Smart Food Mama

I’m a mother, I’m an academic and I’m a food writer – am I smart enough to call myself “smartfoodmama”? You be the judge of that. What I want is to share what I learn with you. Yes I teach food studies, but it seems I learn much more than I can ever teach. Food is so ordinary, so mundane so everyday that it is something we had taken for granted. Then that all changed.

Two important things happened and they happened during my childhood.  Feminism happened and women gradually began to undo those apron strings and get themselves a life. This happened at the same time as industrial food arrived: convenience food, fast food.

I’m not going to waste time crying over this – I’m not calling for a return to the fifties. However cooking was the loser as so many women struggled to work and to provide good meals for their families. Should the burden fall on women alone? No prizes for guessing my answer to that. I’m simply observing what has taken place.

Now that global fast food has all but eradicated the coffee lounges and burger bars of my youth; we are nostalgic for what we have lost. Hence the return of the “gourmet burger” and the fish and chip shop. The cupcake rage was an example of this. Friands, macarons… thesedays many of us cook to entertain ourselves.

I live in a world of food and not surprisingly my friends and family eat well, too well. And yet we are living in an age of increasing levels of obesity and its consequences. Some of us are eating very well and some of us are eating calorie dense, nutrition-light meals. What are we going to do about it?

Wasting Away

I’ve lost 18 kilos since March; no wonder I’m less averse to climbing stairs. Clearly it’s a good thing but it has provided me with two conundra. The first is how to answer that question: “Aren’t you amazing, how did you do that”? In all honesty I don’t know how, but it leads to another question: if I’m now amazing, what was I before? Lazy? Indulgent and out of control? That is the message I’ve received for years.

However it’s the weight loss itself I’d like to address here. It is something of a mystery. I have lost weight slowly and without the aid of technologies such as gym membership, designer jogging shoes, weight loss programs, a dietician or even a diet. For all I know I may be seriously ill.

I’ve begun to dread that question, but it has made me think about it. There are the usual suspects: stress, overwork etcetera but there are other factors. Most notable amongst these is the fact that I spent most of those months teaching a course in “Food Studies”, an interdisciplinary course that teaches first year Uni students where our food comes from.

So here’s my theory: immersing myself in thinking what went into various foods, how they were grown and by whom, I have simply absorbed these lessons. These days, by the time I read what is in a product and where it comes from, I am increasingly less likely to buy it.

If it is imported I hesitate to buy, if it is a processed product I am unlikely to buy it (except for tea bags and the occasional tim-tam). I buy meat from my local butcher and only eat free-range chicken and eggs (preferably organic). These are more expensive, so I buy less, thus adhering to Michael Pollan’s dictum: Eat food. Not too much, mostly plants. And it appears to be working.

Having grown up a yo-yo dieter who took her first weight loss drugs at thirteen, and survived on a water diet for eight days aged eighteen, I found myself a type-2 diabetic at forty-five. No surprises there or in my determination NEVER to diet again.

And in truth I did not diet, I discovered that small and slow do work. Not every obese person can teach Food Studies, but we can all take small steps. If guidelines now recommend 1 hour of exercise per day but you can only find time for 20 – take those 20 minutes. I have stopped taking the lift. If you can afford to, buy smaller dinner plates. Don’t tell yourself I can never eat chips again, just fewer and not so often.

The other trick to weight loss appears to be to lose some. Once you begin to lose weight and get those comments it gets easier. Forget the Biggest Loser fantasy – slow and steady does win the race.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

Slow Shopping

I recently sat on a panel dedicated to the discussion of food sovereignty – a fancy title for a discussion of the ways we Australians might have more say in deciding what we eat, where our food comes from and how it is produced. Yes, it was a slow food event.

What stuck in this member of the chattering class’s mind was a comment from a senior National Party MP on the panel. Though he was a charming and sincere gentleman, we certainly parted ways on a couple of issues. My suggestion that we take responsibility for those less fortunate, that is, those who don’t have enough to eat, being dismissed with the comment that “We’ll always have the haves and have not’s”. Should we accept malnutrition because it has had such a long and distinguished tradition?

Then there’s the role of women. The gentleman referred to a phenomenon I must confess I hadn’t heard of, he talked of the “Wednesday” shop, which he compared with the weekend shop. It went something like this:

“Well it’s been well documented the way in which women do a hasty shop on Wednesdays and then do their ‘proper’ shopping on the weekends”.

He then went on to explain the bleeding obvious – that harassed Mum’s on their way home from work will tend to buy rather more prepared foods than on the weekend, when they are more likely to shop and cook from scratch. Should we overlook his clear understanding that shopping and cooking is the women’s domain – no matter if she also works fulltime? Perhaps we’ll deal with that one later.

I’m more interested in his acknowledgement of the distinction between the fast shopping that takes place on weekdays and the slow shopping we women do on the weekends. While I’m the first to acknowledge that I’m more willing to do the food shopping than my male partner, and better at it, I’m less thrilled with the notion of shopping as leisure.

Shopping for clothes, shoes and accessories, at least for myself, is something I consider to be a leisure activity because I do it during the time which I consider to be leisure time. I’m sure you women know what I mean here, the weekend, that time when we are supposed to enjoy not being at work. This leisure time we spend driving our children everywhere, cleaning our houses, cooking, shopping and doing the laundry.

So what should I do with the remaining hours of the weekend? Would I rather go shopping or sit in the sun reading that weekend paper that takes a week to get through?

It’s quite a simple task, rescuing a few slow moments from my weekend. Slow shopping? Maybe this happens on holidays, but doesn’t that leave an awful lot of slow activity for those two-week breaks? So when did holidays suddenly become so fast?

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

Eating the Coat of Arms

Travelling out of my latte-luvvy comfort zone for a Saturday night BBQ was never going to simple, though we love the old friend wishing to re ignite the friendship by inviting us to meet his fiancée.

Their flagpole was visible before we saw the house, in fact it could be seen for miles. As our friend opened the door I managed not to express my joy that he was marrying Quentin Bryce, after all, who else hangs out a flag as big as WA?

Am I snob? A food snob for sure, I thought, as I watched her put out an assortment of processed, high salt, high fat, low-fibre snacks from their individual (read unsustainable) packages. I saw these snacks as symbolic of the evening ahead. Where were the olives?

Multiculturalism has not made great inroads in this locale. The bride-to-be, evidently thinking a spot of refugee bashing would go down a treat with her two migrant guests, provided a diatribe about all these refugees getting everything including new cars apparently, while we (read white) Australians suffer.

I will not repeat her comments about Indigenous Australians. At some point I managed to steer the conversation towards food and innocently inquired whether they ate kangaroo. Well you would think I’d suggested she cook her puppy dog. How dare anyone eat the coat of arms?

I have always blamed Skippy for the paltry amount of roo we consume in this country but she absolutely insisted on the coat of arms defence and was strident that no one else eats theirs, why should we?

I did point out that there are good reasons for this: the bald eagle (US) wouldn’t taste so good and I’d hate to guess when a lion or a unicorn, were last seen in the UK. The French apparently also have a lion and an eagle. Indeed lions, dragons, large birds and assorted strange mythical creatures abound in the heraldic world.

As usual Australia is blessed. We have our own assorted very strange creatures but they really do exist, here. We’re just really lucky ours are so plentiful, sustainable and delicious.

I would have put all this behind me until I found myself enjoying the culinary magic of Mark (the black) Olive – our own Indigenous celebrity chef, who was, unsurprisingly doing great things with roo and emu. It was when the Black Olive suggested we don’t like the idea of eating our coat arms I recalled my new friend. How shocked would she be to have anything in common with an Indigenous Australian?

Only the Olive was suggesting that we get over it, enjoy our good fortune and slap another emu fillet on the barbie.

Want to express your Australian identity? Might I suggest that eating animals, which are native to this land, is a better way than hanging a flag, a quarter of which sports the Union Jack?

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

Unsung Dads

Having previously written about the daily struggles of Mums it’s seems only fair to address deserving dads; unsung everyday heroes who have not been rendered impotent, violent or otherwise enraged by the gains of feminism.

Travelling usually indicates luck itself and while travelling last year, I felt so very lucky. But good luck is often followed by bad. Excessive security checks and my own stupidity ensured I missed my flight from Gatwick, a word I hope never to hear again. All I remember is that endless queue and then running from one wrong gate to the next. Finally arriving in Sicily I was lucky. But sunny Sicilia and its divine food can wait for another time.

I had to return via Gatewick and get myself to Heathrow and then home sweet home. It was a Friday and the bus driver, faced with terrible traffic snarls had decided to take an alternate route. This would have alarmed me if not for the very big wait for the flight home.

So I was able to sit back and enjoy the view. Yes, there was a view because he left the motorway. It was school holidays in the UK, the sun was actually shining and I was on a slow bus to Heathrow.

The driver had his young son sitting right behind him and I was behind them. As he drove he pointed out sites of interest to his son, things like “your Granny worked in the Great House there”, or “Great-Granddad worked in the factory there before the War”. We even passed Hampton Court Palace where another ancestor had been a gardener.

I’m not sure who enjoyed this most, his son or I? It was such a wonderful, random unfolding of England’s social history, an informed commentary, told with such understated pride. This man will probably never write his family story, certainly never be asked, “ Who do you think you are”; yet he knew where he came from and so will his son.

Home again, in the dreaded supermarket, when my shopping reverie is shattered by a middle-aged guy asking me where he can find curry powder. My eyes narrow seeking more information and he tells me he wants to make curried egg sandwiches for his kids. They’re sick of cheese and tomato. So we need something mild, a powder not a paste and apply with caution, don’t forget the dash of mayo.

He’s asked the right person, again I wonder why I’m so often asked for advice in supermarkets. I didn’t ask the Dad whether he ever gave them lunch money, or indeed whether this was his week with the kids or whether he was their sole carer or how he was able to do the school pickup. I got the impression he was sole carer and doing it tough. It’s only a sandwich, but minor acts of love have lifetime consequences.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

Slow and Local

Last weekend I was fortunate to find myself in a somewhat more upmarket shopping precinct than I usually frequent. Finding our destination closed, I steered my friend into a nearby, legendary food provedore.

Barely had we found the extra-virgin olive oil, then we were offered a complimentary cup of coffee. That the extra ten minutes spent in the store would, of course, give me more time to look on the shelves and more temptation to buy.

Perusing the shelves I was struck by how far this food had travelled. Sure, a massive blackboard proudly proclaimed just one local ingredient: “Manjimup truffles $2,500 per kg”. Well I guess we’d all write that on our blackboard if we had the chance.

The shelves displayed beautifully packaged pastes and potions from Christine Manfield but everything else seemed to be from very far away, as in organic “ketchup” from Spain, organic biscuits from the UK, bottled pears from Italy and so it went.

So for days now I’ve been pondering this slow dilemma: can we justify our desire for high quality food, especially organic, when it is shipped from afar? Organic food may be better for one’s health, it certainly makes consumers feel better about themselves, but what about the carbon foot print?

The obvious response is “Oh but it isn’t available here” and that is often the case. “Boutique” products cannot be mass-produced. However, if as it appears, there is a market for such foods, why isn’t more of it produced here in Australia?

Having struggled for accreditation, with the additional workload and costs and a marketplace  demanding cheap food, organic farmers  are finally in a position where their products are in demand. However, being smaller producers they may not have the resources needed to add value to their produce.

So who will give small, sustainable farmers support? Clearly not our authorities.  Australia’s Risk Assessment Appeals Panel thinks we should be importing apples from China, and now New Zealand too. Here in WA we’ve seen the go ahead given for GM canola trials, though as yet we still can’t prevent GM crops contaminating non-GM crops.

On the other hand we could consider the words of Joel Salatin, who features so prominently in Food Inc. Salatin’s farm aims to provide clean food and educate consumers and food producers.  Visitors are invited to:

Experience the satisfaction of knowing your food and your farmer, building community.  We are your clean meat connection.

When asked what he will do when demand exceeds supply, Salatin is unequivocal – he cannot do what he does on a large scale. He can only provide for his immediate area while encouraging and assisting farmers elsewhere to give it a go.

Salatin will be running workshops in Australia later this year, November for the ACT. A good chance to hear a universal message – slow down, smell the roses and eat local.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

We Are All Jewish Mothers

Last week I gave a talk for a group of senior Jewish women on the topic of Jewish food and Jewish mothers. I like to think we can consider the Jewish mother as a symbolic mother, not because Jewish mothers are any better, or any worse, than any other group of mothers. It’s a question of perception – Jewish mothers have had more publicity, not all of it good.

People often ask me why Jews take their faith from their mother’s not their fathers. I used to think it was suspicion of women’s fidelity then I discovered it had more to do with the way Jewish women provide their children with the cultural and spiritual tools to be Jewish, in other words, their identity.

Surely this can also be extended to women in general? For example when it comes to speaking a second language children will learn their mother’s language but not the father’s – unless both parents have the same language of course.

The ladies wanted to hear me eulogising the uber-nurturing Jewish mother. They wanted talk of chicken soup and dedication. Certainly this is the image we know to be the “yiddishe mother”. However what I wanted to talk to them about the way that image changed over time.

The Jewish mother emerged at the end of the 19th century. In the Jewish villages of Europe men’s lives revolved around the Synagogue and study while women took care of all the worldly details, small matters like money, education and feeding the family. If we examine other “traditional” cultures we come to understand that this behaviour is common.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

The Jewish women of Eastern Europe became the bridge between Jewish and host communities and these everyday skills meant that they adapted to life in the New World better than men whose religious education was no longer valued.


And somewhere between Minsk and Manhatten (or Melbourne) she went from being an angelic, long suffering mother always offering food of course, always leaving the lamp lit in case her wayward son might return, to some sort of obsessive force–feeding banshee. The Yiddish films of the early 20th century show them as dear old ladies obsessively loved by their bad boy sons.


By the time we get to the 60s and 70s writers like Phillip Roth and filmmakers like Woody Allen in particular, provided hideous portraits loosely based on their own mothers. What went wrong?


Were these women the victims of their own success? American Jewish women were well educated but expected to remain at home once married, providing the source of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. The result was feminism and perhaps her sons resented the shift in focus.


Universal indeed – today we women go freely into the workforce, but when it comes to chicken soup and compassion, not much has changed, we’re always on call. Yes, we are all Jewish mothers.

Back to the Future

This week’s topic for my food studies class was the issue of food marketing. Do you ever flick through old cookbooks? You will have noticed the darkness of the pictures and the unappetising appearance of the food, and that’s even without maraschino cherries and radish roses. TV cookery and the “here’s one I prepared earlier” phenomenon changed that.

I decided to kick off my class with a terrific clip you can watch above in which a make-up artist “for food” shows us how she prepares a burger for its 15 minutes of fame. We’re spared nothing and neither is the patty. It is spared actual cooking (20 seconds per side) because otherwise it would shrivel to the size of a real fast food burger, and the fluffy lettuce scaffolded by toothpicks would cook and wither as lettuce really does. The bun sits on cardboard, which explains why it isn’t soggy. Hot skewers provide the faux grill lines and food dye is brushed on for that “rich beautiful colour”.

The patty has an incision made so it can be spread to cover the entire bun, as no mass produced patty ever has. Dozens of lettuce leaves are looked at before sufficiently perky leaves are found. Need I add that the sesame seeds are glued on to the bun? Another site shows what engine oil can do to enhance the appearance of a pancake stack.

Food advertising is nothing new. My mother’s stained 1930s cookbook features delightfully illustrated ads. Who remembers the urchins deliriously sniffing the aroma of Bisto gravy? My generation still love the aeroplane jelly song and we are happy little vegemites.

Increasingly we’re seeing this nostalgia used to sell manufactured foods.

My students were fascinated by the beer being flogged by the good-looking young man from cult TV programme Entourage. Imagine a beer that needs you to plunge the “churchkey” (can-opener) into the can. So manly, so old world. Given that ring pull cans did away with the need for these devices what exactly is the advantage of going back to the future? Apparently “effort is how you get to the good things”, (so much for the last 50 years of innovation). Are they serious?

Apparently so, because everything old is new again. Take the new deployment of “artisanal”. It means handmade and suggests traditional values of skill, artistry and a one-off product. A certain global pizza company is now selling artisanal pizza. What does that mean? Better than our usual rubbish seems to be the inference.

Then there’s the new green advertising, you know the sort of thing that makes urban Australians puff up with pride, images of rolling green hills, we need to drive hundreds of kilometres to see and orchards whose produce is processed offshore.

Are we Australians nostalgic enough to buy beer that needs a can-opener? I’m scared to turn on the TV to find out.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

Civility: A thing of the past?

A recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia brought me face to face with the sharp contrast between fast and slow cultures. Okay, no-one is going to call Singapore slow. It is a city on the move, often derided as an oversized shopping mall in which all traces of tradition have been bulldozed to make way for more shops.

What struck me most strongly in both countries is their (sigh) intense civility.

We know Singapore is a deeply regimented society and that much of what takes place there is mandated. So it’s no surprise folks actually wait until you have stepped from the train, rather than crushing you as you disembark.

We spent two days in relentlessly multicultural Melaka, during which time we witnessed an amazing late night gathering in the neighbouring kampong, which I assume had only been preserved because of its touristic value. There was music, sound and colour.

Exploring the kampong a couple of days later I was engaged in conversation by a friendly local. I got the old “where do you come from” routine. This of course doesn’t happen much here in Oz. I’m told that we Aussies are friendly when approached but we do not approach strangers in this manner, in fact even when we see travellers clearly in distress we tend to ignore them.

So I asked this Malay gentleman what the hubbub the other night had been about.

“Ah” he said, “ my hero was here to meet us” with hand over heart as he pointed to the large poster of ex-PM Mahathir. I thought it best not to remind him of Mr Mahathir’s lowly opinion of Aussie’s in general and Paul Keating in particular.

He asked me why we hadn’t come down to the kampong to see for ourselves, telling me: “we had so much local food you would have been welcome to join us”. I thanked him anyway and wandered off contemplating his words. Did he have any idea how far removed from our cultural practices his question was? Imagine if I told him about the overseas student who said, regarding her three years in Australia: “ I’ve really loved being here, I’m, just sorry never to have been inside an Australian home”.

We Australians are sick of having our culture criticised and very sick of the claim that we have none. I’m reminded of a wonderful woman called Joy Burn. Joy was raised in Cunderdin in WA’s wheat belt and was a stalwart of the CWA. Privileged to interview her, I arrived at her home to be greeted by the smell of fresh baked Anzac biscuits.

Joy Burn was old-school, an Australian of the Depression and War years, who invited neighbours round and offered a cuppa, even to “new Australians” like my family.  That Aussie hospitality still exists but sometimes we need to be reminded to open our doors wider.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

Farmers’ Markets or a Warm Bed?

Though the mornings are getting warmer, Sunday mornings offer something of a quandary for this foodie. How should slow weekend days begin? A sleep-in followed by a leisurely breakfast in bed, perusing the papers? Or will culinary considerations rule? Early though it may be, a trip to my nearest farmers’ market is sure to at least provide good fair-trade coffee and an organic egg and bacon roll. Yes the bacon is free-range; the roll is made from organic ingredients, as are the blanched spinach and array of sauces. I must weigh up my need for the luxury of a late start against the need to express my eco-friendly, slow identity. Joking aside, should a trip to the FM be a compulsory element of a slow weekend?

We need to consider what is at stake, not steak, though no doubt that will also be free-range. Artisanal foods – boutique foods made on a small scale – are the antidote to the mass consumption offered by supermarkets and fast food outlets. They are more expensive, reflecting the smaller scale of production and increased cost of high quality ingredients. If we want to continue to see these products on sale; those of us who can afford them should support these local producers.

Surely the most important consideration is of ”food miles.” Those of us concerned with reducing food miles are becoming known as “locavores”, add that to your wardrobe of identity formulations. Locavores recognize that the further food travels the greater its carbon footprint. Importing foods from afar is wasteful from the point of view of fuel costs in transport and also the extra packaging that may be involved. However, there are some products which are clearly associated with a particular country or region. If we forgo these luxuries what happens to the struggling farmers in that area?

If we buy locally from food producers we meet we can be assured of fair trade, we can assume no child exploitation has been involved. Young Bluey helping on the farm is not experiencing the life of African children sold into slavery for the hazardous job of picking cocoa beans.

Then there’s the experience. If speed is your thing the supermarket makes sense, while the Farmer’s Market offers a community experience during which you forage for hidden gems all the while expressing your eco-consciousness as you stuff organic goodies in your sustainable shopping bags.

Farmer’s markets are spreading, no doubt aided by the messages delivered by the likes of Maggie Beer, the ever effusive Costa and of course Stephanie Alexander whose Kitchen Garden Project continues to spread and to inspire, showing children how to grow fruit and vegetables and encouraging their pleasure and wonder in that process. Those who take in the message will face the weekend challenge in years to come. Let’s hope the egg and bacon sandwiches continue to thrill.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University