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.

Why do we cook?

IMG_0317 (2) Many of us enjoy cooking, especially with good produce, and perhaps with a glass of wine. But why do human-beings cook in some anthropological sense? Why could James Boswell call Homo sapiens the “cooking animal”?

For such a fundamental question, it has been left surprisingly unanswered. Too often, cooking has been ignored as “women’s work”, “drudgery”, “leisure” or “indulgence”. For too long, scholars went along with Plato’s warning against cooking as pandering.

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss might have written about the “raw” and “cooked” in the 1960s, but somewhat mysteriously. Cooking expressed human cultural structure, or something. Still, he started gastronomic reflections on the slow road back to academic respectability.

In recent years, two books have promoted versions of what might be termed a “transformational” theory of cooking. Where Lévi-Strauss saw cooking as a “language”, evolutionary biologist Richard Wrangham wrote about the energy advantages of cooking as a form of pre-digestion. His Catching Fire: How cooking made us human (2009) thus aligned with the dictionary meaning, “to prepare (food) by heating”. Heat transforms raw ingredients to make them more digestible in Wrangham’s case, or possibly also tastier or more expressive. As the subtitle indicates, Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A natural history of transformation (2013) went along with fire.

The flame is important for me, too, but not as basic as the knife – I often put down the glass of wine to pick up a knife. The knife fits another, and more basic, theory of cooking. This is distributional. According to this approach, the cook’s essential duty is dividing up the food among the diners. This makes the “cooking animal” much older than the fire-maker, taking cooking back to the beginning of the stone age, and the sharp flint.

The importance of food sharing for the human story was the topic of my book, originally published in 1998 and currently available under the title A History of Cooks and Cooking ( ). That’s where others found the Boswell’s “cooking animal” quote, without them always transmitting the beauty of the distributional theory.

The distributional foundations had already cropped up occasionally, and were touched on by Launcelot Sturgeon in his Essays, Moral, Philosophical, and Stomachical in 1822. I’ve since read a claim that Sturgeon might have been the nom-de-plume of Charles Lamb, but, whatever the case, look out for the clever pair of essays, “On the physical and political consequences of sauces” and “On the importance of forming good connexions; and on the moral qualities of the stomach”.

I can see how a transformational theory would appeal especially to anthropologists in their fascination with culture. The refinements are often highly civilising. However, the more social slant of distribution should attract sociologists, and also economists. That’s because the distribution of food at the meal is the concomitant of the distribution of labour. The often-quoted early section of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations on the division of labour could hardly by more gastronomic.

My next book is all about that.