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Recipes for racism? Kitchen Cabinet and the politics of food

Let them eat cake, but remember: food has a political life of its own. ABC

Recipes for racism? Kitchen Cabinet and the politics of food

Cooking shows are everywhere these days. As a number of critics have recently argued, ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet stretches this TV genre to its light-hearted limit by showing parliamentarians cooking in their kitchens while making faux idle chit-chat with journalist Annabel Crabb.

Food ostensibly serves as an apolitical social lubricant for Crabb to show politicians’ human sides, but food has a political life of its own and has long served as a marker of cultural proficiency and belonging. Kitchen Cabinet’s staging of “casual” food preparation and consumption with the nation’s most powerful people reproduces a culture of white Australian entitlement to master and consume any and every cultural product, regardless of who it belongs to.

“Politics is a broad spectrum of people”, Crabb said in an interview on Mamamia recently. But actually, it isn’t. Every level of Australian parliamentary politics is dominated by white men. The show is now in its fifth season and the only non-white politician to have been featured is Penny Wong.

“Food is something we all have in common,” Crabb said at the opening of her episode with Wong in 2012, but what it means to cook, share and consume food differs radically depending on who and where you are.

Whatever Crabb and her white dinner date choose to put on the menu – steaks on the barbie for Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott, samosas for Scott Morrison or Chinese for Anthony Albanese and Chris Pyne – their performative consumption of those foods will affirm their identities as Australians, patriots of the rugged land of plenty and aficionados of all cultures, so long as those cultures are contained within consumable dishes.

Annabel Crabb with Scott Morrison. ABC

As a nation founded on racist appropriation, perhaps consumption (and assimilation, its body politic equivalent) is a constituent element of national identity.

Wong cooked a Malaysian fish dish and spoke about learning to cook when she migrated to Australia as a child, food being something that provided her with comfort in the face of racism.

For Wong, food is part of her cultural survival. Migrant communities have long used food as a way of retaining their cultural identity in white-dominated societies. “Curry muncher” is a racist slur used against South Asians, who, as a 2012 study in Canada by Lalaie Ameeriar shows, were advised “not to attend job interviews smelling like foods that are foreign to us”.

But for white people, consumption of foreign food marks them not as different, but tolerant. White Australians, according to a 1995 report by Carol Bailey:

more readily perceive disadvantages than advantages to multiculturalism, and struggle to find much beyond the one consistently cited […] positive aspect of multicultural Australia: the greater diversity and sophistication in food and restaurants.

As the American author bell hooks argues in her 1992 book Black Looks: Race and Representation within consumer culture, ethnicity becomes seasoning to spice up the dull white palate. It is something to be eaten, consumed and quickly forgotten.

Annabel Crabb. ABC

Consumption and forgetting was the major theme of Crabb’s dinner with Scott Morrison, the opening episode of Season 5. Forgotten was his presiding over the towing of refugee boats out of Australian waters, a practice which supplements a strategy of “deterring” refugees by imprisoning them on remote Pacific islands.

Forgotten was Morrison’s introduction of legislation that removed the duty to comply with international law or act fairly when detaining refugees at sea; curtailed refugees’ appeal rights; and reintroduced temporary protection visas.

Forgotten was Morrison’s transfer at sea of at least one boat carrying Sri Lankan refugees, including Tamils, back into the hands of Sri Lankan authorities.

Forgotten was the UN’s expression of “profound concern” last July while Morrison capped media communications on Operation Sovereign Borders.

It’s hard to believe that Morrison’s choice to put Sri Lankan samosas (he calls them “ScoMosas”) on the menu for Crabb (who brought a dessert “with a Middle Eastern feel”) was coincidental. By showing the public that he can make and eat Sri Lankan food, Morrison seemed to be attempting to prove that he, and by implication those who voted for him, are not racist, but in fact tolerant and cultured white Australians.

As Crabb and Morrison joyfully prepare and eat the food of the very people Morrison prevented from entering Australia, they perform their white Australian entitlement to own and consume what does not belong to them.

As Amy McGuire argued in her piece in New Matilda following the Morrison episode, Kitchen Cabinet dumbs down political debate and makes people feel that politicians are “just like us”, while those affected by their policies remain thoroughly foreign and un-relatable.

In response to the wave of critique set off by McGuire, Crabb argued in a recent Fairfax column that:

To observe [politicians] in their own environment offers […] some useful information about how they might behave outside it.

But this argument ignores several realities: that in parliamentary politics, personal motivations must regularly be sacrificed in order to tow the party line and appease the polls; that politicians are not really “in their own environment” when there is a camera crew in their kitchen; and that personal motivations are ultimately irrelevant to those on the receiving end of political decisions.

It also ignores the issue of race that McGuire’s piece raises. By refusing to address McGuire’s article, Crabb could be seen to be avoiding the issue of white Australian racism perpetuated by the show.

Annabel Crabb and Nova Peris. ABC

A few days after Morrison’s Kitchen Cabinet, human teeth were found in meals served to refugees imprisoned on Manus Island pursuant to Morrison’s policies. If Crabb is sincere in her quest to make Australian politics less conflictual and nasty, her time would be better spent chatting to those locked in the secure dining halls created by politicians than in the cosy kitchens of parliamentarians. In Australia’s current political climate, it is not our politicians who need humanising.

Next week, on November 18, we can look forward to an episode with gold medallist turned Labor Senator Nova Peris. The trailer shows Crabb and the woman who will be the show’s second non-white interviewee sitting on a rock against a vast Northern Territory landscape, eating from paper plates.

I wonder what we will see Peris cook. Kangaroo tail, to show white Australians that Aboriginal culture is not so scary after all, or a white or Asian dish, to show white Australians that she is really just like them?

Either way, we can be sure that Crabb will devour the food hungrily, remark upon its delicious flavour and allow the nation to keep unsavoury topics like structural racist violence off the table.