Graham Pont, an appreciation

PERHAPS I ALREADY KNEW, but I only recently took in that Dr K. Graham Pont died on 4 April 2021. Born in Maitland (Newcastle) on 8 April 1937, he therefore lived just short of 84 years, and should have “left the world”, as Brillat-Savarin was said to have done, “like a satisfied diner leaving the banquet-room.”

Graham seemed given to pronouncements, did not suffer fools lightly, and abruptly washed his hands of gastronomy, and of me, but we achieved something together with the early Symposiums of Australian Gastronomy. Let me reminisce.

The publication of my gastronomic history of Australia, One Continuous Picnic, in 1982 drew out some of the very few individuals who took food seriously 40 years ago. We needed a get-together.

My “joke” was I hoped to meet Marion Halligan, the novelist, whose review of the book for the Canberra Times revealed someone actually interested in such topics!

More pragmatically, when promoting the book in Sydney, I approached Graham, as a leading theoretician, and restaurateur Gay Bilson, as a leading practitioner, with the idea of convening a small national conference.

I admired Gay’s intelligent dedication to style, good cooking, elegant conviviality and location at Berowra Waters Inn.

Similarly ahead of his time, Graham had begun teaching a string of gastronomic courses in general studies at the University of NSW, as the university sought to move from its engineering origins by requiring non-Arts students to undertake a broadening topic. Graham used Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste in his “Food in History” course, first offered in 1979, and in “Gastronomy – A philosophical introduction to food in society” from 1983.

Graham had gone straight into a lectureship in philosophy in 1966, immediately upon completing his doctorate at the ANU (“Propositions and meaning: A study of denotationist theories in logical meaning”, which ran from J.S. Mill’s System of Logic to Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica).

Graham said “yes” to a conference, but Gay “no”, so I tried again a year later, when both were keen to convene an event within three months so as to synchronise with the Adelaide Festival.

Graham suggested that Barbara Santich, then a Ph.D. student in French, might help with administration. She and I sent out notifications here, there and everywhere, including to media outlets and university departments, but struggled to attract much attention, gathering 48 people at the grandly-sited Carclew mansion in North Adelaide.

The original formulation was largely Graham’s and mine. In different ways, we shared Sixties libertarian tendencies that not only inclined us against formal structures, but led to such other policies as “D.I.Y.” – we asked all participants to contribute as a theoretician and/or practitioner. In theory, we would not call on outside catering, which never completely worked. It did, nonetheless, lead to some excellent BYO and joint cooking adventures. To encourage home cooks, the symposium introduced the biscuit option for coffee breaks, and jams for breakfasts; these remained a highlight.

With no-one left as a mere spectator, everyone contributed to, in effect, one big meal or, perhaps more accurately, a weekend house party.  Sharing beliefs in such allegedly “lost causes” as “fresh and local”, participants often felt exceptional, perhaps eccentric, and kept calling themselves “passionate”.

Graham’s keenness for ancient Greek philosophy supported the notion of a “symposium”, and he wanted a Symposium of Australian Gastronomy (rather than Australian Symposium of Gastronomy, and which eventually permitted an unfortunate acronym). In league with a small Adelaide group (Jennifer Hillier, Cath Kerry and others), I stewed over practical ideas, such as the first meal being a pointedly simple, “Brown bread lunch”. The invitation was to bring bread to go with lobster and Cath’s mayonnaise – simplicity itself.

“Everyone” warned me that the meteorically-talented Phillip Searle wouldn’t be organised enough to get a closing banquet together, but at least some who were there would speak of it as the meal of their lives. Back then, none of us was used to such intensity.

Besides, Phillip assembled a great team – other chefs included Cheong Liew and Trish Veitch, with wine organised by Philip White, and servers including actor Geoffrey Rush and Jan Stewart, dressed in clown costumes made by designer Sally Bluff and colleagues. There were even welcoming musicians.

Certainly, the “Clowns banquet” was fabulous on any level. Marion Halligan (yes, she showed up!), Barbara Santich and I agreed to memorialise the experience in three very different, but equally inspired essays in the first Proceedings.

Introducing the Proceedings, I wrote:

The First Symposium of Australian Gastronomy will never be surpassed. The exciting occasion, developing an almost religious fervour, has stimulated new and better activities, which will undoubtedly be reported upon at our next meeting.

We had discovered others who found real meaning in meals. The theorists celebrated the chefs (even they were scarcely celebrities in those days!), and the chefs inspired the theorists. A handful of key participants were even devotees of Brillat-Savarin and his “gastronomy”.

Many have appraised Brillat-Savarin’s work as garrulous, privileged, sexist, and indulgent. Others have adopted gastronomy as fancy product reporting and marketing. More generously, we tended to view his gastronomy as a deceptively profound, late-Enlightenment, intellectual entry to the whole world.

We even supplied participants with each of Gay, Graham, Barbara and my “top 10” reading lists; and all four included Brillat-Savarin. Plus, he was helpful for distributed notes on the meanings of “gastronomy”, “gourmand”, “epicure”, “chef” and the like.

In his first paper, focussing on Physiology of Taste’s “Bouquet” section, Graham Pont extolled Brillat-Savarin as “revolutionary”, and as having elevated gastronomy as almost musical. This was high praise, given Graham’s long engagement with musicology, particularly Handel.

Graham graciously introduced me with an estimate that my “very important book… will emerge eventually as a turning point in the development of Australian gastronomic consciousness.” Undoubtedly, not every participant would have gone so far, but they would have shared the exhilaration of being in a roomful of dedicated foodies.

Proclaiming gastronomy as the supervisory science, I recognised “food is what life is all about”. From “some quick calculations… you can reasonably expect to have 76,650 meals during your lifetime but to die only once.” Looking for Australian precedents, I drew attention to the call by “Rita” in her Cottage Cookery, published in Melbourne in 1897, for a chair of gastronomy. She anticipated a Minister of Gastronomy.

Graham and my grand visions fed on each other, and were boosted by his gastronomy tutor Anthony Corones, whose initial symposium paper was “Culture and agriculture: Towards a philosophical cosmology of food”. Learned papers from Marion Halligan and Barbara Santich contributed from their separate immersions in French literature and food, with Marion referring to the gastronome as someone with “fork and pen in hand”.

Perhaps Graham was right – it was “Australian Gastronomy”, we felt such path-breakers. Contributing to a sense of our uniqueness, we brought out esteemed culinary history publisher and Oxford food symposium founder Alan Davidson, who proved unexpectedly ascetic, and with a love of historical detail but disdain for theory and, especially, Physiologie du goût.

Whereas, as Graham would record:

hundreds of students at the University of New South Wales have gone through a line-by-line analysis of all thirty meditations; and, since the first Symposium of Australian in Gastronomy in 1984, Brillat-Savarin has been required reading (Graham Pont, Appetite, 1995, 24 169-179: 171).

While the first event attracted few scholars, Graham offered anthropologist Betty Meehan’s apologies, and we had a couple of senior scientists, a nutritionist or two, home economists, and catering college folk. Adding to the mix were two former politicians (including the extraordinary Premier of South Australia, and future restaurateur, Don Dunstan), a noted novelist (Halligan), a dedicated ABC producer (Robyn Ravlich), and wine names (Stacey Hill-Smith, Jane Mitchell), along with chefs – Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer, Gay Bilson, Gabriel Gaté, Janet Jeffs, and I’m undoubtedly missing several names.

Especially after ABC-TV news made a joke segment about our first symposium, we didn’t court publicity. By not welcoming media to just front up, we might have exacerbated the mistaken impression of an invitation-only event, but several actual participants wrote (or broadcast in Ravlich’s case) whatever they wanted.

We also paid attention to the Proceedings. Our papers were not always of a tone or standard expected by academic journals, but authors often enthusiastically broke new ground. At the same time, our records recognised the creativity of the meals.

From the start, we didn’t follow meeting procedures, such as passing resolutions or make public statements, despite some participants being keen.  It was up to some self-appointed group to propose a future event, and these convenors had a free hand. Among other consequences, there’s no formal authorisation for a particular event, nor even a mechanism to abandon the entire run (of around 24 thus far, depending how you count). Instead, the symposium theoretically would suit the moment, and the times definitely changed.

After the first two symposiums, Gay Bilson’s wise adjudication proved insufficient, and Graham and my paths diverged. In Melbourne in 1987, he delivered a mischievous rant about my book’s “Marxism” (if only I’d read some Marx!). His more-measured, written version found me neglecting aristocrats, but I had written of “peasants” not as a class but as people living close to the soil – as pre-industrial (my argument was not synchronic, as Pont would have it, but diachronic).

He and I took turns as convenors, and at his symposium in Sydney in 1988, Graham now wanted more scholarship to the extent he welcomed (nonetheless interesting) papers from academics who just came in for that session.

In league with Anthony Corones, I maintained the “dinner party” model, in which the self-appointed convenors played hosts, and symposiasts were (hopefully) thoroughly engaged. In 1990, we retreated to the extent of living-in at a Catholic seminary with hard beds, and vast kitchens (the church had expected more novices).

Graham Pont had led Australian enthusiasm for glimpsing food’s big picture, and when he washed his hands of gastronomy and returned to musicology, it seemed as if his progeny had escaped him.

My recollection is that Graham radiated an infectious intellectual enthusiasm. While his latest fascination inspired others, any consequent research publication of his could seem unduly esoteric, and anyhow, by then he had located some new preoccupation. He had ecological worries before most, and even flirted with the theory of fireworks. That’s perhaps why I remember him as like a sparkler, his brilliance lighting up those around him, and abruptly spent.

Make no mistake, I applaud his ability to project scholarly exhilaration, so little valued in neoliberal universities, where funding depends on metrics (I presume his musicology would have scored).

Other than Graham’s (typically idiosyncratic) review, and straightforward appraisal from Don Anderson, One Continuous Picnic occasioned almost total academic disinterest, strikingly enough that I went into the lion’s den in 1984 to undertake a Ph.D. to understand gastronomy’s absence.

The world changed. Foodies multiplied, along with their opportunities – with cooking and wine classes, tv shows, books and journalism, cultural acceptance of dining out, and the re-emergence of farmers markets and artisan suppliers. Wine districts held festivals with long lunches, things we’d more or less pioneered.

Celebrated cooks no longer needed the little symposium for peer recognition.

Whereas a local symposium committee might meet over potluck meals (monthly in Adelaide for a few years), organisers communicated more widely by letter (“snail mail”), and foodies eagerly awaited the eventual arrival of overseas journals, the internet made information instant and overwhelming.

By the 1990s, scholars began to show an interest, having themselves become “yuppies”, “chardonnay socialists”, and the like. “Food studies” got going, modestly enough, in the md-1990s. Barbara Santich began the Masters in Gastronomy course at Adelaide in 2002 (although that bent with international and less humanistic winds into Food Studies in 2012).

Scholars across various fields happily attended the big 2016 Melbourne symposium. By then, it seemed much more like a conventional academic conference, dividing into streams. The excitement no longer came from an eccentric or “passionate” DIY goings-on seemingly breaking boundaries, eccentrically calling out monoculture and supermarketing, and indulging in almost forbidden pleasures.

An attraction of the NZ offshoot became its inevitably smaller size, so that culinary historians, recipe writers, anthropologists, nutritionists, wine growers… might still join one table. 

Widespread interest is to that extent gratifying, but it is increasingly specialised. Cooks want one thing or several, actually. Writers go elsewhere. Restaurant-goers aren’t necessarily also home sourdough bakers.

Within academia, food might be studied in relation to race, gender, religion, national sub-group, literature, linguistics, nutrition, historical period, monoculture, environmental destruction, microbiota … Yet we lack much, sadly, by way of the general, transdisciplinary or supervisory gastronomy.

Worse, the food production, processing, and marketing industries have multiplied their conferences, and power. Somewhere in the middle, universities support departments of hospitality and travel.

Graham Pont serves his punch to Gabriel Gaté, while Mick Treloar looks on

In a way, Graham and my hopes have succeeded beyond expectations. Just look around at the “competition” of other festivals, conferences, blogs and groups. Or has gastronomy failed to consolidate? There’s still a role for the serious pursuit of Brillat-Savarin’s project, even more glaringly absent now.

The central ambition was not the study of culinary history, as at the Oxford Symposiums, initiated in 1981, nor activism, as for the Slow Food movement, formed 1989, nor any particular specialisation, but something more marvellous.

We ring-leaders sought to develop gastronomy as a neglected, and yet foundational, intellectual standpoint. We referred frequently to Brillat-Savarin’s definition of gastronomy as the “systematic knowledge of everything that relates to human-beings, so much as they nourish themselves” (with an emphasis on “everything”).

By the second symposium, Anthony Corones spoke of gastronomy as “biosophic” – his word meaning “wisdom concerning human life”. Gastronomy provided, he said, “an interface between science and humanity, and speaks to the human condition”.

The event eschewed press releases, media passes and public statements. Yet its influence was considerable, especially early on, by lifting the thinking and morale among opinion leaders. Briefly, in the late 1980s, the symposium contributed to Australia arguably leading the world in both restaurant tumult and intellectual awareness.

Among much else, Graham’s scholarly radiance inspired me to undertake a Ph.D., and so to publish many papers and books that he presumably never read. A chapter in Meals Matter (2020) progresses Brillat-Savarin studies.

Perhaps an ambitious “Australian gastronomy” should make another appearance. Where are you when we need you, Graham?

2 thoughts on “Graham Pont, an appreciation

  1. brilliant, Michael

    you are a true believer in your field

    a gastronomic pioneer non pareil

    (and very well-written)

    I enjoyed every word

    an aside

    do you know where the word mayonnaise comes from?

    (you probably do)

    R

    Like

  2. Hey, Rob, thanks! Okay, where does the word “mayonnaise” come from? My dictionary can only raise a “perhaps”.
    Do you know the huge and wondrous “Let’s Eat France!”? It’s pretty definitive, and the entry offers “A collection of popular theories”, listing six, the first of which is that in the COD, namely, perhaps from “Port Mahon on Minorca”.

    Like

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