A Story of Food in Australia

2011•04•08 Rebecca Huntley

Thirty paces from my apartment there is a corner store. It calls itself a deli, but it is fooling no one. It stocks a sad selection of fruit and vegetables, a wide array of snack foods, salty and sweet, as well as overpriced canned goods and frozen meals. In its humming fridges and on its dusty shelves sit a few markers of eastern suburbs privilege — premium diet yoghurt, Camembert, hummus and French jams.

The rival store, separated from the first only by a shoe-repair place, is much the same, although the owners make fresh pork rolls and sell kumquats from their own garden. This store has imported Italian pasta sauce, Lean Cuisines and Brie.

A few steps further down the street there is an Italian café, where I regularly stop at 7 a.m. to grab coffee and raisin toast before I scoot to the bus. There, two Italian sisters serve fresh salads and sandwiches as well as pasta and meat dishes made daily by their very own nonna. Next to this café is a popular-with-the-locals Vietnamese restaurant. It is kitschy and cheerful, and my partner and I can eat heartily for less than twenty dollars.

My local neighbourhood is crammed with food options. There is a large café that serves a breakfast cassoulet that will keep you going until dinner; a Hungarian café serving a satisfying five-dollar salad and schnitzel roll; two chicken shops, one that proclaims all its chickens are cruelty and hormone free; a pizza place open from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.; another deli café offering roast dinners on week nights for twelve dollars, with children’s meals half price; a second Vietnamese restaurant; a Thai restaurant that does a terrific beef salad; a cake store; a chocolate store; a fruit and vegetable store; two more trendy cafés that serve breakfast, lunch and dinner from Monday till Saturday; an organic vegan eatery; a health-food store that does lunches; a real deli that sells cheeses, small goods, fresh bread, organic meats and gelato; a pub and a leagues club, both of which offer counter meals and six-dollar steaks.

In my neighbourhood, the variety and availability of healthy food is such that making the ‘right’ eating choices requires very little effort on my part.

A different eating world

Venturing thirty minutes by train westward to another suburb, you encounter a different eating world altogether. As I disembarked and exited the station, right in front of me was the quintessential Aussie take-away shop. Tepid roast chickens glistened under lights, lying side by side with kransky sausages, piles of hot chips (French fries), sausage rolls, pies and something you rarely see in my neck of the woods: Chiko Rolls.  The fridge was full of chocolate bars, flavoured milk and softdrinks hiding from the heat. The shop had a rack of sliced white bread (not a wholegrain to be found) as well as trays of eggs at three dollars a pop.

Next door, a cheap Chinese takeaway had closed down; phone books and unanswered mail waited for tables in the empty shop-front. I crossed the road and spotted another Chinese take-out; this one was usually open, although it was closed when I was visiting. It offered the familiar sweet and sour this, fried rice with that. A few metres away I found a hot-bread shop selling doughnuts, sausage rolls and pies, rolls and loaves of bread (a few with wholegrain).

There was one bright spot in this neighbourhood, thanks to the nearby presence of a large mosque. I walked into a Lebanese food store and bought a box of freshly baked date and pistachio biscuits. The store’s owner watched me as I scanned the shelves full of cans of okra and tahini, jars of olives and fava beans, bottles of pomegranate molasses and rosewater, bags of walnuts and herbs. He was happy to chat about what I could do with these exotic ingredients. Here I could purchase a cheese pizza, with flat bread as the base, for $3.50.

Other than a convenience store with a decent array of fruit, this was all this suburb had to offer me at lunchtime on a week day. As I headed back to the train with my date biscuits in hand, I passed the take-away. A mother was buying hot chips for her preschool-aged son. She’d decided to draw the line at the kransky. “You won’t eat it,” she told him. As I crossed the road, a middle-aged woman in a dusky pink hijab was crossing the other way. An SUV slowed down as it neared her and I heard a man yell out, ”Welcome to Australia!”

The comparison between my street and this other cluster of shops in the west might seem unfair, even misleading since there are many suburbs in western Sydney with more than just one decent food store. Nevertheless, this simple comparison, this mere thirty-minute train ride from variety to gloom, begs the question – how fair is Australia’s food culture?

Food fetish

Over the past decade we have seen a voracious demand for food media in all its forms. Australians have shown an almost inexhaustible appetite for cookbooks, magazines and novels featuring food and cooking. Food magazines like Good Taste, Delicious and Gourmet Traveller out-sell popular women’s and men’s magazines, enjoying readership numbers of over half a million.

Cookbooks are now a fixture in the annual bestseller lists; in 2006 there were eight cookbooks in the top 100 sold that year. We have also seen a boom in food television, both on free-to-air and cable, with food and cooking shows “enjoying unprecedented popularity amongst diverse audiences, occupying prime-time slots in broadcasting scheduling, and becoming winners in the ratings game.”

The most obvious expression of this public food fascination is the phenomenon of the celebrity chef. Along with the UK’s Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Gordon Ramsey, Australia can boast a growing crop of homegrown celeb chefs such as Bill Granger, Kylie Kwong, Donna Hay and Neil Perry, to name just a few. We see them on morning, midday and prime-time television, on the radio, in newspapers, on stage and, increasingly, on sauce jars and casserole dishes.

This enthusiasm for food and cooking among Australians comes as something of a surprise. Historically, as food historian Michael Symons points out, “nobody has ever been terribly complimentary about Australian cuisine”.

Bush tucker (or bush food) aside, this country inherited as its founding food tradition the worst of British cooking. And yet, due mostly to subsequent waves of immigrants from good-eating countries and the bounty of our own land, Australians have morphed from gastronomic backwater to culinary paradise. As early as 1976, then South Australian premier Don Dunstan was lauding Australia’s “tremendous food resources” in his self-titled cookbook and declaring Australia “the most fortunate country in the world for food”.

By the early nineties, food journalist Cherry Ripe announced that “the food we are producing here… is currently some of the best in the world”.  In writing about food today, there is a strong sense that Australian cuisine has “come of age”  and, what’s more, is garnering international accolades. In 2008, two Sydney restaurants, Tetsuya’s and Rockpool, were ranked in the top fifty restaurants in the world (ninth and forty-ninth respectively) in Restaurant magazine’s S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.  No doubt the achievements of Australian chefs, restaurateurs, providores and industry leaders should be applauded.

Inconvenient truths

Nevertheless, I wonder how smug Australians can remain when we consider some unavoidable truths about food and eating in Australia. The first is that although many of us are voracious consumers of food media, there is evidence Australians are cooking less than ever before. In addition, there are many who argue that we have seen a decline in general cooking skills, something usually blamed on the spread of pre-prepared foods, modern technologies and the increased busyness of people both at home and at work.

The second unavoidable truth is one that has attracted much media attention, political comment and public concern — that is, the rising rates of obesity among Australian adults and children. Policy-makers and politicians fret over the dramatic jump in obesity rates because the cost of obesity, to both the public and the private sectors, is significant.

In October 2006, Access Economics prepared a report on the economic costs of obesity, particularly obesity-related diseases such as diabetes type 2, cardio-vascular diseases, osteoarthritis and certain cancers. They estimated that the direct financial cost of obesity in 2005 was AU $3.767 billion. This included productivity costs of $1.7 billion, health-system costs of $873 million and carer costs of $804 million. In addition, there were what are fittingly called ‘dead weight losses’ from such things as taxation revenue foregone, welfare and other government payments of $358 million, and other indirect costs calculated at $40 million. The net cost of lost well-being was valued at a further $17.2 billion, bringing the total cost of obesity in 2005 to $21.0 billion.

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Obesity is a worldwide problem, one to which the World Health Organisation (WHO) is paying increasing attention. The WHO states on its website that: “Obesity is one of today’s most blatantly visible — yet most neglected — public health problems. Paradoxically coexisting with under-nutrition, an escalating global epidemic of overweight and obesity — ‘globesity’ — is taking over many parts of the world.”

In 2005, the WHO estimated that there were around 1.6 billion adults who were overweight and at least 400 million adults who were obese. This was double the number of obese people the WHO had estimated a decade previously. Childhood obesity is also a global problem; in 2005, the WHO estimated at least 20 million children were overweight.

Something tells me that obese Australians, like their counterparts in developed and developing countries, haven’t become obese eating Tetsuya’s dégustation menu, or even from dining in the kinds of Italian cafés and Vietnamese restaurants in my neighbourhood. As the WHO states, the problem is chiefly caused by “a global shift in diet towards increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and sugars but low in vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients”. This new diet works to the detriment of all when combined with the increasingly sedentary nature of work, changing modes of transport and increasing urbanisation.

Good food, for some

In Australia, a sharp contrast can be observed. On the one hand there is the brilliant food of celebrity chefs exhibited in glossy food publications and engaging TV shows. Then there is the reality of the nation’s obesity statistics, the reliance of increasingly busy people on pre-packaged and pre-prepared food, and the evidence that Australians watch people cook more than they cook themselves.

All of which leads me to question the extent to which food media, celebrity chefs and internationally acclaimed restaurants have improved the way Australians eat on a daily basis. On the other hand, while it is easy to dismiss cooking shows as ‘foodatainment’ and ‘gastro-porn,’ they can serve to educate viewers. As writer Marian Halligan argues, at least fans of these cooking shows are “looking at, even if they aren’t eating, interesting food”.

It’s a start, and perhaps one day interest might lead to action. What is clear, however, is that watching endless cooking shows isn’t going to help you into the kitchen if your lifestyle, and the social and economic conditions that shape it, don’t allow you the requisite time, money or access to good quality ingredients.

Not all Australians live in a lucky eating country. And the top-class food familiar to critics is not the kind of food the vast majority of Australians have the time, money or opportunity to enjoy. Research firm AC Nielsen’s list of the top 100 most purchased products in Australian supermarkets seems to reflect these statistics. According to this list, Australians are very fond of Coca-Cola, Tip Top bread, Cadbury’s chocolates, instant coffee, Yoplait yoghurt, Peter’s ice-cream, frozen vegetables, Bega cheese, crisps (potato chips), canned fish and Arnott’s biscuits.

Not a pesto, sourdough baguette or laksa noodles paste to be found. It’s not my neighbourhood, with its vegan sushi and eggs Florentine, that we need to visit to understand Australia’s eating habits. It’s the second suburb with its hot chips and white bread, its convenience stores and closed-down cafés. To that extent, the xenophobe in the SUV was right. This is Australia.

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This story is an edited extract from Australian writer Rebecca Huntley’s book Eating Between The Lines: Food and Equality in Australia.

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Rebecca Huntley

Researcher and Author

Dr Rebecca Huntley is a researcher and author with a background in publishing, academia and politics. She holds degrees in law and film studies and a PhD in Gender Studies. Rebecca is a Director of Ipsos Mackay research. She is the author of two books, The World According to Y: Inside the New Adult Generation and Eating Between the Lines: food and equality in Australia. Rebecca is a regular contributor to essay collections, magazines, newspapers and online publications and is a feature writer for Australian Vogue.