Nearly everybody’s favourite city

paris-tourist-shop2PARIS IS ONE WORD worth more than a thousand pictures.

My long-time friend Paul, an acute observer of the human condition, emailed we were leaving for “nearly everybody’s favourite city”.

That line, too, is probably not original, but explains why a thousand photographs are being snapped right now in front of Notre Dame and other monuments. And every picture is stimulated by, and reinforces, the intensely evocative, single word, Paris.

This might be the Paris of Francofonia, the new movie about protecting the Louvre’s own plunders during the Nazi occupation. Or the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec, or of Sartre. Mine is the Paris of mid-twentieth century Hollywood movies, starring either Leslie Caron (An American in Paris, 1955; Gigi, 1956) or Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina, 1954;  Funny Face, 1956).

That’s the Paris of civilised modernity – of pushbikes, the Métro (now more than 4 million passengers daily), baguettes, Michelin guides, Coco Chanel, cafes, and restaurants.

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We have arrived in a studio in the Latin Quarter, with sun in the middle of the day, and the sound of young schoolchildren in a courtyard throughout.

On my first visits, even the most ordinary meals seemed shockingly superior to most in Australia.

Despite improvements back home, and Nordic, Spanish and other restaurants also proclaimed top rank, and with the boulevards suffering American chains, Paris still holds its own.

The milk might taste strangely cooked (the microfiltré option has helped), but how good is the cheese. The coffee might remain disappointing, but the croissants more than make up.

Lunch at Comptoir du Relais has been at a recognised destination (might write about that later). More tellingly, we merely followed our nose and chose Tunisian tajines at Chez Hammadi on our first night. The waiter talked about our lamb and fig order with a man in the kitchen, who took a plastic box from a fridge and looked into it, seemingly puzzled. Another man arrived and showed something on his phone. Perhaps they were googling the recipe.

Seemingly by magic, the lids were soon flourished off bubbling tagines. Excellent, and as to the cous-cous … we’ll be back. A succession of presumably other Tunisians joined in, supporting our host, as the place filled up. It was only overnight that I decided the actual kitchen must have been downstairs. And how could I have doubted the pervasive culinary dedication in this country.

We’re around the corner from another string of alleged tourist traps, competing on price, often two courses for 12 euros or lower. I stumbled upon and then out of Vins et Terroirs, whose formule provided a salad with blue cheese and walnuts, and then steak, béarnaise and chips, with a quarter pichet of wine, and another friendly and efficient waiter. My unsteadiness came from leaving via the uneven cobbles of the arcade opposite.

I developed a theory that you scarcely need a restaurant guidebook in Paris, owing to the intensity of gastronomic purpose. Almost everywhere seems to carry the weight of cultural responsibility.

The city is physically big enough to cope with the tourists. The five-storey buildings might constrain the children to courtyards,  but sufficiently tightly that people climb stairs, and walk lots, so it’s not just the diet that keeps them slim.

It’s not just demographic density that bears down on everyone, but also the exceptional cultural weight. Again, I do not speak principally of the Louvre or the Académie française. A relatively tight culture pervades every centimetre of the Métro, the narrow streets, the echoing voices, the formal gardens and parks … A visitor has immediately to submit, furiously deny or, like me, risk romanticising the city.

Things have got to be done correctly, which some French people might so stifling as to leave. Some seem concerned by dilution by immigration. Others might worry about the inroads by American fast-food. But a coherent culture infuses dining spots, from the most modest, up.

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Just food?

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Magic carrot?

Farmers markets, community gardens and other trendy food alternatives tend to “benefit mostly white, economically secure, and already healthy consumers”, complaims American “scholar-activist” Garrett Broad.

Well-meaning foodies might have recognised that low-income communities, especially those of colour, suffer “food deserts” of food insecurity and obesity, but they do little more than dream about boys and girls being transformed by tomatoes from the school garden…

According to Broad in More Than Just Food: Food justice and community change, such foodie advocates downplay or ignore “systemic injustice in the labor force and other barriers to community health”, leaving them to “reify a neoliberal philosophy of market-driven self-improvement, a strategy that unintentionally absolves the government of its responsibility”.

Elsewhere, he calls this the “magic carrot” approach.

Broad’s discussion is no doubt applicable to Australia, although I was remarking only the other day how the local, self-proclaimed “Organic Foodies” market entirely lacked yuppies and hipsters.

Garrett Broad

His own polemic also introduces apparently the U.S.’s largest grassroots food access initiative, run by the Black Panthers.

In the late 1960s, Panthers chapters across the U.S. turned from armed militancy to “survival programs” — survival pending revolution. The Party fed at least 20,000 children through a Free Breakfast program in the 1968-1969 school year.

His own interest was piqued by coming across Community Services Unlimited, Inc., founded by a chapter in the mid-1970s in South Los Angeles.

The trouble for me is that Broad, as a self-described privileged, vegan scholar, misunderstands the politics.

This blog is called Meals Matter because humans are the cooking animal, coming together to distribute food, and so labour, that is, to make meals.

Happier, healthier, more sustainable meals are certainly “more than just food”.

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Broad argues for more community gardens, food co-ops, and so forth, because he wants More Than Just Food. However, in his case, he wants justice.

For him, food is expressly a mere “tool” or “means”. He had “set out to investigate the social justice potential of alternative food activism”.

The Black Panthers never wanted improved nutrition alone, he says. They used food as a conversation starter in favour of social and environmental justice. They built gardens, provided nutrition education, and improved access to healthy food “in the purpose of a much larger cause. They situated food as a vehicle for a more expansive, people-of-color-led social justice project”.

For him, food serves the struggle for social justice. However, what are the oppressive “political and economic systems”, if they are not the way we eat?

He fails to appreciate that justice is a higher cause, which means less basic, as argued by the sages. Fascinated how “ideologists turn everything upside-down”, Marx and Engels observed: “The judge, for example, applies the code, he therefore regards legislation as the real active driving force”. Like the legal eagles, Broad makes justice supreme.

But justice is merely a means, a vehicle for a much larger cause, meals.

His book’s opening epigraph quotes David Hilliard, former Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party:

We’ve always been involved in food, because food is a very basic necessity, and it’s the stuff that revolutions are made of

Broad has to ask himself: what are revolutions for? Better meals. And better meals can be near at hand.

In their stirringly-titled essay, “Waiting for the Revolution, or how to smash capitalism while working at home in your spare time”, Gibson-Graham argued that, in terms of the numbers involved, and output, “the household sector can hardly be called marginal. In fact, it can arguably be seen as equivalent to or more important than the capitalist sector.”

They gave the piece another subtitle: “Why can feminists have revolution now, while Marxists have to wait?”

Alice Waters and other foodies have proposed school gardens and hands-on cooking, because better meals lead to better meals. Her “delicious revolution” is upon us.

An Aladdin’s cave

sv300455SOMETHING WAS revealed about my choice of restaurants, or my friend’s, the other day, when he said he was unfamiliar with “natural wines”.

For a few years, almost everywhere I’ve dined that’s warranted a sommelier has thought its food warranted natural wines.

Defined with appropriate imprecision, natural wines require the least possible intervention from growing to bottling (with only sulphur likely to be added). It is more than organic, since the actual making is also minimal interference, and can often be biodynamic.

In ABC’s Landline coverage of three years ago, Adelaide professor of oenology Vladimir Jiranek lost me by defending added yeast as “only” like using dried bread yeast from the supermarket. Had he never appreciated carefully-made sourdough bread?

Many higher-tech makers are inclined to scoff that natural wines have “faults”, and command undeserved prices, although others appreciate the variety, and satisfying texture.

Before I explain the Aladdin’s cave reference, here’s Anton van Klopper of Lucy Margaux wines in the Adelaide Hills.

What do I think of his wines?

They definitely feel crafted, and made from grapes, which is saying more than might seem, because conventional wine can taste more like, well, wine. These edge a little towards craft beer or cider. Having opened only two bottles so far, I can confirm their deliciousness, which is again saying more than might first appear. They are really nice to drink. Whatever the faults, I failed to notice them (not minding some cloudiness). Whether they would ever reach the sublimity of a great Bordeaux, I am not sure, but, then, old Bordeaux were made more this way.

I should confess how I came by a veritable cave of Lucy Margaux wines. Anton and colleagues are about to open a restaurant a short drive out of Adelaide. It’s called the Summertown Aristologist.

You might be aware that Jennifer Hillier and I used to operate the Uraidla Aristologist, a little further (1.4 kms) up Greenhill Road. Anton recently sent us a box each as a goodwill gesture.

Since I anticipate getting across not long after the new Aristologist’s opening, I shall report further.

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Census needs another party

Turnbull

I haven’t laughed as much for a long time as on Census night 2016. The internet sarcasm almost converted me to lifelong tweeting.

We tried to get through for an hour,  with final responses suggesting we try again in two days.

The organisation behind #CensusFail graciously promised we wouldn’t be fined for being late.

The flood of social media comments included a photo of the IT cat inside the bureau’s pc, and suggestions they try turning it off and then on again. Others said these same people guaranteed to keep our data safe.

Undoubtedly the most historic tweet came from the man who, according to then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013, had “virtually invented the internet in this country”:

This is the Prime Minister that Albo predicted the other night might last a year!

According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

Census was delivered by technology company IBM using its Australian SoftLayer cloud. Figures from the Australian Government’s procurement agency AusTender show IBM was paid $9,606,725 in 2014 to design, develop and implement the “eCensus”.

IBM motto

That certainly cut the cost of scurrying Census collectors, although, as it turned out, the ABS shouldn’t have relied on IBM to handle the inevitable storm in the local cloud.

This morning, the ABS boss is trying to blame denial-of-service (DoS) attacks from “an international source”.

Kalisch says it all went smoothly, and they fended off three attacks, until a fourth about 7:30 pm, when they decided to shut the site down.

As if a government data collector mightn’t expect antagonism here or there.

But, as Age economics editor Peter Martin revealed this morning, the ABS has a “reckless” new culture at the top. (David Kalisch in so much trouble that I won’t go on about him, of all people, using “data” in the singular.)

The fact is that the ABS organised its own DoS flood of messages. That’s if we believe ABC News:

In the lead-up to census night, the ABS spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on load testing and said its servers could handle 1 million forms per hour.

Let’s do a simple sum. Let’s assume only 10 million forms. At one million per hour, that would take 10 hours, assuming everyone were nice and orderly.

Census AustraliaPerhaps not unusually, we had a small party to upload our information. After something to eat and a Barossa red, we opened up the laptop about 8:20 pm. Annoyance eventually turned to social media hilarity, and we set a date for another Census party.

What did these people think? That they could insist that everyone was legally required to participate (as, apparently, television advertising kept reminding through the evening), and not expect an after-dinner rush?

Perhaps IBM staff assumed people would fill in their forms at work. Perhaps neoliberal bureaucrats have already abolished all life’s rhythms, ridding the world of penalty rates, at least in their heads.

And you don’t think meals matter!

Happy Christmas in July!

WHY DOES the Australian hospitality industry dislocate Christmas by seven months (rather than six)?

My theory is that they borrowed the idea from the northern hemisphere, where Christmas seems merely silly in hot weather.

Although previously not unknown, the concept was popularised in late 1940 by a light-hearted Hollywood movie, Christmas in July. The main-title shows the letters of “CHRISTMAS” topped in snow, and “JULY” in flames.

So, it’s merely anachronistic fun, available to greeting card and other commercial interests.

The southern hemisphere shifting the seasons six months gets to the core of our being.

Plum pudding “at 100 degrees in the shade” is a recognised absurdity. But a summer Christmas upsets not only the foods. The seasonal mood is all out of joint.

I have already complained about the Australian Christmas as doubly stressful – enforcing happy family gatherings amid obligatory summer fun.

Christmas is actually meant to bring the New Year promise that life might be a downer now, but it will soon re-awaken – the snow melt, and green shoots appear.

The familiar symbolism offers a glimmer of hope. Candles pierce the gloom. Yule-logs promise warmth. Fir trees stand out against the snow. Red baubles provide colour. Even family gatherings might lend some relief.

In An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949), M.F.K. Fisher observed under “F is for family” that “deliberately assembled relatives can be one of the dullest, if not most dangerous, gatherings in the world”. She saw no reason why “a given set of ill-assorted people, for no other reason than because it is Christmas, will be joyful to be reunited and to break bread together”.

Yet even she tried her family best at Christmas.

The depths of winter are so gloomy that the number of suicides might be expected to rise. It is the reverse, however. Records from various times and places show the highest suicide rate in late spring and early summer.

In Le Suicide in 1897, sociologist Emile Durkheim explained that longer sunlight allowed more social activity. As well as the days getting longer, activity intensified:

For the countryside, the Winter is a time of rest approaching stagnation. All life seems to stop…. In Spring, however, everything begins to awake; activity is resumed, relations spring up, interchanges increase …

The cities exhibited the same seasonal variation, although the worst of winter was attenuated by the bright lights. In summer, social activity, including suicide, “has more space to operate”. People rub up against one another more, sometimes abrasively, so that violent assaults also increase. And Durkheim concluded

… it is the density of human interactions, and not the environment that caused higher incidence of suicide in Spring or Summer

Depressed people can feel even further out of synch amid the social density and sunnier mood. They can be cast as misfits, not wanting to play beach cricket.

A genuinely wintry Christmas means everyone fears the worst, and might be pleasantly surprised. The darkness gives permission to cheering up.

COLUMNIST Annabel Crabb wrote yesterday about politics here and abroad being like a bad dream. Having called an unusual, winter election, Malcolm Turnbull has only snuck back as Prime Minister, along with racist One Nation. Nonetheless, we in Australia are probably not as dispirited as those in the north, whose summer shines bright with Brexit and Trump.

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We can take heart that Preston Sturges’ “cunning and carefree” comedy, Christmas in July, was released, in time for winter, just after Franklin D. Roosevelt had easily won a third Presidential term.

New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther advised:

As a post-election jog to national sanity, we recommend Christmas in July.

Good news for Monbiot

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George Monbiot

THE PREVAILING IDEOLOGY is so overpowering that it’s rarely named. So suggests George Monbiot in the UK Guardian. His recent column must have struck a chord, since it has been shared online 233,000 times with comments closed after 3964.

Monbiot identifies the “coherent philosophy” as neoliberalism.

According to the headline, neoliberalism is “the ideology at the root of all our problems”, and his new book How Did We Get Into This Mess? collects earlier columns that survey the devastation.

In Monbiot’s account, neoliberalism portrays “competition as the defining characteristic of human relations”. Among consequences, competition relies on quantification and ranking, which lead to a “stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers”.

As “something admirable” about the neoliberal project, Monbiot nominates the patient organising of a network of thinkers and activists, ready with a clear plan when the inadequacies of Keynesianism became apparent in the 1970s.

In turn, John Maynard Keynes made a comprehensive economic theory available when laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929.

From the success of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism, Monbiot draws a lesson that “it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed.”

And so what is neoliberalism’s replacement? It’s not Keynesianism, which recommends stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth, and consumer demand and economic growth are the “the motors of environmental destruction”.

Disturbingly, Monbiot finds that the “left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.” So, he issues a call:

For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system tailored to the demands of the 21st century

This is where I step in.

I have come up with a general framework of economic thought. Taking an embarrassing number of years, the task has indeed felt like an Apollo program.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the Moon
Apollo person

Seriously, I know a lot about neoliberalism, and have a sound response – to the extent of 100,000 words. If I haven’t posted on this blog for a while, it’s been putting the finishing touches to a complete draft.

Where to begin? The working title: Gastronomics: Because Meals Matter More than Money.

The book is a critique of not merely neoliberalism, because neoliberalism essentially institutionalises the narrow assumptions of mainstream economics. These axioms have become so ingrained that even leftish political philosophers and economists have difficulty breaking through the illusion, and my list of offenders spreads beyond the familiar Hayek and Friedman. As Monbiot ruefully observes: “We are all neoliberals now.”

Even Monbiot under-estimates neoliberalism’s capture of ideas, so that, to most of us, economics can seem to be something they do, when it is potentially the most caring of all disciplines.

Not that I have invented much. Instead, I offer the twin advantages of persuasiveness and surprise – by bringing a gastronomic focus to reasonably established economic and social theory, political philosophy, and intellectual history.

The answer to market fundamentalism is not some other fundamentalism, but is intrinsically complex. Not that this prevents clarifying the meanings to words and re-formulating basics.

To encapsulate the answer in one word, liberalism. Liberalism, not neoliberalism.

This is the liberalism of Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Brillat-Savarin and many others who used to know that meals matter.

Now to find a publisher …

Gastronomics
Meals matter more than money

Christmas, a “shallow celebration”?

HERE’S A RESEARCH question – is Christmas more enjoyed in the north than in the south?

In today’s column in Fairfax papers, Wendy Squires argues that any seasonal fun is spoiled by commercialism, family conflict and an ensuing “festive funk”.

That is an increasingly common view, and I sense a growing demand for a Christmas rethink.

The disaster seems too big for my suggested survival tactic of a Champagne anti-party.

Drawing attention to an additional post-Christmas funk, Squires’ column forced me to theorise further, and to suppose the clear benefits of a mid-winter Christmas over our present “shallow celebration”.

Australians have long enjoyed the “joke” that baked turkey and plum pudding are as unseasonal as Santa Claus’s thick coat and tinselly store Muzak. Historian K.S. Inglis pointed to the colonists’ tradition “to enjoy both the heavy Christmas dinner and the absurdity of it”.

Gastronomically, however, more has to be said.

Forget the birth of Jesus, and not merely because of falling church attendances.

Historians have difficulty estimating his birth year, let alone precise date. The choice of 25 December under Emperor Constantine borrowed the mid-winter festival, presumably because the beginning of the year would be appropriate for the beginning of Christianity, too.

Christianity’s local languor has left it too like a sentimental, Dickensian festival. Concentrating on family fun is triply two-edged. Firstly, which family? One practical solution has been for a couple to join one partner’s family for lunch and the other’s for dinner or the next day.

Secondly, it’s for the children, they say. But that should be year-round. Besides, Squires points to parents who just “spent the holidays aching for children in the custody of exes”.

Thirdly, as she reports, happy snaps of elderly relatives and wide-hatted kids on the beach are more than matched by negative stories – this year, one of her mates had a seemingly irreparable falling out with his brother, and a girlfriend’s “strained marriage” finally snapped.

To family woes Squires adds the “general malaise”. Falling into a festive funk, she tends “to ponder what I haven’t, rather than embrace what I have”. She laments another year passing, and flagellates herself for what she didn’t achieve.

And worst of all I make that terrible and oh so common mistake of thinking everyone else’s life is better than mine.

People then return with their holiday stories – about broken families, and about noticing “the empty chair of a lost loved one” – and she realises that “many of those happy snaps I envied should have been captioned ‘help!’”

Squires recommends accepting the Buddhist belief that “life is suffering”. I prefer the formulation in my dear friend Suzie’s long-term email signature, which I suspect she restored especially for the season:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. ~ Philo of Alexandria

My love for Brillat-Savarin rivals M.F.K. Fisher’s, and is helped by him tackling such downers as The end of the world”, which is “Meditation 10″ in Physiology of Taste.

In “Meditation 14”, Brillat-Savarin argues dolefully that table-pleasure compensates for hunger, thirst, and pain. He asserts:

Humanity is incontestably, among the sentient beings that populate the globe, that which is inflicted with the most suffering.

His evidence is people’s unprotected bodies, poorly shaped feet, inclination to war and destruction, and a mass of maladies such as gout, toothache, acute rheumatism and strangury. In his view, the fear of all the pain pushes people to give themselves up to the “small number of pleasures which nature has allotted”.

My suspicion is that contemplative festivity works better when it’s cold, and meals are made from thinning flocks and from fruit preserved in puddings. Christmas thinking is helped by the faint cheer of carols and baubles, attempting to keep close for warmth, and the prospect, however distant, of fresh shoots.

Our Christmas made more sense a year ago in Germany when cantatas and Christkindlmärkte seemed to challenge the cold and dark.

Even and, indeed, especially in a secular state, Christmas ought to arouse what the Christian emperor wanted, new beginnings. New Year’s Eve is beaten hands down by Christmas’s gift-giving, family reunions, intense commercialism, and whatever remains of religious thought.

But we need renewal in the right season. Those Antipodeans who move to a “Christmas in July” are on the right track, trying hard to get even colder and more drab than with a six-month shift to June.

We should not have to mourn among young bodies dashing into the surf. Daylight saving was not introduced to serve melancholy. A world flowing with white peaches, raspberries and, further north, mangoes provides pure pleasure, leaving scant room for reflection.

Plum pudding at a jolly Australian Christmas, 1875