Feeding People

This week our Food For Thought lectures dealt with food choice and sustainability. It’s all about the competing messages from slow food exponents and fast food purveyors. It’s easy to tell from some student’s body language that we don’t tell them what they want to hear, as though we will tell them it’s good to eat a highly processed, high fat, high salt, high sugar diet.


If Slow Food and fast food are in competition, it’s a David vs Goliath struggle. Slow food began in Italy in 1986 to resist the opening of a MacDonalds outlet near the iconic Spanish Steps in Rome.  Slow Food want to help preserve traditional farming and cookery practices and to keep people alive to the wonder and joy of fresh food. (tomato pic)



I’d like to think I’m what Michael Pollan calls a “conscientious omnivore”. That is someone who eats a broad range of foods, including meat, but who tries to do so in an ethical fashion. So we know that red meat is not “sustainable” for a number of reasons including the methane emissions of cows, the amount of grain needed to feed those cows, land clearances and on it goes. Industrial farming, feedlots and caged chickens aren’t seen to be sustainable or ethical, so sustainability and ethics are inextricably linked.


In my second lecture I look at so-called alternative methods – including biodynamics. I offer Cullen winery as an example – to show them that organic, and indeed biodynamic farming (think moon charts and soil preparation) is not as left of centre as they may think. And so this morning I find an article in the West Australian that Cullen Diana Madeleine 2011 cabernet has been judged the WA wine of the year.



Some students glaze over as soon as we discuss these concepts – or indeed the idea that we all need to think about what we eat, what we waste and how we can better feed ourselves and the world.


Most of our students enjoy the material we present and try to improve their own eating. In truth we can all make changes that will bring us better health and improve the world’s situation. Not wasting food is top priority. Sure that rotting lettuce in the back of the fridge can’t be packed up and sent to Sudan, but many students refuse to accept that their behaviour may have consequences at all. We argue that if the developed world wasted less food there would theoretically be more food available – to donate, to sell, to distribute. If you don’t believe food waste is a problem, watch Supervalue: A look at food miles and food waste.


We can and do have an impact on global food production every time we go to the till. This month saw Jamie Oliver becoming the new face of Woolworth’s: they get the Jamie razzle-dazzle, he gets to see more sustainable and humane food supplies from a major food supplier.


Are Woolies doing this because of their ethical concerns? Of course not. They have found an excellent way to build on their “Fresh Food People” branding by becoming the sustainable food people, at least in their advertising. They are responding to public sentiment.  The case of free-range eggs and indeed chickens is an excellent example. When I first began buying free range eggs about 10 years ago, they were twice the price of cage eggs. Now the difference is far less because the demand has increased. There’s money in those happy chooks, just as there is in organic produce.


It’s important that we realise that we do have choices and our food dollars have power. There are a number of ways that you, yes you, can be a more conscientious omnivore.


Avoid or cut down on processed food, redolent with salt, fat, sugar or fructose in the form of corn syrup. Refined grains like white flour and white sugar give you a quick energy hit followed by a big drop. They also make you fat.


Generally eat locally sourced produce in preference to imported – less fuel is used to get it to you, you support your local farmers and in the case of fruit and vegetables it should be fresher. That means eating seasonally and nature provides well for us in this regard. After all, why do we get abundant oranges, mandarins and lemons in winter…?


Cook from scratch whenever you can: Michael Pollan says almost anything you cook for your self will be more nutritious than fast food, packaged and processed convenience foods. I say that the exception might be Elvis-style deep fried peanut butter and jam sandwiches.


Grow something to eat – anything! One of the principles of permaculture gardening is that you should always obtain a yield.  Community gardens are appearing all over as are school kitchen gardens. I may be the world’s worst gardener, but a major breakthrough for me was realising you had to water regularly. I have a veggie garden thanks to my green thumbed ex. Insects continue to thwart me, as does lack of time and energy, but the mandarin tree I transplanted when we moved is thriving. The miserable mulberry tree that my mother potted from a sprout from the original years ago has followed us to the new house. Replanted it’s now almost thriving, but my proudest effort is the blueberry – now in its third year it is producing whole handfuls of sweet berries at a time with my first crop being a single handful. If you have a small garden you can grow in pots as our students do for their “home garden” assignment. Or you can just grow some fresh herbs on your window sill. If you have a lemon tree why not put a big box full on the verge with a help yourself sign as some kind folks in my street have done? Take these ideas a little further and anything can happen. Do take  the time to listen to the remarkable Pam Warhurst: How we can eat our landscapes


No-one needs to be a martyr to the cause of culinary correctness. But we can and should eat better, we can all contribute to feeding the world.

Penalty Rates: Working Weekends?

This week the Fair Work Commission rejected an application by the hospitality industry to radically cut weekend penalty rates.

I’d like to think that would be the end of it but according to The Australian employers will now look to the government to “take a more aggressive approach to workplace relations”.


Oh dear, where have we heard that before? Even Masterchef’s George Columbaris, who appears not to be destitute, has weighed in with a whinge.

Having spent 20 years in the hospitality industry I do think I’m well placed to comment on this question. I worked as a waiter for some years. I did this so I could easily find work and leave it and earn enough to save for travel. When I’d had enough of aching arches, drunken prats and rude hungry people, I drifted into the kitchen. I didn’t earn tips (another issue entirely) but then I didn’t have to smile through gritted teeth or put up with lascivious businessmen. The most popular dish in one restaurant I worked in for some time was made with turkey breast. Can you imagine what my buxom younger self (who never revealed cleavage at work) had to endure?

Eventually I became a cook/manager. I worked for some years in three different Fremantle venues and I quickly found that many owners see only the cost of wages. If they are inexperienced (and why people with no experience in catering think they can run a food business I will never understand), they cannot take in the intricacies of the balance sheet. So they will not question set up costs (but we had those chairs!), rent or other overheads.

All they see are lazy staff gobbling up their profits. Perhaps they should try   taking a shift or two on a Saturday night in a busy restaurant. Apart from doing twice the work in half the time, there is life itself to consider. How do you enjoy a social life when you work till 1 or 2 in the morning? Of course after work drinks are always an option but when you finish work do you retire to the bar with the people you have spent the day with, or do you meet your friends or go home?

 If you’re not working till late every Thursday, Friday or Saturday night it’s probably because you worked all day Saturday and will be back in at 7 am on Sunday. New Year’s Day was one of the busiest days of the year and in one establishment I was so grateful to the staff who did turn up I just had to accept that they weren’t hung over, they were probably still drunk having not slept at all.

These are the concessions you make working in hospitality. Many of my students work weekends for the penalties – wisely figuring they can work less hours for more money. It’s been that way here in Australia for as long as I can recall. I know the system isn’t so flexible in the UK. But isn’t that because we are a more egalitarian nation?

ABC Perth Radio invited callers on the subject. It was unsurprising to hear a restaurateur complain about shrinking profit margins. The next caller astutely asked whether anyone should be in business if they couldn’t turn a profit?

The point I really need to make is that the “hospitality” industry is not for wimps or amateurs. As the legendary restaurateur Christine Manfield commented on closing Universal restaurant:

“I don’t think people realise generally how absolutely all-consuming being a restaurateur is and being actively involved in it. It takes a huge amount of emotional and physical energy and you have to be resilient and tough and on top of it the whole time to really drive the business.”


Manfield’s exit from the business is notable for her failure to cite wage costs. She simply had enough and made it clear that her staff were an integral part of her success. Perth is exploding with new restaurants. In Freo we’ve very recently seen the arrival of Deca Bodega and Bread in Common while older favourites like Clancy’s, The Capri, Villa Roma, Little Creatures, Ruocco’s , Barque and others continue to thrive. The questions you need to ask your self are these: Would I be happy working till 2 am every weekend night?

Would I be happy to see my child doing this for no more pay than she or he would have earned working 9- 5 weekdays? Would you be happy to work that hard, while those around you are at play?

For Hank

It’s such a cliche to write about my anxiety dreams, but they have always amused me and they so often concern food.   When I was pregnant I only wanted to eat smoked salmon, anything with chilli, and lots of cheese. I ate smoked salmon every week, something about the saltiness I suppose, and texture of course, smoked salmon is all about texture. One night I dreamt that someone came and stole the babies I was taking care of, ugly twin boys who looked just like W.C. Fields, with  lumpy heads as well as  those big red noses.

 I looked for them everywhere. The window was open and all that remained of the boys was the empty packaging of a side of smoked salmon and I thought, “I better hide this, because if anyone finds it they will think that I ate the babies… “

Lately I’ve been having the usual dreams, night before my thesis is due, I’m still writing it, that sort of thing, but last night I dreamt I was on the coast sharing a van or kombi with some girl, and when we woke in the morning I saw that my supervisor Alan was parked next to us.

It was very early and we were all going back to town that day.  I said to Alan, “I have real coffee, would you like a cup before you go?” He said he was in a hurry to get back and cook this big fish that he’d caught. I asked if I could see it and he said “No, don’t look at it now, come over and see it when you get back and it’s ready to cook.”

When I went to see the fish it was a  tuna, at least one hundred pounds, just like the ones mum used to clean and fillet on the back lawn. It was skinned and smothered in butter and garlic and sitting in a huge tub almost as big as a bath. Alan was leaning on the edge, very casually, with a fag hanging out of his mouth and he said, “Of course I’m going to bake it.”  I couldn’t imagine how, I was completely overawed. I knew I couldn’t cook a fish that big.

Well it’s not very hard to figure that one out. I used to dream about crustaceans, otherworld symbols, apparently. They remind me of my seafaring father. Once, when I was managing a vegetarian cafe I dreamt the place was lined with shelves of wet, struggling, angry crabs and lobsters. The owners were shocked by this spectacle, while I tried to reassure them that everything would be all right because I knew how to cook them!

I have a photo of my father; he leans against a big, white shark, casually, fag in mouth, not unlike Alan and the tuna. The dead shark is perched on the side of the boat and Dad looks very pleased with himself. The photo contains many of the symbols of my childhood:  the sea, the boat, the man, the dead fish. I was born into a family of Pisceans, our sign is the fish, our element water, our concern is death. I don’t like to kill fish, but I have observed how beautiful they are in their final struggle. My father, a Cancer, shared with the crab complete disregard for the plight of the fish. Its death gave his life meaning.


Have I returned to the deep, sea blue of my father’s eyes and all the boats and fishy mysteries of my childhood?  Perhaps I’ll dream about him soon, or perhaps I just did. I always dream about my dead father when life seems impossible, and  he helps me, though when he was alive,  he  made life so difficult.

Of Mothers

I love this photo of my mother, taken sometime during WW2. Mum joined the Land Army and grew food for the nation. My mother was a mother of the old school, no canteen lunches for us. Breakfast at the table and a packed lunch. Most days she went to do the office work in my Dad’s fishing tackle shop. She was always home when I got back from school. She would usually be on her bed with the paper and the dog, having unpacked the shopping. When I came home she would get up and make me something to eat and then begin dinner.

Dad got home most days in time for the 6 o’clock news. When it finished we would eat. We usually had three courses. My mother didn’t really take to the industrial food products of the sixties, though she did have an ongoing fixation with packet mushroom soup. Thus we were spared instant mashed potato but I dreamed of rice-a-riso imagining it to be spicy and so much better than Mum’s soggy rice.

But I had a Jewish mother so we entertained with chopped liver and chopped herring, made from scratch, no French onion dips in our house. My parents entertained a great deal and Mum cooked everything. We had barbecues every Saturday and while my father indulged his pyromania I would set the table while Mum produced mountains of potato salad, sweet corn, pickled cucumbers. Her offerings were not “plated” in restaurant fashion, but they were delicious and bountiful.

Jewish holidays were celebrated without recourse to the Synagogue but with chicken soup and matzo balls, smoked salmon or whatever was called for. I was blessed to have a proper Jewish mother who had been raised in an orthodox community by her unorthodox mother Zena , my gloriously eccentric Nana.  My best memory of Nana’s cooking was her pot roast but she was also famous for her taiglach. Taiglach are incredibly hard biscuits which have been boiled in a thick syrup and then Nana rolled them in coconut. Only Lithuanian Jews cook them.

I have learnt to make all my mother’s Jewish dishes, the way her mother made them. I do not have her dedication though; I’ve only made gefilte fish once. I have taught my daughter to make matzo balls. She is yet to master chicken soup. We were cultural Jews and it was the food we ate, cooked with love and dedication by our long suffering brown-eyed Yiddishe Mama that led me here.