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I was once a librarian. No more. I once had a disposable income. No more. But when I had loose change in my pocket, I bought books. Lots of them. I also worship food. Literally. As much as I think anything is holy, I think that which nourishes and sustains us is. In short, I like cooking. So does my nutrition-aware partner. And between us we have gathered a small but potent collection of books about food. Cookery books? In part. Recipe books in part? Food as art? In part. Food and nutrition? In part. My point is that food is multi-faceted, and can be many things to many people. Our culture does not eat merely to stay alive. Food has been elevated to the level of an art form. Whether it stays there or returns to its proletarian origins is another question.
In the days when dinner parties were the go – remember them? – food was a subtle marker of social status, measured by the ingenuity, often contorted, of the menu. Multiple courses, lavishly lubricated, often to background music chosen by the host – seldom the hostess – a sort of enforced ‘desert island disks’. Sometimes there would be place cards, and subtle jockeying of these to avoid the known bores, or to achieve proximity to a desirable person. Much of the food served then is now the stuff of cliches: oysters wrapped in bacon, the ‘angels on horseback’; the – for a time – ubiquitous quiche, a baked flan or tart with a savoury filling thickened with eggs, usually eaten cold, but not by real men.
Once upon a time, our cooking habits were based on recipes inherited in analogue, not digital, form. Recipes were passed from mother to daughter, sometimes to son, often scrawled on scraps of paper (used desk calendar pages often) and were more often aids to memory rather than the highly specific instructions of today. In families of sisters, highly competitive cooks, sometimes a key ingredient might be deliberately kept secret. Up until now, culinary globalisation meant that even our local IGA could carry an international range of ingredients, cheeses from Spain, spices from India, tomatoes from Italy, garlic and asparagus from Mexico. There is even a cooking channel on TV for those addicted to food novelty.
Hunger makes for tolerance in taste. Wealth, on the other hand, encourages food-faddism and novelty for its own sake. There is also a tendency for ‘cheffy’ recipe-writers to maximise the range of ingredients, especially spices, and often from exotic places, but in time, you learn that these tend to cancel each other out. Curry recipes are a good example. I have made them using up to 15 different spices, but now I just use a good commercial curry powder. Few people notice. And in general, if a recipe has more than 10 ingredients, I turn the page. A favourite recipe book is European Peasant Cookery by Elizabeth Luard. All her ingredients are of the local earth, grown or raised within walking distance of the hearth on which they are cooked, and the meal on the plate reflects this in its texture, freshness and flavour.
That may change now, especially in relation to raw ingredients. We will have to wait and see what the medical experts tell us about Covid-19 infection patterns. And in a time of great social upheaval, as now, many of us may in the near future be fed from food trucks, whose recipes are nourishing, but utilitarian. Meals-on-wheels may become even more significant than they currently are. Institutional meals have long been boil-in-a-bag, carefully nutritional but texture- and flavour-less assemblages manufactured, not on-site, but in a distant factory. More of us may come to enjoy these. Bushwalkers do. I used to visit Burketown on the Gulf of Carpentaria once a year, and the pub’s standard dinner catering, a long way from the source of any fresh ingredients, was barbecued meat, alternating with boiled-in-a-bag on alternate nights, and relished by all.
I began this piece by talking about cookery books, and you can’t do that without considering their authors. As in many other human activities, TV and the cult of celebrity have played their part, resulting in the elevation of what should be a quiet, solitary and reflective process to the level of gladiatorial combat in which the winner takes all.
John Fleming II
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