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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

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