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.’
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.’
‘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.’
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’.
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.’
Richard Cornish will argue against the proposition, with Fuchsia Dunlop and Alla Wolf-Tasker. Matthew Evans, Katy Barfield and Wendy Harmer will argue for the proposition.
We share some of our favourite links and articles found on the internet this week.
The US presidential campaign has taken another bizarre pop culture twist in the past week. First, there was Clint Eastwood and the chair. Now, Sesame Street’s Big Bird has reluctantly taken the stage. In the first presidential debate (which Obama thoroughly lost), Mitt Romney stated that he would cut subsidies to PBS. ‘I love Big Bird,’ Romney said. ‘But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.’
The Obama campaign responded with a funny (though dubiously useful) ad that jumped on the Big Bird statement. ‘Big. Yellow. A menace to our economy. Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street.’
‘You have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird,’ Romney told an Iowa crowd this week. And most media commentators (including The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart) think he has a point. On his show last night, Stewart showed a clip of Will.i.am addressing a university crowd with Obama, grinning and playing the Sesame Street song. The Children’s Television Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street, have asked the Obama campaign to remove the ad.
The Atlantic has a slideshow of images created by the internet to mark this pop cultural moment.
It was Banned Book Week recently in the US, and to commemorate the occasion, Lawrence Public Library commissioned a set of seven Banned Book trading cards, with artwork submitted by local artists and facts about why the books were banned, and how they affected the artists' lives. The titles chosen included Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species (banned in Tennesee from 1925 to 1967) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (banned in Soviet Russia for its political theories, banned in the US for its political theories, banned in the United Arab Emirates for imagery contradicting Islamic values).
As western culture becomes ever more food-obsessed, elevating chefs like Jamie Oliver and critics like Matt Preston to the status of artists or rock stars, a discomfort with our culinary worship is starting to creep in for many. Steven Poole’s new book, You Aren’t What You Eat is a clever and often funny skewering (pun intended) of the cult of foodism. A lengthy and fascinating extract in the Guardian will give you a taste.
It should be obvious that a steak is not like a symphony, a pie not like a passaglia, foie gras not like a fugue; that the “composition” of a menu is not like the composition of a requiem; that the cook heating things in the kitchen and arranging them on a plate is not the artistic equal of Charlie Parker.
If you’ve ever ironically tweeted or complained about ‘first world problems’ (and how many of us haven’t?), this ingenious ad campaign will make you feel a little ashamed and a lot lucky. Created by relief organisation Water For Life, this one-minute video feature Haitians standing in front of their houses, in ruins or among pigs and chickens, reading ‘complaints’ like ‘I hate it when my neighbors block their wifi’ and ‘I hate it when I tell them no pickles and they give me pickles’. Moving and thought-provoking.
In a beautiful and inspiring essay, Maria Tumarkin considers the afterlife of books – how they touch readers' lives and what they can mean for the individuals who connect with them. Some of the books she looks at are Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, Anthony Macris’s When Horse Became Saw and Maggie Mackellar’s When it Rains. She asks the question:
What books can sustain you, hold the pieces of you together, remind you of who you are and what matters to you, not ever lie to you no matter what?
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is negotiating a major campaign obstacle, after a secret video was released of his candid remarks to a donor gathering, who he told that it’s not his job to worry about the 47% of Americans who vote for Obama. The Obama camp is already finding all kinds of ways to use this slip-up against him, including with this clever graphic.
This week at the Wheeler Centre, we talked about our love of American television as part of our ongoing AMERICA series. For those of you who share that love, here’s a little treat for you – a sneak peek at Lena Dunham’s Girls Season 2 (which will premiere in 2013).
The search for ‘authentic’ Mexican food may seem like a new fad, localised in the hipster enclaves of Brunswick and St Kilda – but in fact, it’s been going on for centuries. While people have been eating corn tortillas wrapped around meat or beans for more than a millennium, the idea of ‘tacos’ is a twentieth century one, and it’s deeply bound up in the messy history of American colonisation and globalism.
Italian artist Federico Pietrella has found a novel use for library date stamps: he uses them in his paintings, made from thousands of densely stamped ink dates. ‘In his enormous ink artworks Pietrella always stamps the current date, thus each of his pieces contains a clear timeline of the days he worked on it, often spanning two months.’
The latest classic to get a graphic novel adaptation is the much-loved YA novel, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. Take a peek at Hope Larson’s striking interpretation.
This week’s Friday High Five is food-themed, in honour of our event with ‘liberal foodie intellectual’ Michael Pollan, next Sunday 8 July.
Here’s a story to fill you with hope about the next generation. Nine-year-old Scottish girl Martha Payne, concerned about the nutritional value of her school dinners, started a blog) photographing and rating her meals. The blog, Never Seconds, went viral, generating headlines around the world, support from Jamie Oliver (her hero) and galvanising her school council to spread the word that kids could have ‘as much salad, bread, fruit and vegetables’ as they wanted with their meals. And when her local council tried to shut it down, the backlash was global, with Jamie, Neil Gaiman, the Guardian and others campaigning to have the decision reversed. (Which it was.)
And here’s a nice story about school lunches: graphic designer Heather Sitarzewski blogs the packed lunches she makes for her son under the name Lunchbox Awesome. And they’re awesome indeed: works of art. We want her to pack our lunches.
Over the past few years, the issue of overcoming our food phobias in order to eat more sustainably and feed the world’s growing population has started to seep into the public conversation. Dana Goodyear wrote about eating insects in the New Yorker last year. And this week, Slate has taken up the issue.
Two food sources that strike many as unpalatable – insects and seaweed – could play a critical role in not only feeding the 2.5 billion extra humans expected by 2050, but doing so in a green, climate-friendly way … A growing number of people are beginning to recognize that bugs, such as mealworms, grasshoppers, and crickets, may be the ultimate sustainable protein source.
Indulge yourself in the ick factor with this illustrated list of weird delicacies from around the world, from venomous snake oil and Japanese puffer fish to Sardinia’s ‘maggot cheese’ (which must be eaten while the maggots are still alive, or it’s toxic) and Iceland’s delicacy of raw puffin heart.
The Age ran a terrific article earlier this month on what happens to supermarket fruit and vegetables on their way from the grower to our kitchen table. It also looks at how food is being engineered to suit our needs, including aesthetics and durability. taste is often not the top priority.
Behind the facade of the supermarket fresh food section are many tricks of the trade, and even some optical illusions: tomatoes that appear ripe, but aren’t, 11-month-old apples, bananas that are gassed with a hormone and warmed yellow. The methods possibly do compromise taste and nutrition, but the supermarkets say they are done in the consumer’s name. If food does not taste like it used to, perhaps it’s because we’ve demanded it that way.
Michael Pollan’s approach to food revolves around sustainability and good health. With rules like ‘don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food’, it’s at once revolutionary and traditional.
Here’s a terrific short animation that brings his philosophy to life:
And here’s Michael himself explaining one of his simple-but-smart rules, ‘Don’t eat what you see advertised on television’:
Michael Pollan will talk about his food philosophy – ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants’ – at Melbourne Town Hall next Sunday 8 July, 7pm. Bookings are now open.
Most audience members for Tuesday night’s Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, murmured to each other that they were clearly in the majority company of vegetarians, vegans and animal activists.
But a pre-debate poll taken as the audience filed in from Swanston Street proved that, while passionate animal rights supporters were indeed in the majority, the audience was more divided than you might think. Well, sort of.
A majority of 65% supported the proposition that Animals Should Be Off the Menu, while 22.5% were against and 12.5% were undecided.
Internationally renowned ethicist Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, began, arguing on the grounds of health, the best use of the food we produce, environmental considerations and animal ethics.
‘We can live a healthy life with animals off the menu,’ he said, citing the long and healthy lives of lifelong vegetarians – and of second or third generation vegetarians – to prove his point.
It was an argument that opposing speaker and chef Adrian Richardson (author of the cookbook Meat) would later support. A vegetarian as a child, with vegetarian parents and grandparents, he said that he has vegetarian relatives who lived ‘well into their nineties’ – as did his omnivore relatives on the other side of the family.
‘Even small portions of red meat are likely to increase your chance of dying, including from cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes,’ Singer said, citing a recent much-discussed study from Harvard University.
‘Animal production is a major factor in climate change,’ said Singer. ‘Livestock production is a bigger contributor to climate change than all transport.’ He said that 20 years worth of methane production is 72 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.
And he delivered sad news for advocates of free-range beef: cattle fed on grass produce 50% more methane than grain-fed cattle. ‘There is no way to have ecologically sustainable cattle,’ he concluded.
Fiona Chambers, the first speaker against the proposition, has been farming organically on her Daylesford property since 1990 and was the first person in Victoria to have certified organic pork.
‘Animals are a vital link in global ecology,’ she said, arguing that breeding rare animals for consumption is a way of preventing them from becoming extinct.
Yet, she argued that ‘animal welfare and sentience are not at the centre of this debate; ecological welfare is’.
The best way to achieve sustainability, she said, is through methods like rotating the use of paddocks.
‘Animals are important just as the earth and the sun are important, but they are not the central issue.’
While Peter Singer was the primary crowd-puller for the evening, it was Philip Wollen, a former vice president of Citibank turned founder of the Kindness Trust, who attracted a partial standing ovation on the night, with his passionate, emotive arguments.
‘Animals must be off the menu because tonight they are screaming in terror in slaughterhouses,’ he began, going on to detail what he witnessed when he visited slaughterhouses in his former life; an experience that changed him forever.
‘In our capacity to suffer, a dog is a pig is a bear … is a boy,’ he thundered.
Though he cited a litany of damning statistics (by 2048, all our fisheries will be dead; 10,000 species are wiped out every year because of one – us), he did find some hope in the way the internet enables people to come together to address causes.
‘Ten years ago, Twitter was a bird sound and www was a stuck keyboard.’
He concluded darkly: ‘Animals are not just other species, they are other nations, and we murder them at our peril. If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we wouldn’t be having this debate tonight.’
Animal scientists Bruce McGregor was appropriately nervous about following Wollen’s act. ‘I’m on a hiding to nothing already,’ he joked as he began. ‘But being a St Kilda supporter, I’m used to it.’
He argued that taking animals off the menu would threaten the food security of ‘at least two billion people’ – and that these kinds of debates often tend to overlook the natural losses (or deaths) that occur in every system.
The Age’s Life&Style editor (and former Epicure editor) Veronica Ridge spoke like a true foodie; arguing that taking animals off the menu doesn’t mean saying goodbye to inventive, delicious meals.
‘There has been a revolution in vegetarian and vegan cooking in the last decade,’ she said, before going on to describe some of those meals in salacious detail. Refrains of ‘you’re making me hungry’ briefly filled the active Twitter feed (#iq2oz).
Like Singer, Ridge concluded that ‘there is no such thing as humane slaughter’.
Meat-loving chef Adrian Richardson opened his argument with a resounding bang. ‘If it has a pulse, I’ll cook it,’ he declared.
Rebutting Singer, he declared that, yes, too much meat kills you. ‘Or too much chips, donuts or processed crap.’
‘A few meat-free days and lots of leafy greens will do wonders for the planet and your health.’
In a burst of Mars/Venus humour, he declared that he needed to say, for his wife and ‘for the ladies’, that chocolate is part of a balanced diet.
‘If you want to stop factory farming, don’t eat supermarket meat,’ he said. ‘Go to your local butcher: remember him? I’m sure there are some ladies here who do. As long as death is quick and painless, eating animals is okay. Fiona’s pigs are delicious.’
He said the proposition that Animals Should be Off the Menu is ‘ridiculous’.
‘Don’t you think we can all enjoy a tender, juicy, grass-fed steak occasionally? Eat meat responsibly.’
As the votes were counted to decide who won the debate, the audience got their chance to speak, for one minute each, for or against the proposition.
One of the last speakers was a 12-year-old schoolboy.
He said, ‘I am for taking meat off the menu. I don’t think it is appropriate to throw meat on a grill and smother it with barbecue sauce. How would you feel if that was you? Or your children? Or your siblings? Or your mother?’
One tweep quipped in reponse, ‘We borrow the earth from our children. Sorry negative team, but you just got schooled by a kid.’
No one was especially surprised when the debate was resoundingly won by the ‘for’ side, who argued that Animals Should Be Off the Menu.
The post-debate statistics read 73.6% for the proposition, 19.3% against, and 6.9% undecided. So – a significant number of audience members were evidently swayed by the speakers.
But the movement wasn’t all one-sided. One tweep told the Wheeler Centre they started off on the ‘for’ side and moved to the ‘against’. Why? ‘I didn’t like the FOR team’s emotional manipulation and black and white thinking. Sustainable and humane farming is the way forward.’
Surely, that’s a mark of success for an exchange of ideas: people left with new ideas and changed convictions, on both sides of the argument.
The video for this debate is now online; watch it here.
Anna Krien will be speaking about her Quarterly Essay on our treatment of animals, in Us and Them, at the Wheeler Centre on Wednesday 4 April at 6.15pm. The event is free, but bookings are recommended.
You’re a passionate vegan. What are your reasons for not eating animals or animal products?
I became interested in veganism for environmental reasons. It’s hard to be a meat-eating environmentalist, as the saying goes! I’m disturbed by the amount of meat we eat and the impact it has on our planet. Additionally, I am disgusted by most modern farming practices and the increasingly inhumane direction our production of meat and dairy has taken. After five years, veganism does just kind of become second nature as well. As a vegan I feel energetic and I eat a huge variety of delicious foods, while knowing that my diet is compassionate and environmentally friendly. That my diet is in line with my ethics just feels really right for me.
I read that Peter Singer inspired you to become a vegan. How did this happen?
In reality, my transition to veganism started several years before I turned. I was reading all sorts of books on food production, like Not on the Label and Fast Food Nation, and becoming increasingly aware of the impact that our diets can have on the environment and on our bodies. So I had been thinking about, and trying to make, ethical food choices for quite a while. I had never really considered veganism because I’m not particularly radical. But then I read Peter Singer’s The Ethics of What We Eat, which sent me into a tailspin. It made me think again about how I felt about the foods I was eating, and examine my diet closely to see how I felt about it. And I didn’t feel great about it. So even though I had previously discounted veganism as ‘not for me’, I decided that I couldn’t justifiably knock it till I tried it … so I decided to go vegan for a month to see what it was like. I found it really easy, and when the month drew to a close I just stuck with it.
How did you make the transition to veganism? And how hard was it?
I had a really easy transition actually, despite the fact I went straight from omnivore to vegan. After I tried it out for a month, I just kept going. The test run worked for me because it eliminated the mental barrier of ‘becoming vegan’. Although my commitment to veganism was intellectually there, I didn’t picture myself as a vegan and was worried that it would be hard. By giving it a trial run, I was able to try veganism on for size without feeling any pressure. When I decided to commit to veganism at the end of 30 days I was already living the lifestyle, so I didn’t have to worry about making the switch.
A common misconception about veganism is that it must be really hard to maintain such a restrictive diet. But actually, if you don’t want to eat animal products, as I don’t, it’s not much of a challenge to avoid them. The hardest bit I guess was that you start spending a lot of time reading labels – and getting shocked about what kinds of things have animal products in them! So it’s time consuming at first, figuring out what stuff in your shopping is vegan or not, but you soon get quicker at it.
The vegan food community seems a close-knit one; you’ve written about making new vegan friends since your transition to veganism. What are the advantages of being part of the vegan community? And how are these connections forged?
When I first turned vegan I was blogging about food a lot and then I edited two editions of The Australian Veg Food Guide, and through those channels I got to meet a lot of vegans, which was fabulous. A group of vegan food bloggers started having potlucks together, and we became good friends. When I was a new vegan, having those support networks were critical. In addition to sharing information about where and what to eat, it’s just a relief to hang out with people who get it.
Now, with social media, it’s easier than ever to connect with other vegans in your city, which I always recommend new vegans do. I don’t know about the vegan food community all being close-knit, though we often tend know each other. Being vegan is kind of like being in a weird club – you soon find out if anyone else is a member. I’ve been lucky to meet loads of vegans through my blog and by doing vegan food writing, and we’re a pretty diverse bunch. Vegans in Melbourne are punks, they’re professionals, they’re athletes, they’re academics… we’re kind of everywhere. I call us the Vegan Mafia!
You became a vegan for ethical reasons. Are there health benefits too? If so, what benefits have realised?
There are a few common misconceptions about veganism – one is that vegans are all health nuts, the other is that vegans are all sick, frail and weak. It’s quite funny. In fact, veganism in itself is not inherently healthy or unhealthy, though studies have shown that vegetarianism reduces your risk of developing things like bowel cancer, obesity and heart conditions.
I’m pretty healthy, but I know plenty of junk food vegans, which is possible in Australia, when you consider that things like beer, Barbecue Shapes, Oreos and Baker’s Delight are vegan. I’ve had people, on hearing that I’m veg, tell me about a sickly vegan that they know. I can’t help but laugh: I’ve cycled across the Nullarbor on a vegan diet, hiked 1200 kilometres in Japan, I ride my bike about 200 kilometres a week, I work out at the gym … I’m the opposite of frail. I have loads of energy, which I put down to the variety and abundance of foods that I eat – my diet is way more varied now than it ever was when I was an omni.
What are the challenges of being a vegan?
There aren’t many, really. It’s just a habit for me now and in Melbourne it’s possible to be vegan with no real hassles; travelling can be a bit more challenging. The only difficult part is dealing with other people, sometimes. People can be pretty intense when they hear you’re vegan. Some get defensive about it, like you’re judging them, others go on the offensive and try to argue with you or tell you what you’re doing is wrong. Or they try to ‘catch’ you eating something non-vegan, which is actually kind of funny.
I’m fairly inured to it these days, and am good at defusing any given situation or shutting it down outright. I have a policy of not policing what anyone else eats and not letting anyone else police me; getting drawn into arguments is not pleasant, especially when you’re eating, so I tend to keep my politics off the table as much as possible.
Join us tonight for our Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, at Melbourne Town Hall at 6.30pm. Speakers will include ethicist Peter Singer, chef Adrian Richardson and the Age’s Veronica Ridge. Tickets are $20 or $12 concession. You can book online.
All food photographs on this page are taken by Lisa Dempster.
Charlotte Wood is best known as one of Australia’s favourite novelists, but she’s also becoming known as a passionate food lover. She blogs regularly about food at How to Shuck an Oyster – and her next book, Love and Hunger, an ode to good food, will be published in May.
On the eve of tomorrow night’s Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, we talked to her about food, ethics, offal and going vegetarian for a month.
Reading your writing about food, you clearly have an ethical framework you apply to what you eat. What is it, how did you come to it – and how does it influence how you cook and eat on a daily basis?
My ethical framework is as rickety as anyone else’s, I fear. But my approach to food is just an extension of the ethics I try to live by in the rest of my life – doing my bit to ‘touch the earth lightly’, I suppose. 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, if I can put it that way.
In recent years, I have come to include attempts to reduce animal suffering in my consideration of food. When I’m eating out, it’s much harder, particularly as we tend to eat at local, cheapie ‘ethnic’ restaurants where none of these issues are particularly on the radar (or at least they’re not discussed with customers) and I am not the kind of person who enjoys questioning waiters about the origins of the chicken at the local Thai. Which means I am pretty much ethics-free in eating out, I suppose. Sigh.
But in cooking at home, trying to behave ‘ethically’ with food means shopping at independent food stores as much as possible – we have good grocers and fish shops nearby and a weekly farmer’s market within walking distance of home, so that is very easy for us to do. I try to buy as little as possible of anything – and certainly almost no fresh food apart from milk – from the big two supermarkets because I hate their domination of food production in this country, the way they screw farmers, and I don’t believe their prices are as competitive as we are led to believe.
I also try to keep an eye on the kinds of seafood we eat, because I have only recently come to understand just how detrimental seafood farming and fishing practices are. I try to buy stuff with the least amount of packaging possible, so I don’t buy vegetables in bags or on Styrofoam trays and so on as much as I can help it.
Almost all our meat now comes from Feather & Bone, a really fantastic small company in Sydney run by people who are committed to sustainable agriculture and humanely raised meat – they buy direct from farmers, visit all farms in person to inspect their premises and practices, as well as visiting abattoirs to ensure they are satisfied with the meat processing practices.
I try to avoid chucking food out because of the greenhouse gases produced by green food waste, along with the general philosophical aversion to waste. So that means using leftovers to make other stuff, freezing bits of this and that, and chucking any possible odds and ends into the worm farm rather than garbage. Recycling packaging as much as possible is a matter of course.
Writing all this down makes it sound rather earnest and plodding, but actually, we do it all so automatically and instinctively that it feels completely easy and natural and pleasurable.
We are not very health-conscious people and our food choices come down far more on the side of pleasure than health. But we do only eat fresh unprocessed food, mainly because of the pleasure I get from cooking it, we think it tastes better – and it’s just the way we were both brought up.
Working at home probably means I have more time than most people to devote to cooking, and not having kids means I don’t need to cook separate meals or coax reluctant little people to eat fresh food and so on. So cooking and eating good fresh food is a very, very easy way to live for us – there’s no sense of drudgery about it at all.
You’ve said that in recent years, you have thought a lot about your love of meat, and eating it has caused you ‘guilt and unease’. What is it that makes you feel that way? And how have you come to terms with that?
Two things: environmental degradation from meat production, and animal suffering. I suspect I will always feel conflicted about eating meat, and in one sense I think that’s good – it’s the only way to consistently calibrate my own ethical behaviour towards animals.
As Jonathan Safran Foer so baldly puts it, the most frequent contact most of us have with animals is eating them. I can easily avoid cruelty to animals by not actively harming them – but almost every time I eat a piece of bacon in a cafe, I am participating in extreme cruelty towards an animal more intelligent and perceptive and sensitive than most dogs. If I refuse to think about that, I’m not sure I can perceive myself as the civilised person I would like to be.
That said: I still eat some meat. I don’t eat nearly so much as I used to, but the major way I have come to terms with eating meat is to support, as much as I can, small environmentally responsible producers of ‘humanely’ raised and processed meat.
This means buying real free range pork (difficult as there are so few producers) and free-range chicken, and – as much as possible – lamb and beef that have not been finished on grain. This is relatively easy for me to do, given my access to what I have come to think of as my ‘meat conscience’, Feather & Bone. I have a very strong relationship with the owners, and over time have come to completely trust them to do the research for me, to observe the farming practices not only from a humane treatment of animals’ perspective but an environmental one too.
They buy whole animals direct from the producer (unlike other so-called ‘ethical’ butcheries where meat comes from wholesalers where provenance cannot be guaranteed and blind eyes are turned to vague origins of meat that is then sold to well-intentioned consumers under questionable labels) and many of their producers grow ‘rare breed’ animals, increasing genetic diversity in agriculture beyond the limited breeds used in large-scale production.
All their producers are located in my home state to reduce ‘food miles’, some are slaughtered in their own on-site certified abattoirs, and all are committed to trying to improve the land the animals are raised on, for example some run beef on native grasses, having comprehensive land regeneration and soil improvement programs and so on. Some producers are certified organic or biodynamic while others use chemical-free farming practices but are not certified for various logistical reasons. All the animals are raised outdoors as much as possible – not just having ‘access’ to sunlight and water but really living outdoors and being free to roam and express their natural instincts.
Because I live in a large city where a service like this is available, it’s far easier for me than for people with less access to this stuff, less time and less money and so on.
Seafood is a whole other kettle of fish (boom-tish) and something I am just starting to address – but for starters, we are eating more sustainable species as advised by sites like Good Fish Bad Fish and Sustainable Seafood.
Another conscience-easing tactic I have is to promote and talk about ethical and sustainable producers and businesses wherever I can, and to discuss these issues quite often on my blog while trying not to preach. I think my approach is far from ethically pristine, but I’m happier with this compromise than if I didn’t do anything to address the ethical issues at all.
You’ve recently undergone a couple of fascinating experiments in your cooking and eating. First, you cooked and ate offal for a week, after realising that your aversion to eating some parts of an animal runs counter to your beliefs about ecologically sustainable food. How was this experience?
I think I basically failed the test.
I wanted to overcome my own illogical aversion to handling, cooking and eating innards of animals that I would normally avoid, so at the suggestion of Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine, I spent a week working my way through the organs of one animal, the cow – and wrote an article about it.
The philosophy that offal-lovers promote is that whole-beast eating is more ethical than just choosing parts you like and chucking the rest. I found the experience rather confronting (as the article attests) – there are deep psychological barriers that the psychologist Paul Rozin has researched, relating to our fear of mortality and so on, but also I just found the taste and texture of much of the meat unpleasant. This was absolutely more to do with my inexperience in cooking it than the meat itself. But there are also long, involved processes needed for some of it – like brining, boiling and peeling of the tongue, for example before pan-frying it – that also make cooking it more complicated than just slinging a piece of steak into a pan for five minutes.
The ecological argument comes undone a bit when you are told, as I was in a letter to the editor following the article, that no part of animals are ‘thrown away’ in abattoirs – many organs are exported to countries where they’re much more popular than ours, and other parts are made into pet food and other products. For me the upshot is that as long as someone is eating or otherwise using it I’m happy and don’t feel obliged to stuff a heart again anytime soon!
Last month, February, you embarked on your own version of FebFast, going vegetarian for a month. What led you to that? What were the challenges? And what, if anything, did you learn from it?
This was almost a direct result of the offal experience. I was kind of overwhelmed by the physical fact of eating red meat for seven days in a row – something we would never normally do. But also, I had been dimly aware that almost everyone we know has at some time in their life had a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian phase (only eating fish, for example) but that I had never even gone a week without eating some part of an animal at some stage. Our Veg Feb was purely experimental, just to see what it felt like to stop eating meat and seafood for a while.
That said, we had a couple of caveats in place that meant it would never be a proper vegetarian month. First, while we told our friends what we were doing, we would not refuse meat if served it in their homes or socially out with them if it felt rude to refuse meat. And second, I thought living without anchovies, fish sauce and shrimp paste would kill me, so I decided we were allowed to cook with them. All in all, we ate some kind of meat (sometimes just a mouthful) five times in that month.
The surprises were that:
I never once craved meat of any kind.
I actually only used anchovies and shrimp paste twice and didn’t miss it otherwise.
Eating out as a vegetarian is still pretty difficult to do long-term, as especially the cheaper end of the cafe market seems almost opposed to vegetarianism, there are so few options.
The expected weight loss didn’t happen (too much cheese!).
I did grow quickly bored with having to plan for some protein intake each day, and eventually tired of the limited protein options available.
We did some fantastic cooking and ate many wonderful meals, but found that more planning and consideration was required to eat really interesting, varied and flavoursome vegetarian meals than there is if you can include a little meat or seafood in your diet.
I was surprised to learn how much the structure of a meal mattered to me – bowls of mish-mashed veg stuff are kind of depressing.
Textural variety was more important than ever (see mish-mash comment above).
I concluded much the same as Michael Pollan did in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: that conviviality and the easy sharing of food with other people matters more to me than sparing the life of an animal, especially if it is humanely raised.
Join us for our Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, at Melbourne Town Hall this Tuesday 20 March at 6.30pm. Speakers will include ethicist Peter Singer, chef Adrian Richardson and the Age’s Veronica Ridge. Tickets are $20 or $12 concession. You can book online.
All food photographs are taken from Charlotte’s blog, How to Shuck an Oyster
Melbourne-based writer Cristy Clark has always been passionate about the ethics of her food. She shares her story of how she shifted from vegetarian to vegan to ecotarian – and why sometimes animal products can be the most ethical choice available.
I was five years old when I first became a vegetarian. I was sitting in my grandma’s kitchen eating chicken when suddenly it dawned on me that a real chicken had been killed for my dinner. I imagined that I could hear it speaking to me.
‘Why are you eating me?’ it asked. I had no reply.
At the age of 15, I became a vegan. My growing awareness of the practices of the meat and dairy industry made it hard to see an ethical distinction between supporting the breeding and killing animals for meat and clothing, and supporting the way that they were treated by the egg and dairy industries.
As a teenager I found the absolutism of veganism appealing. I even relished the austerity and sense of deprivation (this was before soy milk and vegan cupcakes flooded the cafe market). I was suffering for my cause and I felt that my ethical framework was clearly the superior approach to consumption. Species-ism seemed to be the last acceptable form of discrimination – and vegans were at the forefront of challenging it.
Fifteen years later, my moral clarity had begun to unravel. The ethical issues raised by the fair trade and organic farming movements, the corporatisation of the food chain and the impacts of intensive agricultural practices are not addressed by veganism in any straightforward way. For example, highly processed, heavily packaged ‘soy cheese,’ cold transported from the US and sold by our supermarket duopolies, is vegan. But its methods of production and distribution mean it is far from the most ethical choice. Even Coke is vegan.
It became clear to me that the mere absence of animal products was no guarantee of virtue.
For a while I was able to respond to these issues while remaining vegan. My partner and I bought locally grown produce; we avoided the supermarket and its heavily packaged and processed goods; we even made our own soy milk. We felt we were fairly successful at navigating the myriad ethical issues thrown up by the production, distribution and consumption of food in the capitalist system.
Then, one day, our neighbour offered my daughter an egg.
We were wandering through the veggie garden next door; our neighbour had just introduced us to her chickens. Their eggs were warm and freshly laid, and I couldn’t think of a single valid reason to refuse the offer to take them home. Here was a source of protein that had travelled almost nowhere to get to us and while it did come from an animal, I had no objection to the way these animals were treated. These eggs clearly had a lower environmental impact than any of our vegan sources of protein.
Accepting those eggs opened up a wave of unexpected emotions that shocked me with their intensity. I examined my reaction – and realised that my reluctance to accept that sometimes animal products can be a superior ethical choice was bound up with a personal attachment to the identity of being a vegan.
It wasn’t just that I enjoyed being part of the (mostly online) community of vegans, who both are inspiring and supportive. I was also reluctant to admit that I had lost faith in my previously steadfast ethical compass – even though it had, in reality, been shifting for years, from straightforward veganism to a more holistic environmental and rights-based approach to food. Those first eggs were really just one more step in this direction, but at the time it seemed a radical departure into the unknown.
Rigid guidelines are incredibly comforting when trying to navigate the ethics of consumption. It is far easier to reject all eggs, for example, than to have to figure out whether the eggs in a particular piece of cake are free range or factory-farmed. 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.
Through this process I have learned to be more comfortable with accepting that there is no perfect approach to food. We cannot help but have an impact on the planet and on the lives of others, human and non-human. Trying to minimise these negative impacts, while making choices that are healthy for our bodies, our community and our planet will always be a balancing act. Facing up to this reality has been difficult, but it feels right to me.
I tend to avoid using labels these days, but when pushed I use ‘ecotarian’. Being ecotarian means that whenever I make a decision about consumption, I try to consider the full range of ethical issues that relate to the impact of our choice on people, animals and the environment.
It’s a far from infallible framework and a less-than-catchy label, but it is working for my family – and helps us remain connected to the food we eat and the ecosphere from which it comes.
Join us for our IQ2 debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, at Melbourne Town Hall next Tuesday 20 March at 6.30pm. Speakers will include ethicist Peter Singer, chef Adrian Richardson and the Age’s Veronica Ridge. Tickets are $20 or $12 concession. You can book online.
We share five of our favourite links to news, reviews or articles that we’ve discovered over the past week.
Fans of Game of Thrones, the series based on George R.R. Martin’s novels, shouldn’t miss eyeballing the medieval feast staged to celebrate the DVD release. But they might want to miss out on actually eating it. Complete with bloodied pigs’ heads, ‘eyeballs’ and ‘dragon’s eggs’ drizzled with liquid gold, it’s a feast for the eyes, but not one that will necessarily work up an appetite.
Rachel Cusk’s latest memoir, Aftermath, about her separation from her husband of ten years, includes lines like, ‘My husband said he wanted half of everything, including the children. No, I said … They’re my children … They belong to me.’ Cusk caused a scandal – and spawned the ‘mummy memoir’ genre – with her brutally self-analytical memoir of early motherhood, A Life’s Work, in 2001. She sharply divided critics, who either loved or hated her for laying bare the dark side of motherhood. The Guardian says of Aftermath (April): ‘She has again mined her life and told of her experience of being a woman, in a Read the extract and make up your own mind.
Stephen Colbert is making bookish news this week, after a gag during a two-part interview with Maurice Sendak (which he began by saying ‘I don’t like children or books or children’s books’) has turned into a book deal. After pitching an idea for a sequel, While the Wild Things Are: Still Wildin’ (starring Vin Diesel), Colbert joked he was writing a picture-book-in-verse, I Am a Pole (and So Can You!) and read a preview aloud. Sendak, who told Colbert that most children’s books are ‘very bad’, admitted, ‘The sad thing is, I like it.’ So did Grand Central Publishing, who has signed him up, with a publication date of 8 May 2012. ‘It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to write a children’s book,’ said Colbert. ‘I hope the minutes you and your loved ones spend reading it are as fulfilling as the minutes I spent writing it.’
Wondering what to read this year? Readings’ Martin Shaw has asked a handful of Australian writers to share the books they’re most looking forward to in 2012 for a series of posts for Kill Your Darlings. Nam Le is looking forward to new books from Chloe Hooper, Hilary Mantel and Richard Ford – and the second novel from Rachel Kushner. And there were multiple mentions of Texts in the City host Ruby Murray’s first novel, Running Dogs (Scribe, May) and Paddy O’Reilly’s Fine Colour of Rust (Harper Collins, March), which will be released simultaneously in Australia and the UK. Israeli comic short-story writer Etgar Keret, who will be appearing at the Wheeler Centre next month, also earned a nod for his new collection Suddenly a Knock at the Door, which got a rave review in last weekend’s Australian.
In the lead-up to this week’s Oscars, the Independent talked to five novelists about their books’ transitions from page to screen. Kaui Hurt Hemmings, author of The Descendants, said director Alexander Payne ‘met my whole family, and they all ended up being in the movie’. He said, ‘Almost every line of dialogue was right out of the book, every sequence, the music I’d mentioned, the clothes they wore, the places they went to.’ Lionel Shriver thinks Lynne Ramsay’s movie of We Need to Talk About Kevin is ‘rather wonderful’, though ‘the movie does lean towards Kevin being evil from birth, whereas that’s more up for grabs in the novel’. Fay Weldon, however, enjoyed the money for the rights to her book The Life and Loves of a She Devil, but says the movie (starring Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep) ‘missed the point entirely’. She’d still do it again, though.
If the Wheeler Centre was a bar and café, what would it look like? We like to think it would look just like The Moat, a bar and café located in the basement level underneath the Wheeler Centre premises at 176 Little Lonsdale Street. Currently open from noon ‘til late Monday to Saturday, The Moat is the perfect place to chill out before and after Wheeler Centre events, or to escape the city bustle during the day and into the evening – whether you’re up for a good conversation with friends or just after a quiet nook to read a book.
The menu is delicious, the wine list is mesmerising, the décor is warmly intimate, there’s free wifi (using the State Library network) – and there’s an astroturfed courtyard for those warm summer days and nights. The Moat will open for breakfast from Monday, 5 December and will be an occasional Wheeler Centre venue next year.
For centuries, it was been the privilege of Westerners to define the Other – essentially anyone whose skin colour wasn’t white. The privilege rested on a technological and material dominance that allowed European and post-European societies to impose their cultures, laws and institutions on others. Now, that dominance is increasingly contested, and the rise of Asia promises a future where the Western gaze won’t be as privileged as it has previously been – begging the question, how does the Asian gaze look upon Western culture?
In his recent Wheeler Centre appearance, Tanveer Ahmed – psychiatrist, columnist and author of the memoir, The Exotic Rissole – traced a history of the Asian critique of the West that stretches from the agrarian fascism of WWII-era Japan to current-day jihadism. It has four themes: the city (urban civilisation, commerce, sexual license, leisure and wealth); the bourgeois (an anti-hero who priorities personal gain and safety, who lacks conviction and is essentially mediocre); a soulless and mediocre emphasis on reason; and feminism (the lure of feminine sexuality as a threat to discipline, self sacrifice, austerity and worship of the leader).
But it’s not all negative. Ahmed quoted a 2010 Forbes magazine survey that found modern-day Indians hold the US in higher esteem than any other country in the world for its consumerist middle-class lifestyle, while in China a new field in education is emerging called ‘success studies’.
An article in Saturday’s Weekend Australian has raised questions about the role food bloggers play in the new media landscape. In a feature entitled ‘Everyone’s a Critic’, Elizabeth Meryment described a recent food-industry product launch featuring a high-profile international chef and several local food bloggers. Noting that there are about 800 food and restaurant blogs in Australia, Meryment notes that “the sands are shifting under the feet of the media and the food industry”, and questions the protocols and ethics of bloggers: “Many observers are … concerned about bloggers who fail to declare freebies or conflicts of interest,” writes Meryment, and later notes that the “lack of critical commentary on blogs is galling” for industry professionals.
In response, Sydney blogger Helen Yee, the creator of the Grab Your Fork blog, which the article cites, has defended the positive role that amateurs can play in writing about food. “It always strikes me as odd that print journalists presume all food bloggers are attempting to usurp their role,” she writes. “Food blogs, in my opinion, operate on an entirely different dynamic – they are, by their very nature, personal and diary-like, and written from a layperson’s view.” Yee sees the amateurism of blogs as a fundamental part of their appeal: “Comparing bloggers to industry journalists misses the whole point of the blogging phenomenon – people read blogs because they’re not written by journalists, nor in a traditional newspaper format or style. The question is, why?”
The Wheeler Centre, in partnership with ABC Radio National, presents Meals on Wheels, the last in our three-part Writer’s Banquet series, with Stephanie Alexander, Frank Camorra and Elizabeth Chong in conversation with Romano Koval tonight at 6:15pm.
We’ve just posted a video of our recent ‘Writer’s Banquet’ event hosted by Radio National Book Show’s Ramona Koval. Guests Toni Jordan, Morris Gleitzman and Andrea Goldsmith trace the links between writers, writing and food, exploring their own connection with food and cooking, reflecting on what tickles their tastebuds and uncovering the key ingredients that make it easy to eat their words. The writers share the books and hand-me-down recipes that have guided them in the kitchen as well as the snacks that refresh them at (or away from) the writing desk.
It got us thinking about some of the stranger cookbooks out there in the culinary universe. For starters, there’s banana duck with orange sauce from Be Bold With Bananas – “possibly the ugliest cookbook ever published”, reads the blurb. Car-lovers will seek out the sadly out-of-print Manifold Destiny: The One! The Only! Guide to Cooking on Your Car Engine, while Christians may find sustenance in the What Would Jesus Eat Cookbook. According to its website, the Eat-A-Bug Cookbook “offers a humorous view of entomophagy (bug eating) and has some very tasty recipies. [sic]” The author continues, “Yes, I’ve eaten some of these, and they’re not bad at all, in fact, some are downright good!”
Lovers may enjoy Booty Food, “a date-by-date, course-by-course, nibble-by-nibble guide to cultivating love and passion through food.” Fancy whipping up some testicles? Serbian chef Ljubomir Erovic has mastered the art. Natural Harvest collects semen-based recipes (“Semen is an exciting ingredient that can give every dish you make an interesting twist”). In the interests of gender equality – though not, alas, of good taste – we should also include some placenta-based recipes. Bon appétit!
“The Roman historian Livy famously regarded the glorification of chefs as the sign of a culture in decline.” So begins this engrossing article in The Atlantic about the problem with food writing. On a similar topic is this essay excerpt from the New York Review of Books.
No, we’re not talking about food porn. Ever since Anthony Bourdain raised his scornful, world-weary eyebrow on the subject – a full decade ago – gastronomes have considered the subject today’s fish-and-chip wrapper. We’re talking food and cultural decline (previously thought to have been caused by rap).
It’s hard to know what Livy would have thought of Jamie Oliver (and even harder to know what Jamie Oliver thinks of Livy). Jamie has, as is well known, become something of an activist in recent times, particularly in relation to schoolchildren’s diets. This article in The New Yorker reports on an increase in recent years of the incidence of food allergies in children. There’s this video of 2010 Sydney Peace Prize winner Vandana Shiva speaking on the politics of food as a guest of the Wheeler Centre. Finally, still on the subject of food politics but closer to home is this Elizabeth Farrelly piece in the Sydney Morning Herald.
If all this doesn’t make you peckish, this might work – a list of literature’s most mouth-watering moments. Bon appétit!
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