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.
This Federal election is powered by Kitchen Table Conversations, a technique developed in Melbourne in the late 1990s and which has mobilised the constant political chatter around tables, in cafés and over drinks
THE “CLIMATE” INDEPENDENTS expected to win an increased number of seats on 21 May, and conceivably the balance of power, are propelled by KTC.
This is the mobilising technique of “Kitchen Table Conversations”. Self-selected hosts invite perhaps nine others around to discuss the political issues they find important, and to plan possible actions. A coordinating group collate reports from the kitchens to help find and inform a local candidate.
A relatively spontaneous, and still quite loose, movement is now significant in Australian politics (and I would like to learn about similar techniques elsewhere in the world).
Various “Voices 4”, “climate”, “teal” or “community” independents have sprung up in Coalition electorates, with voters disgruntled principally about lack of action on the climate emergency, and on an independent commission on corruption.
Behind that, kitchen-table activists respond to perceptions that political parties have failed participatory democracy.
While progressive on some core issues, participants thus far tend to be relatively comfortable, financially, so that campaigns lack neither professional access, nor funds.
Compiling a definitive list of KTC-propelled candidates proves tricky, initially because I have not checked through all possibilities. Climate 200 has published a list of those it supports, but others remain sufficiently independent as to refuse all outside funding. Other estimates suggest more than two dozen “teal” candidates. My attempted list (below) contains four up for re-election, plus eleven newcomers in city seats held by Liberals, and six rural candidates mainly challenging Nationals.
The mechanism was adopted famously in the rural Victorian seat of Indi in 2013, when Cathy McGowan replaced Sophie Mirabella (and was succeeded by fellow independent Helen Haines). In like manner, in 2019, Zali Steggall spectacularly beat former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Warringah.
KTC had originated even earlier, among women worried by the aggressive neoliberalism of Premier of Victoria Jeff Kennett as he closed schools, privatised government activities, and dismantled democracy.
Introducing a new booklet on the topic, Mary Crooks relates how, in 1996, she lunched with two friends (Sandra Hart and Angela Munro) at the Red Sage Café in Clifton Hill (Melbourne). “Despite the Kennett government being re-elected for a second term, we sensed a groundswell of community unease across Victoria,” Crooks recalls.
At a second meeting, Crooks took along an ad for the position of executive director of the Victoria Women’s Trust. She got the job, and developed the grassroots mechanism. The initial name of the “Red Sage Project” (after the café) was soon changed to Purple Sage to avoid political confusion (and setting off a palette of colours, often teal). Working with other respected community groups, the project engaged as many as 6000 women and men across the state “in a thoughtful deliberation of the key issues and the actions they could think about taking”.
The model very much belongs to the (traditionally womanly) domain of the kitchen table, and the treatment of women has remained prominent.
In the new booklet, Mary Crooks and Leah McPherson advise: “Hosts will need to provide some drinks and light snacks. This may be as simple as tea, coffee, and a packet of biscuits.” This contrasts with political candidates drinking a beer at the traditionally male pub (although photo-ops have lately included sipping tea in workplaces).
Crooks and McPherson accept that “Core Group” organisers might enjoy a proper meal for a post-mortem: “You may wish to organise a lunch or dinner together, share a drink at the pub or café, or enjoy a peaceful walk to decompress.”
These domestic get-togethers should be viewed as a deliberate alternative to the presently dominant conversations at board tables, business lunches and cocktail parties among politicians, billionaires and lobbyists, titillating each other with coal mines, highways, new airports, outsourcing opportunities, and cuts to public education. (For more on “state capture”, read this recent report.)
In pursuit of the “delicious revolution” in Meals Matter, I recognise meal conversations as the essential ground of democracy, because table chat covers not only regular meals past, future and present, but also the wider meals of schools, hospitals and aged care, and all that surrounds them – table talk naturally encompasses life’s essentials.
Courtly banquets were centres of political proposals and intrigue. Regicide has been plotted at aristocratic feasts, and so, too, revolutions have been planned in coffee-houses, and people’s victories celebrated in street banquets.
Some might defend digital media as furthering political discourse, but online chat drifts too far from social foundations in food sharing.
Politics emerges from the pleasure of the stomach, “especially through participatory democracy, in which everybody labors at everyday meals and converses, so that knowledge collects up and distributes”. The political economy is to be “rewritten by living well” (Symons, Meals Matter, 2020: 272-273).
Long live table politics!
The “community”, “climate”, “Voices 4” and “teal” independents seeking lower-house re-election are: Helen Haines in Victoria, Rebekha Sharkie in South Australia, Zali Steggall in NSW, and Andrew Wilkie in Tasmania.
As to newcomers in Liberal city seats, we’re speaking of at least: Nicolette Boele in Bradfield; Jo Dyer in Boothby; Kate Chaney in Curtin; Zoe Daniel in Goldstein; Claire Miles in Casey; Despi O’Connor in Flinders; Monique Ryan in Kooyong; Sophie Scamps in Mackellar; Allegra Spender in Wentworth; Georgia Steele in Hughes; and Kylea Tink in North Sydney.
Taking a swing at rural, mainly National seats, similar candidates include: Penny Ackery (Hume), Kate Hook (Calare), Suzie Holt (Groom), Hanabeth Luke (Page), Caz Heise (Cowper), and Rob Priestly (Nicholls).
The campaigns are unique to each electorate, but all wanting to “do politics differently”, and they generally feature climate action, and integrity in parliament, and they listen at kitchen table, fireside and pub get-togethers.
SCOTT MORRISON would never make a good waiter. He’s a total “fake”, as certified by recent Australian of the year Grace Tame.
She responded to the Prime Minister’s attempt to effuse sympathetically, when a mother inquired about cuts to NDIS payments for her child with autism.
Scott Morrison and his wife were unable to conceive for the better part of two decades. Nearly giving up on IVF, at the age of 39, Jenny gave birth to the first of the couple’s two daughters.
“She is our miracle child, the answer to a lifetime of prayer and 14 years of painful, invasive, heartbreaking treatment,” Scott wrote in 2009.
So, in a televised leaders’ debate the other night, he replied, concerning the future of the NDIS, “Jenny and I have been blessed, we’ve got two children” – and here he stumbled – “that don’t – that haven’t had to go through that.” He added: “And so for parents, with children who are disabled, I can only try and understand your aspirations for those children.”
Along with the famous photo of her sideways look at Morrison, Grace Tame tweeted that “autism blesses those of us who have it with the ability to spot fakes from a mile off”.
In a classic non-apology, the Prime Minister later said he was “deeply sorry” about the way his comments were “sought to be represented by our political opponents in the middle of an election,” and that he had intended to “respect the challenges they [?] face, not the opposite”.
He’s a fake leader. He pretends to the role – as a “bully” to some, and “friend” to all the “quiet Australians”, while leaving CEOs, lobbyists and cronies to run the place.
Serious waiters are not fakes. They actually care for people. They help them have a good time, and cope with the full range from angry ignorance to gratitude. They have seen it all – couples in love, couples parting, two-timing spouses, drunken politicians, business wheeler-dealers, tearful families, wedding parties, and new-borns in baskets. They have studied the strangest dietary preferences, and all manner of anxiety.
We have had personal experience. Strangers would try to say the “right thing” when confronting our beautiful son, whose disabilities were in plain evidence. They would say things like: “It’s wonderful what science comes up with”. Or they promised a “miracle” from God.
At restaurants, Lawrence would often cry, and possibly be calmed by listening to the Wiggles. But, truly, the better the restaurant, the happier he was.
Perhaps the noise levels were more comfortable. Perhaps he joined our enjoyment. Perhaps the waiters knew what do. Whatever it was, we confirmed the effect time and again.
There was much that Lawrence couldn’t do (he was blind, never said a word, and remained unable to walk or even grip an object). But, among some wondrous abilities, he could spot fakes.
At good places, waiters would organise clear soup or a mash, so we could feed him. (Ultimately, though, he was happier and healthier just being tube fed.)
And, invariably, good waiters did not carry on about science or God; they just said something sensible.
We can’t exactly remember the best-ever response, but we know it was by a waiter, and where he was – Café di Stasio in St Kilda. His intent was something like: “He will look after you, and you will look after him.”
I dedicated my latest book, Meals Matter, to “Marion, Dorothy, and Lawrence Symons Maddox (1999-2009), who together have taught me so much about meals, and thereby everything”.
AT THE TIME OF THE DISASTROUS BRISBANE FLOODS of January 1974, I was acting for some months as Whitlam minister Tom Uren’s media officer in Canberra.
Planners in his new Department of Urban and Regional Development explained to me that the flooding was exacerbated by laissez-faire development, whether chopping down trees upstream that hastened run-off, further speeding up rivers as flood “mitigation” or, incredibly, subdividing housing blocks on flood plains.
I suggested to Uren that he issue a media statement about the environmentally-destructive policies. Tom refused. He believed it wrong to score political points when people were losing their lives and property.
While humbled by Tom Uren’s decency, I’ve never been sure that he chose, at least in this case, the better way to practise his unchallenged love for humanity and nature.
Back then, the Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was famously pro-development, and never let up as a ferocious and ignorant detractor of the Whitlam Labor Government.
The pattern has continued until now, nearly five decades later, and with incontestably worsening floods.
One difference now is the featuring of climate change. Back then, the more generalised fear was that too many people were sold too much technology, destroying biodiversity and unleashing harmful chemicals in a race to disaster.
This broader concern about resource depletion, loss of species, pollution, etc, might yet prove more realistic. For example, with pandemic lockdowns, investigators found that the rate of heart attacks dropped, in synch with the clearer skies.
That health improvement was detected in the U.S., and much of the air there is cleaner than other parts of the world.
A WHO report recently recognised air pollution as the “the single biggest environmental threat to human health”. That’s illnesses and deaths from the same fossil fuels that produce the greenhouse effect.
MY EARLIEST school years taught me, before crossing a road, to “look right, look left and look right again.” Or was it the other way around … ? And does any rule apply world-wide? I must have learned to cycle on the left, because keeping to the “wrong” side of the road still bewilders me. High concentrations of silent-cyclists-from-nowhere on criss-crossing lanes add to the hazards. That’s Germany.
Lately, I’ve been wishing school taught me another life skill, namely, how to recycle. What goes in what colour bin? What about mixed materials? What happens to other stuff?
I try my best, but what precisely are “soft plastics”? If I collect aluminium foil, where does it go? Am I just keeping wine-bottle corks to make another cork-board? I hear that an electric toothbrush divides in two directions.
On what will perhaps prove our last global trip, we stayed in several different houses in a few different countries, and (confession) I’ve basically given up.
Different nations, different parts of cities, and even different households make confusingly different demands.
I would like to suggest more global action. Where’s world government when we need it? Business already relies on considerable international coordination. Why can’t it standardise recycling?
Recycling makes the streets of Spain, Germany, China and elsewhere in Australia look, and also sound, gloriously exotic, given the different systems, so I eventually started taking photographs.
In Barcelona, for example, the green bin took “glass” (here, green is for garden organics); blue meant “paper” (going into our yellow general recycling; and I haven’t noticed blue bins in Sydney); and grey was for “non-recyclable” (red for us; and I haven’t noticed grey here either). The only possible match might be brown, for “organic” in Barcelona, and I think being used for a kitchen scraps trial in Sydney.
In Hannover, the church bells across the road would stop after 10 pm and resume at the same ungodly hour as builders. But bottles never stopped clinking into large recycling containers alongside the church. Fascinatingly for us, designated bins took different glass colours: green, brown, and clear. A huge, suitably compartmentalised truck hoisted the bins and dropped the bottles out the bottom with a massive, weekly clatter. That’s the bottles the supermarket – across from the front of the church – wouldn’t take .
For, at the supermarket, you inserted empty bottles singly into a roller to read the bar code. The reverse automat might then send some back out, but accept others for a redeemable deposit at the check-out.
Blocks of apartments in Hannover often seemed to share a locked cage for garbage bins, sometimes on the front of the building or on the footpath. It wasn’t the neatest or quietest solution. In Shanghai, recycling could seem much slicker, and more padlocks presumably restricted these bins to nearby households.
I’m trying to recall where garbage collection was paid for by requiring official plastic bags, sold through supermarkets. Such “pay-as-you-waste” schemes ostensibly encourage waste reduction (although sometimes dumping). Inevitably, the schemes have a confusing number of names, including Pay as you throw (PAYT), variable rate pricing, trash metering, unit pricing, and user-pays.
If we travelled less, the confusion could just remain a cute distraction. Still, it’s telling that we can’t standardise recycling.
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.
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?
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).
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.