Destinations

Maeve O'Meara: The moment that shaped my destiny

Food adventurer Maeve O’Meara reveals the life or death moment that shaped her destiny.

By: Samantha Trenoweth

The last thing Maeve O'Meara did before leaving town on her most recent Food Safari through Corsica and Sardinia was visit her mum.

Family means the world to the beloved SBS personality.

We are sitting at an immense dining table encircled by chairs that belonged to her grandmother and Maeve is speaking about her mum, Maev Snr, who was a journalist, an inspiration, and who is now confined to a nursing home.

I remind Maeve she once said that, if she had just $50 left in the world, she would spend it on flowers for her mother. There's a moment's silence, then: "Gosh, I'm glad I said that … Now, in the shadows of Alzheimer's, we always have classical music playing and we fill her room with flowers."

So, on the 20th birthday of her food adventure business, Gourmet Safaris; on the eve of the ninth series of Food Safari on SBS; and while we wait for the family to gather for lunch and for a visit from the newest light in her life, one-year-old granddaughter, Arabella, Maeve chats with The Weekly about family and food and high adventure.

"Food wasn't Mum's thing," she smiles, though Maev Snr was renowned for her bread and butter pudding.

"Words were Mum's thing. She grew up in Orange, came to the city, became a journalist. She travelled through Spain in a London taxi with a group of actresses, including Ruth Cracknell. She led a really interesting life. Mum had a sense of the wider world. She loved poetry and music."

She met Maeve's father, John, who was a compositor, when they both worked at Fairfax newspapers. So Maeve grew up with more than a little newsprint in her veins.

"There was a book of photographs that we had at home – the work of the Magnum photographers. From an early age this was my view into other worlds – Indian temple ceremonies, African families, people riding elephants – things you didn't find on the lower north shore of Sydney. It showed me that this was a beautiful, big world."

So after an Arts degree, Maeve set off to see that world for herself. "I was 20," she says, with just a little retrospective horror.

"I said to Mum and Dad, 'I'm off on my own adventure and I may not be back.' I was away for a year, and it was a very formative year."

Backpacking through London in 1981, Maeve was walking past the army barracks in Chelsea when an IRA nail bomb exploded. Two people were killed and Maeve was among the 40 injured, taken to hospital with shrapnel wounds to her back and severe bruising. "It shocked me to my absolute core," she says.

Even so, Maeve was not about to give up on her adventure. She travelled through Tunisia where she had, she says, "one of the great epiphanies of my life. I spent time with a Tunisian family in a small mud-brick village, cooking couscous and pounding spices. It was everything I'd dreamed of, flipping through those Magnum photographs in a white-bread suburb. The food was delicious, and I was spending time with local women and learning from them. Afterwards, in Greece, I was sitting on the Acropolis, looking out over Athens, and I remember thinking, 'I never want two days of my life to be the same.'"

As far as possible, they haven't been. "Beyond that," she says, "there hasn't really been a plan. The nuns at school told me I had no common sense, and they were probably right, but I've never seen that as a negative. Mine has been a very instinctive life."

For the most part, that approach has panned out well. "Of course, sometimes it doesn't work," she adds, laughing, "but in those times you learn and grow. You dust yourself off, have a glass of wine and go, 'What's next?'"

With a little help from her mother, Maeve wrote up a report of the Chelsea bombing and applied for a cadetship back in Australia. That led to a decade working as a journalist and eventually to a 12-month "life swap", in which she exchanged jobs and addresses with a reporter on a current affairs program in Dublin.

Maeve hails from solid Irish stock. "I didn't feel the grey skies were part of my DNA," she admits, but in Ireland she fell in love with the music, the poetry, the rolling green hills and a young abstract artist called Ben Stack.

They met at a dinner party hosted by Maeve's cousin. "We talked right through the night," she remembers. "We were sitting at a big table in an old Irish farmhouse and the sun came up and we heard the sound of peacocks greeting the day."

Ben moved to Australia – he still lives and paints in Sydney – and he and Maeve began a family. Their firstborn was Connor, now 23, then Kitty, 21, and Scarlett (or Carli) who is 18. Maeve and Ben were together for 10 years. They parted ways when Carli was just four but Maeve says Ben has been a magnificent father. "The kids would have weekends with him in his studio and they would come back completely paint spattered."

Maeve and TV producer Toufic Charabati had been working together for roughly three years when they looked across the editing suite and realised there was more to this than a professional relationship.

"She makes the people we film feel extraordinary. How can you not fall in love with that?"

"Being with Touf, being happy, inheriting a wonderful Lebanese food-loving family which has all the traditions from the village – it has been a lovely part of my life."

This mother, grandmother, journalist, adventurer, celebrator of Australia's multicultural culinary heart is carrying plates to the table as the last of the family trails in: Connor, his partner, Mae, who was born in Ghana, and their one-year-old daughter, Arabella, whose smile lights up the room.

"Perhaps she'll walk today," Maeve suggests and Connor chuckles. "Mum's big on being around for the firsts," he says. "She wants to take her for her first swim too."

The family is called to the table. In primary school, Kitty was asked to draw a picture of her happy place and this was it, this immense oval-shaped table around which the family has gathered for almost as long as she can remember. There have been celebrations, such as when Mae's family came to dinner for the first time last year, and struggles. But mostly, with dishes piled high with food Maeve has collected or learned to cook on her wanderings, this table is where the world finds its place in Maeve's home.

You can read more about Maeve's life of passion and adventure in the August edition of the Australian Women's Weekly, out now. Food Safari: Water is on SBS at 8pm Thursdays and Maeve's new book, Food Safari Elements – Earth, Fire, Water, is published by Hardie Grant, available in October.