American food historian Waverley Root once wrote:
food is a function of the soil, for which reason every country has the food naturally fit for it.
Every country, that is, except Australia.
By Australian food we mean the plants, fruits and animals that have grown here and sustained the indigenous people of the land for over 50,000 years. If we eat only the food brought by the first settlers and all those who followed, can we call ourselves Australian?
The British who colonised – or invaded – Australia arrived with an intact culture, which included their cusine. They brought with them the fruit, vegetables and livestock from their home. From the outset, they imposed that food and food culture on their new land and, to their detriment, its original inhabitants.
They ignored the intricate environmental management of indigenous peoples, a management that heavily informed their world view. Historian Bill Gammage argued in The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011) that for the original inhabitants “theology is fused with ecology”. The colonists overlaid an alien system of agriculture which began the process of ecological imbalance in which the continent now finds itself and began exporting back to Europe the European foodstuffs they planted and raised. And, for around 150 years, we adhered to the diet of the first settlers.
In short, European Australians lived on, not in, this continent. This culinary determinism is the most material evidence of the disjunction between where we are, and what we eat.
The successive waves of migrant arrivals since 1945 also bought their cultures and foods with them. And what did Anglo Australia do? Ate them up. Embraced the food of migrants more than just about any country in the world.
The result is that Australia is not just multicultural, it’s multiculinary. Australians will go to a Thai restaurant – any kind of restaurant – and have no fear. They’ll happily eat boat noodle soup with beef blood stirred through it or stinking tofu: but not witchetty grubs or quandongs or akudjura (bush tomatoes). As the television scientist Julius Sumner Miller would have asked, “why is it so?”
To answer that question we must first acknowledge that food is far more than a material substance that is ingested and excreted. It distinguishes and defines us to ourselves and to our fellows.
It can be a primary cultural marker of our clan, tribe, religion, region, province, personal sensibilities and country of origin. Based on that understanding of the complexity of food, we’d like to suggest three interlocked answers to this question.
Firstly, cultural determinism, which basically means you stick with what you grew up with. It made sense for the First Fleet to bring its own food to this distant and unknown land. But not, perhaps, to ignore the local foods for almost 250 years.
Secondly, neophilia, the fear of new foods, a concept introduced by psychologist Paul Rozin. And new they were. Giant marsupials that bounded across the landscape; limes shaped like fingers; flour – nardoo – made from a fern. Large white tree grubs. Strange grub indeed.
(As an aside, misunderstanding the food of the land really can be deadly. Burke and Wills may have starved to death from eating too much nardoo, which is full of an enzyme that’s lethal in high quantities. If they’d asked the local Indigenous people how to prepare the nardoo spores, they would have survived.)
Finally, the dark, underlying reasons for the long rejection of our native foods. What we – and others – have called “food racism”. The association of these foods with the original inhabitants.
This is a very hard charge to prove, but in writing about this topic, over time, I (John Newton) have recorded several examples of anecdotal evidence. Perhaps the most powerful example comes from Raymond Kersh, chef at the Edna’s Table series of restaurants.
When he began using Australian native produce ingredients in his dishes at the first Edna’s Table, Kersh didn’t list them on the menu. But when the restaurant moved in 1993, he began listing the native ingredients used in the dishes on the menu.
A good customer who had eaten Kersh’s food in the first Edna’s Table came to the new restaurant, read the menu and asked the chef: “What are you using this Abo shit for?” This was not an isolated instance. It certainly reinforces the power of food beyond its ability to satisfy hunger.
What can we do about this reluctance to eat the foods native to this country without which, we contend, we cannot truly call ourselves Australians?
Perhaps Australia Day should be celebrated with a meal of Australian and introduced food, shared by all Australians. The meal would give thanks to the Indigenous inhabitants for caring for country for over 50,000 years, and – admittedly belatedly – showing us the foods of the land.
It would be an act of culinary reconciliation. We might even agree to change the name. At the end of his book, Bill Gammage writes:
We have a continent to learn. If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.
One way of achieving this may well be to sit down as brothers and sisters and share a meal of native foods.
This is the second article in our new series “Tastes of a nation,” which looks at our food crazy culture. In the first instalment John Gage asked: when did everyone get an opinion about your diet?
Do you have a story idea for this series? If so, please contact Madeleine De Gabriele.