An uncultivated continent?

IMAGINE IF Captain Phillip and his charges sailed from Botany Bay into Port Jackson today. Never fear, we would be secure. The Minister for Home Affairs would quickly round up the poorly-armed marines, would-be settlers, miserable convicts and people smugglers.

Before being whisked away, the intruders would have noted an astoundingly “uncultivated continent” of oil refineries, container terminals, waterfront mansions, soaring apartment blocks and vast urban stretches. Around the coast, they might possibly have sighted some patches of agribusiness, somewhere amid the rest being burnt.

That was the strange, industrial Australia I tried to evoke in One Continuous Picnic, my gastronomic history, published in 1982. Forty years ago, the place was feeding on cans, frozen packets and plastic. Fresh, local foods were widely assumed to be doomed. Indigenous culture was discarded. Little nuance was needed. A “land without peasants”. We only ate on rather than of the land.

My history found exceptions, including instances of the colonists resorting to, and sometimes enjoying, native foods. More importantly, I spent a couple of introductory pages celebrating Aboriginal eating, apologising that topic would require another book (and subsequent appearances include Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, 2014, and its response, Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu debate, 2021).

My sole example was Western Desert people, rounded up for the British atomic tests. Relying on a paper by anthropologist Dr Richard Gould, I sketched their “complicated skills and culture which had sustained them perhaps 40,000 years in apparently inhospitable conditions … They survived not so much through great physical endurance as through knowledge – their ‘cognitive map’.”

I mentioned them, I said, to “highlight our own profoundly novel way of feeding”, contrasting their “respect for the immediate environment and the invaders’ indifference”.

In the mid-1990s, I learned about semi-permanent settlement and complex horticulture, when Marion Maddox and I wrote a book on the Hindmarsh Island affair, involving the Ngarrindjeri of the Murray Mouth.

Incidentally, such was the well-financed legal ferocity of that anti-Indigenous campaign, including Slapp writs (Strategic lawsuits against public participation), through which obsessed parties from Tony Abbott to Chris Kenny assisted John Howard into power, that, understandably, no publisher would touch our revelations.

Speaking of an “uncultivated continent”, especially when covering Indigenous supervision, was a simplification; but my main contrast was between what I had discovered in Italy, where people still then enjoyed good cooking, fresh markets, and handy gardens, orchards and vineyards, and Australian in 1982.

Mine certainly wasn’t a terra nullius argument, since the book opened with “the patrols to round up remnants of the 10,000 or more Aborigines who once roamed the Western desert”. If anything, I guess, it was overly influenced by Wilderness Society-type thinking.

Much more has been written about Australian food since, both about the successes before the First Fleet, and the at least partially improved prospects, but my book had established eating as historically insightful (against the widespread acceptance there was nothing to write about), and I stick to the broad case.

My latest contribution, Meals Matter (2020), generalises the claim to assert that capitalism has systematically uncultivated the world, by having trivialised gastronomic talk, along with separating people from the soil, and imposing globalised machine production, and plastics.

I’m sure Meals Matter will also turn out to be overly-simplified in important respects. Yet I believe, again, that gastronomy can correct prevailing political and economic theory. Many of us keep trying.

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