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, and which eventually permitted an unfortunate acronym). In league with a small Adelaide group (Jennifer Hillier, Cath Kerry and others), I stewed over practical ideas, such as the first meal being a pointedly simple, “Brown bread lunch”. The invitation was to bring bread to go with lobster and Cath’s mayonnaise – simplicity itself.

“Everyone” warned me that the meteorically-talented Phillip Searle wouldn’t be organised enough to get a closing banquet together, but at least some who were there would speak of it as the meal of their lives. Back then, none of us was used to such intensity.

Besides, Phillip assembled a great team – other chefs included Cheong Liew and Trish Veitch, with wine organised by Philip White, and servers including actor Geoffrey Rush and Jan Stewart, dressed in clown costumes made by designer Sally Bluff and colleagues. There were even welcoming musicians.

Certainly, the “Clowns banquet” was fabulous on any level. Marion Halligan (yes, she showed up!), Barbara Santich and I agreed to memorialise the experience in three very different, but equally inspired essays in the first Proceedings.

Introducing the Proceedings, I wrote:

The First Symposium of Australian Gastronomy will never be surpassed. The exciting occasion, developing an almost religious fervour, has stimulated new and better activities, which will undoubtedly be reported upon at our next meeting.

We had discovered others who found real meaning in meals. The theorists celebrated the chefs (even they were scarcely celebrities in those days!), and the chefs inspired the theorists. A handful of key participants were even devotees of Brillat-Savarin and his “gastronomy”.

Many have appraised Brillat-Savarin’s work as garrulous, privileged, sexist, and indulgent. Others have adopted gastronomy as fancy product reporting and marketing. More generously, we tended to view his gastronomy as a deceptively profound, late-Enlightenment, intellectual entry to the whole world.

We even supplied participants with each of Gay, Graham, Barbara and my “top 10” reading lists; and all four included Brillat-Savarin. Plus, he was helpful for distributed notes on the meanings of “gastronomy”, “gourmand”, “epicure”, “chef” and the like.

In his first paper, focussing on Physiology of Taste’s “Bouquet” section, Graham Pont extolled Brillat-Savarin as “revolutionary”, and as having elevated gastronomy as almost musical. This was high praise, given Graham’s long engagement with musicology, particularly Handel.

Graham graciously introduced me with an estimate that my “very important book… will emerge eventually as a turning point in the development of Australian gastronomic consciousness.” Undoubtedly, not every participant would have gone so far, but they would have shared the exhilaration of being in a roomful of dedicated foodies.

Proclaiming gastronomy as the supervisory science, I recognised “food is what life is all about”. From “some quick calculations… you can reasonably expect to have 76,650 meals during your lifetime but to die only once.” Looking for Australian precedents, I drew attention to the call by “Rita” in her Cottage Cookery, published in Melbourne in 1897, for a chair of gastronomy. She anticipated a Minister of Gastronomy.

Graham and my grand visions fed on each other, and were boosted by his gastronomy tutor Anthony Corones, whose initial symposium paper was “Culture and agriculture: Towards a philosophical cosmology of food”. Learned papers from Marion Halligan and Barbara Santich contributed from their separate immersions in French literature and food, with Marion referring to the gastronome as someone with “fork and pen in hand”.

Perhaps Graham was right – it was “Australian Gastronomy”, we felt such path-breakers. Contributing to a sense of our uniqueness, we brought out esteemed culinary history publisher and Oxford food symposium founder Alan Davidson, who proved unexpectedly ascetic, and with a love of historical detail but disdain for theory and, especially, Physiologie du goût.

Whereas, as Graham would record:

hundreds of students at the University of New South Wales have gone through a line-by-line analysis of all thirty meditations; and, since the first Symposium of Australian in Gastronomy in 1984, Brillat-Savarin has been required reading (Graham Pont, Appetite, 1995, 24 169-179: 171).

While the first event attracted few scholars, Graham offered anthropologist Betty Meehan’s apologies, and we had a couple of senior scientists, a nutritionist or two, home economists, and catering college folk. Adding to the mix were two former politicians (including the extraordinary Premier of South Australia, and future restaurateur, Don Dunstan), a noted novelist (Halligan), a dedicated ABC producer (Robyn Ravlich), and wine names (Stacey Hill-Smith, Jane Mitchell), along with chefs – Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer, Gay Bilson, Gabriel Gaté, Janet Jeffs, and I’m undoubtedly missing several names.

Especially after ABC-TV news made a joke segment about our first symposium, we didn’t court publicity. By not welcoming media to just front up, we might have exacerbated the mistaken impression of an invitation-only event, but several actual participants wrote (or broadcast in Ravlich’s case) whatever they wanted.

We also paid attention to the Proceedings. Our papers were not always of a tone or standard expected by academic journals, but authors often enthusiastically broke new ground. At the same time, our records recognised the creativity of the meals.

From the start, we didn’t follow meeting procedures, such as passing resolutions or make public statements, despite some participants being keen.  It was up to some self-appointed group to propose a future event, and these convenors had a free hand. Among other consequences, there’s no formal authorisation for a particular event, nor even a mechanism to abandon the entire run (of around 24 thus far, depending how you count). Instead, the symposium theoretically would suit the moment, and the times definitely changed.

After the first two symposiums, Gay Bilson’s wise adjudication proved insufficient, and Graham and my paths diverged. In Melbourne in 1987, he delivered a mischievous rant about my book’s “Marxism” (if only I’d read some Marx!). His more-measured, written version found me neglecting aristocrats, but I had written of “peasants” not as a class but as people living close to the soil – as pre-industrial (my argument was not synchronic, as Pont would have it, but diachronic).

He and I took turns as convenors, and at his symposium in Sydney in 1988, Graham now wanted more scholarship to the extent he welcomed (nonetheless interesting) papers from academics who just came in for that session.

In league with Anthony Corones, I maintained the “dinner party” model, in which the self-appointed convenors played hosts, and symposiasts were (hopefully) thoroughly engaged. In 1990, we retreated to the extent of living-in at a Catholic seminary with hard beds, and vast kitchens (the church had expected more novices).

Graham Pont had led Australian enthusiasm for glimpsing food’s big picture, and when he washed his hands of gastronomy and returned to musicology, it seemed as if his progeny had escaped him.

My recollection is that Graham radiated an infectious intellectual enthusiasm. While his latest fascination inspired others, any consequent research publication of his could seem unduly esoteric, and anyhow, by then he had located some new preoccupation. He had ecological worries before most, and even flirted with the theory of fireworks. That’s perhaps why I remember him as like a sparkler, his brilliance lighting up those around him, and abruptly spent.

Make no mistake, I applaud his ability to project scholarly exhilaration, so little valued in neoliberal universities, where funding depends on metrics (I presume his musicology would have scored).

Other than Graham’s (typically idiosyncratic) review, and straightforward appraisal from Don Anderson, One Continuous Picnic occasioned almost total academic disinterest, strikingly enough that I went into the lion’s den in 1984 to undertake a Ph.D. to understand gastronomy’s absence.

The world changed. Foodies multiplied, along with their opportunities – with cooking and wine classes, tv shows, books and journalism, cultural acceptance of dining out, and the re-emergence of farmers markets and artisan suppliers. Wine districts held festivals with long lunches, things we’d more or less pioneered.

Celebrated cooks no longer needed the little symposium for peer recognition.

Whereas a local symposium committee might meet over potluck meals (monthly in Adelaide for a few years), organisers communicated more widely by letter (“snail mail”), and foodies eagerly awaited the eventual arrival of overseas journals, the internet made information instant and overwhelming.

By the 1990s, scholars began to show an interest, having themselves become “yuppies”, “chardonnay socialists”, and the like. “Food studies” got going, modestly enough, in the md-1990s. Barbara Santich began the Masters in Gastronomy course at Adelaide in 2002 (although that bent with international and less humanistic winds into Food Studies in 2012).

Scholars across various fields happily attended the big 2016 Melbourne symposium. By then, it seemed much more like a conventional academic conference, dividing into streams. The excitement no longer came from an eccentric or “passionate” DIY goings-on seemingly breaking boundaries, eccentrically calling out monoculture and supermarketing, and indulging in almost forbidden pleasures.

An attraction of the NZ offshoot became its inevitably smaller size, so that culinary historians, recipe writers, anthropologists, nutritionists, wine growers… might still join one table. 

Widespread interest is to that extent gratifying, but it is increasingly specialised. Cooks want one thing or several, actually. Writers go elsewhere. Restaurant-goers aren’t necessarily also home sourdough bakers.

Within academia, food might be studied in relation to race, gender, religion, national sub-group, literature, linguistics, nutrition, historical period, monoculture, environmental destruction, microbiota … Yet we lack much, sadly, by way of the general, transdisciplinary or supervisory gastronomy.

Worse, the food production, processing, and marketing industries have multiplied their conferences, and power. Somewhere in the middle, universities support departments of hospitality and travel.

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?

An uncultivated continent?

IMAGINE IF Captain Phillip and his charges sailed from Botany Bay into Port Jackson today. Never fear, we would be secure. The Minister for Home Affairs would quickly round up the poorly-armed marines, would-be settlers, miserable convicts and people smugglers.

Before being whisked away, the intruders would have noted an astoundingly “uncultivated continent” of oil refineries, container terminals, waterfront mansions, soaring apartment blocks and vast urban stretches. Around the coast, they might possibly have sighted some patches of agribusiness, somewhere amid the rest being burnt.

That was the strange, industrial Australia I tried to evoke in One Continuous Picnic, my gastronomic history, published in 1982. Forty years ago, the place was feeding on cans, frozen packets and plastic. Fresh, local foods were widely assumed to be doomed. Indigenous culture was discarded. Little nuance was needed. A “land without peasants”. We only ate on rather than of the land.

My history found exceptions, including instances of the colonists resorting to, and sometimes enjoying, native foods. More importantly, I spent a couple of introductory pages celebrating Aboriginal eating, apologising that topic would require another book (and subsequent appearances include Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, 2014, and its response, Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu debate, 2021).

My sole example was Western Desert people, rounded up for the British atomic tests. Relying on a paper by anthropologist Dr Richard Gould, I sketched their “complicated skills and culture which had sustained them perhaps 40,000 years in apparently inhospitable conditions … They survived not so much through great physical endurance as through knowledge – their ‘cognitive map’.”

I mentioned them, I said, to “highlight our own profoundly novel way of feeding”, contrasting their “respect for the immediate environment and the invaders’ indifference”.

In the mid-1990s, I learned about semi-permanent settlement and complex horticulture, when Marion Maddox and I wrote a book on the Hindmarsh Island affair, involving the Ngarrindjeri of the Murray Mouth.

Incidentally, such was the well-financed legal ferocity of that anti-Indigenous campaign, including Slapp writs (Strategic lawsuits against public participation), through which obsessed parties from Tony Abbott to Chris Kenny assisted John Howard into power, that, understandably, no publisher would touch our revelations.

Speaking of an “uncultivated continent”, especially when covering Indigenous supervision, was a simplification; but my main contrast was between what I had discovered in Italy, where people still then enjoyed good cooking, fresh markets, and handy gardens, orchards and vineyards, and Australian in 1982.

Mine certainly wasn’t a terra nullius argument, since the book opened with “the patrols to round up remnants of the 10,000 or more Aborigines who once roamed the Western desert”. If anything, I guess, it was overly influenced by Wilderness Society-type thinking.

Much more has been written about Australian food since, both about the successes before the First Fleet, and the at least partially improved prospects, but my book had established eating as historically insightful (against the widespread acceptance there was nothing to write about), and I stick to the broad case.

My latest contribution, Meals Matter (2020), generalises the claim to assert that capitalism has systematically uncultivated the world, by having trivialised gastronomic talk, along with separating people from the soil, and imposing globalised machine production, and plastics.

I’m sure Meals Matter will also turn out to be overly-simplified in important respects. Yet I believe, again, that gastronomy can correct prevailing political and economic theory. Many of us keep trying.

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!

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

How weird is Andrew Leigh? As exposed by Annabel Crabb, culinary investigator

Kitchen Cabinet - New Season

LABOR FRONTBENCHER and “economics brain box” Andrew Leigh enjoys the same lunch every day in his Parliament House office, Canberra. A staff member, Jennifer Rayner, confirmed “it’s pretty well the only thing I’ve seen him eat.”

Training an average hour daily for marathons – he has run three so far this year – Leigh told television journalist Annabel Crabb: “I run a lot, so I can basically eat what I like.”

And so what is his “usual”? His daily indulgence is peanut butter. Every lunchtime, Andrew Leigh spreads his canola margarine and peanut butter on a white bread roll.

Why smooth rather than crunchy peanut butter? inquired Crabb. “I can eat it more quickly.”

The former economics professor organises his life according to cost-benefit analysis, he explained, and peanut butter “tastes good, and doesn’t take long to prepare”.

Why then devote so much time to running marathons? Crabb countered. He must get pleasure from them, he decided.

AKL_with_KBL_photo.jpg

The senior politician said his grandfather, Methodist minister Keith Leigh, had celebrated his 50th birthday by running 50 miles, which is almost two marathons, back-to-back. He died shortly after, running up Mount Wellington in the snow, a route that Andrew Leigh repeated in his grandfather’s honour on 17 November.

Leigh’s lunchtime interview is Episode 13 of Annabel Crabb’s Canberra Al Desko, which is an online companion to her Kitchen Cabinet, a series in which a politician cooks the main course, Crabb brings a dessert, and they chat.

Her culinary reports have been condemned as “fluff” that “humanises” politicians. But such a reading certainly does not work for de-humanised Leigh. He must come near the top of the list of politicians Crabb showed to be manifestly uncomfortable in the kitchen.

Under the heading, “Junk food journalism: Why Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet is toxic”, Amy McQuire expressed her “disgust” (New Matilda, 29 October 2015). This was not my main complaint that Crabb’s vegetarianism unfairly narrows the menu. Rather, McQuire reported that the show was “about as nutrient rich as the majority of her desserts”.

For McQuire, the show represents the “insidious spread of propaganda, soft interviews with hard-line politicians”. The interviews coat “with sugar frosting” the “numerous acts of structural violence” by some of the most powerful Australians.

Agreed, her kitchen visit with former hardline border protector, now Treasurer, Scott Morrison, showed him to be not quite as freaky as I had originally thought, but that was pretty freaky. As usual, Crabb was much sharper than “fluffy”, leaving my companion fuming at Morrison’s shallow, self-satisfied theology. In her defence, Crabb does not over-grill her cooks in the manner of the 7:30 Report, but brings out their natural flavour. The politicians’ openness in the informal setting is Crabb’s own defence.

Incidentally, if we believe in “structural” forces, then Morrison surely showed himself to be victim of capitalism, authoritarianism and chauvinism, all wrapped up in the Shirelive church’s prosperity gospel.

Furthermore, Crabb’s “humanising” is indiscriminate, revealing Greens leader Richard di Natale to be a culinary star, reaching back into his Italian roots to make salami and pizze. Sharing Ricky Muir’s beloved campfire showed the four-wheel-drive and wheelie enthusiast to be an unusually earnest politician (for whom fellow Senator di Natale also admitted admiration).

Fairfax television critic Ben Pobjie found it “easy to be nauseated by last week’s KC [Kitchen Cabinet] episode, wherein Annabel had a spiffing old time cooking with Scott Morrison, trading amiable banter while carefully avoiding the topic of irredeemable evil. Crabb is generously acting as a bonus PR arm for Australia’s parliamentarians.” I go along with Crabb’s belief that she’s helping democracy, rather than joining in its typical trashing.

Law academic Sarah Keenan discovered that the show “reproduces a culture of white Australian entitlement to master and consume any and every cultural product, regardless of who it belongs to”. She went on: “As Crabb and Morrison joyfully prepare and eat the food [samosas] of the very people Morrison prevented from entering Australia, they perform their white Australian entitlement to own and consume what does not belong to them.”

Anticipating the bush tucker of Indigenous politician Nova Peris, Keenan predicted: “Crabb will devour the food hungrily, remark upon its delicious flavour and allow the nation to keep unsavoury topics like structural racist violence off the table.”

Like many of the show’s politicians, these critics reveal frighteningly little appreciation of the gastronomic basis of life. They have fallen victim to the same dehumanising institutions and inhospitable policies as the ascetic Andrew Leigh, spreading his peanut butter, not offering any to his guest, and then even refusing to eat in front of the camera because eating would not look “attractive”.

Mercury_Front_Page.jpg

If Tony Abbott can stage show trials, so can I …

Royal Commissioner John Dyson Heydon’s damage to his own inquiry should remind Australians that their cultural warrior Prime Minister loves nothing better than a good show trial. That’s when a government uses a legal forum to expose its political enemies to cross-examination, stereotyping, ridicule and, all going well, banishment.

Always on the look-out to hit back with his perception of the enemy’s techniques, the habitually divisive Tony Abbott established a high-profile inquiry into the fatally shoddy installation of roofing insulation, which he might associate with the relatively environment-friendly Rudd Labor government.

And he established a webcasting, headline-seeking trade union inquiry, whose commissioner, Dyson Heydon, has now smugly been advertised as speaker at a Liberal fundraising dinner, thus publicly confirming his exemplary right-wing credentials. He was already known as almost a parody of a conservative High Court justice and as a writer for Quadrant, a small magazine that to this day jokingly suggests it never benefited from early CIA funding, while conceding that receiving such largesse would have been “hardly shameful”. Even a basic understanding of legal processes must recognise the need for at least a pretence of objectivity.

Tony Abbott appears to have learned the political value of show trials, if not from the twentieth-century greats, then at least twenty years ago as a backbencher close to John Howard. As the then Opposition leader, Howard arm-twisted two friendly State governments into holding Labor-punishing royal commissions that picked off an uppity woman and Indigenous activists, respectively. The two inquiries in 1995 eased his way to the Prime Ministership soon after.

Carmen Lawrence had moved into Federal Cabinet, and was mooted as a potential Labor leader. So, Howard persuaded the West Australian government to hold a public inquiry into some obscure instance of alleged political expediency. It had something to do with her possibly misleading Parliament about a confidential Cabinet discussion while she was still that State’s Premier.

I used to work (and still often do) to the soundtrack of Classic-FM, so that after four months of reports from that inquiry, I wrote to the managers of ABC News complaining that nearly every radio news broadcast, several times daily, included: “Penny Easton committed suicide four days after the tabling of the petition.” Day after day, I heard the mantra, “Four days later Penny Easton suicided.” What, I inquired of ABC News, was the relevance? Was Carmen Lawrence accused of killing Ms Easton? Why was this not cheap innuendo?

Prime Minister Paul Keating called Premier Court’s inquiry a “kangaroo court”. In a moment of exasperation, Commissioner Kenneth Marks himself complained that he couldn’t see the point. Stuart Littlemore’s Media Watch showed a commercial television reporter browbeating Penny Easton as she stood, head in hand, beside her car in a presumably private garage, just hours before her death. Perhaps that warranted an inquiry? But that wasn’t the point – Carmen Lawrence’s career had been severely damaged, and the Keating government with it.

The dirt has stuck. This very day, defending Heydon’s appointment, News Ltd’s Piers Akerman recalled “an inquiry regarding the suicide of Penny Easton 20 years ago”, an untruth helped by the ABC’s seemingly incessant repetitions. Ironically, today’s column also repeated the charge that the ABC, along now with Fairfax, was “a sheltered workshop where Leftist groupthink prevails”. Not my impression.

Especially with the inquiry being in far-off WA, Howard could seem to keep his hands clean, and the journalism was provincial, without the strength and diversity of investigative reporting now available. Howard got away with it similarly in his other inquiry in South Australia.

Those were the days when Howard called racism “racial resentment”, which he assured Australians that he “understood”. This divisiveness could be joined by incessant anti-Labor publicity by pressuring SA’s new Liberal government into holding a public inquiry into Aboriginal objections to building a bridge to a failing marina on Hindmarsh Island. I know this show trial well, because my wife and I wrote about the tussles in a book that publishers wouldn’t touch. This was entirely understandable, given the seemingly unlimited funds being used to attack “secret women’s business”, and silence any opposition. Put it this way, mining companies had much to lose, nationally, from Indigenous claims. Admittedly, the women’s supporters were more inclined to point out that Westpac stood to lose heavily if the marina developers didn’t get their bridge.

Hindmarsh Island was a fascinating story (and, despite no book, Marion Maddox has published more than one academic paper). Among fun and games, the political parties swapped sides. The incoming Liberal government’s Minister for Transport had long led opposition to the Bannon government’s bridge, and had encouraged Indigenous objections; hers was among the Adelaide business families with quiet get-aways on the island. But the Liberals quickly decided to replace the ferry with a bridge as part, it seemed, of a wider campaign to destroy Labor’s Robert Tickner and undermine Mabo Native Title legislation. Incidentally, the same SA minister’s family were big suppliers of concrete, used in transport infrastructure and mining developments.

Among research amusements, I recall ringing a top Adelaide barrister to ask why he had briefed solicitors on the inquiry (it’s usually the other way around), until he expostulated: “I’m not going to be cross-examined like this.” A bit rich from a QC, and I was only trying to confirm whether it was Howard himself who had organised the barrister’s central role. Or perhaps it was through Ian McLachlan, who was dropped from the Opposition front bench for a misleading statement about how he came by, and distributed, the women’s account, marked “Confidential”, and mistakenly delivered to his office.

Or it might have been Tony Abbott, who was Howard’s right-hand on this one, and working with a small cabal in Adelaide, where he used to fly many weekends, staying with Adelaide Review editor Christopher Pearson at his get-away at Delamere, south of Adelaide. A strong writer and editor, Pearson had swung through his life from choir boy to far Leftist to conservative Catholic who required Mass daily, and in Latin.

Post-conversion, Pearson remained openly gay and, while renouncing sexual relations, was famously sybaritic. As a relatively influential Adelaide editor, when he had summoned Abbott, who had been running the monarchist campaign, to meet for the first time, it was over lunch at an Italian restaurant in Leigh St. As the present Prime Minister reported:

We dined at Rigoni’s, an institution where Christopher appeared to be a permanent fixture, his table expanding or contracting according to the number of his acquaintances who happened to be passing by. For Christopher lunch was both an art and a science. Arguments could erupt over the correct method of cooking a bechamel sauce or the proper way to roast a duck. In life, he once wrote, “only fools fail to take their pleasures seriously.”

Dinner guests were beginning to arrive by the time we ventured unsteadily into the winter gloom of Leigh Street. Apparently I had passed my audition …

For ten years, Tony Abbott wrote a column for Pearson’s Review, just as Pearson would later help with media releases and edit books for Abbott, turn out speeches for Alexander Downer and John Howard, and contribute columns to the Australian.

As Abbott also recorded last year:

It was an unusual coupling in many ways—“arty versus hearty”, someone had warned him before our first meeting. Christopher was the aesthete; I was the athlete; he was a reformed Maoist and I was a lifelong conservative. Yet he had made it his mission to take me under his wing. Books and CDs started to arrive from Adelaide. If I was to write successfully for the Review, I needed to expand my knowledge and deepen my appreciation of the finer things of life …

Intimacy was Christopher’s natural and permanent disposition … He had no compunction about calling in the middle of a fraught week in Canberra to discuss a conversation with a doctor, an encounter with a taxi driver, or the status of white anchovies on the gastronomic table … Never having children of his own, he revelled in the role of the adoptive uncle.

The Hindmarsh Island show trial was hung on a Channel 10 report by Chris Kenny, who became another pet columnist of Pearson’s, and who also went on to work for senior Liberals in Canberra, and now as a News Ltd columnist, where he has been a bitter opponent of the ABC (his employment on Adelaide’s 7:30 Report had been short-lived).

Pearson and Abbott had ganged up to get the “political correct”, and the big break came with Kenny’s claim that Aboriginal man Doug Milera admitted that the “secret women’s business” had been fabricated.

The most astounding piece of evidence at the inquiry was the playing of Kenny’s full interview with Milera. Not surprisingly, Channel 10 refused the tapes being aired outside the commission. Likewise, Milera’s solicitors told the inquiry that, contrary to Kenny’s original report, Milera actually supported the women, and that he had been on a bender during the interview.

The full interview confirms that Milera was, indeed, so inebriated, and getting more so, as to be almost incoherent. Kenny extracted the widest possible range of claims – starting from the women’s business not being fabricated at all, to Milera having done the fabrication himself. The interview took some long period to tape, with Kenny stopping the camera with Milera needing another drink.

According to the Advertiser, the “controversial television interview with intoxicated Ngarrindjeri man Douglas Milera” was eventually found by commissioner Iris Stevens to be “fair”. Who would doubt a royal commissioner? I can only conclude that we took notes about some other tape at the State Archives. I might also observe that the show trial’s findings subsequently failed in other courts, as happened with those re Carmen Lawrence.

Presumably, Australian judges have some appreciation of the standards expected in a show trial, so that in the tradition of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the occasional great leader closer to our times, I promise that, once running this country, I’m establishing a raft of commissions of inquiry.

They will examine such matters as:

  • Mining company involvement in Australian politics
  • The funding of the Institute of Public Affairs, Centre for Independent Studies and Quadrant
  • McDonald’s impact on town planning
  • Red Bull marketing
  • Sugar
  • And the outrageous political use of commissions of inquiry.

AFR Top 100 – the view from a restaurant black hole

We live comfortably in a restaurant black hole. Sydney critics and columnists frequently rave about places in inner-city Surry Hills, the CBD, Bondi beach and the Lower North Shore. Although we’re still in the Inner West, they rarely come near us. The hipsters have not reached out this far. More tellingly, we live in a weird gap between maps in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide.

We’re left alone in our guidebook black hole with probably 40 restaurants within an easy walk. Along with a big choice of Chinese styles, we have a sprinkling of every other necessary type, including a fine diner. Okay, it’s actually just within a map, and a long walk so that we usually drive, but I speak of Sixpenny at Stanmore.

The two chefs, Dan Puskas and James Parry, found the restaurant’s name in my One Continuous Picnic. In the second half of the nineteenth century, numerous “sixpenny restaurants” catered to the urban labour force boom in Melbourne and Sydney.

https://i0.wp.com/www.sixpenny.com.au/files/2013/03/home6.png

Sixpenny describe themselves as a “little restaurant”, and there’s nothing grand about it – except for their charm, sommelier Dan Sharp’s selections, and their seriously great cooking, with much from the restaurant’s backyard and even more now from their own farm near Bowral. And their crab and macadamia … take a look (that’s it above). We’re talking quietly world class.

Living in a black hole, we tend to keep recommendations to ourselves, but the secret’s leaking out, and last night they were announced as No. 8 in the Australian Financial Review’s Top 500 – with rankings of the top 100

When challenged the other day to nominate good restaurants in the city of Tallinn, and never having been there, I found online the Flavours of Estonia with that country’s Top 50 selected in a two-stage process – gathering the recommendations from restaurateurs themselves, and then importing critics to make the final pick. The Australian version merely asks the industry, and a computer.

The results reveal the method’s inadequacies. I have only been to something like 20 of the top 100, and sometimes only once to a place, but even my experience shows unevenness.

As I say, I accept Sixpenny deserves to rank at least at No. 8. I must get to Sydney’s Sepia one day, and could well believe it’s No. 1, or close to it. As well as dining twice at Melbourne’s Attica (No. 2), I had a week of Ben Shewry’s cooking when he joined me while writer-in-residenceat Stratford Chefs’ School in Ontario, Canada. So, I can confirm that Attica is correctly placed in the very top rank.

I’ve dined in two manifestations of Vue de Monde (not sure why it’s not spelled Vue du Monde), and can believe No. 6. Still in Melbourne, and not everyone’s favourite, but I used to be almost a regular lunch-goer at Cafe di Stasio at St Kilda – a great restaurant at No. 20. And then there’s Sean’s Panaroma in Bondi. I would put it higher than No. 39. But that’s far from the list’s oddest ranking.

I tend never publicly to bag bad experiences, so won’t cite a couple of over-rated places. But let’s just look at Adelaide’s top two. Both good, and Magill Estate is believable at No. 44. But Orana at No. 47?

https://i0.wp.com/restaurantorana.com/wp-content/uploads/Spencer-Gulf-prawn-and-dill-700x466.jpgAdmittedly only been once, and I had some criticisms (about the need to make the space feel slightly warmer, and not relying on just one glass of champagne to last through all those fabulous introductory snippets), but surely Orana should have been placed much nearer the very top.

At least on our night, I reckon Jock Zonfrillo took Australian cooking in a new direction. Perhaps his fellow chefs have not yet had the chance to get there, or the computer isn’t all that clever, but for finally showing native foods as something supreme …

It’s expensive, so I won’t say to rush, but if you get the chance, let me know if I’m wrong.