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

Everything New..

This week in the Food Studies class I teach, the topic turned to food miles. Having newly learnt that much of our food comes from very far away, students have written guiltily and at length, of the scourge of the carbon footprint as another new manifestation of the problems of life in the 21st century, as though food has never travelled before.

When I tell them globalisation began with Colombus they look startled, as young people who have perhaps never learnt of him, or indeed any other historical figure, might.

Eminent anthropologist, Sidney Mintz argues in his monograph Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, that it all began with the sugar trade. You only have to consider the great sugar producing nations to see the truth of this. Not only did sugar travel across the world, so did the plants themselves and the labourers, and with horrifying consequences.

The Caribbean was largely repopulated by slaves from Africa while indigenous populations were eradicated.   And what of us? Australia’s history of “blackbirding ” of Pacific Islanders to cut sugar cane in Queensland is no less shameful.

This history is of course rarely considered as we tuck into ginger cake, lamingtons or banana bread. These traditional afternoon tea delights are redolent of our British origins. It’s just that we forget how closely tied those origins are to our colonial past.

My grandmother and my mother grew up in the cold, working class, north of England and their dietary preferences reflected those origins. Friday night dinners shared with Nana would inevitably end with “pudding”. This pudding might emerge from any number of strange, but available, ingredients, custard and jam being amongst them. But always desiccated coconut, which I have since grown to loath, my admiration for the origins of that archetypal Aussie sweet, the mighty lamington, not withstanding.

However desiccated coconut, bananas and ginger (powdered, preserved in syrup or candied) have long been staple treats of the British diet. Of course they speak to us of Empire – of the days when Britannia ruled the wave and her British (and Australian) subjects could enjoy the fruits of empire: tea and sugar being foremost amongst them.

We might think those retro sticky date puddings (there’s another one – no date palms in the Old Dart) are very last decade but as sure as winter follows autumn these sweet delights will grace menus this winter, yet again. What of the health messages, the diabetes epidemic, the obesity epidemic? They didn’t emerge from a culture which makes its own puds on special occasions. They are more likely to result from an assault on the freezer compartment of your supermarket, while a homemade pudding offers the enjoyment of shared activity, sense of accomplishment and real flavour.

Less of Sara Lee and more of Margaret Fulton I say. What was that Noel Coward said, something about everything old being new again?

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