Nourished: Reflections from Food and Words 2017

Paul van Reyk, Sept 2017

It’s a delicious early Spring indulgence, a day’s worth of thinking about food from the perspectives of a broad spectrum of writers on food – journalists, chefs, novelists, academics, bloggers, historians, farmers, producers. Now in its sixth year, Barbara Sweeney’s always thoughtfully curated event is a world away from the publishing promo juggernauts that are most writers’ festivals.

Each year I come away from it a-buzz with insights, intrigues, questions and quandaries that nourish my intellect as the equally thoughtfully curated meals during the day nourish my body. And it was great to hear this year that the event and Barbara’s work is valued and welcome not only by those attending, which now includes a core of regulars who meet annually as at a family celebration, but also by the State Library of New South Wales for inclusion in the national Pandora online archive.

It was also lovely this year to have Barbara herself give a paper on the dining habits of detectives in crime fiction, particularly Inspector Montalbano, which she opened with the witty suggestion that crims and celebrity chefs have in common that they are in a minority and that both are engaged in fantasy and escapism. This was one of three papers on Food in Fiction. Caroline Beecham spoke of the fascinating research she undertook into WW2 Community Kitchens in Britain when writing her novel Maggie’s Kitchen. She accompanied it with images one of which particularly set me thinking about the publishing game and its assumptions about markets: she showed side by side the covers of the UK and Australian editions of the book, the former having a drawing of the eponymous Maggie and her son standing outside her restaurant, the latter of a pensive woman looking out a window through which could be seen a fleet of bombers – rich material for the semioticians (if there are any left). I was also taken with her slide citing Winston Churchill’s wish that they not be called community kitchens as that made them sound Communist. The other speaker in the session was Sally Abbott giving us a depressing and sobering overview of the predicted impact of climate change on food production and quality, background to her cli-fi novel Closing Down. What, you don’t know what cli-fi is? The emerging genre of fiction on the consequences of climate change.

Session 2 was on ‘The notion of good’ which began with Nick Haddow of Bruny Island Cheese, depressing me even further with his assessment of the state of the dairy industry in Australia in which 78% of all cows are of a single breed – Friesian Holstein, characterised by Nick as ‘all just hips and udders’ – pasture is based on only four or five grasses, and cheese making is largely captive to only two starter companies in the world. Nick persuasively put the case that milk is the most of its time and place product – from that breed of cow, on that pasture, grown in that soil at that time of year in that year – and by extension cheese is, or at least ought to be, as local. Nick gave me one of my favourite quotes of the day: Cheeses and other highly localised produces should be ‘the punctuation marks of your travels’, meaning they should be enjoyed for where they are and when they are and that you shouldn’t want to have them readily accessible at your local deli. In a gut-bustingly funny tale of his becoming the apprentice farmer his father farmer would not want him to be  (it’s a great story, too long and idiosyncratic of father and son to be recounted here), Sam Vincent gave me my other fave quote when riffing on Australian politicians love for donning the iconic Akubra hat: ‘the bigger the hat the smaller the brain beneath it’. Sam also gave me a catchphrase I will use withe glee: ‘hipster remastering’. Mark Best finished this session with an admirably dry conversation with Barbara about his food, his new book and his new role as one of and adapting from a boutique food style to being just on of 18 restaurants on a Hong Kong-ese cruise ship with some 800 chefs out of a crew of 4800. Fave quote from Mark: ‘Young chefs forget that a great concept still has to taste good.’

Post lunch, sort of began with a flow on from the morning sessions with Alex Elliott-Howery and Sabine Spindler from Cornersmith talking us through the why of their upcoming book on preserving, so thematically linked to the first session’s concerns with scarcity and how to make the best use of what you have now, and the second session’s concerns with the good, in this context for me the good of using as much of a product in season as you can via practices of preserving. I liked Alex’s proposal that we not think about preserving as a waiting for quantity from harvest to be shored up for the scarcity ahead, but the act of each week putting something up that perhaps we were about to throw away, or had just a tad of an excess of.

The main game of the post-lunch session was Ian (Herbie) Hemphill and Hilary Heslop addressing Indigenous foods in the marketplace, a subject that has been exercising my mind for the past year in particular, stimulated in part at least by Bruce Pascoe’s talk at the 21st Symposium of Australian Gastronomy about his current work on developing native grasses for the flour market, and the session on the use of native flora (well, at least the leaves and barks) to flavour spirits. Both Ian and Hilary mainly talked about the marketability of the flavour of native flora as flavour, in the sense of you market long established herbs and spices from the European and Asian canon for their flavour profiles and not their indigeneity. Ian’s opening salvo was to suggest that the appellation ‘bush tucker’ be dropped in respect of these flavourings particularly as the evidence we have to date indicates that things like lemon myrtle, bush tomatoes, mountain pepper were not used as flavour enhancers in Indigenous practice, but were consumed, when consumed as distinct items of food, and also that characterising them as ‘bush tucker’ was alienating because that phrasing suggested that they were only survival food. John Newton, moderating the session, put the alternative position that Indigenous producers he spoke with in researching his book ‘The Oldest Foods on Earth” had been quite comfortable about using the term bush tucker.

 

I was uncomfortable with the direction of this discussion. It felt like just as Indigenous people were exploring how to reclaim their food practices and ingredients and want non-Indigenous Australians to value these appropriately, they were being asked to almost deny the indigeneity of their foodways in order to get them onto the plates of an elite food market in Australia, which Ian made no bones about being where he thought was the only place they could be marketed. It had resonances for me of assimilationist ideologies. Let me be clear I am not accusing Ian of having any such views, but for me there was this uncomfortableness of what he was saying.

I would have liked to explore more Hilary’s work with Outback foods in developing a sausage using native flavourings which has been in the super-markets for some time now. I would have liked to have known what the figures are on the sales and what consumers report on the likelihood of them making this part of the family barbecue. Because contra Ian, my view is that as with ‘ethnic food’ it is not until products built around native flavourings to get burned along with the rest of the meat at a barbecue, or into a burek, or a pizza from Dominos, or into a harissa mix that we can be comfortable with the place of native flavourings in whatever constitutes Australian cuisine.