Thursday, July 05, 2007

Adelaide Festival of Ideas 2007

I'm sure most people experience the daily battle between the little devil sitting on one shoulder telling you what you'd like to eat and the little angel sitting on the other, telling you what you ought (and, of course, ought not) to eat. The moralising of food and its consumption is as old as the hills; Gluttony isn't one of the Seven Deadly Sins for nothing.

In an affluent post-industrial nation like this one, though, the stakes have changed a lot. There's now chemical input and genetic modification to consider as well; and the morality of international trade (such as the export of live sheep); and the treatment humane or otherwise of animals farmed for food and profit. The idea of what's "good" in the way we eat has become a lot more complex than it used to be.

Tomorrow's Festival of Ideas session 'Before You Eat' (Elder Hall, 11.15) features nutritionists Dr Peter Clifton of the CSIRO, Professor Marion Nestle from the USA (author of 2006's What to Eat) and Professor Kerin O'Dea from the University of Melbourne, with the redoubtable Dr Norman Swan as participating Chair. The program notes for this session end with the following list of things that 'we could afford to know more about':

-- The risks to health (real as opposed to imagined) from chemical inputs in the food chain

-- The costs and benefits to individual health of highly processed foods

-- ‘Food miles’ – the costs (nutritional as well as environmental) of having everything in season all the time

-- The further dietary implications of affluence that mean most people in the developed world can eat what would once have been luxury foodstuffs most of the time

-- The alleged ‘obesity epidemic’ and what we can do about it

-- The other risks of industrial-strength agriculture.

'What,' the notes conclude, 'are the desirable alternatives to the way we eat now?'

To me, the short answer to that question would be 'Produce as much of your own food as you can, eat it in season, and cook it yourself.' As a farmer's daughter of a certain age, I've got robust memories of childhood eating that make contemporary supermarkets -- much less fast-food joints -- look pretty lame.

Where I grew up, if you were hungry you went out and killed a sheep. Or, if it was a special occasion, a chook. Or you caught a fish, or shot a rabbit, or went yabbying down at the dam. In summer you ate tomatoes that your mother had grown, and in winter the gargantuan field mushrooms you'd picked yourself from up around the shearing-shed (no prizes for guessing the connection). You ate eggs that had been laid only hours before, with toast made from bread baked that morning before dawn in the big old ovens at the township bakery.

(Peace to vegetarians everywhere, but I don't apologise for the sheep, the chooks, the rabbits or the fish. I can attest as an eyewitness to their free, happy and well-looked-after lives, as I can to their quick and humane deaths; the worst thing that ever happened to most of them was getting bossed around by a Border Collie, which is a great deal more than can be claimed by most human beings.)

In the cities in 2007, most of us have lives that preclude the taking of time and trouble to maintain a close connection with the food we eat, which is why, although I still never eat fast food or even pre-prepared meat, I had never in my life grown a tomato until last summer. The astonished pride I felt when I picked my first three ripe Romas, brought them inside with some fresh basil cut from the pot growing on the back doorstep, did this with them

and then ate them is something I won't ever forget. It's not just that there's a powerful, primitive connection between producing food and then eating it; it's also that the process is beautiful and satisfying and will make you very happy.


Dany le roux said...

I hope you still have a vestige of your upbringing in the form of a worm farm.Their little output is just great for tomatoes (or should it be tomatos).

Francis Xavier Holden said...

I can honesty say the only struggle I have with food are how to get interesting stuff in not too fucking big portions. i don't like sweet stuff at all. i like curries and sour stuff. and not huge gutso portions. i like anti pasta - in huge portions. today at flinders street station i needed something for lunch on the run. only one left of "mini" baguette with chicken schitzel of all things all else was HUGE.

yes when i grew upwards i used to kill a sheep (hoggett usually) each fortnight for the family and trap rabbits (I can still get up a hate for cold rabbit sandwiches)

I don't agree with food mile nazis - unless you are well heeled gourmets it doesn't make any sense.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Dany -- my mum the Gardener of the Century had a big elaborate worm farm and took amazing care of it, but I don't even have the time to maintain a decent compost heap. Which are tragic.

FXH, are you all right? You sound a bit, erm, disjointed. Although even just the distant memory of a cold rabbit sandwich would have that effect, I should think.

There's a butcher in Clare (that's Clare of the Clare Valley) who sells 'saltbush-fed hoggett' as a seasonal delicacy -- I'm sure the saltbush-fed part is interesting but the idea of hoggett as rare and fine cracks me up. (God knows what one would pay these days for good old-fashioned mutton, either.) Makes sense really, because of the flavour, but still ...!

The Devil Drink said...

"Gluttony isn't one of the Seven Deadly Sins for nothing"
It's commonly misunderstood to be exclusively about overeating. Nothing could be further from the truth! Gluttony refers to taking pleasure in consumption of *anything* without also giving thanks to the God who's supposed to have brought it to you.
Yeah right. As you say quite rightly, DIY gets around the pesky producer-gratitude problem. Take that, God!
"'s also that the process is beautiful and satisfying and will make you very happy."
I recommend homebrew beer to anyone. Cheap, easy, even legal these days. There's no greater way to catch drunk than fermenting your own booze.
One of these days State governments will relax restrictions on home distilling, which ought to allow civilised Scandinavian-style home production of spirits.
(The secret, if you want to get in in advance of the law, is getting hold of activated charcoal to filter out the methanol, or being really really careful about temperature).
Homebrewed wine, unless you're Italian, is best avoided.

kate said...

I'd rather eat food grown in my state (for environmental reasons rather than a raa raa sense of statehood) but even at the market it's difficult to see where stuff is grown.

I try to get organic food when I can, partly because I prefer not to have lots of chemicals sprayed over the soils, partly because I prefer my food grown outside in season. Organic farmers also tend to grow a greater range of varieties, so you don't have to have the same type of potatoes every day. They also tend to be more sympathetic to the desire to buy half a cauliflower, or a tiny handful of beans.

I also try to buy fresh food that hasn't been packaged by the supermarkets, because my fruit and veg already come packaged in skin.