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.

Cultural density clash

See original imageParis has relatively high cultural density. Even modest cafes, bistros and restaurants are meant to be run correctly, I argued the other day.

Crowded, pedestrian-friendly streets and stair-filled buildings help keep people slim. I can add that significant social solidarity – more dining together – protects not only against sugar-snacking, but also against competitive individualism, which provokes mental harm and binge eating.

Such observations provide a contrast with Australia, which might have let more sunlight in when it was the land of the “fair go”,  when lucky country inhabitants would say, “she’ll be right, mate”, when the cuisine was “one continuous picnic”, and when waiters were notoriously slack. But a loose Australia was left comparatively exposed to a hazardous new regime.

Paris is the capital of a relatively tight French republic that demonstrates that any future Australian republic cannot merely banish the monarch, but has to put real power into the hands of the people through a strong state. Here in France, for both good and ill, people gather relatively keenly behind the tricolour, and take seriously “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“liberty, equality, conviviality”).

Australians have an embarrassing flag, carrying four Christian crosses that signify colonialism, theocracy and beer-swilling. It’s symbolic of a less committed polity, which has its attractions, but which leaves Australia a wide-open marketing opportunity. In recent decades, we have had insufficient cultural bulk to resist the neoliberal agenda of let-profit-rule. Certainly, French food is being corporatised, too, but less thoroughly than in Australia, where business pressures intensify relatively uncontested just about everywhere – through the internet, on the sport-grounds, in privatised émigré gulags, and across the arts, where the common good is being replaced by the sponsor’s. If audiences don’t flock, then the “market” has spoken.

That is more or less the complaint in an article, “Culture crisis: The arts funding cuts are just a symptom of a broader malaise in Australia”, in the latest Monthly.

Writer and critic Alison Croggon is worried principally by attacks on a more elevated culture – “the yarts” – but she makes a similar comparison.

“The past three years have seen an unremitting ideological war on knowledge, inquiry and, significantly, cultural memory,” she writes, citing cuts to scientific bodies, universities, research programs, museums, archives, galleries, the ABC, National Library’s Trove, and, of her special concern, grants to small arts companies, and individual practitioners.

Right from the start, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a ruthlessly neoliberal agenda, promising “a thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market.” That’s liberty for business, and hostility to égalité and fraternité. He wants a nation “that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative”, which the context makes clear means financially creative, even financially disruptive, as he later added.

While Turnbull’s government might flounder with set-pieces, his Ministers have gone to town using administrative methods to prosecute the culture war against Australia Council recipients and the like.

As Croggon explodes:

The forces of convention have slammed down again. Just as the arts funding debacle is seeing a new conservatism rise on our main stages, so too our critical culture has returned to its default chitchat.

She then reveals: “I’m writing this at La Chartreuse, a former monastery in the south of France… In the 17th century, this room belonged to monks. Now that La Chartreuse is the headquarters of Le centre national des écritures du spectacle (National Centre for Theatre Writers), or CNES, it’s occupied by artists.”

See original imageShe couldn’t imagine a similar institution in Australia – “a centre with comparable resources, devoted solely to the development of writing for theatre … The imagination stops dead. It is simply an impossible thought.”

I have figures to demonstrate France’s more financially assertive collectivity. According to a survey for 2014, general government spending as a proportion of GDP in France was 57.3%, which ranked second highest of 29 OECD countries. Australian expenditure of 36.2% was second lowest. We were even worse than the U.S., also in the bottom bunch, on 38.0%. A huge chunk of the Australian budget goes, through outsourcing, not to socially or culturally useful spending but to corporations.

More specific figures for public funding on the arts are harder to locate, so I gave up after clicking on a Canadian report from 2005, quoting older British data. For what they’re worth, France then spent £37.8 per head on the arts (or 0.26% of GDP), while Australia spent £16.4 per head (or 0.14% of GDP).

Croggon bemoans the collapse of critical, let alone angry, arts in Australia and, along with those, the decline in arts criticism in newspapers and apparently now even in blogs. If that’s the case, we need to protect and enhance serious criticism around the dinner-table. We also need conversations about a republic that puts the people more in charge of their fate through a sizeable, non-capitalist state.

Hospital food

IMAG0863The things people will do for a story … war reporters are one-sidedly “embedded” with troops; bloggers cook their way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking

As a food columnist for Australian Society magazine, I once hosted a dinner party using supermarket “gourmet” items. Not a successful night. Not even funny, despite our best efforts. Factory fanciness was a downer.

Undaunted, my latest project has been to test hospital food (and also, now that you ask, to fix a body part). Again, the succession of trays was not funny. Hospital food remains proverbially drear.

Why is it barely edible? With the underlying question: why can’t our society accept that meals matter – in particular, that table-pleasure is recuperative?

Soups seemed to work best. Sweet Corn Chowder reminded me of creamed sweetcorn from a can, when I was a child. Orange-coloured vegetables – pumpkin, kumara (sweet potato) and carrots – almost survived. The “Fish with Hollandaise Sauce” was a surprisingly edible, although from low expectations.

But chicken lost far too much taste and texture. Overly soft beans, zucchini, broccoli, potatoes and cauliflower all gained the same taint. I just had to leave much aside.

The food was brought to the ward in insulated trollies, with one side of each tray kept cold and the other warm, making the metal cutlery cold at the weekend (“recyclable” wooden cutlery was used on weekdays). The items mixed packaged foods (fruit juice, yoghurt, dessert), and previously packaged foods (meats, gravies and vegetables).

2015-05-15 18.01.43
A demonstration of eezy-squeezy margarine

Berri Apple Juice No Added Sugar was “reconstituted” from imported juice; the yoghurt was “lid lickingly good”; and the “handeepax, eezy squeezy margarine” had faint echoes of molecular gastronomy. Maple flavoured syrup was “batch” made, but still “maple flavoured”.

The biscuits with morning and afternoon tea or coffee came in wrappers boasting, not reassuringly, “Nut Free, Seed Free, Egg Free”. The claim, “Easy to Open”, was “certified” by Arthritis Australia. Struggling to open the “Tear Here” cylinders of margarine, I welcomed such certification. But why no “attentively cooked” boasts?2015-05-21 21.33.48 (2)

My book, One Continuous Picnic, sought to comprehend the striking contrast between eating in Italy and industrial Australia, even more pronounced in the 1970s and 1980s. I found Italian freshness, care, taste and pride, and our detachment from the soil – Australia was a “land without peasants”. A recurring theme in the twentieth century was the “Great God Cheap”, as money trumped meals.

Likewise, expensive drugs and medical equipment presumably push kitchen cost-cutting. More doctors and nurses seem more essential than cooks.

My books have studied anti-gastronomic rationalism, but can some good cook out there get beyond the generalities and explain the core culinary problem here? Cheap ingredients? Inappropriate menus? Corner cutting? Too much freezing? Over-cooking? Standing around? Can anyone provide hospital caterers with one good tip, or is it all-the-above, and so the furthering of a grand revolution?

I sought out the wisdom of intellectual Sydney cook, Gay Bilson (Tony’s Bon Goût, Berowra Waters Inn, author of Plenty: Digressions on food). As associate director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 2002, she organised “Nourish”, bringing in chefs and volunteers to an un-ergonomically “monstrous” kitchen at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She sent me an unpublished article about her experiences.

The team served dukkah, olives, olive oil and sourdough bread; chilled tomato soup; chicken salad, rice and chutney; and colourful trifle in a proper glass.

With this, they replaced the “re-hydrated dry goods” and sealed, single-serve portions “straight from a factory”. With feeding patients “an exercise in budget control”, the successful manager “spends as little as possible, ensures that prescribed dietary guidelines are adhered to … that there is no incidence of food poisoning.”

Bilson could scarcely conceal her anger at the local press’s treatment of any introduction of cooking into the Festival as a betrayal of the Arts and, further, entering a hospital as a mere foodie indulgence. The media reported, for example, that patients “volunteered” to take the festival menu, when, “in truth those who ate our food chose to eat it.” Good food was assumed to be expensive, when the team kept to a tight budget.

Bilson decided that the “Nourish” experience would have to prove valuable, if belief in “food in a gastronomic sense (that eating well nourishes the body and enhances well-being) is ever going to be taken seriously as part of caring for patients”.

A further issue, leaving aside the actual food, is the hospital meal as a social occasion, these days accepted as crucial for health. Normally, anonymous forces supply solitary diners, sitting up alone in their beds. No passing the salt, or exchanging chit-chat. Exacerbating that, I got stuck into my tray, cognizant that one man opposite was too nauseous to eat, while the other was classified “nil by mouth”, until he had passed wind (music to the ears of doctors and nurses).

Yet our separation did not feel as dire as the food, which set me pondering. Perhaps, in fact, we were otherwise unusually close. Sharing a room, we survived nights of cries and whimpers together; we saw the daytime trail of visitors (or lack of them); we commiserated about our states of precariousness (an aborted operation because unexpectedly-required equipment was unavailable; with cancer and young children …); we talked about our lives and fears.

A dear friend had advised, “think of everyone in the hospital, together, trying to get better”. At least in that general sense, we had joined some big, collaborative, health-giving meal.

Just a thought, but the expression “hospital food” overly stresses nutritive soundness, and cost-cutting, at the expense of companionship. Perhaps we could push improvements by demanding “hospital meals”?