When I say I’m doing a PhD on food and identity in Melbourne, I get some fairly extreme responses from people (like the political advisor in Canberra who nearly dropped his files, spluttered and kind of shouted, â€œFFS! Well, then, so am I! I eat out a lot in Melbourne!â€). Many people ask me how I got such a great topic, and so I point out that we choose our own topics, and I just happened to choose exceptionally well.
In fact, if you’re interested, I chose mine because I had been working on spectacular performances of national identity in my previous degree, and wanted to bring my interest in identity home, so to speak. If I was going to embark on a number of years focusing on a research topic, it felt important for it to relate to my home/family life. I didn’t want a topic that took my entire intellectual life outside the familial headspace, nor too frequently away from our suburban bliss. And so it dawned on me… food is central to my identity, as a cook, a migrant, a mother… and it clearly is to many others in Melbourne and beyond. And I’m tired of people insisting, â€œAren’t we lucky in Melbourne? We’re so multicultural, just look at all our restaurants!â€ Sure, I thought, but how cosmopolitan are we? And can I do a PhD and keep cooking with a passion? Et voilÃ . A beautiful research project was born.
Given people’s responses when I tell them my topic, you can imagine their faces when I said I was off to the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy. â€œOh, what a terrible PhD you have. Off to eat and drink, are you?â€ Well, yes. Yes, there was definitely some excellent eating and drinking to do (though the Saturday night dinner at Ming’s was a let-down that I won’t bore you with here, and picnic lunches on 40C days were challenging). There is certainly no shame in eating excellent quality sustainable and ethical food, which we did a fair bit of in Adelaide. And while we enjoyed some lovely food and wine, we talked about everything from food security to frugality to food and wine festivals. As it says on the website, â€œMore than any conference, the Symposia of Australian Gastronomy embrace participatory gastronomy in a way that nourishes the intellectual component of these events.â€
One of the crucial strengths of the Symposium is the diversity of its participants, who are academics, chef and other food industry professionals, and many food ‘enthusiasts’. It seems that everyone who attends, whether they are professionally or academically involved with food or not, is deeply engaged with food as cooks, gardeners and crusaders for sustainable, ethical and delicious foodstuffs. Melbourne Uni’s ‘Knowledge Transfer’ team could learn a bit from this organic and dynamic 25-year-old Symposium.
You can see this year’s program here, and the proceedings will be published (though I’ve no idea how long this takes).
I was the first paper up on Saturday morning, and the Symposium is like Meredith â€“ it’s a single stage event (no parallel sessions), so the house was packed. My paper was on practices of frugality between different generations and cultures in Melbourne. In my interviews, what I’ve found so far is that there seem to be as many similarities in these practices as there are differences, and they’re not easily split along cultural or generational lines. I argue that those who are most skilled at ‘doing-cooking’ (Giard 1998), who are expert at ‘good housekeeping’ (in the kitchen, at least), seem to be most likely to be contributing to ‘global good housekeeping’. I also argue that those who are good at being frugal express a sense of competence, of mastery, which gives them a remarkable sense of their own agency, which in turn enables them to further contribute to global good housekeeping. My paper was well received, with a lot of positive and interesting feedback over the ensuing two days, and I’m still basking in the praise I received from the warm and passionate Maggie Beer.
Some highlights from the other papers:
Felicity Newman spoke on ‘God or Greed? The Business of Keeping Kosher’, with some remarkable ethnographic data on the difficulties of truly keeping kosher, including a video of a woman who has two kitchens so that one can be reserved for the stringent requirements of Passover. Felicity ended with concerns about what happens to Jewish communities when they give up their kosher food cultures.
Julie McIntyre gave a great paper on ‘Wine and Political Economy in Colonial Australia’, very amusingly debunking Governor Phillip’s attempts to sober up the local population by turning their efforts to growing wine (inspired by Adam Smith). I think we can all agree more than 200 years later that more wine has not made Australians more sober…
Polly McGee wins the rock star status for the conference. Her paper, ‘Donna Hay’s Newieâ€”the Narrative Economy of Celebrity Chefs’ was a compelling romp through the three primary modes of celebrity chefs: sex, ethnicity and/or salvation. You can imagine which of the celebs she claims are selling through sex (and the innuendo during her analysis of Nigella was priceless, leaving the audience in slightly hysterical laughter), which are selling ‘authentic’ ethnic identities (Kylie Kwong, Luke Nguyen…) and which can give you salvation through sustainable, healthy and ethical food choices (Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingtall…).
Bernadette Hince took us on a deeply personal journey of a life of frugality. Belittled by her sisters for ‘meanness’, ‘miserliness’ and allegations of keeping food until it’s not safe, Bernadette chose a sympathetic audience to despair of their ‘profligate waste’. A final question to the audience was about ‘chuckers’ and ‘keepers’ â€“ are those who buy bottled water statistically more likely to be the ‘chuckers’ of our society? An interesting methodology to explore…
The final highlight amongst the papers was Christian Reynolds, who has just completed his Honours at the University of Adelaide. Christian gave a fantastically engaging paper entitled ‘Towards an Understanding of Food’s Economic and Cultural Power in the Political Sphere’, full of entertaining asides and moments of amusing self-deprecation. His paper detailed theories of hard and soft power, applying them to the use of food as a tool for coercion, whether by proffering it or withdrawing access to it. â€œWho sat next to the President at the G20 Summit?â€ was a great question to explore the broader cultural context of meals where power is exerted, and left everyone a little unsettled about who we’d be sitting next to at that night’s banquet.
The banquet was the sumptuous affair you might have expected, prepared by Sharon Romeo and David Swain of Fino, who just won Restaurant of the Year in Adelaide’s Food Awards. Unfortunately, we didn’t get copies of the menu (unless you were quick enough to grab one of the few on each table, which I wasn’t) and I was too caught up in a stimulating conversation with Ross Kelly, who has convened two of the previous Symposia with his wife Maria, to make good notes. Hence I won’t detail the meal here for fear of misrepresenting it…
The Symposium did have its inevitable moments of tension between the so-called ‘town’ and ‘gown’ â€“ I was asked by one food industry professional, â€œbut do you cook?â€ as she claimed that academics are often too far removed from reality (and unfortunately she didn’t give me the opportunity to reassure her that I am a devoted and passionate cook, etc…). In fact, a couple of people mentioned the tired theme of academics who are too narrow and out of touch, though the academics I met over the weekend were all deeply involved in food â€“ in their kitchens, their gardens, their children’s schools, and their offices. I hope this Symposium (and the 16 before it) has contributed to breaking down some of the assumptions people carry about those inside or outside the academy, which I believe has been one of its intentions for a long time. Those who started the Symposium in 1984 must be commended for their vision, and for their continued commitment to ethical, sustainable and delicious food, which is so essential to us all.
In the end, we were really just a room full of intelligent and passionate people who care about what we and the rest of the world grow, cook and eat. To echo this year’s organiser Roger Haden, long live the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy!