THE AUSTRALIAN REPUBLICAN Movement has proposed a two-step model for appointing a “head of state” to replace Queen Elizabeth (or King Charles, Andrew, Harry or whomever). Of all people, republicans shouldn’t cling like this to the monarchical archetype.
The simple fact is that the head of state is (or should be) the people. We are in charge. Our appointment merely requires simple assertion: Australia belongs to the people! The #AusRepublic proposal betrays nostalgia for hierarchical rule by our betters – “something higher than the politicians”, when it is actually us.
According to the ARM model, the head of state would be little more than “ceremonial”, that is, perform as pseudo-royalty. In terms of power, this official could merely ask members of the House of Representatives who has their “confidence” to form a government. If that’s no-one, the HOS calls an election. Parliament could do that by itself.
So far, Australia has largely got away with a mediocre Constitution, no Bill of Rights, and little by way of a popular or even elite understanding of civics, liberal theory, political philosophy, jurisprudence, republicanism, or however you want to approach the requisite knowledge.
A republic is not achieved by merely replacing a powerful, foreign “figurehead’ with a powerless one. However, getting an Australian republic even half right would require massive research, contemplation, education, inspiration and debate.
The inadequate comprehension around these parts showed up, as Marion Maddox pointed out, when the 1998 Constitutional Convention opted for recognition in the Preamble of some supreme “generic God”. Come on, the supreme national authority is the people, with only the natural economy/ecosystem more formidable.
Since at least the 1930s, when William Cooper petitioned for enfranchisement, direct representation in parliament, and land rights, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander campaigners have sought serious constitutional recognition, with Treaty pressures escalating from the 1970s.
That might sound gradual. Discussion has scarcely even emerged on the constitutional status of corporations. As I show in Meals Matter: A radical economics through gastronomy, corporate apologists have got away with claiming the human right of “liberty” for businesses, while denigrating government by the people. No republic is wanted, when money runs things.
A republic would require renewed investigation of familiar topics – the role of the judiciary, States’ rights, taxation, border security, health, education, etc. – but often in unfamiliar ways. A proper democracy requires a real commitment to education, research and the arts, and not just training, tech and the leisure industries, for example.
But we’re a long way from a fundamental understanding when even political philosophers fail to recognise that John Locke argued his liberal case in basic economic terms, i.e., the human need to eat and to cooperate on that within nature. My next book will cover more of that.
PS: Governors’ residences could be put to good use as retreats for Australians of the Year, poets laureate, writers, playwrights, thinkers … generating more discussions like Grace Tame’s than the present Governor General’s. Yarralumla’s State Dining Room could experiment with banquets, given that’s what political economies are centred on (again, see Meals Matter).
Writer/director Adam McKay attracted big names (Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Ariana Grande, Timothée Chalamet, Rob Morgan, Mark Rylance, etc) to depict the apocalypse.
Movie critics are luke-warm – Don’t Look Up rates only 55% on Rotten Tomatoes (“slapdash, scattershot sendup”).
But some scientists say, “Please watch – this is just what it feels like.”
Both sides have a point. As a movie, Don’t Look Up falls short of the artistic clout of, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or Dr Strangelove (1964) – and both rate 98% on RT. But the new movies is breaking streaming records, and gets a 78% audience rating.
As to the scientists’ pleas, the movie might demonstrate the benefits of following “the science” in terms of peer-reviewed facts. The discovery of the fatal asteroid by astronomy postgraduate (Jennifer Lawrence) should have benefitted humanity.
But the movie also reveals reasons to be sceptical of “the scientists” – with teams of them aiding and abetting capitalism, personified here by a tech billionaire with a life-long dream of shooting himself into space.
The final flourishes of capitalism deserve greater movies, and Don’t Look Up’s audience success will surely stimulate more.
The immediate question here, nonetheless, is whether Don’t Look Up goes on my list of best foodie movies. Okay, it’s more about the distractions, vividly capturing Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” of political illusion, tv chat, TikTok, bottled water and packet snacks.
Eventually, the movie also turns to the only serious contender for human grounding, where? – to a simple meal.
However, the care and consideration of sharing food and conversation is what we need right now, not when it’s too late!
Words are the aspect of meals that helps their planning, description and acclamation.
Likewise, movies are additions – before, after, or with a glass of wine or popcorn – that can also proclaim dining’s centrality to human existence.
Any good movie is bound to include meals. Charlie Chaplin shares his boiled boot in Gold Rush (1925). Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play battling barristers in Adam’s Rib (1949), so that George Kukor establishes their happy domestic relationship by them working comfortably together in the kitchen.
It’s not enough just to show pretty food to make a foodie movie – that’s like bringing in stars like Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal without actually establishing their love.
Foodie movies (initial list below) have to bring the whole world together, however fleetingly. As Italian cook Primo reveals in Big Night (1996): “To eat good food is to be close to God.”
Where does Eric Besnard’s new movie, Delicious, rate on the foodie scale?
Some movie reviewers mustn’t be blessed with the “sacred fire” that Brillat-Savarin described, so that they “regard meals as hours of enforced labour, put on the same level everything that might nourish them, and sit at table like an oyster on its bed”. Accordingly, critics who found Pig merely a trite satire revealed they had missed the central, dramatic point.
In Delicious, another big, obsessive chef has also retreated to the woods, but, whereas Nicolas Cage’s recluse produces one overpowering meal, Grégory Gadeboi’s character ostensibly opens the first restaurant a few days before the French Revolution.
Not that Delicious even tries to be accurate in its details. By 1789, a new kind of dining had already emerged based on restoring broths or “restaurants”, served in private booths. Even more to the point, Antoine Beauvilliers had already brought aristocratic dining to the streets of Paris.
I talk about these developments, and explain why true restaurants are “open domestic households”, in Meals Matter.
Overall, nonetheless, through unashamedly fictional means, Delicious makes bigger statements about the fundamental importance of gastronomic pleasure, and its relationship to French foundation myths.
It is, for example, entirely believable that the French Church decried underground produce as further from God – chef Manceron combines potatoes and truffles in his little pastries that give the movie its title.
In anticipation of you catching Delicious, I won’t give more of the plot, except to disclose that Isabelle Carré, although not so well known outside France, is mesmerising.
Initial list of foodie movies:
Tampopo (1985); Babette’s Feast (1987); Chicken and Duck Talk (1988); Au Petit Marguery (1991); Like Water for Chocolate (1992); Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994); Big Night (1996); Chocolat (2000); Mostly Martha (2002); Sideways (2004); Ratatouille (2007); The Trip (2010); The Lunchbox (2013); The Truffle Hunters (2020); Pig (2021); Délicieux (Delicious) (2021).
The movie Pig, starring Nicolas Cage, tells of a recluse who leaves the woods in search of his stolen truffle-hunting pig in Portland, Oregon, where he was once an influential chef.
It mightn’t be everyone’s cup-of-tea; it’s filmed grimly almost entirely in the dark; Cage speaks somewhere between a growl and a mumble; but I thought it great.
It’s a counterpoint to both the Truffle Hunters, about Italian men and their dogs, and SBS’s The Beach, showing Warwick Thornton cooking, and looking, for himself.
An even closer (although less successful) comparison would have to be the recent ABC-TV series, Aftertaste, about an authoritarian chef seeking to redeem himself back in the Adelaide Hills.
Mind you, Pig starts out deceptively as if about a brutal guy – with only a pig to share his meals – fighting the world. But it soon heads elsewhere, although exactly where, as in any decent artwork, can withstand endless interpretation. I won’t reveal too much, in case you intend taking the journey.
While the orthodox movie critics, with few exceptions, praise the movie highly, and especially the performances, the rest of the internet helps answer the big question, which is whether it’s pro- or anti-foodie.
Take this from the New Republic:
Pig cuts straight through foodie hypocrisy
The overwrought film from Michael Sarnoski contains a fundamental truth about a very sick industry.
It’s about time America became disenchanted with foodies. Pig, Michael Sarnoski’s foodie noir about loss, love, and labor in Portland, Oregon’s restaurant scene, doesn’t leave them much room for redemption…
This critic, Jan Dutkiewicz, disapproves of “obnoxious” restaurants and “foodie writing—think Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and their literary progeny”. He opposes “elitist” fetishizing. And he congratulates the movie, which he didn’t seem to like much, for also exposing the industry’s abuse of workers and animals. (As a scholar, Dutkiewicz works on “improving the treatment of animals through the legal system”.)
The scathing, non-comprehending reviewer in the New Yorker declares the movie’s key moment to be when our martyr apparently learns “the awful truth of the restaurant world and of the world at large”.
What I will say is that this is one of the great modern Food movies, and I would not be surprised to see allusions to it pop up in culinary culture over the next few years … It’s about our authentic relationships to the food we eat and the emotions and memories that come along with any given meal.
Moody, foodie drama with a menacing side serve of parody
… But he’s a foodie not a fighter, and the kind of reverential treatment that might be given to a samurai sword in a Tarantino movie is here more likely to go to a salted baguette.
Hillary Dixler Canavan organised a roundtable for the foodie website, Eater.com, where she’s a restaurant writer, familiar with Portland, and “obsessed” about the movie.
A Heated Discussion About ‘Pig,’ the Movie of the Summer
Eight Eater editors debate and dissect the new Nicolas Cage film about a man’s search for his beloved truffle pig
The foodies’ reactions turn out to be mixed, including Canavan’s:
It would have annoyed me much less if the film’s most important women weren’t dead or in a coma.
Needless to say, the theme of women gone missing is central to the movie. When a sympathetic baker recalls former times, and she finally hugs the grizzled hero, the camera pointedly retains its distance. A woman suddenly revealed in close-up is an intense movie high point.
So, is Pig foodie or anti-foodie? One answer could be that it’s anti-bad-foodie and pro-good-foodie, but I hesitate to divide foodies into, say, “deep” and “shallow”, even when I suspect fetishising.
I’d rather think of Pig as post-foodie in that it treats restaurant dining – and transcendent meals, in particular – with the utmost seriousness, while at the same time satirising ridiculous hype.
It’s not just about sublime tastes either, but very much also about the pleasure of sharing with a loved-one. At the climax, the tragedy turns out to be dining in the absence of not just a pig, but treasured human companions.
MARION AND I SHARED three mandarins yesterday, and were struck by the differences in taste. We declared the first the winner, the second relatively lacking, and the third must have been older.
But are we interested in taste? The evidence is that we moderns are alienated.
English speakers only added umami (savoury) to the standard four tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter towards the end of last century, and there’re more, seemingly, including fattiness.
We separately detect texture, temperature and “cool” menthol, “hot” chilli, “stinging” carbonation, etc, as well as the crunchy sound of those mandarins. On top, flavour relies on aroma, detected in the nose, and far too neglected.
Scientifically, Linda Buck and Richard Axel only discovered something as crucial as the human olfactory receptors as recently as 1991, sharing a Nobel Prize in 2004 (see explanatory diagram below).
As well, taste depends on the surrounding aesthetics and social comforts, and mindfulness.
Nonetheless, it’s an ill wind … The the science of smell has looked up these past months, after its loss (called anosmia from Greek an– not + osmé smell) turned out to be a tell-tale characteristic of covid-19 (less so with the delta variant).
The sense can remain absent with long covid, and, if it returns, become mixed up. Under parosmia, normally pleasant smells can turn nasty, a problem for relationships.
Dogs and bees have now been trained to sniff out the virus in humans, and people presumably could, too, once they removed their masks – you might recall that good, old-fashioned, pre-“telehealth” doctors used smell as a diagnostic tool.
“What can covid-19 teach us about the mysteries of smell?” asked Brooke Jarvis in the New York Times magazine. As she explains, “The virus’s strangest symptom has opened new doors to understanding our most neglected sense…
“Where vision depends on four kinds of receptors — rods and three types of cones — smell uses about 400 receptors, which are together estimated to be able to detect as many as a trillion smells.”
Being anosmic herself, Jarvis already knew how modern people regard smell as the least important sense, the one they would be most willing to lose. Yet its loss devastates them. It’s dangerous not to smell the smoke of a fire, let alone “off” food, but it’s the pleasure that people miss.
Olfaction has tremendous hedonic importance. Smell sensations are now known to run through the olfactory bulb in the brain not to any one site, as with sight, but more widely to the brain, and not just for identification, but also to connect to memory and emotion. Smell is important for life’s enjoyment.
While doggy webpages continue to boast incredible canine abilities, in a breakthrough paper entitled “Poor human olfaction is a 19th-century myth” in 2017, Rutgers University neuroscientist, John McGann, decided:
The human olfactory bulb is actually quite large in absolute terms and contains a similar number of neurons to that of other mammals. Moreover, humans have excellent olfactory abilities. We can detect and discriminate an extraordinary range of odors, we are more sensitive than rodents and dogs for some odors, we are capable of tracking odor trails, and our behavioral and affective states are influenced by our sense of smell.
Pigs and dogs only seem superior for detecting truffles from their wonderful aroma (as in the beautiful movie, Truffle Hunters), because they have their noses closer to the ground, and are rigorously trained.
We are taught to read good books and admire great art, with few introductions to scent. Wine and perfume lovers undertake their educations as adults.
Ironically, lockdown gave a boost to sight’s dominance, as we concentrate on one continuous screen in hand and on wall, showing visual gags, slick dances, cool lifestyles, emojis, binges, cats, recipes presented by stylists, and cooking game shows (satirised in the kitchenette opera, Chop Chef).
But a wide world of smells or “osmocosm” has its supporters. That derivation from osme, the ancient Greek for ‘smell’ or ‘odor’” comes from food science writer Harold McGee in one of at least three books on the sense of smell that showed up as the virus struck:
McGee, Harold (2020), Nose Dive: A field guide to the world’s smells, London: John Murray
Barwich, Ann-Sophie (2020), Smellosophy: What the nose tells the mind,Harvard University Press
Dunn, Rob, and Monica Sanchez (2021), Delicious: The evolution of flavour and how it made us human, Princeton University Press
Even the human ability to detect a “trillion” separate odours is undoubtedly an underestimate, cognitive researcher AsifaMajid has now just reported in the journal, Trends in Cognitive Sciences. She has located conjectures as high as 1090 potentially detectable smells. “Contrary to the view that we are microsomatic [poor smellers], humans have higher odor sensitivity – that is, lower odor detection thresholds – than animals traditionally considered to be super smellers, including dogs and pigs.”
Majid is waking scholars to enormous cultural differences in the sense of smell. She reports that English has strikingly “few words for smell qualities” and “smell talk is infrequent, and people find it difficult to name odors in the laboratory”. From surveys, English speakers encounter vision words 1768 times more often than smell words.
Not having specific words, requires speakers to improvise, so that wines exhibit “pepper”, “vanilla” or “raspberry” notes. As a Ph.D. candidate at Monash University, Thomas Poulton, puts it, lacking many smell words, Australian English speakers resort to source-based descriptions, saying “like mint”, for example. He has just published a paper in Language and Cognition finding that, by preference, we rate a smell as pleasant or unpleasant, finding it “sweet”, for example.*
Cross-cultural data tell a different story. Many languages “have large smell lexicons (smell can even appear in grammar) in which smell talk is also more frequent and naming odors is easy”.
Majid is a leader in research that is finding hunter-gatherer cultures to be highly attuned. Unlike we moderns, hunter-gatherers give names to, and talk about, numerous smells. The olfactory “codability” is high. Linguists refer to the ease with which speakers find the right word as “codability”.
While the olfactory aspects of Indigenous Australian languages have been little studied, Clair Hill from the University of NSW has contributed pungent evidence from Umpila to an international study.** Umpila is still spoken among elders forcibly removed to Lockhart River, far north Queensland.
Remember that English shows high codability for colour, shape, and sound, and low codability for touch, taste, and smell. Hill’s data show that the Umpila language is precisely the reverse – whereas colour is ineffable (only three specific colour words – for red, white and black), the conversation bursts with smells.
Again, in Malay, shape is the most codable of the senses, on average, and smell the least; whereas, “in Umpila the exact opposite pattern holds—smell is the most codable and shape is the least”.
For pleasure, if no other reason, we’ve got to re-engage with smells.
Yet again, Brillat-Savarin proved ahead of his time with Physiology of Taste (1826). His first two “Meditations” cover scientific aspects of the senses, and taste, in particular. Taste is “the one of our senses which, all things considered, gives us the most pleasures”, he explains (§13). The rest of the book then examines the “moral history” of this most fundamental of senses, making for an Economics of Taste (as I argue in Meals Matter).
Even while carefully analysing the process, Brillat-Savarin tends to use “taste” for the combination of taste, other detection in the mouth, smell in the nose, plus the contributing factors, including physical and social circumstances, and attentiveness.
Next time Marion and I share mandarins, I should perhaps make tasting notes, articulating the finer aspects of the experience. Or maybe just enjoy them.
*Poulton, Thomas (2020), “The smells we know and love: Variation in codability and description strategy”, Language and Cognition, 12(3): 501-525
**Majid, A. et al., “Differential coding of perception in the world’s languages,” Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences USA, 6 November 2018; 115(45): 11369–11376
***Clair Hill has a chapter, “’Language of perception in Umpila”, in the Oxford Handbook of Language of Perception, published next year.
IN 1773, JAMES BOSWELL called human-beings the “cooking animal”. Yet, for all the cooking we do, we rarely ask why. And when we do, the most common explanation is far too narrow, and even misleading.
Appreciating cooking’s basis in cooperation flips conventional representations of not only cooking, but the world.
Dictionaries head the disinformation. The Concise Oxford is typical, stating that to “cook” is to “prepare (food) by heating it”. Miriam-Webster suggests “to prepare food for eating especially by means of heat”.
Certainly, the verb “cook” often means using heat. But, as every cook knows, cooks do much more. Not merely standing at the stove, they freeze, pickle, and serve raw. They also weigh, count, estimate, clean, chop, slice, toss, beat, stir….
Before the actual preparation, they go shopping, run to the garden, open cupboards, and organise deliveries. Then they carry to the table, ladle, carve, arrange. Still smiling… wash up, take to the compost bin…
Even that is far from all cooks do, for they have taken formal or informal lessons, learned family recipes, made ethical choices, kept an eye on the budget, followed the festival calendar, and paid some attention to diners’ preferences. All this just to heat food?
While the assumption is often that heating improves taste, scientists such as evolutionary primatologist Richard Wrangham have claimed that such pre-digestion added to human efficiency (Catching Fire: How cooking made us human, 2009).
Paleoethnobotanist Kristen Gremillion explained in Ancestral Appetites: Food in prehistory (2011):
“The overarching benefit of cooking is that it acts as a kind of predigestion that extends the human body’s ability to extract nutrition efficiently, greatly increasing our ability to adapt to changing circumstances.”
As well as heating, Gremillion accepted other transformational techniques, including grinding, soaking and fermenting. Michael Pollan enshrined the idea in the title of Cooked: A natural history of transformation (2013).
All interesting, but none of this goes far enough. A fuller picture emerges with a distributional theory. This is the key argument of my book, A History of Cooks and Cooking, which came out in 1998. (The original publishers called it, The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks, and it has always remained for me, Cooks Made Us).
The cooks’ more exemplary instrument is not fire, but the knife. Our ancestors were cutting with flints well before – a million years before – they tended flames. They foraged, sliced and chopped to share food, and that continues to this day.
Heating food might increase its nutritional potential, but distribution is at the heart of society and culture. The archetypical campfire or pot brings people together, so that cooks weave entire ways of life. Cooks create civilisation.
I picked out the three moments of cooking: acquisition, distribution and organisation. That is, cooks gather food, and then divide and share it around. Throughout, they work with cultural patterns.
Being so fundamental to human existence is cooking’s problem. Giving ultimate value to the sharing of meals challenges self-proclaimed authorities, who have championed their great tasks of religion, war, finance, industry and scientific inquiry. “Preparing food by heating” is readily distanced as “women’s work”.
Threatened by grassroots insurgency, ruling ideologues have consistently trivialised cooking. Plato’s philosophical dialogues explicitly put cooks down. Money’s wondrous logic now demands obedience.
With the power preaching from the capitalist clouds, we must, together, restore everyday reality. A good start could be in dictionaries, Wikipedia, science, common understandings…
Subversive political philosopher John Locke explained in a letter from France in November 1678: “We are not born in heaven, but in this world, where our being is to be preserved with meat, drink, and clothing and other necessaries that are not born with us, but must be got.” That’s what cooks lead us in, together.
A phantasmagorical opera about internet-charged cooking at the end of capitalism, how could I refuse?
INEXPLICABLY, many friends “don’t like opera”. But they should have joined the audience for the final of only four performances of chamber opera Chop Chef at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, last Saturday.
Edging in age towards 30, the crowd might not have interspersed earnest applause with the occasional “brava”, but they whooped and stomped. More the Globe idea.
Surely Blush Opera (@blushopera) will arrange a further season of their competitive cooking show in song. I’d go again – this culturally-rich triumph demands more than one viewing.
Described as “clash of a highbrow form with lowbrow reality TV tropes and everyday language”, Chop Chef brings together seven great, mainly young singers and four-piece orchestra (clarinet, flute, cello and piano), conducted by Luke Spicer.
The music is by Paul Smith, who is a senior lecturer in composition at the University of New England, an expert on anime and manga, and composer for toy piano. The libretto belongs to Julie Koh (@juliekoh), a satirical short-story author. Born in Sydney to Chinese-Malaysian parents, Koh studied politics and law, then quit a corporate law career to pursue writing, luckily for us.
The setting in a cooking competition studio allows extended fun with not just culinary obsession and television “reality”, but also racial and sexual stereotypes, and operatic musical forms with extended arias, satisfying choruses, and women, and the world, dying at the end.
True to both opera and tv formats, the six competitors reveal their back stories and dreams, and are “eliminated” in turn, each with a farewell aria. You might get a bit of the feel from “Studio 10”.
As to the characters, a successful, slim, Lean In corporate feminist with single-minded mottoes, Victoria (coloratura soprano Ayako Ohtake) returns as last year’s winner of Chop Chef. The “kawaii” Kitty (mezzo-soprano Jermaine Chau) has arrived in Chatswood via Happy Valley (a well-to-do suburb of Hong Kong, and racecourse). Her sob story is being born colour-blind, but now saved by her guide dog, a labradoodle. Kitty specialises in Hello Kitty milkshakes, refers to others as “babes”, and is doing it all for her labradoodle.
Kale (baritone Nick Geddes) is a Byron Bay influencer, whose form of address is “bruh”, and whose kale smoothies will put him in the league of other great inventors, such as Elon Musk. Andy (tenor Gavin Brown) is the “Asian fetishist”, who falls immediately in love with Kitty, and whose ambition is to take Asian fusion to the East. From Finland, Tom (bass-baritone Benjamin Caulkwell) is a gay, misogynistic lumbersexual into meat. Behind his deli door, the music will be pumping. Renée (soprano Lisa Cooper) is into vintage dresses and baking to make others happy, and sadly a loser, whose soufflé fails to rise (she does return glamorously in fascinator for the final bows, when we could have kept stomping and applauding).
The three stern judges, projected like Big Brother onto screens, are sung by the one baritone (David Hidden) in three different facial-hair disguises, and delightful accents.
The libretto carries far too many cultural references for any single audience member to pick up. It’d mean knowing cookery terms, millennial identities and their jargon, Puccini, Adam Smith, the tribulations of late capitalism, hedonistic philosophy, and no doubt stuff I didn’t even recognise. I did appreciate the transformation of Madama Butterfly into the “Asian fetishist”, who has discovered Nagasaki, and awaits his thankless lover’s return.
Rather than repeat lines, as usual in opera, the libretto keeps moving, constantly throwing off allusions and jokes. One extended aria concerns turducken, with animals swallowing animals, until the fly has to find its way out of the whale. The judges set a challenge to cook an authentically authentic dish – declared to be authentically authentic Italian. This is the occasion for a long operatic burlesque, hilariously stringing together every Italian word you’ve ever heard.
That verbal intensity could have left the music merely as backing, with little chance for a tune, but Smith has the confidence to more than hold his own, surely thrilled at the commitment and skill of all musicians and singers.
The wonderful singers can even act without hamming it up, presumably because they so readily related to the show’s content, and also to the credit of the directors of the seemingly flawless whole, Kenneth Moraleda and Nicole Pingon, and team.
I’ve possibly laughed more at the theatre, been moved by operas more, found topical revue more telling, but for up-to-the-minute laughs, sentiment, and satire… Chop Chef cries out for a new season.
BEFORE WE GET any further: Italian white truffles are more marvelously aromatic than the French black, and have resisted cultivation, unlike the latter.
Many years before white truffles fetched several thousand dollars per kilogram, I found “the truffle man”, as promised, hanging around the square in Castellina in Chianti. He pulled the fungi from his overcoat pockets, and we negotiated.
Being winter with the car windows closed, for a few kilometers the stink made me fear I had been conned. But that suddenly swapped to triumph, and the scent wafted through our ancient mill for days.
Admittedly, I treated them too skimpily, compared to a subsequent restaurant bowl of tagliatelle completely covered by better-quality truffle shavings, so that the warmth lifted the vapours.
Perhaps people who catch the new movie, The Truffle Hunters, filmed around Alba in northern Italy, will divide in two – those who do not appreciate what the fuss is about, and those who do. But I am being too precious – black truffles can be good (Lièvre à la royale is sublime), even artificial “truffle oil” gives the idea, and the new movie certainly communicates their desirability.
Admitting to not having appreciated truffles when treated to them at a restaurant, and declaring The Truffle Hunters more about old men and their dogs than old men and their truffles, the Guardian reviewer Peter Bradshaw nevertheless sums it up: “A strange, funny, mysterious and rather beautiful film”.
It is no documentary, more a work of art. In place of voice-overs, interviews and facts, the movie poses one or another truffle hunter in a carefully-chosen setting for a single, beautifully-lit shot. The hunter talks with another hunter, or with his dog, his dealer, his broken-down typewriter or, in one case, his wife.
In place of any fly-on-the-wall pretence (as in Honeyland), the movie employs the studied gaze of the portrait painter. Breaking up the sequence of canvasses, the camera occasionally follows a hunter and his dog(s) searching the woods, and digging up the prize. Once or twice, the static approach gives way even more frenetically to a camera strapped to a dog racing through the undergrowth.
By way of another contrast with cagey old men with their loyal dogs and hard-won, nobbly finds, dealers are shown attracting much fancier prices than they pass on. A cushion is carried past the pews and placed between two large bottles of wine on a secular altar, where a massive truffle is later displayed for photographers. In one glorious vignette, supported by Puccini, a dealer eats a truffled egg dish.
The portraitist’s art is more than finding a good likeness, and the “more” makes for Bradshaw’s strangeness, mystery and beauty. This self-possessed movie acknowledges independent cinema luminary Caroline Libresco as “spiritual advisor”.
CHECK OUT my online chat with senior Economist journalist Dominic Ziegler, organised by Brisbane’s Avid Reader Bookshop here.
Leading Brisbane bookshop @avidreader4101 hosts a conversation between senior journalist for the Economist magazine DOMINIC ZIEGLER, and Meals Matter author MICHAEL SYMONS
I’ve had a writerly go – extending beyond 100,000 words – to demonstrate that Meals Matter, but now I persuade you on Zoom that the book’s not just a pretty cover.
It’s one thing to agree, yes, meals matter, but another to recognise just how much that shapes our politics, economics, and social analyses.
Two centuries of laissez-faire, then free enterprise ideology, and, lately, neoliberalism belittled meals. Our lives had to centre on money instead.
The book demonstrates the upending of economics – once the management of households, with meals at their heart, it became the mathematical depiction of competitive money-making. Once associated with wellness and well-being, “wealth” became financial. Concern for appetite became glorified greed. And so on.
But read the book, and catch up with the conversation from 18 January.