Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Australian food culture, or lack thereof

Australia is a young country

A part of that is that we never really had much time to set in a deep rooted culture like the more ancient civilisations have. As a people, we emigrated from European miscellany and tried our best to live in Australia as we had in Europe. This involved things like killing the native animals, people and trees, importing our own food stocks and generally doing our best to destroy the natural harmonious paradise that we had set our enterprising foot on. This approach not only irreparably destroyed much of our newfound utopia, but ensured that all the adventure of moving to a new country, a hitherto unknown landmass, was decidedly negated. So how has this affected our food, the most recognisable tangent of any culture? Do we actually have a food culture, and if so, where did it come from?

Firstly, let's look at pre British Australia. The aboriginal humans had been living here for thousands of years in perfect harmony with nature. As is the way with most aboriginal populations that British people overtake, they had a deep affinity for the land and what it could provide for them. Food was (and still is) abundant, in the form of bush tucker, animals and fertility hotspots. So why did the European settlers need to change it all?

The aboriginals were nomadic, whereas the Europeans were sedentary. In order to survive in a single place, you need your food waiting for you in one spot. Considering the apparently harsh situations of the Australian colonial period, learning entirely new farming practices would be a ridiculous undertaking. The easier way, and as far as they knew the only way, was to bring in the food from the old country. This formed its own problems as the animals were bred for the vastly different climate of Europe. Wouldn't it make more sense to farm the animals that are already perfectly in tune with this environment? Kangaroos have a whole lot of meat on them and do nothing but sit around in the shade all day. They would appear to be a great docile farm animal. Alas, the amount of food one kangaroo can produce in it's life time (it takes at least three years for them to reach full size as opposed to one or two for a cow) and its reproduction rate (1 a year as opposed to 20 or so from a pig) makes it an unreliable candidate. Also, as the farmers already had the support network of England and classical farming techniques, the relocation problems were gradually overcome, especially in the 1940s, when antibiotics became a staple of the livestock diet. So given the unfamiliar conditions of the new land, the inability for local fauna to sustain a sedentary civilisation and the stubborn self righteousness of the British settlers, it's understandable that local food was ignored.

Fast forward 220 years

We (the multinational settlers) are now pretty well set up. We have farms every stones throw, highways linking them to cities full of hundreds of extremely comfortable citizens. Australia is first world and on the cutting edge. Our population has exploded and the food has to be produced more efficiently to keep supply to demand. Kangaroos are even less viable as a primary food source, as our population demands far more than they can produce. We sustain ourselves on the same foods that have come from England in the colonial years. Bush tucker is a novelty for us, and more tourists eat bush tucker than Australians. Our diet still consists of beef lamb pork and chicken, and the vegetables taken from other countries. Our food choice comes not from tradition or local conditions, but from our need to consume so damn much. Is this culture? Why does our food scream culturelessness to me?

A culture develops its food around what is mostly available. When you think Asian you think rice, when you think Mexican you think corn (tortillas, taco bread etc), when you think European you think wheat (pasta, bread etc) when you think Australian, you think steak. I would argue that meat is our staple. And I think that it is the preparation of it that lends itself to the aforementioned culturelessness. A steak is a chunk of meat cut from an animal and applied heat. Not much there.

But over the last 200 years people have continued to migrate to our shores. In my street alone I know people from Vietnam, Uganda, Russia, Italy, England, Fiji and India. These people cook the food from their cultures and integrate it into the Australian food trough so that we can all experience it. It is not odd for us to have wide flung dishes each night of the week. Bolognaise, Rogan Josh, Satay, Stroganoff, Fried Rice and Bangers and Mash are commonplace, and all those foods hail from the far reaches of the globe. This multiculturalism means that we hardly ever consume something exquisitely Australian, because all of these foods are just that. The diet in itself is lent from so many other cultures.

I'm rambling now so I'm going to wind it up, but what I wanted to say is this: Australian food celebrates precisely none of what Australia provides. As an Australian person I can find no patriotism in our food culture, as it is an essentially transient food source. The classical Australian diet can be made from food available in just about any climate. There is no sense of where the food came from because it could come from anywhere. But perhaps that is the culture? Perhaps no other cuisine can claim to be so widely available? Perhaps it is the multiculturalism that creates such a meld of cultures that culture is no longer a claimant.

Man I need to go travelling

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