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 might note an astoundingly “uncultivated continent”, finding oil refineries, container terminals, waterfront mansions, soaring buildings 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. Back then, 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”.
My history mentioned instances of the colonists resorting to, and sometimes enjoying, native foods. I spent a couple of introductory pages on Aboriginal eating, apologising that the existing records would require another book (and subsequent appearances include Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, 2014).
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”. 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.
I should not have spoken originally of an “uncultivated continent” to cover Indigenous supervision; but my main contrast was between Australia in 1982 and what I had discovered in Italy, where people still enjoyed good cooking, fresh markets, and handy gardens, orchards and vineyards.
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, 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, in the sense of trivialising 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.