. ’Cause they die back into the ground and become organic matter.

In a world where we think biomass is the enemy and we must kill everything, I want there to be an abundance of life where I am.

I think that’s what held us in good stead during the floods. The land held, the soil held. The crops didn’t do too badly. I truly believe because of the neglectful nature of my farming, which I’m sure all the farmers around there look over and go, “What the hell is she doing?” (laughs), that the fruit tastes better. The vegetables taste better. I didn’t set out to be a farmer. We went for dinner with John Picone – we were trying to pressure him into growing more things for us. I was buying green peppercorns from him and a few other bits and pieces. He’s incredible but he’s a one-man show. He said, “Next door’s for sale. Why don’t you jump over the fence and have a look at it?” And so we did. The day after my mum looked at it, she said, “Palisa, this is you. You’re going to do this!” And I said, “Ah, hang on. I’ve only done a weekend permaculture workshop!” (laughs) And that was primarily only to learn how to grow in my garden in Sydney, which we turned into a fruit forest. We were growing enough herbs in our backyard to supply some of what we used at the restaurant, but not everything. Trying to grow in Sydney is a nightmare. There’s too many pests. In Thailand, if you had a rice paddy, they used to flood the steps to grow rice. You wouldn’t need to grow anything else. Because all the other life would be around that paddy. So you could find wild reeds. You could find frogs and the freshwater fish and the crabs. And you would supplement that diet with foraging.

That’s how people lived and ate?

Yep. Yeah, wild nuts, wild game. Small insects. Lots of insects. It’s so much more sustainable. But to the Thais that’s poverty. This is where when you see a diaspora, the Thai people here, it is really interesting because a lot of them in Thailand live a completely different life. But the moment they get to Australia, they want to eat traditional foods. I went to visit one of my ex-employees up in the mountains, and she took me to an area where we went fishing. We had to go far upriver, where there was just a trickle. And what the elders did – they showed me what they used to do – they dug a weir to divert the water. They caught little fish and crabs and other kind of amphibian-looking things that they ate, and I’d never seen them before. Tiny river lobsters the size of your pinky. It took us four hours to get maybe that much (indicates basketball-sized space with her hands) to feed about 20 people. That’s all they needed. That much protein, to feed 20 people. It was like being in National Geographic, where they were trying to show someone from the future what their past was like. I felt like I was truly intruding. But I was so happy to be there. And then they all dispersed to go back to their huge houses that their children had built for them by going away to work in restaurants or massage parlours in Russia, Croatia, Bangkok or Australia. They sent their children off to make money so that they could build these massive houses on the side of the hill. It was sad to see, because when I went into the houses, they were empty.

There’s a disconnect there, between joy and reality.

You have to learn it for yourself. I can’t say, “Hey, that lifestyle that you were showing me, that’s where you should be.” They were playing, these old women. They looked like little kids and they were giggling. And then they went back, lived in these modern houses. We both came from the city, my mum and I, but there’s a deep yearning to go back to the land. I just love being a dag in the country. Wearing the same thing every day, not caring how I look. I’m out there in the fields and I’m happy.

We live this comfortably numb life in the city where we can get things done for us. Everything’s super convenient. And it’s great sometimes when you need a bit of a break. But when you’re doing things with your hands it’s so much more satisfying.

I read about a Thai Chinese family who had a multi-generational restaurant in Thailand. They existed there for at least five generations. They were about to close it because they’d achieved their goal. All their children and grandchildren were white-collar workers. They were doctors and lawyers and accountants. High-earning people who lived overseas. That’s the mindset – you’ve got to get rich. That needs to be re-examined, because these people who have gone off to have these lives as doctors and lawyers, I’m not sure how fulfilling that would be. I remember the journalist interviewing one of the sons who was a doctor in Boston. And he said, “I’m really sad about the restaurant closing ’cause all my life I’ve had that to go back to. Those flavours of home. That’s what I know, it’s my comfort food. When I’m in Boston I try to get my wife to cook it for me.” (laughs) The thought that occurred to me was he’s going to be chasing that flavour his whole life now, that feeling of comfort as simple as food. No matter how well you do, the basis of human need is food, security, love. Right? It’s that simple. I don’t know why we chase everything else. With the death of my mother, I understood that for the first time when I just found myself wanting to cook Thai Chinese food. It wasn’t something that I go out and buy and eat. And now it’s chicken and rice. (laughs)

Because of that connection?

Yes. It’s Traditional Chinese Medicine soup. Every night there’d be Traditional Chinese Medicine soup in the pot. Even though my mum was working, she’d cook a big pot of food for us. Just one pot of something, and a pot of rice. At least five nights a week it’d be TCM soup with a hunk of meat in it. “Ugh, here we go again!” (laughs) And now I love it. My kids love it too. This has been a theme for a long time – because of my mother’s relationship with me and how busy she was, it’s made me understand it further. The importance of being together and enjoying the time together and being present when you’re actually together as well. Not distracted with 10 other things. And actually looking at your children when you’re talking to them. Basic things like that, that shouldn’t need to be said but need to be said. I say to my kids, “I’m not going to leave you with very much so I’m going to teach you how to look after yourself and one day when you’re out in the world, I hope you remember sitting around the dinner table. The things we talk about, the stories we share.” Those are about maintaining relationships.

The trick is learning to enjoy it while it’s happening rather than in retrospect.

That’s the ultimate yoga, the ultimate Zen. To be in your head and your heart and your body and soul exactly right now. It’s the only peace.

How well do you do it?

I’m doing it a lot better now. There’s a sense of letting go. I don’t know if I have hope, I think I have faith. Hope is constantly wishing for something better. I don’t feel that. Once that reality hit, slowly the other things started to fall away.

I like your distinction between hope and faith. Maybe the difference is knowing that difficult times are not going to last.

That’s it. You’ve gone into it, you come out of it. If we don’t learn the lessons, they’ll loop back. Even if you have learned the lessons, they might loop back anyway. What are my worst fears? They’re usually around children because that’s what I care about the most. It’s a constant evolution, being a parent, being human. If you stop being curious, wanting to learn and wanting to change, I think that’s when you can become quite unhappy. People save their lives for when they have more time. But you never have more time! When you do have more time, you’re dead.

I’m interested to know when you started the farm, were you growing for yourselves? Or was it all for the restaurants?

When we were growing in our backyard in Sydney it was mostly for ourselves. The excess came to the restaurant. We bought the farm in 2015 – we’re seven years on now. I remember getting the first invoice for the trees and it was so satisfying to pay it and get the trees. I remember thinking, This is what my friends spend on handbags. The first year was about laying out the structure of what we were going to do. Watching how the sun worked on the property. Permaculture principles – you need to observe how your land works. We built structures and we just threw green manure crops after green manure crops, to get the fertility of the soil up. We’re growing on about 30 acres. We’ve got about 2000 mango trees. And citrus. We grow all the citrus that we use at the restaurant: lemons, limes, mandarins. We grow green peppercorns along the hardwood poles. Green peppercorns make the food unique. And I like the fact that it’s organic. To get this food into people’s bodies on a large scale is not a little thing. Regardless of whether people know or not, maybe they can feel it.

I think they can. How did you learn?

I did a weekend permaculture course and I read everything I got my hands on. I got a great reading list from Kirsty and Nick at Milkwood. My husband and I listened to endless podcasts. But our saving grace was learning it for ourselves. You don’t know what’s going to work until you try it. Sometimes I talk to people who’ve been in farming for a long time, and it occurs to me that it may be a good thing to come to it from another background. You don’t have preconceived ideas about how things need to be. And if anything, let nature do what she needs to do and don’t mess with it too much. I’m all about organic, natural farming.

You wrote something about wanting to plant 500 seeds and have everything outlive you.

Again, that’s faith. If I plant this now, I don’t care if I see the fruit of it. That’s the same as love for the people around you. You give it so that it can be given on. If you can give, and share it on, plant a tree. Maybe you’ll get some fruit in seven years, but you’ll get shade and create mycelium networks for future generations of animals and other beings. I look at the amazing fig tree in the middle of my farm. It’s constantly throwing out life and giving life. Nature probably planted that tree. It’s spread out and there’s maybe 50 other species that live around that tree and in the tree as well.

How much time do you spend observing it?

A lot.

That’s a gift. When you talked about watching the sun move for a year, I thought, Ah! This treadmill that we’re on, just stop. There is so much we miss by not paying attention.

If people can see someone stepping away from mainstream culture, and can see someone who doesn’t tap into it… A lot of people think a simpler life is aspirational. To have the time to garden, to have the time to grow food. But you can grow on a windowsill. You always start somewhere. I don’t want anyone to think that they’re pigeonholed into their life, that they can’t change it. Because you can. Can I read you something that I wrote for this book I’m working on?

Yes please!

After my mother died, I became cautious to not cause the death of any insects. I suppose this came out through a jumble of thoughts on reincarnation. Perhaps all her atoms had been condensed quickly and quietly into a caterpillar, then a butterfly, an ant marching its way around my kitchen counter, or an earwig. These were all possibilities. I grew up in a cultural society where murdering tall zombies are apt to eat out the livers of any child that disobeyed their parents, ate dinner too slowly or lagged behind in a group. I was told cutting your hair or nails on a Wednesday was bad luck and to whistle at night was to attract ghosts. That planting certain trees like frangipani or bananas in one’s yard would harbour malevolent spirits, and on and on it went. The things one could not do and had to be vigilant about avoiding. The thought that my mother on her way to a nirvana might delay a little to stay in my realm, would take a little detour and live the brief lifespan of a rainbow or a monarch butterfly did not seem at all impossible. Her constant chide to me when I wanted to tell her of my dreams during a meal would be to say that it was bad luck to talk of dreams when one is eating. Her family held much of life’s success on luck. My grandfather told me to keep a look-out for men with large, pendulous earlobes. This, he reasoned, was tried and tested feng shui. People with large earlobes possessed an abundance of good luck and wealth. “Just look at my ears,” he would say. And yes, it was true, he had large fleshy lobes as thick and pendulous as juicy wood ear mushrooms, swollen on a log. I have many fallen logs around the farm from all the storms and rain that has subtly and not so subtly been prising the roots out of the ground. The resounding crack of large chopping branches during a wind lashing 40 knots, I believe. The cause of so many dead logs on the sodden ground. We leave them where they are, provided they haven’t fallen on any thoroughfare. And the purpose? To give back to the ground around them. You see, they will eventually break down. Moss and insects will cover them, helping the decay along. And the bonus? Well, the bonus is every now and again, depending on the right conditions, a fruiting body of some mycelium will give us something wondrous. The other day I did a double take. The familiar site of wood ear mushrooms camouflaged around a lichen-covered log. I bent down to inspect, stroking the gelatinous ruffles. And on the underside of the most mature ears a cosmos of insects at work. “Hi Mum. Are you there?”

Beautiful.

It’s been a slow, continual process of trying to understand the life and death of my mother.

She’s under every wood ear mushroom.

Or any rainbow.

Do you feel like anything you can’t eat is a wasted plant?

I used to feel like that. But most things you can eat, and the things you truly can’t eat but that you find beautiful are worth growing because they add to your soul. They give you a pleasure and a joy that you wouldn’t have if it wasn’t there. I grew some roses for my mum because I knew she loved roses. And even them you can eat.


Palisa’s book recommendations

Wilding by Isabella Tree

The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

A Visit From the Goon Squad and Candy House by Jennifer Egan

Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes by Elizabeth Lesser

These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging and Resistant Viral Infections by Steven Harrod Buhner

Espalier by Allen Gilbert

And, a note from us: also check out Boon Luck Farm written by Palisa Anderson — it is published by SomeKind Press – a publishing business co-owned by Dumbo Feather art director Vaughan Mossop.

Kirsty de Garis

Kirsty is the Editor of Dumbo Feather magazine. Kirsty is constantly on the lookout for conversations with extraordinary people and thought leaders who will help to guide us into the next economy.

Kirsty spends half her life in the suburbs of Sydney and the other half on a remote farm in the Snowy Mountains. She’s a loving wife and mum, and loves hiking in the high country and ocean swims. She never travels without a good book.

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