Category Archives: Food & Culture

Memory in the kitchen

bwt2In the most recent issue of the wonderful Bread Wine & Thou is a beautifully written piece by Melbourne writer Ramona Barry. In it she recounts her journey with cancer and its impact upon her family’s life at the table.  It is an extraordinarily moving piece, and there is really nothing to do but go and read it.

In the midst of Barry’s piece is this little ode to the virtues of the home cook and her capacity, even in the midst of life at its worst, to hold a family together through the most menial practice of memory in the kitchen.

Nostalgia can play an important part in professional cooking. Just look to Heston Blumenthal trying to recreate summer holidays with his now famously sensorial dish ‘Sounds of the Sea’. On the flip side it is memory that the domestic cook relies on, day in and day out.

Memory helps to get food on the table in a timely manner and take into account everyone’s dietary requirements. These are the details that you need to learn intuitively and over time. There is no explaining to the non-cooks in the family that to do a proper roast dinner you must start preparing at 4pm to get it on the table by 7pm. Nothing is more frustrating than watching kitchen interlopers swanning in at 6.30 and expecting their lamb shanks with the nightly news.

Memory allows you to be able to cook dinner as a staggered meal, taking into account after-school activities, late meetings and extra guests. You need to be able to throw a meal together when the entire family has collapsed on the couch after a road trip, or half of them are in bed with the flu. You rely on memory to manage the juggling act seamlessly and daily.

Barry’s words are a gentle reminder of the primacy of the home cook in the civilisation of our lives. The domestic matters. It reminds me of the thesis of Michael Symon’s masterful The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks, in which he demonstrates the oft unrecognised role of the household cook.

Cooks have always been in the background—both ever present and unnoticed. Their contributions have seemed too common, pervasive, trivial, unproblematic. Cooks generally have been women, and their achievements overlooked as inglorious and private. They have been restricted to the chopping-board and spice rack. But while each of the cooks’ actions might be infinitesimal, the results have multiplied into civilization.’

Ramona Barry, “An Extra Place at the Table” in Bread Wine & Thou, issue 2, 2016, 86-95.

Michael Symons, The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks: The Story of Cooking in Civilisation and Daily Life, Viking, 1998.

Artwork: Jonathan Leaman, ‘A Jan Steen Kitchen’, 1995.


Food: the time of our lives

This morning I had breakfast. At midday or thereabouts I’ll have lunch, and then tonight, once home from work, I’ll make dinner for the family. In between there’ll be breaks for coffee, and then, if I am as undisciplined as usual, a late evening raid on the refrigerator.  No doubt, what I eat and drink from day to day will change, but the rhythm never does. Day in, day out, food sets the hours of my life.

‘Foods, and the meals we make of them, are our clocks,’ says the anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy; ‘they are our faithful calendars. In a real sense, they are the time of our life.’ While this certainly encompasses our daily feeding routines, MacClancy’s idea of ‘food as time’ includes more.

As a city dweller—my beloved’s balcony garden of tomatoes, herbs and chilies not withstanding—my daily life is far removed from the agricultural rhythms of the earth. Regardless, they persist. Indeed, for great swathes of people across the earth, still the food they produce and harvest determines their lives. The cultivation of crops and the nurturing of livestock set the calendar year after year.

My grandfather was a wheat farmer in the Mallee of northwestern Victoria. Without the machinery of modern farming, he used horses to pull ploughs and prepare the ground for seed. It was this back-breaking task that determined his life in the late autumn each year. With minimal rains—around 10.5 inches (267 mls) annually—timing was crucial, constant observation of weather patterns and seasonal changes essential. All being well, the harvesting took place in the relentless heat of summer and lasted for two months. Dad recalls Christmas dinner eaten under the shade of a tree in the paddock while the work continued. The harvest would not wait.


Harvesting in Quambatook, c. 1930s

In situations like this, food exercises power. The farmer does not set the pace of life. Rather, he works by a pace set by the earth itself. Food and its production is the time he lives by. My grandfather was not a church-going man, but ‘God fearing’ no less. I suspect that when one is so relentlessly dependent on resources outside of oneself—a dependence that colours every season of life—the possibility of God is much more pressing.

Jeremy MacClancy, Consuming Culture: Why You Eat What You Eat, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1992, 58.

Gopnik on taste


‘The Cardinal sampling the wine’ by Frtiz Wagner

‘None of us can escape the web of competitive, cyclical, counterintuitive, imitative relations that shape the social role of taste. There is no privileged space from which we can look down and say, Your tastes are trends, my tastes are truths. All taste effects depend on contexts. The smell in our nose changes the taste in our mouth, and the length of the line outside the restaurant changes of our view of the taste of the food we’re waiting for, and even how much we’ll spend to eat it. We are what we eat? Probably closer to the truth to say that we eat what we are: the total self we bring to the table shapes the way we choose, and even how we chew. Our morals and our manners together drive our molars.’

Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 105-106.

Cicero in favour of dinner parties

“Really Paetus, I implore you to spend time in honest, pleasant and friendly company. … I am not thinking of the physical pleasure, but of community life and habit, and of mental recreation, of which familiar conversation is the most effective agent; and conversation is at its most agreeable at dinner parties. In this respect we Romans are wiser than Greeks. They use words meaning literally ‘co-drinkings’ (symposia) or ‘co-dinings’ (syndeipna), but we say ‘co-livings’ (convivia), because at dinner parties, more than anywhere else, life is lived in company.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC)


Visser on food and civilisation

Food is ‘everyday’ — it has to be, or we would not survive for long. But food is never just something to eat. It is something to find or hunt or cultivate first of all; for most of human history we have spent a much longer portion of our lives worrying about food, and plotting, working, and fighting to obtain it, than we have in any other pursuit. As soon as we can count on food supply (and so take it for granted), and not a moment sooner, we start to civilize ourselves. Civilization entails shaping, regulating, constraining, and dramatizing ourselves; we echo the preferences and principles of our culture in the way we treat our food. … Food — what is chosen from the possibilities available, how it is presented, how it is eaten, with whom and when, and how much time is allocated to cooking and eating it — is one of the means by which a society creates itself and acts out its aims and fantasies. Changing (or unchanging) food choices and presentations are part of every society’s tradition and character.  Food shapes us and expresses us even more definitively than our furniture or houses or utensils do.”

41AS5F97T5L._SL500_AA300_Margaret Visser, Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal, New York: Grove Press, 1986, 12.

McDonald’s and religious ritual?

I’m no fan of Macca’s. Frankly, I would rather go without than line up for a Big Mac. But with close to a thousand outlets around Australia, I’m sure management is not overly concerned with my indifference. What’s more, my son has worked at a local franchise for the past couple of years. Likely he’s learned more than he realises about persistence, organisation and team work, and I’m grateful.

What’s interesting to me is the degree of comfort that the local presence of McDonald’s provides to a certain portion of the population. Research suggests that this has to do with more than just price and convenience. In the fickle world of fast-food, there is something predictable, even safe in the feel and product of this stayer. The success of McDonald’s depends on far more than its burgers and fries.

Some years ago the anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy made some interesting observations about the ritual form of a meal at McDonald’s:

‘A meal at McDonald’s can be looked upon as having some of the character of a social or religious ritual. Rituals occur in designated places, marked by distinctive emblems such as the cross above a church, and at prescribed times, such as the sabbath. For a patron at McDonalds, the eating rituals occur under the sign of the golden Double Arch and at the prescribed times of breakfast lunch and dinner. Ritual is also characterised by words and actions that have been prescribed by people other than the current performers of the ritual and that have been codified in some revered text such as the Pledge of Allegiance or the Bible. The employees at McDonald’s who take the orders and deliver the burgers, fries and shakes display a behavioural uniformity that is prescribed in the 360 pages of its standardised Operations Manual. Those responsible for carrying out the ritual have been trained at the McDonald’s analog of a seminary, known as Hamburger University, in Elk Grove, Illinois … Ritual is also repetitive and stereotyped, of a limited range, adhering to a largely invariable sequence. Day after day, year after year, burgers are sold at McDonald’s with vitally the same catechism of requests and replies: “I’ll haves a Big Mac.” “Will there be any fries with that?” “Thank you, have a nice day.” The transactions at McDonald’s express values esteemed by modern (Western) society: technological efficiency, cleanliness, service, and egalitarianism. At a McDonald’s, people find exactly what they have come to expect. They know the liturgy, and what pecuniary dues they will have to pay; they have found the comfort, the security, and the reassurance there will be no surprises that are among the benefits of any ritual.’

Interesting propositions. I’m not sure I can swallow the idea that a visit to McDonald’s has religious undertones for the average punter, but the broader need for dependable rituals of security and comfort certainly goes part way to explaining our Macca’s addiction. There’s certainly more going on here that the convenience of a drive-thru.

Jeremy MacClancy, Consuming Culture: Why You Eat What You Eat, New York: Henry Holt, 1993, 216-17.

Gopnik on eating as a civilising act

‘ … gastronomy is the great adventure of desire. Its subject is simple: the table is the place where a need becomes a want. Something we have to do — eat — becomes something we care to do — dine — and then something we care to do becomes something we try to do with grace. Eating together is the civilizing act. We take urges, and tame them into tastes.’

Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 39.

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