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Aussie Rules?

A month ago I had the pleasing experience of packing for Perth. In South African slang, ‘packing for Perth’ means immigrating to Australia. In the decade that followed the transition to democracy, around 800,000 mainly white South Africans left – some for New Zealand, Britain, and the United States, but the bulk went to Australia.

Australia’s appeal to these South Africans was based on its political and economic stability, its relatively low crime rate, and also on its familiarity. Its landscape and cities feel similar to some parts of South Africa, and white, middle-class South Africans seemed have little difficulty assimilating into life in white, middle-class Australia.

Shortly after beginning university, my best friend’s family moved to Tasmania; and we knew of others who settled in Perth, where the majority of South Africans seeking permanent residence were directed. At the time, I was mystified about this enthusiasm for a country about which I knew relatively little. Neighbours and Home and Away having passed me by, when I thought of Australia I imagined the worlds of Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career – and also of The Castle and Strictly Ballroom. It was a rather confusing picture.

Then more recently, I became aware of Australia as a country with an enthusiasm for good food: in television series like My Restaurant Rules and MasterChef, and in the recipes books and magazines of people like Maggie Beer, Stephanie Alexander, Bill Granger, and Donna Hay. Particularly on MasterChef, Australian cooks and chefs speak often – and approvingly – of something called ‘modern Australian cooking’. I went to Australia in the hope of identifying this new cuisine. But I returned none the wiser.

I ate extremely well in Australia. I am very lucky to have friends who not only let me stay with them, but who are also amazingly good cooks. The meals I had at cafes and restaurants were excellent, and even the conference food was the best I have ever eaten. (There were spring rolls for lunch and lamingtons for tea. Enough said.)

Yet in all this, I struggled to find something that was uniquely, and particularly ‘modern Australian’ about the food I ate. I did go out of my way to consume those delicacies and dishes which either originated there or have come to be associated with the country: lamingtons and Anzac biscuits (a revelation), friands (I ate my weight’s worth in them), burgers with beetroot (up to a point), and litres and litres of flat whites, especially in Melbourne. Fruit bread is a fantastic invention. I tried Vegemite in London and decided that once was enough. And, alas, I forgot to eat a pavlova, but given the amount I did manage to consume, it was probably just as well.

A flat white in Fremantle.

I also ate an incredible omelette at a Vietnamese restaurant in Marrickville in Sydney, and a pleasingly thin-crusted pizza at an Italian joint in Melbourne’s Yarraville. Australian food is also immigrant food: it’s comprised of the cuisines of the Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese, Chinese, and others who settled in the country over the past century or so.

But ‘modern Australian’? I’m not sure that I ate that – possibly it’s only to be found in high-end restaurants, none of which I could afford. One culinary tradition which I did not see – at restaurants or in the cookery sections of bookshops – was Aboriginal cooking. Although Colin Bannerman identifies a small resurgence of interest in ‘bush tucker’, it’s telling that this cuisine is not included in mainstream Australian recipe books or cookery programmes. It isn’t modern Australian.

I don’t want to draw the obvious – glib – conclusion that this is suggestive of how Aboriginals have been ostracised from Australian society. Aboriginals are socially and economically marginalised, and suffer disproportionately from appallingly high rates of alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, and other social problems, but I don’t think that Australian cooks and chefs ignore their cuisine out of a desire to exclude them further (unless I’m being stunningly naïve).

I think that this unwillingness to explore Aboriginal cooking stems from ignorance and a wariness of the complicated politics of engaging with a different society’s culinary traditions. More importantly, it’s also the product of how a twenty-first century Australianness is being constructed in relation to food and cooking. It’s for this reason that I’m interested in this idea of modern Australian cuisine.

Australian cooking queen Maggie Beer is fulsome in her praise of Australia. In her recipe books, which tend to focus on her farm in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, she argues that fresh Australian produce is key to the success of not only her recipes, but also her restaurant and food business. Her understanding of an Australian culinary tradition does not include Aboriginal cuisine, but is, rather, rooted in an appreciation for the country’s landscape and agriculture.

Organic potatoes in Melbourne’s Victoria Market.

Although she may use ingredients which are unique to Australia – like yabbies – or which grow there in abundance – such as quinces – her cooking is overwhelmingly European in nature: it draws its inspiration from the culinary traditions of France and Italy. Adrian Peace sums up this rethinking of an Australian food heritage particularly well in an article about the Slow Food Movement’s popularity in the Barossa Valley:

Both ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’ became intrinsic to Barossa Slow’s discourse: ‘The Barossa is the heart of Australian wine and home to the country’s oldest and richest food traditions. The combination of this rich European heritage and the fresh vitality of Australia is embodied in its lifestyle and landscape.’ Aboriginal settlement and indigenous food were thus instantly erased in favour of a historical perspective in which nothing of cultural consequence preceded the arrival of Europeans and their imported foodstuffs. With this historical baseline in place, an avalanche of terms and phrases could be unleashed to drive home the idea of a historically encompassing regional culture in which food had played a prominent part. ‘Oldest food traditions,’ ‘rich in food traditions,’ ‘the heritage of food,’ ‘rich European heritage,’ and (of particular note) ‘the preservation of culinary authenticity’ were some of the phrases that entered into circulation.

Younger, city-based food writers like Donna Hay and Bill Granger place as much emphasis on buying local Australian produce, even if their recipes draw inspiration from more recent immigrant cuisines, primarily those of southeast Asia – Melbourne and Sydney have substantial Chinatowns – and the southern Mediterranean.

All of these writers claim that their cooking, which is drawn from the cuisines of the immigrants who’ve settled in Australia, is ‘authentically’ Australian partly because they use local produce and advocate seasonal eating.

Australian garlic at Victoria Market.

Ironically, if this is modern Australian cooking, then it is very similar to the Australian cuisine of the early twentieth century, during a period in which Australia was formulating a new, united identity after federation in 1901. The Anzac biscuit – a delicious combination of oats, golden syrup, butter, and desiccated coconut – can be seen as symbolic of this early Australian identity. Baked by the wives, sisters, and mothers of the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during the first world war, the biscuits became closely associated with the disaster at Gallipoli in 1915, when 8,141 Australian troops were killed in what was, in retrospect, a pointless battle. Sian Supski explains:

The biscuits have come to represent the courage of the soldiers at Gallipoli and to signify the importance of the role women played on the homefront. However, within this narrative is also a sleight of hand: Anzac biscuits link Australians to a time past, to a time that is regarded as ‘the birth of our nation’. In this sense, Anzac biscuits link Australians powerfully and instantly to a time and place that is regarded as the heart of Australian national identity. In the words of Graham Seal, ‘Anzac resonates of those things that most Australians have continued to hold dear about their communal sense of self.’

Anzac biscuits are a kind of culinary symbol of Australia – a foodstuff connected to the forging of the Australian nation. But for all their Australianness, they are also strongly suggestive of Australia’s immigrant roots and global connections: there is some evidence to suggest that they were based on Scottish recipes, and they were sent to soldiers fighting what was, in many ways, an imperial conflict.

Australian cooking during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries emphasized the country’s position within the Empire: the country cooking described in early recipe books was British cuisine adapted, to some extent, for Australian circumstances. Publications like Mina Rawson’s Queensland Cookery and Poultry Book (1878) did acknowledge the quality of local produce, and even included recipes for jams made from indigenous berries. Although, like elites all over the world, the Australian upper middle-classes aspired to eat a rarefied French cuisine, everyone else cooked an approximation of what they ate at ‘home’ (or ‘Home’). The Sunday roast remained the highlight of the week’s eating; heavy puddings featured even in summer; and teatime was a significant moment in the day.

At the same time, Australia’s economy was becoming increasingly dependent on the export of food: innovations in refrigeration meant that fresh produce could be shipped around the world. Australia sent meat, fruit, and vegetables to Britain. The posters of the Empire Marketing Board – which was established in 1926 to promote trade within the British Empire – portrayed Australia as a land of abundance. The British children sent to Australia between the second world war and 1967 were told that they were going to a land of ‘oranges and sunshine’.

So this earlier Australian culinary tradition also mingled Australian produce with a foreign – this time British – culinary tradition in the name of producing something ‘authentically’ Australian.

In Sydney’s Chinatown.

For all its attempts to associate a modern Australianness with a cosmopolitan and sophisticated liking for, and knowledge of, the cooking of southeast Asia and other regions, modern Australian cooking is very similar to that of the Australian cuisine of the early twentieth century – of an Australia anxious to assert its position within the Empire and to prove its status as a ‘civilised’ nation through ‘civilised’ eating.

Both of these traditions ground themselves in an appreciation for an empty landscape: one that is devoid of human – particularly Aboriginal – life, but that is bursting with good quality fresh produce, most of which was, ironically, introduced from abroad.

Further Reading

I am very grateful to Alex Robinson who recommends two particularly good histories of food and cooking in Australia:

Barbara Santich, Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage (Adelaide: Wakefield Press 2012).

Michael Symons, One Continuous Picnic: A Gastronomic History of Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007).

Sources cited here:

Colin Bannerman, ‘Indigenous Food and Cookery Books: Redefining Aboriginal Cuisine,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 19-36.

Adrian Peace, ‘Barossa Slow: The Representation and Rhetoric of Slow Food’s Regional Cooking,’ Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 51-59.

Barbara Santich, ‘The High and the Low: Australian Cuisine in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 37-49.

Sian Supski, ‘Anzac Biscuits – A Culinary Memorial,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 51-59.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Zoe #

    A very interesting read, thank you. A couple of things come to mind. Firstly ” mod oz” really is a restaurant/fine dining category – in my experience it refers to the absence of a particular “ethnic” or other field of specialisation in that context. There’s not really any notable discussion around a “modern Australian” cuisine practiced in homes, for instance.

    Secondly, indigenous ingredients can be hard to come by, highly seasonal and the plants don’t produce in comparable quantities to introduced agricultural crops. There is interest in bush tucker gardens, but it’s pretty hard going to make a lot of it into something delicious. I would say it is this, and ignorance too, contributing to a lack of engagement with Indigenous foodways. I don’t think you can argue that it’s a unwillingness to engage with a different society’s fois traditions, when your piece catalogues that engagement with European and Asian migrant traditions.

    It’s fascinating to read the views of a visitor to Australia, particularly one who writes so knowledgeably and elegantly. I look forward to a big read of your blog

    July 8, 2012
    • Hi Zoe – and thank you so, SO much for this comment! I tried to use this post as a place to disentangle my thoughts on what Australian cooking ‘is’ – about what makes cooking in Australia distinctively ‘Australian’. And, as you note, this is, really, the cooking done at home. I wonder to what extent ‘mod oz’ is used to sell Australia to foreign audiences?

      I’ve never heard about bush tucker gardens – I must investigate. I think I made my point about Aboriginal cookery clumsily: I was trying to say that – possibly – white Australians don’t engage with Aboriginal cuisines simply because of the complex and difficult relationships between white Australians and Aboriginals, in the same way that in South Africa, some African people may feel that it’s inappropriate for a white person to write about African cuisines.

      I look forward to reading your blog too.

      July 8, 2012
  2. Zoe #

    I think it’s a fair comment that white Australians struggle to engage with Aboriginal Australians through food or through anything else, really – that sense of emptiness that you describe so well.

    As for the bush tucker gardens, I work with a primary school gardening and cooking program and see many schools start one up. IMO they work best as an educational resource rather than a highly productive food source. The ones that are done really well come from an engagement with the local Indigenous community to identify hyper-local traditional plants. I think that process of connection is at least as valuable as working with the plants themselves.

    July 8, 2012
    • Exactly – it’s, as you say, the process of connection which is so important.

      July 9, 2012
  3. James McNamara #

    I respect you and your thinking. But don’t you see how Australians might be put out by you seeming to summarise their national identity by way of recipes? Using food to seek to comment on the (very considerable) complexities of the immigrant / indigenous relationship in this country? From a brief visit, you purport to summarise our national character and find it lacking: apparently, a subordinate culture, desperate to prove itself civilised.

    July 20, 2012
    • Hi Jamie

      I’m not trying to summarise an Australian ‘national culture’ (I don’t think it exists – I think that the very idea of a ‘national character’ is suspect). My post describes an attempt to think about Australian identities through food. This is simply a collection of my observations based on a short visit – as, I think, the post makes it abundantly clear.

      July 20, 2012
  4. crazybrave #

    I didn’t take that at all from the post, James. I understood that what Sarah was doing was relating her observations and trying to make concrete what she experienced and then contextualising those experiences in comparison to what she’d read and understood.

    I think that South Africa and Australia and their food cultures are a fascinating parallel lens for us to look at and play with how we understand things. Both our countries have a complex history of colonisation. Disentangling the threads of pure experience and beginning to theorise them is what our work is.

    To me, your comment sounds defensive. You’re not engaging, you’re protecting. What are you protecting? And, to be frank, your use of the word the highly loaded word “civilised” could use some explaining.

    I am not having an argument for argument’s sake, and I am not having a go at you, but I don’t see why we (me, Australians) should find it upsetting that we are invited to interrogate our cultural practices. Personally, I have found this to be a fascinating conversation and I am delighted to have been introduced to a thinker of subtlety and nuance.

    July 20, 2012
  5. James McNamara #

    That’s the problem. I don’t think you can think through a country’s identities using food, based on a short visit, without risking sounding glib. And, from my reading as an Australian, there’s a lot in the post that sounds like a summary of our national culture, whether it’s meant as such or no. For example:

    First, “it’s also the product of how a twenty-first century Australianness is being constructed in relation to food and cooking.”

    Second, “Yet in all this, I struggled to find something that was uniquely, and particularly ‘modern Australian’ about the food I ate.”

    Third, you get involved with Gallipoli, the historical moment that, more than any other, forged a national identity: “Anzac biscuits are a kind of culinary symbol of Australia – a foodstuff connected to the forging of the Australian nation. But for all their Australianness, they are also strongly suggestive of Australia’s immigrant roots and global connections: there is some evidence to suggest that they were based on Scottish recipes, and they were sent to soldiers fighting what was, in many ways, an imperial conflict.”

    Finally, and crucially, you make the observation that: “For all its attempts to associate a modern Australianness with a cosmopolitan and sophisticated liking for, and knowledge of, the cooking of southeast Asia and other regions, modern Australian cooking is very similar to that of the Australian cuisine of the early twentieth century – of an Australia anxious to assert its position within the Empire and to prove its status as a ‘civilised’ nation through ‘civilised’ eating.”

    The way that paragraph comes across is to suggest that Australians ‘attempt’ to be ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘sophisticated’ but remain nevertheless ‘anxious to assert [our] position within the Empire and to prove [our] status as a “civilised” nation through “civilised” eating.” Regardless of intention, that paragraph comes across as being rather dismissive of our culture, based on food and a short sojourn.

    The comments are meant to be constructive, rather than simply critical, and a response to your asking for the opinions of Australians on the post.

    July 20, 2012
    • Hi – well, I’m glad you enjoyed reading it.

      What I’m trying to do in this post is to unpack the term ‘modern Australian’ and to try to understand why Aboriginal cuisines don’t feature in this kind of cooking. I think that’s worth asking – particularly given that societies construct identities through food. Defining ‘modern Australian’ cuisine says something about how a particular group of Australians want to see themselves. (I’ve written something similar about South Africa here: https://tangerineandcinnamon.com/2012/05/21/national-kitchens/.)

      I’m not ‘dismissing’ Australian ‘culture’ (whatever you may mean by that), simply making the point that, as Australian cooks did in the early 20th century, ‘modern Australian’ cuisine draws on the cooking and food traditions of other societies. Cooks did that during the early 20th c. to make the point that Australia was as ‘civilised’ as the countries whose cuisines they borrowed as adapted – as similar food writers did in South Africa, New Zealand, and Canada. Now, I think that this borrowing in ‘modern Australian’ cuisine is meant to signify a kind of cultural sophistication. I find this interesting.

      Oh, and my point about Gallipoli is based on an article by an Australian historian. It’s referenced at the end of the post.

      But thanks for your comments! They’re helpful.

      July 20, 2012
  6. James McNamara #

    And I should add that I thought that your prose was a delight to read, for what it’s worth.

    July 20, 2012
  7. crazybrave #

    Very interesting comments, James, I’m particularly interested in your point that it’s dangerous to start to talk about another country’s foodways without sounding glib – what kind of immersion/acculturation qualifies someone to start thinking through those things out loud? And what are the consequences of telling someone that their initial thoughts are not acceptable – what kind of cultural righteousness is being enforced?

    I have some big problems too with the way you identify Gallipoli as “the historical moment that, more than any other, forged a national identity”. Careful Australian historians recognise the explicit work that went to constructing that identity, the parts of CEW Bean’s reportage that leapt straight to being “history”, bypassing the traditional – and sensible- caveat on journalism being the first draft of history.

    I think your last point is your strongest. As I mentioned in a previous comment, I think the term “modern Australian” is only really meaningful in respect of fine dining restaurants, and even then it’s a marketing term predicated on the absence of a more direct signifier (how’s that for a wanky sentence 🙂

    July 20, 2012
  8. James McNamara #

    @Crazy Brave: on my use of the word ‘civilised’ in the initial post, I was referring to its usage in the article.

    @SE: on my use of the term ‘culture’, I recognise the difficulties inherent – the term was simply used, perhaps clumsily, to reference the discussion of ‘Australianness’ (for example, ‘how a twenty-first century Australianness is being constructed’).

    @Crazy Brave: I take your point about Bean’s work to expressly construct Gallipoli as a defining national moment. My point was that ‘Gallipoli’, regardless of its historiographical bases, is a founding myth. Determining the historical / cultural / political / sociological validity of that is, I think, beyond the scope of a comment post and my reference to it. It would perhaps have been clearer for me to have written: “Gallipoli, the historical moment that more than any other, [is perceived to have] forged a national identity”.

    On the comment by Crazy Brave: ‘what are the consequences of telling someone that their initial thoughts are not acceptable – what kind of cultural righteousness is being enforced?’ My intention was not to tell SE that her comments are unacceptable, nor to ‘enforce’ a ‘cultural righteousness’ (as has been pointed out, defining ‘cultural’ would be a difficult thing to start with, particularly in a country as rich and varied as this. And ‘cultural righteousness’, let alone ‘enforcing’ one, carries with it connotations that I think are hardly warranted in this instance. The comment becomes invective as a result).

    I do think you’re probably on the right track when you describe my comments as being defensive. There is, I suspect, rightly or wrongly always going to be a degree of defensiveness when a country is critically examined by thinkers from outside that country.

    I responded as invited to comment on how the article, regardless of intentions (very good) and quality (also very good) made an Australian respond (slightly riled, slightly defensive). The penultimate paragraph of the article (my ‘last point’ above) remains the main generator for that reaction.

    Nevertheless, I think that the responses to my argument are valuable and interesting critiques. I enjoyed reading them. And I think the fact that SE’s article sparked such a stimulating impromptu debate speaks to its value as a piece of public intellectualism. I share Crazy Brave’s opinion that “I have found this to be a fascinating conversation and I am delighted to have been introduced to a thinker of subtlety and nuance.”

    July 21, 2012
  9. James McNamara #

    And one final point, re SE’s comment:

    “I’m not ‘dismissing’ Australian ‘culture’ (whatever you may mean by that), simply making the point that, as Australian cooks did in the early 20th century, ‘modern Australian’ cuisine draws on the cooking and food traditions of other societies. Cooks did that during the early 20th c. to make the point that Australia was as ‘civilised’ as the countries whose cuisines they borrowed as adapted – as similar food writers did in South Africa, New Zealand, and Canada. Now, I think that this borrowing in ‘modern Australian’ cuisine is meant to signify a kind of cultural sophistication. I find this interesting.”

    Perhaps ‘dismissing’ is the wrong word for me to have used. I mean to say that the penultimate paragraph of the article, whether intended or no, describes Australia as being unsophisticated and in need of proving that it is ‘civilised’. Thus, perhaps, my defensiveness as an Australian!

    July 21, 2012
  10. A bloody excellent critique of the contemporary Aussie eating scene. We’re up ourselves with this “Australian cuisine” nonsense: it is absolutely as written above – dependent upon the propinquity of the ingredients to the restaurant serving them. It’s nice; it’s good; and in several cases it’s terrific. But ‘Australian’ it ain’t.

    January 19, 2014
  11. (come back for the pavlova – trust me, it’s worth it)

    February 28, 2015
    • I’d be back in a flash for pavlova 🙂
      -Sarah

      February 28, 2015

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