Political journalist Annabel Crabb smashes glass ceilings and a Bánh Xèo over lunch with LSJ.
If Annabel Crabb had to live off one dish for the rest of her life, it would probably be a Vietnamese rice noodle salad.
The Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and law escapee is known to the Australian public for her dessert skills – flaunted over four seasons of the ABC television series Kitchen Cabinet, in which she would bring a homemade cake or pudding to a politician’s house and pepper them with interview questions as they prepared the main. Fans of her podcast Chat 10 Looks 3, which she co-hosts with veteran ABC presenter Leigh Sales, also delight in the friendly competition the two women assert in showcasing impressive baked creations on their Instagram and Facebook pages.
But as she sifts a pair of chopsticks through the milky strands of a Bún Chay (rice noodle salad) at Hello Auntie Vietnamese restaurant in Marrickville, Crabb reveals her culinary Achilles’ heel to LSJ.
“I would happily give up sugar, but I would have trouble giving up salt,” she admits.
“I don’t actually eat a lot of cake. I approach baking a cake as a rehabilitative, calming, meditative exercise, which has a good by-product.”
We are picking at plates of Bún Chay, Bánh Xèo and fried school prawns over lunch in Sydney. Crabb is keen to support pandemic-stricken businesses in her inner west neighbourhood. And we’re both more than a bit excited to venture into the exhilarating World Outside, which looks very different from the same four walls of our work-from-home offices.
“I’m going to have a wine,” exclaims Crabb. “Because we are out to lunch!”
Crabb, a pescatarian, nails the food order with two seafood dishes but is also happy to chopstick around my lemongrass chicken Bún to pluck out coriander and peanut-riddled rice noodles. She gave up eating meat when she was 16; the product of growing up on a farm in South Australia’s Barossa Valley.
“I saw too much,” she says. “It was a sheep farm. We did our own butchery.”
The 47-year-old ABC political journalist-cum-presenter and author of seven books, including two cookbooks, was raised in a meat-and-three-veg family. Her mother occasionally experimented with what Crabb calls “1970s white-person Chinese home cooking from the Women’s Weekly”, but would have never attempted the huge, sunflower-yellow Bánh Xèo (Vietnamese pancake) that has arrived at our table. Crabb, conversely, is explaining how to properly rest the pancake batter and insists this is a versatile and easy-to-prepare dish. (I am unconvinced.)
Conservative dinner menus often matched Crabb’s parents’ political views. But her parents also encouraged Crabb to forge her own path – both gastronomically and politically.
“I was blessed with incredibly non-proscriptive parents, and I suspect that my feminist activism was helped by that. My Dad used to call me Germaine,” she chuckles, referencing Australia’s original feminist icon and author of The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer.
Crabb rallied for women’s rights as Women’s Officer at the University of Adelaide student’s association while studying Arts/Law in the 1990s. She swatted aside harassment and chauvinism as a cadet at The Advertiser newspaper in Adelaide, and later as a woman climbing the ranks of male-dominated political journalism in Federal Parliament. She has penned articles, books and essays on the inequality women suffer in the workplace and household chores.
Her 2015 book, The Wife Drought, asks why career breaks and family duties are considered a burden for mostly women to bear. I mention it now because this is an issue that has been thrust to the top of corporate workplace agendas amid COVID-19.
There are whole huge companies that have been obliged to shift very quickly to a 100 per cent remote working model and discovered – surprise! – there isn’t much of a productivity issue at all. It’s amazing that … it took a pandemic to make that happen.
“Men have had a really interesting experience over the past year. They have had an opportunity to work flexibly, motivated not by family requirements but by the fact that the Prime Minister says, ‘You can’t go in to work’,” she says.
“There are whole huge companies and employers that have been obliged to shift very quickly to a 100 per cent remote working model and discovered – surprise! – there isn’t much of a productivity issue at all. It’s amazing that there has been a perfectly good case for this for some time, but it took a pandemic to make that happen.”
Crabb graduated from law school in 1997, the last year on record that women did not outnumber male law graduates in Australia. But after she scored her cadetship at The Advertiser, she never seriously contemplated practising law.
“I really loved studying law,” says Crabb. “The bit I liked most was in the lectures where the lecturer would tell those amazing stories, like Commonwealth Bank v Amadio or Carbolic Smokeball, Donoghue v Stevenson. But the more that I talk to friends of mine who started out as lawyers, the more I realised that the things I enjoyed about studying law didn’t actually show up that much in practice.
“The funny thing is, I met Jeremy [Storer, Crabb’s husband] at law school. So throughout my career I’ve had this peg post of, ‘This is what life would be like if I was a lawyer right now.’”
Ironically, Storer is now also Crabb’s colleague in the legal team at the ABC. Which is great, she says, until they encounter the awkward situation where he needs to caution her about potential defamation issues in her work.
“I sort of laughed,” she recalls of one such instance.
It’s a rare treat for Crabb to be able to extricate herself from the work-and-family juggling act she and Storer perform to join LSJ for lunch. Usually she is hurtling around the city, from the ABC studios in Ultimo to various corporate events, back to home in Marrickville to bash out her weekly e-newsletter, “ABC Politics with Annabel Crabb”, before the afternoon school run with her three children. But COVID-19 has pressed pause on corporate events and forced ABC staff to work remotely where possible. It has allowed Crabb extra time to research and work at home, “or not put lipstick on, which is an incredibly indulgent thing”, she says.
Her latest project is the second series of ABC’s Back in Time for Dinner, which thrusts an Australian family into a bygone decade, refurbishes their house and forces them to cook, eat, dress and live in that era. This season takes the family back to the 1900s, during an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague that has uncanny parallels to the current pandemic. History even repeats itself when it comes to toilet paper: the family must survive in the bush without it.
But the broader social upheaval caused by plagues, wars and economic depressions is what fascinates Crabb most.
“Historically, family has always been the peak transformative force for women’s careers – when women take a career break to have children and take the opportunity to reassess or change their job,” she explains.
“Men’s careers are only ever really shaped by external economic events, especially since the world wars. But I think pandemics are in the same basket.”