Out of Control?: Pigging out on food culture

Late last year, the Wheeler Centre hosted a Fifth Estate discussion of food culture. ‘It seems to me it’s become out of control,’ said host Sally Warhaft, of our current obsession with food.

‘I’m interested in why every time we pick up the Saturday Age’s Life and Style supplement, we have to struggle through artisan salt to get to books, movies and features,’ agreed Maria Tumarkin, who noted that the bestselling books of 2010 and 2011 were food books – Julie Goodwin and Jamie Oliver respectively. ‘It took something like 50 Shades of Grey to really challenge the dominance of food books.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with the celebration of food, or engagement with food, it’s just that there’s so much of it.’

Food writer Richard Cornish disagreed. ‘Every culture I’ve been to will discuss food on a daily basis,’ he said. ‘It’s come late to Australia.’

‘Our very existence is determined by what we eat and how we eat.’

The foodie backlash

UK writer Steven Poole caused a sensation calling for a ‘foodie backlash’ in the Guardian last October, when his book You Are Not What You Eat was extracted.

Poole skewered the pretension of what he calls ‘foodism’ – its faux spirituality, its insistence that food is art, and the analogy of food as the drug of choice for fortysomethings who’ve given up their former vices.

He quotes Blur bassist turned Sun food columnist Alex James. ‘My 20th birthday was all about booze, my 30th birthday was about drugs, and now I realise that my 40s are about food.’

Blur bassist Alex James: 'If you go to Africa and play a Blur song, someone might have to translate. Give them cheese, though, and they can instantly taste it and react.'

Blur bassist Alex James: 'If you go to Africa and play a Blur song, someone might have to translate. Give them cheese, though, and they can instantly taste it and react.'

‘Food is a brilliant way to connect with anyone,’ says James. ‘I used to think that music was a universal language. But if you go to Africa and play a Blur song, someone might have to translate. Give them cheese, though, and they can instantly taste it and react.’

Oxfam executive director Andrew Hewett travels regularly to Africa, and he sees a disconnect between the obsession with food in countries like Australia and how the 14% of the world’s population who regularly go hungry are living.

‘We really have gone over the top in the way we think about some of these things,’ he told the Fifth Estate audience last September.

‘Eighty per cent of the people going hungry are food producers themselves. They suffer from a lack of investment, a lack of support, of tools, seeds, and a lack of transport for their products. If we focused our attentions on using our overseas aid programs to support them … that’s a shortcut to helping people find their way out of hunger.’

Food as a force for good

Can food be a force for good? Ethical eating movements have grown in the past decade. There’s the slow food movement, which encourages people to savour their food and integrate it into their family and community lives. The local food movement focuses on reducing the carbon footprint of food transport by encouraging people to eat food sourced as close to home as possible; this feeds into seasonal eating, encouraged by chefs like Alice Waters in the US and Stephanie Alexander in Australia. Others focus on the quality of life of the animals we eat, avoiding factory-farmed cows and sheep, battery hens and dolphin-unfriendly tuna.

Maria Tumarkin says that she dislikes the popular idea that ‘if we just consume the right kind of things, we are helping’ – because it is so seductive, such an easy solution. ‘It gets us off the hook. It perpetuates our obsession with food. You obsess about the right kind of food.’

Cristy Clark has thought seriously about what she eats and why for most of her life. Aged five, she became a vegetarian; aged fifteen, she became a vegan – and 15 years later, she changed her philosophy again, to become an ecotarian, meaning that she weighs her food choices to consider the full range of ethical issues that relate to her impact on people, animals and the environment. It can be difficult, but she believes it’s worth it.

‘Including some animal products in my diet has opened a whole new dimension of complexity, but at the same time it has often enabled me to make more ethical and sustainable choices than strict veganism allowed.’

Charlotte Wood, author of Love and Hunger, also carefully weighs her eating choices in the aim of ‘treading on the earth lightly’. She tries ‘to reduce environmental damage and waste, to support small independent producers and business people who I think have integrity and who contribute to a diverse commercial ecology’, and to reduce harm to animals.

‘The decisions I make [in food consumption] are to look after people locally – and they look after you,’ says Richard Cornish. ‘That’s the way I was brought up and the way I was trained in business.’ For him, ethical eating comes with a bonus: taste. He says that generally, products labelled organic, free-range, Rainforest Alliance and similar, taste better because of the way they’re produced.

‘Our pleasure senses have been corrupted,’ he says, bemoaning the fact that many Australians prefer the taste of junk food flavoured with chilli, salt and fat over a just-underripe apple, for instance. ‘We haven’t been trained. We don’t know what tastes good and bad anymore.’

Richard runs a course, Taste 101, with wine writer Max Allen, to address the problem. Together, they train people to ‘calibrate your most sensitive instruments - your senses of smell and taste - to get maximum pleasure from your own palate’.

The princesses and the peas

In his essay ‘The Sound of One Hand Shopping’, New York humourist David Rakoff suggested that our obsession with food perfection might just be the height of narcissism. ‘We have become an army of multiply chemically sensitive, high-maintenance princesses trying to make our way through a world of irksome peas.’

‘I will stipulate to having both French sea salt and a big bottle of extra virgin olive oil in my kitchen,’ he wrote. ‘And while the presence of both might go some small distance in pigeonholing me demographically, neither one of them makes me a good person. They are mute and useless indicators of the content of my character.’

Andrew Hewett believes that ‘we do need to put the morality back into the conversation, and the practicality of supplying the world’s food’. But he doesn’t have a problem with our food preoccupation.

‘For me, that obsession we have with food could be a way towards starting that conversation.’

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