The Niagara has reopened in Gundagai

GREAT POLITICAL excitement! After years of neglect, a new team has taken over. That’s not just in Canberra, but also, not that far away, in the town of Gundagai.

We chanced to breakfast at the renowned Niagara cafe in the first week of the art deco gem’s reopening. The new owners have done a great job, restoring the booths and all.

Suddenly, Luke and Kym have gone from paying tradespeople to paying customers.

Families with Greek heritage got early into refrigerated foods in Australia, and specialised in fish, icecream (including Peter’s and Paul’s) and milkbars.

And so, successively, the Notara, Castrission and Loukissas families owned and ran the place from 1902, through the wondrous art deco modernisation in 1938, until it became too much a few years ago.

After opening up for a midnight meal for Prime Minister John Curtin and team in 1942, the place became a Labor Party shrine, accumulating signed photos commemorating the visit, and showing off the crockery used.

The new owners have stored the memorabilia, and promise to soon return it to display.

@NiagaraCafeGundagai 

The centre can be radical. Look what happened at the recent Australian election

THE POLITICALLY COMMITTED often decry the “centre” as wishy-washy, and as cosying up to the other side. But, being less ideological, the centre can be more radical.

Just one piece of evidence is the recent electoral success of “community independents”, whose pronounced liberalism produced policies more radical than either main party, left or right.

Liberalism? Corporate capitalism has rewritten our political language (chronicled in Meals Matter), and that necessitates being more open to rethinking liberalism.

The liberalism of its often-acknowledged founder, John Locke, tends to live on with so-called “small-l” or “left-” or “social-” liberals, who have multiplied over recent decades.

They eschew extremes, and yet have become such a threat that the right’s “culture warriors” have ridiculed them variously as “chardonnay socialists”, “latte liberals”, “smoked salmon socialists”, “gauche caviar”, “Toskana-Fraktion”,  “Salonsozialist”, “yuppies”, “politically correct”, “chattering classes”, “bobos”, “educated classes”, “liberal elite”, “inner-city greenies”, “mad left”, and on and on.

These liberals are committed to everyday, kitchen-table reality, which is perceived through practical experiences and face-to-face conversations, and informed by learning, with a consequent embrace of equality, tolerance, and democracy. Combined with the rejection of high authority and ideology and other extremes, these liberals are definitively radical in the sense of getting back to material basics.

The recent rise of so-called “teal” independents has been explained as “professional women” rejecting “merely” climate inaction, political corruption, and mistreatment of women.

They are better identified as genuine liberals, unimpressed by the Coalition’s obfuscations on global warming and women. Disturbed by political corruption and capture, they are determinedly “community” candidates, and I have already described their “kitchen table conversations” – grassroots exercises in interpersonal respect and participatory democracy.

Community independents belong to a centre that’s definitely not a weak compromise, not at least in terms of climate action, political integrity and gender equality.

Their policies are reliant on facts and expertise, not ideology, suggesting radicalism that’s not extreme, but literally getting to the root of the matter (deriving from Latin radix radicis).

Max Chandler-Mather

Likewise, the Greens would appear to have somewhat furled their wilderness and class war wings, and boosted their liberal radicalism. “People have lost faith in a political system that puts the interests of a few big corporations ahead of the rest of us,” according to Max Chandler-Mather. So, he ran “the biggest grassroots campaign in Greens’ history”, and won the Brisbane seat of Griffith.

Unusually for an Australian campaign, they established themselves as community carers by, for example, building a community garden on Defence land being disposed of to a developer. Their volunteer teams used some of the garden’s produce when helping out during covid lockdowns and after floods.

Historically, the major Australian parties – Labor and Liberal – represented the interests of the working class and bosses, respectively, although both always contained liberal elements.

Labor outgrew the class war with the Whitlam revolution of 1972, although its liberal leadership then fell in with neoliberalism. Labor’s agenda remains hypnotised by “jobs, jobs, jobs”, which is sunny way to support corporate capitalism.

We might be lucky, and the new Labor government might get behind the common-wealth of health, social justice, infrastructure, environment, education, research and the arts. But that means standing up to capitalist rule by profit.

Perhaps Labor needs to become the Labourer/Worker/Housekeeper/Carer/Professional/ Artisan/Farmer/Small businessperson/LGBTIQA+/Immigrant/Aged/Disabled/Indigenous/Abused/Student/Etc Party. A new name is not easy to come up with… Perhaps “Commonwealth Party”?

The “Liberal” name is already taken by the occasionally liberal party of Robert Menzies, but whose main demand is “freedom” for money, and which now has to choose between becoming a “broad church” or a reality-inventing, fact-denying, cynical rump.

Likewise, the National Party has to decide between being a Country Party, concerned with increasingly perilous bread-and-butter rural issues, or Trumpian authoritarians.

Perhaps the party system is doomed, anyway, as a relic of hierarchies with “party discipline” under the Leader, announcing policy, allocating ministries, and making “captain’s picks”.

Rather than rely on backroom deals, sloganised messaging and last-minute hi-vis pageantry, Members and Senators might deliberate on the floor of parliament. Now that’s an idea.

The community independents have shown the way. And let’s not forget that a thriving democracy in a complex society requires a highly informed citizenry, and therefore strong public education, responsible media, and a committed and open public service.

With determination, it’s possible that a new centre might hold, and a radical centre at that.

To repeat, by “centre”, I do not speak of midway between two extremes, but caring, honest, informed and pragmatic “liberalism”.

Dining with a thump

ONCE, WHEN WE WERE DINING OUT in Sydney’s Leichhardt in the late 1960s, the noise became so unbearable that the Italian waiter whistled shrilly, everyone quietened, and then we gradually talked louder to be heard, until he whistled again.

That’s changed, because many restaurateurs now unapologetically drown out conversation. No longer young and silly, and with hearing aids, I have in recent years shied away from at least two restaurants as soon we felt the racket, and I have also put up with the noise in more than one highly-fashionable place where I’m not keen to return.

Discriminating among voices becomes harder with age (too much rock n roll when young). But now speakers thump imperiously beneath the clamour. Managements seemingly welcome the “Lombard effect” (people speaking louder to be heard). They must mistake deafening exuberance for buzz.

Certainly, several waiters have obligingly reduced the volume. Yet in Summer Hill, a young woman turned the sound down, only for the manager to turn it up. When we explained that we’d asked for it down, he said something inaudible about other customers (there were only one or two other tables). He then devoted himself to shifting around paper packages awaiting meal deliverers. Without soliciting our order, he remained unconcerned as we departed, and discovered a cheaper, much friendlier take-away around the corner, with a few tables and wine glasses.

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells actually mounted a “ringing defense” of noise. Constantly implored to condemn raucous places, he realised he didn’t find loud restaurants a problem.

The truth is, I love them. Not all of them, not all the time. I enjoy more than a few quiet restaurants, too, where you can concentrate on the food and the conversation without auditory distractions. But so many of the places I enjoy most tend to be at least somewhat noisy.

His illustrator did not seem so keen…

 

In a study of reviews in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, researcher John Lang found that restaurant noise could affect the critics’ evaluations. Strikingly, the correlation between comments on noise and overall rating was reversed between east and west coasts:

That is, in the Times, as noise increases, restaurant ratings decrease; while in the Chronicle, as noise increases, so do restaurant ratings

The quality of food had double the impact of service on overall rating, followed by “atmosphere”, while noise remained a lesser, but still “significant predictor of the overall restaurant star rating”.

The Zagat “State of American Dining” report in 2016 had already found that, for 25% of customers, noise was the most irritating component of dining out, and the internet abounds with complaints. Various apps – including iHEARu and soundprint – been launched to share information about the noise levels of particular restaurants.

So why raise the volume? Researchers found that tasters rated beer more highly when listening to music by a familiar band.

A pair of professors of marketing, studying restaurant “servicescapes”, have identified the “environmental cues” such as lighting and music that “strongly” influence eating behavior. For example, loud noise and bright lighting increase the quantity eaten, and decrease the pleasure, without an overall effect on the money spent. They also found that “softening the lighting and music led people to eat less, to rate the food as more enjoyable, and to spend just as much”.

Acoustic engineers around the world, including at Flinders University, have advised of how to mitigate the effects of minimalist, hard surfaces.

Noise could become a problem for us at the Uraidla Aristologist in the Adelaide Hills (and so could curmudgeonly customers, but let that pass). A shouty table of six or eight could ruin it for everyone. After we had added a kilim and tapestry to the walls, a further, smart suggestion was to fix egg cartons underneath the long, central serving table. Confession: our notorious cat clawed them down.

Certainly, near-silence could be embarrassing for, say, just two tables of two. But we never succumbed to the increasing pressure to add “atmosphere” with any recorded music. Instead, we often achieved the beautiful hum and clink of contented conversation and dining – one pleasure I still miss.

Surroundings are enormously important to dining. Big money is spent on chairs, walls,  bars, benches and lights. Restaurants run from closeted haute cuisine to blaring television echoing around hard surfaces on the other side of the Alps. In recent times, some owners have chosen to deafen customers, and some have chosen to stay away.

With the pandemic, crowding gave way to muffling masks, social distancing, and outdoor tables. But then the clamour came crashing back. Restaurant reviewers ought to include a noise indicator.

@GoldingCartoons

Welcome to our kitchen table election

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.

From Kitchen Table Conversations: A guide for sustaining our democratic culture, by Mary Crooks and Leah McPherson (2021)

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.

Political theorist Janet Flammang has written how everyday meals generate popular political consciousness.Even slightly more formality can be powerful. Like-minded experts and enthusiasts typically “socialise” at drinks and restaurant tables.

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.

Mary Crooks

Morrison, “fake”

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.”

Grace Tame and fake (to her right)

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”.

Tom Uren and me

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.

Brisbane, January 1974 (Qld Archives)

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.

With storms continuing, immoral N.S.W. Premier Dominic Perrottet demanded more housing, whether on flood plains or not (“NSW Planning Minister scraps order to consider flood, fire risks before building”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 March 2022).

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.

I did successfully organise photo-ops for Tom Uren opening bike paths (ACT Archives)

Recycling world tour

Recycling bottles (clear, green and brown, separately), also clothing, and various, Hannover, Germany

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 .

More street furniture, Hannover

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.

Automatic refund detection in supermarket, Hannover

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.

Shanghai, China

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.

A cafe in Newcastle, NSW, seemed to have invented yet another colour scheme.

Graham Pont, an appreciation

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), 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.

Graham Pont serves his punch to Gabriel Gaté, while Mick Treloar looks on

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?

Australian Republican Movement, listen! We’re the “head of state”

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).

“Don’t Look Up” stole my ending

The story so far:

  • 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!

Don’t Look Up is compulsory viewing – it illustrates what happens when greed trumps appetite. Nevertheless, to get a real grip on the issues, I recommend Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy (2020). The endings are similar, but the paths are different.

Jennifer Lawrence