December 2006 - January 2007

Arts & Letters

Cooking with love

By Alan Saunders

Recent food books

Comparisons between food media and pornography are a bit tired by now - the term "gastro-porn" has been around for 20 years - but look at it this way. Some spotty youth lives in a flat smelling of stale socks and piled high with DVDs about student nurses and Swedish schoolgirls. Do you really believe he's getting a lot of action? Joanna Blythman thinks that when it comes to food, Britain is that young man; the question we have to ask ourselves is whether Australia is as well.

British TV schedules, Blythman points out in Bad Food Britain (Fourth Estate, 336pp; $45.00), are full of food - "Jamie's this, Gordon's that, Nigella's this, that or the other" - and British magazines are full of beautiful people "who possess at least six estate-bottled virgin olive oils" and give suppers filled with impeccably sourced food to likeminded friends. Trouble is, these people scarcely exist. The reality is that talking about food has become a substitute for seriously engaging with it. One in three Britons say they don't eat vegetables because vegetables require too much effort to prepare; Britain eats more pre-prepared meals than the rest of Europe put together. Food is judged on two criteria: cheapness and convenience. No attempt to change things seems to work. Jamie Oliver has tried to improve school meals, but even he is under attack for presuming to tell people that what they eat might be bad for them. We can only hope that Stephanie Alexander, whose Kitchen Garden Cooking with Kids (Lantern, 256pp; $39.95) tells the story of the garden she set up at an inner-city school in Melbourne, has more success.

These days, British food enthusiasms, so far as they exist, are concentrated not on genuinely British dishes - potted shrimp, black pudding, haggis - but on imports: moussaka, lasagne, pizza (often served with chips). It has to be said, though, that Blythman's claim that there is something pathetic in the British desire to make foreign dishes their own is coming on a bit strong. Everybody does it - even the French, even the Japanese - and we sure as hell do it here. Food fills our media almost as much as it fills the British media, but what's an Australian dish? The latest edition of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide has dropped "modern Australian" as a category, in favour of "contemporary". And what's contemporary? As often as not, it's a bit Mediterranean and a bit Asian. Rootless, in other words, though it can be rootless and good.

The good is well represented by Janni Kyritsis. Like Stephanie Alexander and Gay Bilson, Kyritsis, who arrived in Melbourne from Greece in 1970, is a self-taught cook, though he readily acknowledges what he learned from Alexander and Bilson. His new book, Wild Weed Pie (Lantern, 196pp; $59.95), has plenty of Greek touches, and I'm pleased to see his love of offal - which, as far as I'm concerned, you're not allowed not to eat unless you're a vegetarian - on full display, too.

Kyritsis' book is an excellent example of intelligent eclecticism, but what are we to make of chicken tikka masala, and what on earth was Robin Cook, then Britain's foreign secretary, doing when he acclaimed chicken tikka masala as a great British dish? He was making a political point: Britain is a multicultural nation, well able to absorb influences from all over the world. Joanna Blythman is not convinced: "this dish is really a symbol of the weakness of the indigenous cuisine in Britain, and is a demonstration of the British tendency to fill this vacuum by importing and traducing misunderstood foreign dishes."

Up to a point. Chicken tikka masala may have been put together by some chef from Bangladesh - most Indian restaurants in Britain are run by Bangladeshis - who added a gravy (very British) to a chicken tikka, by mixing canned tomato soup with cream and spices. But, as Lizzie Collingham points out, food in the subcontinent does not conform to boundaries established after Indian and Pakistani independence in 1947. "The food of Bangladesh," she tells us, "belongs to the culinary world of Bengal." Curry (Vintage, 336pp; $27.95) is an absorbing tour through the menu of your average Indian restaurant - biriyani, korma, Madras curry - all the way to the horror of curry-and-chips. But, Collingham adds, in a Britain where India means not the fading grandeur of Empire but instead computers, call centres and Bollywood, a new interest has arisen in authentic Indian food. She is sceptical - "the mixture of different culinary styles is the prime characteristic of Indian cookery" - yet I can't help thinking that a greater knowledge of the regions of Indian food wouldn't go amiss in this country, where too much of what we get is north Indian and where vindaloo is seldom made in authentic fashion, with pork.

A move in the right direction is represented by a new book from Joyce Westrip, who was born in British India and lives in Perth. Fire and Spice (Wakefield Press, 192pp; $24.95) is one of the few works about the cuisine of the Parsis, who brought classical Persian food to India even before the Moghuls arrived. Like Westrip's earlier book on Moghul food, this one is characterised by her learning, light touch and cookable recipes. It's just possible, though, that this lovely publication sits athwart one of the fault lines in contemporary food culture. Where do the beautiful people of whom Blythman writes get their ideas and recipes? From newspapers, magazines and books by Jamie, Gordon and Nigella. But beyond these lies a world of scholarship and commitment of which the beautiful people probably know little.

There is much scholarship in Westrip's book but her literary skill renders it easy to use, and the same is true of French (Lantern, 402pp; $69.95), a beautiful book by the Sydney restaurateur Damien Pignolet. I can think of no higher praise than to say that it reminds me of Ma cuisine, that superb work in which the great French chef Escoffier distilled a lifetime's experience. More than 70 years on from Ma cuisine, Pignolet's book is slimmer, more succinct and, I'm sure, more stylishly designed. If you know nothing of how to cook French food, this is the place to start.

If you know nothing of how to cook Italian food, the scholarly place to start is probably Pellegrino Artusi's La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene. Published in 1891, it was the first cookbook of a unified Italy, and the unification of Italy is the starting point for Australian author Sarah Benjamin's A Castle in Tuscany (Murdoch Books, 224pp; $36.95). This is an elegant account of a long-lost community, the Anglo-Florentines, and of one of their number, Janet Ross, who produced a remarkable cookbook, Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen. When it first appeared in 1899, Ross's book was something new: not an encyclopaedia like Isabella Beeton's, but rather a slim volume born of its author's absorption in a particular place. Benjamin recognises this and tells her story vividly. Her publishers have served her well - this book is a pleasure to look at - though I can't help wishing for footnotes, a bibliography and an index.

There is a myth that the Italians taught the French to cook when Catherine de' Medici arrived in France in 1533 for an arranged marriage. It's effectively skewered in The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press, 936pp; $125.00), a remarkable work of scholarship which has just gone into a second edition. For anyone wanting a single reference on food the world over, this, and not the relentlessly Gallocentric Larousse gastronomique, is the book to have.

Not everybody is convinced by the Oxford Companion's argument, though. At the end of Heat (Jonathan Cape, 318pp; $39.95), Bill Buford cites the Companion, and while he does not quite embrace the myth about the Italians and the French, he is obviously prepared to entertain it. Well, he would, wouldn't he? Hitherto a staff writer for the New Yorker, he's spent the previous 300 pages in Italy - "I needed to learn pasta" - and as an ageing trainee among the macho horrors of an Italian restaurant in New York, straining every middle-aged muscle to be like his friend Mario Batali, a Manhattan restaurateur with three Michelin stars to his credit. As accounts of a midlife crisis go, this is probably the best since Dante's Divine Comedy, and it's as hot as the Inferno.

Perhaps this is where food is going: on one hand, Joanna Blythman's proles, who hate food, fear it, or are indifferent to it; on the other, crazed enthusiasts such as Buford, whose lives can be transformed by their first taste of homemade pasta, and who are about as relevant to the rest of the food world as amateur poets are to the pop charts.

What with all this sweaty heat, it's no surprise that sex makes an early appearance in Buford's memoir. "Food has always had erotic associations," he writes, "and I suspect that cooking with love is an inversion of a different principle: cooking to be loved." Fair enough, I suppose, but cooking with love is always better than cooking merely to survive. It's more arduous than reading Vogue Entertaining or watching Nigella on TV - but then, sex is more arduous than pornography.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

Cover: December 2006 - January 2007
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