Happily I managed to make it to this work-in-progress talk by Visiting Fellow Associate Professor Donna Lee Brien at ANU yesterday, sleeping toddler in tow. She gave a survey of her work, looking at some of the big names in Australian food writing since the 1960s and examining how they have been agitating for culinary – and social – change.
I used to work at the CCR, now part of the Research School of Humanities where Professor Brien is visiting (and I’ll be back on Mondays next week, as part of a project investigating the war rugs of Afghanistan). One of the great strengths of the CCR is the variety of the work the scholars there are doing. They come from many different fields and share a commitment to interdisciplinary and collaborative work. They’re also committed to innovative forms of research presentation. I don’t think anyone’s done an interpretive dance yet as part of their PhD, but I am happy to be corrected on that. So the audience of about thirty or so was lively and interested. And very heavily female dominated, as it happens.
The whole area of “Food Studies” is pretty new to academia, as the somewhat graceless introduction Professor Brien was given made clear. But she’s such an engaging speaker, and it’s such an interesting field that the she’d converted the graceless one within an hour. Also she had brought really quite superior chocolate crackles.
Her work is to an extent mapping out the territory – there’s been little academic attention to the field in an Australian context, and it seemed from this gathering that every nearly conversation can spark a new possible line of enquiry.
Two points she raised in her talk particularly resonated with me. The first was in relation to criticisms that cookery and food writers reinforce the domestic enslavement of women. As a mother who’s been at home for an eighteen month stretch twice in the last six years, and
often sometimes struggled with it, I responded to the idea, traced to Margaret Fulton, that cookery could provide an island of creativity in a day otherwise structured to the demands of others. (There’s an excellent post on the view that there’s something necessarily oppressive about a woman cooking for her family from chef Barbara Fisher of Tigers & Strawberries.) The whole idea of female amateurism/male professionalism was raised, including mention of the ABC’s “The Cook and The Chef”. It shits me a bit, because Maggie Beer has been a restaurateur and in charge of a professional kitchen for a bloody long time. Anyway, I’ve had my spray about that elsewhere.
The second point I connected with was Professor Brien’s consideration of how we incorporate what we read in food media into what we do – how we cook and eat – which becomes part of what we are, in both the literal and metaphorical senses. Part of the context is the massive commercial success of publications about food and cooking – a spend in Australia of around $60 million per year.
It was an interesting counterpoint to some of the questions from the audience which seemed based on the conviction that People didn’t cook and what’s more People Who Consumed Food Media didn’t really make the food in the magazines or books. Apparently that is the only thing that cookery writing is for, beyond what you might call the performative function of displaying taste. (I did mention it was an academic audience ;) One woman went so far as to say her many travels in the US had led her to the conclusion that “Nobody there cooks.”
That’s just wrong, and I was surprised how very cranky these statements from the audience made me. I have as little respect for Donna Hay as anyone, and OK, it may be bourgie to have a bunch of fancy cookbooks on prominent display in your house*, but how does someone else determine whether you’re entitled to display them or not? Is there a magic ratio? Need the pages be sufficiently splattered? How precisely need the recipe be followed? Piss off!
Like many – another outspoken female comes to mind here – I will read a number of things around an ingredient or recipe and fashion a version to suit my tastes and what’s in the fridge. Tonight I made a roasted vegetable frittata, using the roasted cauliflower I’ve been nuts for since this post at Gastronomy Domine and this one for faux mashed potatoes at Diet, Dessert and Dogs. Although I just think of it as a warm dip and have the goddam potatoes if I feel like them.
I read food memoirs and criticism in bed – in fact I’m working my way through what you might consider the English language “canon” of food memoir and the parallel one of behind-the-scenes restaurant life. (Suggestions for good reads gratefully received, btw.) I’m also now in the habit of taking a neglected cookbook from the shelf every time we go on holiday; last time we had a week at the beach it was with Rosemary Brissenden’s South East Asian Food to read. I didn’t cook from it while we were away, just read it. On the little road trip we made before that one, I’d taken Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery (Land of Plenty in the US edition), which I read cover to cover three times before I cooked a thing from it.
Professor Brien is eager to talk to people who write about food, and I’ve said I’ll pass on the details of interested food bloggers (rather than put her email address up). Leave a note in comments or email to crazybraveATgmail.com if you’re keen.
* guilty! But the living areas are one room really, so where would it be truly tasteful to put them?