“Mesmerising” descriptions of food

Weekend Australian 2
Weekend Australian, Books, 8-9 August 2020

YOU MIGHT NOT expect to read a scholarly tome about economics for pleasure. But this is gastronomic economics. As the Weekend Australian reviewer announces:

Revelling in the history, preparation and philosophy of food, he weaves its poetry into the text. Along with mesmerising descriptions of food …

For gastronomic works, such as Meals Matter, hedonism is not only a topic, but also a method, which is one reason why I open each chapter not with a graph or financial table, but with a meal description.

Weekend Australian 1

Another reason is that the book challenges orthodoxies across economic theory, legal theory, political philosophy, food studies, and more. In the face of such transgressions, the hope is that the opening meals start out from a shared need to eat.

Hearteningly, academic readers for successive publishers gave strong support. The back-cover endorsements come from professors in disciplines as varied as politics, economics, anthropology, and European history.

In the 1980s, the “gastronomy” label put off academics, but that has plainly changed.

Eating and drinking brings in everyone, or almost everyone, and so what about the general or “trade” audience? At least in the book’s first extended review, Antonella Gambotto-Burke finds it enjoyable, with “mesmerising descriptions” (Weekend Australian Review, 8-9 August 2020, pp. 14-15).

 

Unlike the usual, more scholarly review, Gambotto-Burke does not attempt to set out the argument. Rather, she picks out key points, and joins the radical celebration, recommending:

Meals Matter is a passionate and inspiring proposal for change.

Upskirting shows how porn culture has caused a breakdown in ...
Antonella Gambotto-Burke

Antonella @gambottoburke is a seasoned reviewer and author (her next book is Apple: Sex, Motherhood and the Recovery of the Feminine). Inevitably, in close to 1300 words, she gets a couple of things wrong. I’m no “naive” idealist (that’s the self-proclaimed economists); I have thought of myself as a restaurateur but never as a chef – that was Jennifer Hillier (maybe I should?); and life generally improved after Dickensian England, because that was an unusually low point, whose miserable conditions and food adulterations were brought on by laissez-faire capitalism.

For the full review, try clicking on Gambotto-Burke’s twitter link.

But since the Murdochs keep their gems behind a paywall, I’d better give some more, fairly random snippets, firstly, about present disasters:

Meals are now dismissed as “privileged leisure, self-indulgence, refueling, women’s work, or fattening”.

He is disturbed by how the stock market and money (“bread, dough, bacon, gravy, lettuce, or lolly”) have replaced organic food and its markets in human consciousness. Value, he observes, is now equated with finance.

He accuses mainstream economists of belittling “life-giving systems” and supporting “a Midas fantasy”, in which the “sounds, sights, and smells of actual markets” is ignored in favour of an arbitrary pricing system.

Neoliberalism, he writes, corrupted liberalism. Nineteenth-century economists reframed healthy impulses as greed.

And, secondly, about doing better:

He sees it as a “radical restoration of political philosophy and economics”, and he puts his case with the fervor of an idealist who addresses life as a pleasure founded on love and respect for his fellow man and, in that, for the planet itself.

This resplendent vision features a wealth that “might consist of forests, streams, farms, clever artisans, feasting townsfolk, wise elders, and grand city dining halls”: a utopia that makes no allowance for human fallibility or life-saving corporate homogenisation.

Meals Matter is a passionate and inspiring proposal for change. Symons’s suggestion that the “festal core” of democracy needs to be resurrected is certainly correct. Pleasure, in our culture, has come to be synonymous with stress relief rather than passion or joy.

Similarly, there is no question that sustainability and compensatory materialism must be addressed on a global level. We desperately need more love and idealism, if tempered by the recognition that the future cannot be found in the past.

 

Murals matter

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Diego Rivera, “Wall St Banquet”

VISUALLY, MY BOOK OPENS and closes with murals. The cover borrows the “Wall Street Banquet” of Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, and the back flap author photo was taken in a restaurant in Germany. I suppose it’s a coincidence that the book is walled-in, so to speak, although there’s something about murals …

Rivera’s “Banquet” is part of a huge set in Mexico City, covering three floors and staircase of the Ministry of Public Education building, taking Diego and his team six years to finish. That was in 1928-29, as Wall Street crashed.

In this panel, eight diners share champagne, while being served ticker-tape streaming the latest stock market prices from the golden machine under a glass dome. Behind that is a bank vault with megaphones. A Statue of Liberty lamp balances on the table in the foreground.

Rivera, “Dinner of the capitalists”

At least some of the well-dressed guests are historical figures, including a Rockefeller, whose family would commission Rivera, who was an on-and-off-again communist, to work in the U.S. Inevitably, in 1934, the family instructed labourers to scrub out his most ambitious American piece, a huge mural in the foyer of The Rockefeller Centre, New York.

Meals Matter might almost equally have been illustrated by a nearby  mural in the Mexico series – “The dinner of the capitalists”, which shows a ruling family served coins, with revolutionaries with abundant food in the background.

Both murals belong to the building’s third level, which illustrates the “Ballad of the proletarian revolution”. Over the Wall St banquet, the banner translates as: “the rich man keeps thinking how to double his money.” The words over the capitalists’ dinner say: “Gold is worth nothing if there is no food”.

I came across Rivera’s murals when idly searching for an illustration of banquets, whose interpretation is important in Meals Matter. (I ended up with a photo of an electric chandelier in Glasgow!) The Wall St version is not strictly a banquet; in this case, “banquet” connotes privilege.

Symons portrait Max 7

The back flap author photo was taken in mid-2019 by my wife, Marion Maddox, in Hannover, Germany. She took out the phone at the Max Walloschke restaurant, where we went several times. Our revisits explain the two versions (shown here) in different clothes in front of different still lives.

Max Walloschke, who was a weightlifter, professional wrestler and German bowls champion, opened the Kneipe (“pub”) on 19 June, 1952.

IMG_20200323_124344735_HDRIn Berlin, I suspected that smart locals crowded old-time Austrian restaurants, because they could not admit to enthusing about what some might call “heavy German kitsch”.

However, Max Walloschke remains unapologetic, calling itself “Das Kultrestaurant am Steintor” – the “cult restaurant at the Steintor”, that is, the place with a dedicated following at the city’s old “stone gate”.

Another of their claims is “Hier gibt es das wahrscheinlich beste Eisbein der Stadt” –  “probably the best pork knuckle in town”.

The restaurant’s official slogan, “Gutbürgerliche Küche und gemütliches Ambiente seit 1952“, uses two words that are allegedly untranslatable. “Gutbürgerliche” suggests “homely” in the sense of lots of sausages, potatoes, and beer. And “gemütlich” hints at a “cosy” atmosphere, and more, because: “Cosy captures an element of it but crucially lacks those of friendliness and belonging.”

Max postcard
Max Walloschke postcard

The restaurant also boasts “authenticity” and “tradition”, which we can believe, and “Herzlichkeit” (“warmth”), which we can confirm. (I plan to say more on this.)

As immoveable artworks, genuine murals (rather than wallpapers) have tended to be sponsored for public places, including cafes and restaurants, where they often employ faux architectural elements to give the illusion of grandeur, space or being in the homeland – sometimes all at once, such as a panorama of the Bay of Naples through trompe-l’oeil pillars. The more Gutbürgerlich murals of beer, pork and vegetables encourage Gemütlichkeit.

I must find out the name of the painter, whose food murals contribute so warmly to Max Walloschke’s welcome.

“Wall St Banquet” on left

The economy isn’t about money. It’s about putting food on the table

Our Enlightenment predecessors recognized not one but five economies – and the pandemic has reinvigorated our taste for them.

By Michael Symons

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(Op-ed published under ourEconomy in openDemocracy, 19 June 2020)

POLITICAL LEADERS AND ECONOMIC commentators pronounced the coronavirus crisis a balancing act between “lives” (on one hand) and “the economy” (on the other). To save lives, “the economy” would have to contract, until it, too, needed saving – when we might have to sacrifice lives.

But what is this singular “economy”?

Economists model “the economy” through the price mechanism, and evaluate it through such measures as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Even many economists have grown restive, warning, for example, that the GDP is misleading, and recommend such non-financial indicators as “well-being”.

The deception goes much deeper. Broadly, “the economy” puts money in command. Under the guise of the old “laissez-faire”, then “free enterprise”, and more recently neoliberal “greed is good”, money funded its own self-aggrandizement. The resulting ideology handed enormous power to finance and business chiefs – and governments, often on money’s behalf.

As I set out in my new book, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy, for two centuries, modern economists misappropriated Enlightenment ideas on behalf of money. Their distorted “economy” might have boosted productivity, but worsened inequality, demoralized democracy, and tipped the natural world towards disaster. Please, no more “business as usual”.

What is an economy? As those political leaders hobnobbing less with CEOs might readily accept, every economy centres on the distribution of nourishment.

What is an economy? As those political leaders hobnobbing less with CEOs might readily accept, every economy centres on the distribution of nourishment. An actual economy puts food on the table. It’s life-giving, which is why care, health and food workers never stopped being “essential”.

Back when Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations launched modern economics in 1776, many writers well understood the gastronomic basis of economies. Even Smith argued that, through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes”, including the butcher, brewer, and baker, “we expect our dinner”.

More than that, Enlightenment philosophers recognized five, interconnected economies. Each type of economy supplies sustenance in a distinct way, with money surprisingly inessential. While side-lined by economists, these five are everyday realities for eaters. The lockdown renewed attention to all five, and dramatized the need to rebalance them.

First comes the domestic economy. Society’s “building-block” was the original oikonomia. Such ancient Greek writers as Xenophon instructed on the management of the family home (or oikos). Economics advised on housework, indoors and out. The family’s method of sharing food and its labour among themselves was defined by sociologist Max Weber a century ago as communist. Given the history of paternalism, Weber referred to what he called the “ideal-type”, but, most certainly, no money required.

The virus brought the domestic economy roaring back. Home offices, home schooling, and home cooking all expanded, complete with the widespread rediscovery of sourdough baking. Many predict that, having been rediscovered, this economy might not entirely snap back to “the economy”. For 51% of respondents of one U.S. survey (late-May 2020), the “new normal” would include continuing to cook more often at home. Together with more people preferring to work from there, cooking might now not go the way of home sewing – from commonplace to minority hobby.

In Adam Smith’s day, Enlightenment intellectuals were preoccupied with the political economy (from polis, the ancient Greek for “city”). This is a town, nation or similar conceived as a great household. Some central authority accepts responsibility for the distribution of nourishment, acquired through a community-wide division of labor. This method is food redistribution (although the term has come to mean transferring resources from the rich to the poor, or vice versa).

Since their earliest examples, temples and courts coordinated wide gathering and serving of food, centred on often ostentatious-seeming sacrifices and banquets. With increasing sophistication, redistribution seemed less directly nutritional. In a decisive development, authorities adopted money taxation and disbursement as an intermediary. As philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out in 1651, money became a more transportable and less perishable food substitute, which circulated like blood around the “body politic”, for conversion back to nourishment, when required.

Dramatized by the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, 1789, the French Revolution was meant to democratize the monarch’s role as “baker-king”, including Versailles banquets. On the Revolution’s first anniversary, General Lafayette supervised “endless tables” under Parisian trees for 22,000 provincial representatives, followed by 5,000 of the poor. However, attempts at literal feasting in the streets demonstrated the sophistication already attained by supply chains.

9780231196024The modern banquet is an intricate affair, almost lost to view. Yet the coronavirus has brought this political economy to the fore, with governments directing social distancing, shifting resources to health, boosting emergency food and survival incomes, and also spending to save “the economy”.

When Hobbes imagined the political economy as a giant Leviathan with a crowned head over an agricultural nation, he saw a “body politic”, drawing an analogy with the human physiology. The terms “physiology” and “economy” were virtually interchangeable at the time. French économistes would gain the nick-name “physiocrats”, for example. Furthermore, Enlightenment intellectuals spoke of the person as an animal economy. Each of us can be viewed as an economy, centred on nutrient flows.

Liberal thinking emerged with Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson arguing every individual’s equal need, enforced by nature, for self-preservation, primarily through nutrition, and best served through a commonwealth of mutual support. They established a near-sacred right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The liberal response to the pandemic has underlined this social contracted care for the individual. By contrast, more authoritarian leaders have downplayed individual health for the sake of “the economy”. With the decline in the neoliberal promotion of liberty, rightwing leaders are increasingly inclined to identify “the economy” with “the nation”.

Typically of Enlightenment economists, François Quesnay was a medical professional – he was Madame de Pompadour’s physician. By 1747, when writing on the animal economy, he found parallels in the social distribution of primary production, notably the buying and selling of grain. Quesnay decided that, like the body, the market economy was preferably left to work “naturally”. Rather than the “baker-king” controlling prices, Quesnay saw benefits in market exchange. French économistes had a huge influence on Adam Smith, when he socialized with them while living in Paris during early free-market experimentation.

With the nineteenth-century rise of corporate capitalism, Smith’s early supporters promoted the market’s “invisible hand” as superior to any other economic coordinator, notably as much more efficient than democracy. They advocated liberty for money, while ignoring equality, life and happiness. Dropping “political” from their name, they imperiously proclaimed themselves “economists”.

Later in the nineteenth century, “marginalist” economists used the mathematical calculus to describe the behaviour of market prices, so mesmerizingly that they thought they studied nothing short of “the economy”. John Maynard Keynes became synonymous with some pushback within the ranks. However, again with the Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher era, neoliberal leaders obeyed economists’ fundamentals to restore supreme freedom to money.

Significantly, the virus exposed the hollowness of demands for “small government”. With budget deficits of lesser concern, given obvious government support for “the economy”, many citizens hope that democratic power might more forcefully save a fifth economy, the most essential of all.

The coronavirus starkly reminded that all economies depend on the intricate web of nutrient flows of the natural economy. Charles Darwin still used that term, “natural economy”, in his Origin of the Species in 1859 (German zoologist Ernst Haeckel introduced “ecology” ten years later). Undeniably, money’s ceaseless push for so-called “growth” has trampled on actual growth.

In summary, the present tumultuous rebalancing has demonstrated the market economy to be poorly-equipped to cope with viral attacks on the animal economy, leading to renewed reliance on the domestic economy, while governments at local, national and global levels have reasserted the political economy. Finally, as players at all levels must surely soon accept, the overall, natural economy must return urgently to prominence, or we’re all shut down.

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This article by Michael Symons was originally published on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit openDemocracy.net for more.
[link to original article]

Postpandemic hopes

From Columbia University Press blog

Pandemic survivors will emerge into a profoundly changed world with more social media and online shopping, less commuting, the collapse of cash, improved health care, emptier cities, increased authoritarianism, globalism, nationalism… among any number of often contradictory early predictions.

His presidential aspirations abandoned, Senator Bernie Sanders declared, “many in our country are now beginning to rethink the basic assumptions underlying the American value system.”

“Decisions about dinner have for too long been written off as trivial and self-indulgent. I respond: when did human sustenance stop being fundamental?”

Weighty policy decisions have to be made, elections fought, gross inequality alleviated, taxes revamped, and budgets revived. The struggles entailed in finding the “new normal” might seem far too big and important for gastronomy. But decisions about dinner have for too long been written off as trivial and self-indulgent. I respond: when did human sustenance stop being fundamental?

Gastronomy could, and should, help as urgently as possible even where it might seem least equipped—the philosophical essentials, those “basic assumptions.” For me, gastronomy as the “diner’s sense of the world” is unparalleled for understanding liberal concepts of freedom, equality, democracy, family life, environmental care, political action, and more.

The supreme science, as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin saw it, has lain largely undeveloped since he published Physiology of Taste in 1826. I suspect that gastronomy was belittled precisely because its radicalism was so compelling.

“I suspect that gastronomy was belittled precisely because its radicalism was so compelling.”

My new book, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics Through Gastronomy, charts how capitalism’s apologists, especially economists, upended political philosophy. Since the early nineteenth century, they have distorted socially aware Enlightenment liberalism into varieties of free enterprise and neoliberalism, which accord liberty to money.

Meals Matter shows economists proclaiming money’s unbreakable laws while trivializing eating and drinking. Commodity production, food processing, trade, and hospitality might rate financially as industries, but economists sidelined actual meal-sharing as “utility,” “externality,” “irrational,” “domestic work,” and “leisure.” Casting appetite aside, economists favored greed.

Such founding liberals as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau based their arguments on each person’s natural right to self-preservation, which meant attending to the “pleasure of the stomach,” to quote the then influential ancient philosopher Epicurus. The natural right became a social one, once individuals accepted that their best interests actually lay in collaboration.

Even the economists’ hero, Adam Smith, stressed that “we expect our dinner” through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes,” including the butcher, brewer, and baker (my emphasis).

In drafting the U.S. Declaration of Independence, meal-lover and Epicurean Thomas Jefferson enshrined equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The equivalent French trio became liberty, equality, and conviviality (my translation of fraternité).

“Even the economists’ hero, Adam Smith, stressed that “we expect our dinner” through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes,” including the butcher, brewer, and baker (my emphasis).”

Under capitalism, laissez-faire apologists so abstracted the concept of liberty from its gastronomic base that it could apply to profit-seeking corporations. Their legal and political “personhood” overlooked the undeniable fact that firms do not eat, let alone gain happiness by sharing with others.

Among key correctives, Meals Matter proposes that we stop speaking of a single “the economy,” when we rely on several: not just the market but also the original, domestic economy and the political economy. As well as exposing the vacuity of “greed is good” bluster, the pandemic has returned responsibilities from the market economy toward home life and government. COVID-19 reminds us that human beings thrive, and suffer, together, and within a further, natural economy, too.

Are political leaders likely to become more sympathetic to gastronomy? Could many soon agree with Meals Matter that real social benefits accrue from the thoughtful application of the ancient principle, “eat, drink, and be merry”?

“Many people have reawakened under lockdown to balcony gardening, home baking and preserving, and domestic meal-sharing.”

Tyrants will continue to appeal to higher authorities, whether religious, nativist, or moneyed, and even liberal politicians are likely to remain wary of mundane sensual pleasures. On the other hand, the liveliness of foodies, food activists, reborn farmers, and socially committed restaurateurs in recent years makes me more optimistic. Many people have reawakened under lockdown to balcony gardening, home baking and preserving, and domestic meal-sharing.

I also take hope that serious scholars have given up the old academic disdain for eating and drinking. My book’s four endorsers represent a gratifying spread of expertise—professors of politics, political economy, anthropology of food, and European history have, between them, detected “the potential to upend many orthodoxies” and “a passionate call to create a more convivial world.”

Republished from Columbia University Press blog…

How our “consolation of profit” thesis helps understand restaurants, megachurches, and Trump

MARION MADDOX AND I have just published a paper, “The consolation of profit”,* in New Formations, a journal of contemporary culture and politics.

Perhaps the quickest introduction is bottled water. Why do people pay for something they can get out of the tap?

Marion and Michael 3
At Max Walloschke, Hannover

Certainly, the hefty marketing promises health and status. But to those familiar explanations, we add another: the insistent hawking itself arouses a reasonable expectation that sellers are so desperate for profit that they will risk no other complication. If it’s outside the market economy, can it really be safe?

The “consolation of profit” arose from attempts to understand consumer anxiety when Jennifer Hillier and I ran the Uraidla Aristologist restaurant more according to our own earnest ideas than the Market’s.

 

Along with a funny name, the Aristologist had no piped music, no Coca-Cola, no smoking (except in a special room or outside), and otherwise signalled more than mere profit-seeking. The precipitating incident was a sweet, young couple looking at the menu, and asking if they might repair instead to a nearby restaurant. Our food would be “too spicy”, they explained, although, in reality, this would have applied more to the other place.

A more likely explanation was that the Aristologist might seem to require savoir-faire, an unfamiliar wine, reflection on the experience, or any number of other interactions.

McDonald’s redoubles the assurances. Their so-called “restaurants” advertise utterly predictable food – “Do you want fries with that?” – and stilted interactions – “Have a nice day”. The hammering of cheapness backs the warranty: no any other demand.

As a religious studies scholar, Marion added the second case-study. Why have megachurches been on the rise, when mainline churches have generally declined? Megachurches have replaced old liturgies with the forms of rock concerts and television tonight shows. Theirs is “Jesus lite”.

The “consolation of profit” thesis adds that, whereas a tight, more traditional congregation might threaten personal, social or deep theological challenges, these “growth churches” preach a simple message, “we want your money.” The merchandising in the foyer, donation buttons on web-pages, repeated onstage appeals shout out the safety of profit-seeking. The upfront demand for money could risk no challenge.

Our third case study asks how could anyone vote for such a shallow charlatan as Donald Trump? Together with lies and racism, his heavily-funded election campaign came with the “consolation of profit”. Trump never pretended to be anything more than a super-salesman with advertising slogans in place of policies.

This self-professed artist of “the deal” grew up in the congregation of prosperity gospel preacher, Dr Norman Vincent Peale, author of a string of business self-help titles, most famously, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). Peale officiated at Trump’s first wedding.

Voting for the celebrity money-maker guarded against any untoward governmental decisions. Selling himself as the greatest, Trump offered no “deep state” threats. Denouncing elite expertise, he ostentatiously ruled through Fox News tweets.

With the pandemic, the Symons-Maddox thesis sees a hard-selling, anti-intellectual braggart struggling with an unanticipated crisis. “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it”; “I like this stuff. I really get it,” etc, shows he has nothing to sell but himself.

How enduring the consolation proves against obvious lack of social commitment, we’ll find out in November.

*Michael Symons and Marion Maddox (2020), “The consolation of profit,” New Formations 99: 110-126

99: Cultures of Compensation

How to buy Meals Matter

9780231196024PURCHASE THE BOOK THROUGH YOUR favourite seller, or through Columbia University Press with a discount.*** Sadly, after a change of Australia/NZ distributors, and higher air freight costs, Wiley do not expect hardbacks until mid-October, although now at a much better price, $57.95AUD. Meanwhile, Meals Matter would appear to be reasonably available elsewhere, including from several mail-order firms. E-books are instant.

***Here is the Columbia link to use the friendly promo code CUP30 for a 30% discount. Before delivery, the Columbia site quotes $35.00 US and £30.00. With discount and postage to Australia, and improving exchange rate, I made the total $52.44 AUD.

Meals Matter - Author with first copy
Author with first copy

Now for something completely different … cheese savouries

Mini croque monsieur bites on eatlivetravelwrite.comSOMETIMES THINGS fall into place so neatly as to be scarcely noticed. But I have never let myself forget the good fortune in discovering a simple savoury that we served to every customer from the first night of our restaurant in Tuscany in 1979 until Jennifer Hillier shut the doors on the Uraidla Aristologist seventeen years later.

The cheese savouries became minor celebrities, and various recipes have popped up in magazines and the internet over the years. Oddly enough, no-one seems to have revealed our source, until now.

To quote a recent correspondent with this blog:

Hi Michael – way back when living in Adelaide, I visited several times your lovely Aristologist restaurant in Uraidla – and so often reflect on the wonderful food that came to our table. I was wondering if your recipe for those lovely ‘cheese aperitifs’ that greeted us at the table as we began our evening was available in any publication? Sitting here in London on a grey morning, with this awful virus being the latest ‘panic’ we are facing, I was thinking how lovely it would be to be guided as to how to rekindle the taste buds with these lovely ‘bites’. If you could send me in the right direction, that would be wonderful.
with warmest wishes
Jill

A quick online search showed up this version, “Grown-up grilled tomato and cheese sandwiches” on the blog of Mardi Michels, now living in Toronto, and who admitted she first ate them “at the legendary Uraidla Aristologist restaurant in the Adelaide Hills, where I was fortunate enough to dine a few times when I was way too young to really appreciate it”.

Mardi has added tomato in Toronto

 

That’s Mardi Michels’s photo, here. She wrote about them again as “Croque Monsieur bites”, which is the photograph at the top. We only ever grilled them draped in grated cheese.

On the night before we opened the Cantina di Toia, we were still desperately seeking something to serve with a glass of the Fattoria de Bacchereto’s vin ruspo, the local, fresh, light, rosato-style wine that makes an excellent aperitivo. The best Sydney restaurant back then – Tony and Gay Bilson’s Berowra Waters Inn – would open with something with a glass of champagne. If such a welcome was good enough for them, it was good enough for us. Like them, we offered a fixed price meal (with several choices), which we thought of as a “licence for generosity” (a description Gay agreed with).

Il Libro della vera Cucina Fiorentina: Paolo Petroni ...

In desperation, where does a person turn? We loved Paolo Petroni’s serious local recipe book, but wanted something less familiar for our customers. Italians scarcely knew even basic French things like quiches, let alone the Antipodean Pavlova (both of which we served). So, I checked out Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Mastering the Art.

It was in this last that I found “Croûtes [Toasted Bread Cases]” on page 222 of the Penguin paperback edition. The selected filling became “Fondue au Gruyère [Cream Filling with Swiss Cheese]”, two pages later. I presume that was the original filling – in my head, it’s just a thick, white, cheese sauce. A béchamel, if you will.

To summarise our method: we purchased white, unsliced “supermarket” bread a day or two early (slightly older is easier to handle). Take off the crusts, then cut into approximately 4cm-thick slices, which are divided both ways, to come up with cubes. Next, the tricky bit. After doing this countless times, I became committed to a perfect, little, sharply pointed knife, with which I hollowed the cubes out exceedingly neatly. Brush with melted butter, and crisp a little in the oven until pale gold.

Meanwhile, you will have made a thick white sauce. That is, heat flour and butter in a saucepan to make a golden paste, add milk, slowly at first to stir out even the possibility of lumps. Add grated cheese. Following Beck, Bertholle and Child, we “enriched” with an egg yolk or two. (Did we grate in nutmeg? – not sure.) Fill the cubes, covered with a pinch more cheese, and brown them in the hot oven.

Think that’s right, Jill! It’s many years since we made them. But you now have the source recipe.

Cheese savouries Mastering

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