culinary geography

china-regional-cuisines-mapI love food. So I went to a talk at the Wheeler Centre called ‘Culinary Geography’ with panelists George Calombaris, Elizabeth Chong and Rosa Mitchell, with host Larissa Dubecki.

Joining me today is Cindy, one half of awesome vego Melbourne blog Where’s the Beef. Please walk with us for some food and culture feelpinions. 

Steph says: I got particularly caught up in their discussions around authenticity. There’s the authenticity of childhood foods, and the role of nostalgia in foods. There’s authenticity in foods, and then the difference between cultural appropriation and the exchange of ideas. There was discussion on the idea that exchange can be two way.

Cindy says: I got caught up in the ‘nostalgia’ angle as much as the ‘authenticity’ one. George and Rosa both called on nostalgia as a core factor in their cooking. (I didn’t hear it as explicitly from Elizabeth, but she did pay tribute to the Cantonese techniques that she learned first within her family.) And yet food surely needs more to it than nostalgia to appeal in the restaurant industry – after all, the customer’s nostalgia will not necessarily be triggered by the same foods as the chef’s.

The panelists approached the ‘more’ in different ways. Rosa seemed most focused on preserving the authenticity of her specific experience, without a strong sense of exchange. Elizabeth spoke as a teacher and a student in first understanding the fundamentals of a cooking tradition before taking it to new places. George was an example of this approach, calling on his Greek heritage and cooking traditions while regularly questioning why the techniques and ingredients were what they were, and exploring alternatives in the dishes he creates.

Steph says: And from this very beginning, I was having a lot of feelings. Rosa said, “The Italians (speaking as Italian) aren’t as willing to exchange with other cultures.” George concurred with this, saying that in Australia there’s a distinct exchange of ideas, and the idea that exchange can be two way. Specifically what guides George is, as Cindy says, “Why can’t I? As long as it tastes good” when he makes food decisions. They both talked about the way international chefs love what we’re doing in Australia around this exchange of food.

But my question is, is this part of Australia’s racism, our romantic multiculturalism? Australia can’t be racist because Australians love Ethiopian food, but those African school boys still got kicked out of the Apple store because “they’re worried you might steal something.”

They spoke of David Thompson, an Australian-born white dude who is well known as a Thai restauranteur – that is, being of Thai food, not being a Thai person. A few years ago he declared that he was attempting to bring traditional Thai food back to Bangkok. I think we can all guess the feelings I had about that.

There was lots of uhming and ahhing around the place as George and Rosa tried to justify about how it’s okay to be a spokesperson for Thai food if Thai people aren’t doing it and/or if you do it really well, as Elizabeth tried to get someone to give her permission to criticise it all. In the end, “you can learn about it but you aren’t it” is what she said, and I’d definitely agree with that.

Cindy says: Absolutely! Rosa went so far as to suggest that Thai people should be grateful for a white dude’s interest, while George seemed to think that behaving with ‘humility’ is sufficient.

Steph says: There was an element of something to the evening that made me uncomfortable. Rosa talked extensively about slow food and seasonality instead of “buying a tomato for the sake of a tomato.” She’s a large proponent of slow food, which is great! But although there was some acknowledgement of what were probably lower socio-economic pasts, there was no explicit talk on the subject.

Rosa also talked about how kids can say “I don’t like that” in regards to a food, but often it’s because they’re not eating the right thing – saying they don’t like parmesan because they’ve only ever encountered the sprinkles in a container, or not liking fruit because they’ve only ever had it in syrup. This is all related, though – these are shortcuts used by adults who are time and/or money poor. And when Rosa was asked ‘what’s the one thing you should never compromise on,’ and the answer was fresh fruit and vegetables should be seasonal and regional, which is totally true, that overlooks the people who make these decisions because they don’t have a choice.

Cindy says: This was very striking to me too, and I bristled at the tone of this conversation. I am irritated when the food-privileged harp on education (which is great! knowledge for all!) without acknowledging the other very real obstacles to accessing a nutritious and ethically-sourced diet for many people. I can’t help noticing that frozen vegetables (which often hold the same nutritional content as fresh) are not held in the same esteem as a romantic sun-kissed tomato on the vine.

Steph says: The conversation was very individual-focused, which causes me some surprise, but should it? Food, whilst incredibly institutional, and often about wider family groups and communities, is also very much about the individual. It’s hard for me to talk about a time that isn’t now, because I’ve not experienced any other, but in some ways food seems more individual now. We’re allowed to let our allergies guide us; I don’t have to serve my mother first (though I still do); even traditional sharing dishes are available for individuals (and isn’t that a mental jar for me).

Cindy says: The conversation was so individual-focused that George related two stories circulating in the public sphere as if they had happened to him personally! The personal is political, and I guess the political is more palatable in the personal telling. I would be much more satisfied by explicit discussion of the structures that individuals are acting within, but I might be in the minority at this kind of event.

Steph says: Developing trends were given as regionality, seasonality, slow food, and the world looking in at Australia’s amazing foods and culinary habits.

A final note: all the questions during the Q+A were asked, I think, by women. Usually I find these sessions dominated by men. What does this say? I’m not sure, but it’s further to think about.

Cindy says: I believe the audience was strongly skewed towards women in general, and the Q&A reflected that. It seems that non-commercial food talk is still primarily a woman’s domain.

Steph says: UGH.

One thought on “culinary geography

  1. I have to admit, I find the slow food (and the Slow Life Movement overall) thing a bit on the condescending and classist side. One of the things which has to be acknowledged about slow food is that it really does require you to be time privileged in a way which a lot of people aren’t – oh, and it also, to do it properly requires you to be monetarily privileged as well. You can’t just be making up a casserole of gravy beef and potatoes in the slow cooker because you’re broke and on the dole and that’s all you can afford at present. Oh no – it has to be locally sourced organically grown produce, purchased from a sustainable farmer’s market yadda yadda yadda… because if we admit the only people these days who have the time to make these sorts of things from scratch are the very rich and the very poor (i.e. the unemployed) then we’re starting to get into awkward questions territory regarding class and so on.

    (Incidentally, my other bitch with the slow food movement is that it’s made all the cheap cuts of meat I used to be able to afford to purchase for casseroling in the slow cooker a darn sight more expensive… to the point where these days the only type of meat we can afford on the dole is either sausages or mince).

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