The end of the world? In many ways, but maybe, you never know…

The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2020)

EMPTY SUPERMARKET shelves. Flights banned. Cruise lines taking a holiday . . . That’ll pass.

But Parisian bars, cafes and restaurants totally closed? That’s the end of some world or another.

More than just locked restaurants across the globe, urban life closes down and, with it, many seeming certainties. How unconvivial could this get?

My new book, Meals Matter, develops a “radical economics” from John Locke, Brillat-Savarin and others. As the first copies are being printed, a major rethink feels even more necessary. As First Dog on the Moon says: “Things are crazy and scary and they were already crazy and scary before.”

Meals Matter laments the two-century dismissal of meals – the disparagement of domesticity, the corruption of the lively marketplace, and the denigration of the wider, political meal. For this last, I reclaim the name, “banquet”. Needless to say, going along with money’s demands, governments so abandoned their meal – the banquet – that it remains scarcely visible.

Along comes the coronavirus, and governments act financially. Save the stockmarket! This is meant to “save jobs” to maintain metaphorical “bread”, although cynics also know that businesses seek to “capitalise the gains and socialise the losses”.

The government “banquet” should be not just emergency provisioning, but a whole meal. After all, any good meal comprises not just nutrients, but also comfort, pleasure, companionship, beauty, health, learning….

The aristocratic and religious hierarchies embellished their banquets with fine architecture and arts, and employed musicians, dancers, clowns, and jesters to tell truths. They staged whole after-dinner operas.

After pulling down monarchies and theocracies, the people anticipated their own mighty, popular banquets. But capitalism rose up within and against democratic republics, preferring only one meal, that of the market, and that merely conceived as prices.

Without government employment, artists were expected to rely on the market, and private patronage.

Suddenly, performers are out of work. I can no longer attend Verdi’s Attila at the Opera House tonight, nor the Bowral music festival next weekend. With a pandemic shaking live music and theatre to the core, government support looks slim indeed.

New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, just wrote:

it’s chilling to witness an entire way of life coming to a sudden horrible halt. So many of the pleasures and consolations that make dwelling in cramped quarters worth it, for those privileged enough to choose city life, have disappeared. Even if they all come back, we’ll always know they’re not permanent.

Things are changing. Social-distancing and self-isolation atomise face-to-face meals. Yet mass banquets reappear on balconies. Neighbours drop food off at front doors. The whole world comes together as never before.

Meals Matter Front flap 3

Just maybe those who survive the pandemic might have been reminded the hard way that meals matter far more than money. If dictatorships haven’t further edged out liberal democracies, the banqueters might appreciate that the political household depends on cooperative health care, decent educations, the performing arts….

You never know, perhaps even mainstream economists will soon disown their slogan, “greed is good.” Governments might re-nationalise airlines….

Michelle Goldberg also wrote: “Maybe when this ends, people will pour into the restaurants and bars like a war’s been won, and cities will flourish as people rush to rebuild their ruined social architecture.”

To help prepare, put in your orders for Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy.

 

Seen a negative review of Honeyland?

Publicity photo for Honeyland

ONE EXCEPTIONALLY CLEAR day, when living in Tuscany, I spotted the Duomo in Florence, 23 kms away.

This was from the village of Bacchereto in the hills above Prato, where four of us (all expatriates) opened the Cantina di Toia restaurant for the Tesi family.

From Bacchereto, we often popped into Florence, so that I was surprised when a neighbour asked, as we stood admiring the cupola in the distance: “What’s it like?”

Old enough to have a teenage daughter, she had never visited her regional capital, a 40-minute drive away.

This was admittedly some decades ago, when traditional village life, even in sophisticated central Italy, still surprised an outsider like me.

Living in a former watermill near Radda-in-Chianti (SI) through the previous year had been eye-opening. One afternoon, we returned down the rocky, ancient Roman road to to find the locals trailing what looked like long streamers down the stream and under the bridge.

They were running water through pig intestines to prepare them for sausage and salami casings – an old trick, presumably thousands of years old.

The groundedness of village life, especially its food, contrasted with the “One Continuous Picnic” back home (becoming the title of my gastronomic history of Australia). Industrial food had to be portable, like a picnic, as well as profitable.

I was reminded of this seeing Honeyland the other evening. The New York Times’ usually reliable reviewer, A.O. Scott, rated the movie his best for 2019. It scores 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Award successes have included Oscar nominations for both “Best Documentary Feature” and “Best International Feature Film”.

Honeyland is a North Macedonian documentary about a woman who survives with her aged mother in a ruined stone village by collecting wild honey from hives in rocks and tree trunks. That’s the good bit. (For I  would have walked out of the cinema, if not for sitting next to the family beekeeper.)

I have not found one review less than enthusiastic, and so how to explain my reaction?

Film critics are taken with the blend of hardship and beauty. What did they expect? They learn Hatidze’s father had prevented her marrying to retain a daughter for help in old age. As if many women are not still having to do that!

Reviewers also seem pathetically grateful for the environmental message. Breaking into the tranquillity of the deserted landscape, a family of seasonal herders arrive in their clattering old truck and caravan. With seven rowdy children, they prove unbelievably brutal and ignorant. Count the bee stings!

The family decide to bring in some hives for short-term exploitation. Rather than follow our heroine’s wisdom (only take half the honey, and leave half for the bees to survive the winter), they rip the bees off, so the commercial hives then have to rob from the wild ones. The men chainsaw a tree trunk in search of a wild hive’s bounty.

Besides the striking landscape, and Hatidze’s charming steadiness, the movie is slow, simplistic, and, I have to add, nasty. The makers worked to become the “invisible observers” of “direct cinema”, editing out any sign of camera awareness. Likewise, they never intervened in fights and disasters, so that we could think we witness the unvarnished truth.

According to co-director Tamara Kotevska, their bee-handler “wanted to tell her story because she realized she was the last generation to live this way”.

On the other hand: “Hussein’s family represents the capitalist world, of wanting to take as many resources as you can so you, personally, will thrive – not thinking about how this will impact the next generation.” The family went along with the filming, Kotevaska suggested, for the company provided by the small crew’s frequent visits.

As an outsider, I felt like I was intruding on them. You feel ashamed in some situations; you don’t know if you have a right to be there for their family argument. But you keep shooting.

The big-city intruders did not even speak the same language as those they filmed. The two women and nomadic family are remnants of the Ottoman Turkish era in a bewildering succession of rulers and migrations that make up the Republic of North Macedonia (which only gained independence in 1991, and that name in February 2019).

Along with that, the “documentary” is, I fear, something of a con. How amazing to introduce us to, as claimed unequivocally in the movie’s logline, “the last female wild beekeeper in Europe”.

Wasn’t it fortuitous that they just happened to be filming when the seasonal visitors just happened to decide to bring in some hives…

The Honeyland director explained fabrication:

We started editing while we were still shooting … We were able to say: “Alright, what are we missing here? We’re missing scenes of the relationship with the children.” So we would go, find more times, focus on the relationship with them, or their conflicts at home. Different aspects.

Perhaps I was expecting too much, and perhaps I became suspicious too quickly, but take a look yourself. (For all the critical acclaim, it is yet to gross $1m.)

Bees have also starred recently in: Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us? (2010); More than Honey (2012); Il Tempo delle api (2017); Tell it to the Bees (2019); and, last but not least, The Wonders [Le Meraviglie] (2014).

The Wonders rates 96% RT approval, and won the 2014 Palme D’Or at Cannes. This time, I’m with the positive responses.

Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher follows the family of a former German hippy now beekeeping in Tuscany. Family life buzzes around the bees, and vice versa, and meets cruel modernity. But this time it’s fiction, which enables the audience to get involved, while keeping its distance. The movie is somewhat autobiographical, too, because Rohrwacher and her actor-sister Alba Rohrwacher grew up in such a family.

I came to Alice Rohrwacher’s work through her mysterious Happy as Lazzaro [Lazzaro Felice] (2018), which, again, pits tradition against modernity. This one shows nastiness even more thoroughly than Honeyland, but this movie-making is a joy.

The North Macedonian documentarians wanted their manipulative literalness and invasive exploitation to be invisible. By contrast, the creative sophistication of Rohrwacher puts the badness of late modernity up on the screen, and its wonders.

Publicity poster for The Wonders

 

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 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.

I’m sure my forthcoming 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.

 

 

The cone of corporate creepiness

Plums in cone 2
Zwetschgenpflaume in market cone

STALLHOLDERS AT THE weekly Lister Meile street market here in Hannover (Germany) sell fruit and vegetables in brown paper cones. At the last market, we picked up highly seasonal plums. As the photo shows, they are a type of damson.

We knew that Zwetschgenpflaume had just arrived on the market, because they featured on the specials board the night before at restaurant 11A Küche mit Garten (11A Kitchen with Garden). The name derives from its address, being in the square that translates as Kitchen Garden.

(Horror alert: creepiness coming).

My mobile phone has taken to opening with a YouTube suggestion, and when we returned from the market, it proposed a demonstration of how to use the plums.

Plum video 2
Renias Backwelt demonstrates how to use Zwetschgenpflaume

How did it know? I can think of three possibilities: that it was coincidental, that google tracked us at the market and the plums are in season, or that google had eavesdropped, and heard the word.

That was so creepy that, as soon as I showed Marion the video running, I turned it off. To be correct, I thought I turned it off, because it disappeared from my phone and started on a television in the next room. We’d last turned on the tv the previous evening, making our way through dvds of the wondrous 1982 series of Heimat.

plum-video-1.jpg
The finished product (taken from Renias Backwelt)

Adding to the horror, Mozilla had only just sent a blog item about how you can’t believe even baking videos any more, with a link to Sydney dessert-influencer Ann Reardon showing how so-called “content farms” are crueling the internet.

A “content farm”, such as So Yummy, creates low-grade “how to” videos to game the algorithms and drag in advertising dollars. That reduces the income of more serious posters, such as “Renias Backwelt” (Renia’s Baking World) with her plums, or Ann with “How to Cook That”. While I cannot imagine who would make Ann’s novelty dessert items, including a Prince Harry chocolate sculpture that took her three days to make, So Yummy has more than 100 million views a month with videos that merely look like cooking videos with their boring bits speeded up. As Ann demonstrates, So Yummy’s cooking instructions are way post-fact. The recipes she attempts don’t merely fail, they plainly would never work.

Incidentally, I have retained quotes around “content farms” as maligning farms; they are content production lines.

The monolith at the top of surveillance capitalism, Google owns YouTube and so much more, but does it really listen in through microphones in homes, cafes, offices and therapists’ rooms?

The next day, I received another Mozilla post:

“Hi Michael,

“If you have a voice assistant in your home or on your phone, have you ever been concerned that someone from the company could listen to your voice recordings?

“Recent news coverage confirms that suspicion.”

According to the quoted sources (Mozilla Foundation, “What can you trust on the internet?“), eavesdropping is now banned in the EU, but I still worry.

Returning to humour might distract from the creepiness. The secret agent comedy series Get Smart had a device called the “cone of silence” – those inside the bubble couldn’t hear; those outside could.

Or I might also cheer us up by turning to a second highly seasonal German phenomenon on the streets the past day or two: the two-century-old tradition of the Schultüte (school cone). A Schultüte is sometimes also called a Zuckertüte (sugar cone), because it is a large cone, almost as big as a small child, that contains sweets, toys and school items.

School cone

The cone marks an important rite of passage – a child’s first day at school. Parents have made or purchased a cone, filled it with the items, and hung it on a tree at the school. The child carries it home to open at a family party.

We saw children carrying them home yesterday, and I snapped an illustration of one, in a line-up of first-day-of-school children’s books, each showing cones, in the window of the nearby library.

 

My new book: A radical economics

ACCOMPANYING Marion for a few academic weeks in Hannover, Germany, I have just sent off the final revisions to a manuscript that’s kept me busy for many years, being something of a magnum opus, well, that’s my story.

Snap at Max Walloschke
At Max Walloschke restaurant, Hannover

More later, but the title is Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy.

Columbia University Press brings it out in “Spring 2020”, which means (for readers outside such latitudes) in the first half of the year.

Many writers accept that mainstream economics needs replacing.

This book identifies the root cause of the problem, and explains what needs to be done, through Brillat-Savarin’s unduly neglected science of gastronomy.

Max postcard
Max Walloschke retired from wrestling and opened a Gaststätte in 1952

The sound of music

Bern restaurant 2
Zum Blauen Engel, Bern

We arrived here at our apartment in Bern, Switzerland, conveniently across the road from the conference venue, amid crowds celebrating the opening of the World Cup. Our second-floor accommodation is above a bar-restaurant, circled on four sides by huge screens and temporary outdoor seating. Our host apologised that he had hired a dj for the rest of that night. And so the matches have progressed…

The joke is that the thump-thump beat from below that first evening did not stop me getting to sleep. Instead, I was awoken by huge bells chiming 6 am. The nearby Pauluskirche counts each hour, and notes each passing quarter, and there it goes again. Much, much louder than the huge, sixteenth-century Zytglogge in the city centre with its mechanical jester getting in early every hour with his own bells, and the mechanical cock crowing three times. At least the local chimes shut down between 10 pm and 6 am.

The further joke is that I write in praise of Bern’s quiet. This is in the restaurants.

For several weeks we have moved (for Marion’s work) from Fremantle through Glasgow to here, and I have dined to much thumping beat, the seemingly necessary boost to meals these days. (I’m the old fogie in the corner.)

In Fremantle, we seemed lucky to stay adjacent to Bread in Common, to name a name. Quite good food in a vast warehouse conversion, so popular that you can’t hear yourself think. The thump never lets up, except if managing a coffee during the day at an outdoor seat. Fortunately, Fremantle is awash with great spots, albeit mostly also with monotonous mood-lifting.

Much the same in trendy Glasgow, although I must boast that our flat was between the Aragon and Lismore pubs (the video is from the Lismore), both with traditional musicians gathering in varying numbers on selected nights with their fiddles, flutes/whistles, underarm bagpipes, accordions, guitars, and bodhrán (Irish drum). Usually a fiddler starts off, and away they go, the leader mouthing key changes. I kept waiting for a cellist to come back; he’d led them in a wonderfully mournful selection. On another occasion, a tenor came out of the crowd, some notes wobbly, but he knew he had to hit the last one, and did. All determinedly acoustic.

A fellow whisky-drinker (no, I think he had an ale) explained that an Edinburgh conservatorium course in traditional music had generated something of a glut of young professionals.

Heavy “background” music obliterates the clink of cutlery and murmur of conversation. Accordingly, I recommend a couple of old-style places near here (warning: Bern is not cheap).

Being an unusually warm night, filling the outdoor tables, I was the only person inside at Zum Blauen Engel (Blue Angel). With no music whatsoever, I did get a distant exhaust fan. Otherwise, the dull thud of fridge door, clink of bottles, shaking of pans, sizzling from beyond the bench, occasional waiter exchange, old-fashioned clank of heavy glasses and crockery, my own knife and fork … I even heard the chef cut off a tranche of something. All satisfying.

Bern restaurant I
Waldheim

I felt part of the place, belonging to humanity, the world. Not some shouting cosmopolite out for a good time.

Around at the Waldheim, I lunched again almost alone inside, with just another four old fogies at seemingly their regular table, and across an enormous window-sill to those in the garden. The sound of people chatting outdoors, and birds… I could be dreaming (I don’t think so, even about the birds).

Again, a few clinks, waiter exchanges, the espresso being ground and a puck being bashed out, and people enjoying the peak of civilisation. The only odd note was the occasional phone-call announcing itself to a chirrup of Vivaldi.