THE FOODIE FILES
When Michael Symons published his history of Australian eating in 1982 people were puzzled by a recipe- free book about food. To mark the new edition of his classic study, Symons explains how we became gluttons for commentary on cooking
IN the 25 years since I wrote One Continuous Picnic , it has become easier to eat much better, and much worse, in Australia. And to read all about it. Back then, serious food writing was even rarer than Thai restaurants. In those days, Angus & Robertson’s publisher Richard Walsh wanted to halve the length of my gastronomic history of Australia. His letter claimed that even a light approach, something like literary ‘‘ fairy floss’’ could have its attractions. Other well- wishers inquired about ‘‘ your recipe book’’, which provoked me into not including even one recipe. Or they fretted that a history of Australian eating might be blank.
When Penguin prevaricated the book was published with the help of friends, ( Melbourne cook Gabriel Gate with his wife Angie and Sydney journalist David Dale), inventing our own imprint, Duck Press, to do it.
Much critical response was uncomprehending, and a Perth reviewer looked forward to a good writer turning to something interesting.
But now photogenic cooks, promotional chefs, restaurant judges and celebrity bloggers are so ubiquitous we feel we are on first- name terms with Maggie and Kylie, Stephanie and Bill. They might blather away, but I say bring it on, because things are much better than a quarter- century ago, when the intellectual custodians of our meals were a few gourmet writers and the back pages of women’s magazines.
Our earliest celebrity chefs did it the hard way, without television. Ted Moloney, Deke Coleman and architect- cartoonist George Molnar stirred the gourmet pot in 1952 with their amiable cookery book, Oh, for a French Wife .
The pace picked up with the arrival of TV. Graham Kerr was a caterer with the Royal New Zealand Air Force whose immediate success on TV there led to a cookbook, Entertaining with Kerr ( 1963).
Kerr, who came to Australia in 1965, was no lightweight. In 1966 he introduced a recipe book from his first Australian TV series with the warning that ‘‘ our whole life is being undermined’’. The ‘‘ mass production’’ of food, he complained, might help reduce household budgets, ‘‘ but it’s no consolation to me if it also means that the pleasure of personally pleasing friends has to die along the way’’.
But despite his pessimism, he was writing at the start of a new era of interest in food and dining. The same year saw the launch of Australian Gourmet ( later Gourmet Traveller ) and the relatively stylish Epicurean . It was also the year when Victoria’s six o’clock swill ended, permitting pubs to stay open through the dinner hours for the first time since World War I.
In 1968, when the highly successful Margaret Fulton Cookbook appeared, Kerr produced the country’s first restaurant guidebook, Guide to Good Eating, in Sydney. A Melbourne version appeared the following year.
And just as cookery writers were emerging from the back pages of women’s magazines, restaurant reviewers started to make food chatter publicly respectable in the popular press.
Leo Schofield began his influential weekly reviews in 1971 and the rabble- rousing restaurant critic Richard Beckett, writing as Sam Orr, appeared in Nation Review , which businessman Gordon Barton started in 1970.
Beckett’s larrikin epicureanism helped give a public face to the ‘‘ Bollinger bolsheviks’’, the generation of cultural leaders who supported the Whitlam government.
It was a revolutionary time in Australian food awareness. Don Dunstan’s reforming zeal, for example, extended to a recipe book, produced in 1976 while he was still premier of South Australia ( although his publisher kept printing costs down by eliminating his desserts section).
Perhaps Dunstan’s enthusiasm for vineshaded Mediterranean- style tables did not grip the populace immediately, but there’s no question that a wide section of the community eventually took to the outdoor cafes and fresh and seasonal produce the premier was so keen on. A year after Dunstan’s resignation, with his reforms bearing fruit, I returned to my home town of Adelaide to run a restaurant with Jennifer Hillier, while completing One Continuous Picnic .
This led in March 1984 to the First Symposium of Australian Gastronomy in Adelaide, where Phillip Searle and Cheong Liew cooked, if its chroniclers are to be believed, Australia’s most stunning banquet.
The four dozen participants included a large chunk of the gastroscenti. Only half jokingly, I said the symposium was organised to meet novelist Marion Halligan, who had already written a couple of excellent gastronomic pieces in Quadrant .
Many giants of the Australian kitchen participated, including Gate, Gay Bilson, Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer, Janet Jeffs, Dur- e Dara, Graham Pont, Barbara Santich, Michael Dowe, Max Lake and Dunstan.
Some of them were among the first of our foodies, a term created in 1982 by sharp London journalists led by Paul Levy for the ‘‘ new sect which elevates all food to a sacrament’’. These people admitted to taking cookery books to bed instead of novels ( a habit that mystified me, until I remembered I took restaurant guides).
Although they rarely talked party politics, many of the foodies had Left- liberal tendencies, such as Alexander, who became a publishing brand name less through personal ambition than to better the world. She now equips schools with kitchen gardens, much as Jamie Oliver has taken on British school lunches.
Dismissed as chardonnay socialists they were part of the international movement denounced as latte liberals in the US, the caviar Left in France and the Tuscany faction in Germany.
Left- foodism could seem contradictory only so long as fancy food was reserved for clubby elites. Instead, dinner parties encouraged lively critiques of art, religion and issues of production and consumption. The give and take of restaurant tables fuelled policy debates and the Australian film industry.
The gastronomic avant- garde also set the scene for the yuppies, some of whose concerns were taken up by the bobos, ( the bourgeois
bohemians identified by US conservative writer David Brooks). In Bobos in Paradise , Brooks applauded America’s professional classes for pulling off an amalgam of ’ 60s counter- cultural values with Reagan- era self- interest. They achieve this, he says, by only spending big on necessities, especially in the kitchen.
It all fuelled some fine food writing.
Alexander’s Stephanie’s Menus for Food Lovers came out in 1985 and Beer’s Maggie’s Farm after she closed her Barossa restaurant in 1993, the same year that George and Jill Mure published Mures Fish Tales & Tasmanian Seafood . While narrative food texts, especially those without recipes, have still to make much impact in Australia, there have been some excellent works, such as Eric Rolls’s threevolume A Celebration of Food and Wine 10 years ago. Stephen Downes captured the excitement in Advanced Australian Fare: How Australian Cooking Became the World’s Best in 2002. Restaurateur Gay Bilson’s part- memoir Plenty ( 2004) was worth waiting for.
And academics are now catching up, admittedly close to two centuries after Jean Anthelme Brillat- Savarin advocated an all- encompassing discipline, gastronomy. The University of Adelaide led the world ( or tied with Boston) in establishing postgraduate degrees in gastronomy. Since 2002, 48 students have completed Adelaide dissertations on a smorgasbord of topics including, The Origin and Evolution of the Chef Uniform, God is Not a Vegetarian and Soul Food and its Gastronomic Tourism Potential in Harlem. Other institutions have followed with doctoral degrees.
It shows how far writing about food has come. And it demonstrates how critics and commentators have helped change the attitude of Australians to what is put on their plates.
For decades, as Kerr warned in the ’ 60s, the supermarket’s canned, packet and frozen substitutes seemed to make freshness a lost cause. Then, exactly 20 years ago, on the suggestion of an undercover foodie in its advertising agency ( or so he tells me), Woolworths rebranded itself as ‘‘ the fresh food people’’.
The chain sold 20 tonnes of fresh asparagus in the spring of 1991 and 125 tonnes three years later, when 400 types of fresh fruit and vegetables were bringing in $ 1 billion annually.
The slogan still serves the company well, although, like gourmet before it, fresh may soon wear a little ragged. Consumers may twig, for example, that those refrigerated cabinets have lengthened less to accommodate truly fresh milk than concoctions using soy beans or reconstituted powder. They will also regret supermarkets driving away so many small fruiterers and butchers.
Win some, lose some. While fast food has proliferated, the range, number, overall quality and price range of restaurants have multiplied. We can meet with friends, or resort to individualistic meal replacements, such as Up & Go. We’ve gained so much nutritional knowledge it’s self- cancelling. We’ve woken up to genetic modification, but not to other tampering. Our rediscovery of people- to- people markets scarcely yet challenges marketing.
With so many products pulling in so many health, ethical, green, taste and style directions, we’ve gone stir crazy. The most noticeable change in 25 years has been that food once good to eat has become, as anthropologists might say, good to talk.
And read and talk, write and watch we do. While Alexander might have slowed lately, Bill Grainger and Kylie Kwong keep putting out cookbooks and Donna Hay only accelerates. Guidebooks have elevated more whimsical Shannon Bennett up there with Tetsuya Wakuda, and the Food Channel runs Jamie, Nigella, Gordon and even old Keith continuously.
Pim, ( a Thai woman living and blogging in California and eating everywhere famous) lists another 21 essential ‘‘ daily blog reads’’. And Lithuanian- born internet entrepreneur and fashion model Aiste seems to have given up her tag line ‘‘ Who said models don’t eat’’ in favour of the more expansive ‘‘ Eating around the world’’ and she’s not joking.
What lies behind the rise and rise of food talk? It’s actually a return to a central human concern, meals. After World War II, the food system moved to finished products. Predictable home cooking was replaced by unprecedented choice. While big business has marketed ready- made items, especially takeaways, snacks and chicken nuggets, cookery writers and critics have pushed gourmet. While low fat has masked low grade, the gastroscenti have urged the high life. With such an unsettled menu, food talk was bound to get noisier.
Much has been trivial, and the foodie flood has left at least two dry patches. First, the food obsession has further to percolate. Gastronomic reformers have had to compete against sizeable advertising budgets. According to a recent estimate, the average Australian child is being shown 6074 TV advertisements for energy- dense food products every year. McDonald’s and Coke are the world’s most recognised brands, their logos apparently outdoing the Christian cross.
Second, as well as spreading, food fascination must intensify. The foodies have to get more philosophically aggressive. Unless menu choices are to run right away from our ability to think about them, gastronomy has to become more than fine food promotion. Meals may no longer be mere fuel, but they are still not at the forefront of Western thought.
In our glittering, technical economy, dining is still presented as a distracting leisure activity and aspirational style statement. Finance, fame and power are still more exciting than bobo necessities such as the home espresso machine. Labor’s recent slogan ‘‘ fresh thinking’’ is probably only metaphorical.
When Lynn Martin founded the food history research centre at the University of Adelaide in 1997, colleagues elsewhere sniped at ‘‘ trivial’’ interests. Yet, as every family and friendship group knows, matters of life, death, tradition and aesthetics are dealt with at the dinner table.
Really bringing food to the fore would overturn many common misconceptions. As a small example, art galleries would have to rethink the name ‘‘ decorative arts’’ for the cutlery and crockery, which are intrinsic, while paintings actually only decorate the dining room. Vegetarians would have to stop presenting theirs as the moral position, when it deliberately separates people from the metabolic universe.
Perhaps the most urgent intellectual task is to rethink the economy in terms of the circulation of food rather than money.
Economic father figure Adam Smith focuses on the human propensity to ‘‘ truck, barter and exchange’’, but this doesn’t require money. Furthermore, his market relies on the intersecting appetites of individuals (‘‘ the butcher, the brewer, or the baker’’), without the intrusion of large organisations.
So, Stephanie, Leo and Gordon, keep up the food talk. And, you, too, Gobbler. The fastest report to reach the outside world about the recent Fifteenth Symposium of Australian Gastronomy, held south of Hobart, came from the Gobbler, whose Tasmanian blog, ‘‘ is about food, the food industry, our relationship with food & about . . . ah, food?!’’.
I recently estimated Australia had already produced perhaps 13,000 cookery books, and New Zealand 3000. That’s no minority interest. Michael Symons, One Continuous Picnic: A Gastronomic History of Australia, Melbourne University Press ($ 34.95).
Cook and the books: Gastronomic scribe Michael Symons