1 Alan Warde, Lydia Martins & Wendy Olsen, ‘Consumption & the Problem of Variety: Cultural Omnivorousness, Social Distinction & Dining Out’ Sociology, vol. 33, 1999, pp. 105-127.
2 The term conspicuous consumption was coined by Thorstein Veblen in 1899 in The Theory of the Leisure Class to refer to the use of money or other resources to display a higher social status than others. See The Theory of the Leisure Class, Modern Library, Modern Library, 2001, p.57.
3 Paul Rozin, ‘The Selection of Foods by Rats, Humans, and Other Animals’ in Advances in the Study of Behavior, Academic Press, New York, 1976, vol. 6, pp. 21-76.
4 Michael Pollan, The Ominvore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Penguin Press, New York, 2006.
5 Louise Edwards, Stefano Occhipinti, Simon Ryan, ‘Food and Immigration: The Indigestion Trope Contests the Sophistication Narrative,’ Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol.21, no.3, 2000, pp. 297-308.
6 Barbara Santich labels this sort of distrust and dislike of foreign food as culinary xenophobia, making the point that these types of attitudes paralyse the development of cuisines, as was the case of Australian cuisine up until the middle of the twentieth century. (See Looking for Flavour, Wakefield Press, South Australia, p. 232). This is strikingly borne out in the Barry Humphries anecdote with which this article began.
7 http://www.australianmade.com.au/why-australian-made/?track=ThinkOTP. Accessed 24/1/2012. The advertisement ran in the The Age’s Good Weekend magazine supplement on 11/11/2011.
8 Marianne Lien (2004). ‘The Politics of Food: An Introduction’ in The Politics of Food, Marianne Elisabeth Lien and Brigitte Nerlich (eds), Berg Publishers, Oxford, pp.1-17.
9 Roland Barthes, ‘Toward a Psychosociology of Food Consumption,’ in Robert Forster & Orest Ranum (eds), Food & Drink in History, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, pp. 166-73.
10 Thomas Wilson, ‘Food, Phagophobia & English National Identity’ in Food, Drink & Identity in Europe , ed. Thomas Wilson, Rodopi, New York, 2006, pp. 3-48.
‘The Spaghetti à la Bolognese was a total novelty for me, as were the strange twig-like fragments in the sauce that suggested that someone had shaken a dead bush over the plate. It was my first experience of herbs.’
Barry Humphries, More Please, Viking 1992, p.102.
Much has changed in the Australian foodscape since the bland days of Barry Humphries’ childhood upbringing in middle-class Melbourne, when a visit to an Italian restaurant was a revelation. Twenty-first-century middle Australia has embraced a variety of ethnic cuisines and imported foodstuffs as some of the undeniable benefits of cultural diversity and globalisation. Each wave of migration has contributed to the expanding horizons of the nation’s taste buds, creating an appetite for cuisines not just from Europe, but also from Asia, Africa and the Americas. Curiosity in recent years has extended even to Australian native foods! As the recent epicurean turn in popular culture illustrates, food—and in particular ‘ethnic’ food—has become central to the lifestyles around which Australian consumers construct their identities. Food is a language we use to convey to others and to ourselves who we are. Indeed, it has been suggested that the knowledge and consumption of ‘ethnic’ cuisines has itself become a form of cultural capital.1 Since the Global Financial Crisis, the soaring Australian currency has made the (conspicuous) consumption of imported foods and beverages more affordable than ever. 2 And it is not just ‘exotic’ or specifically ‘ethnic’ ingredients that are sourced from overseas; more and more foodstuffs are now imported, rather than sourced within Australia, something the food industry has long bemoaned. Australian consumers are faced with the dilemma that confronts all omnivores when facing a breadth of culinary options: while variety brings with it the potential for enjoyment, the choice of something new involves a risk. Food can be pleasant or poisonous.
The omnivore’s dilemma, first proposed by Paul Rozin,3 describes what is at stake when we are presented with novelty in our diet. In biological terms, omnivores have the significant advantage of flexibility in their diets, but there is the real risk of poisoning or of an imbalanced diet. Michael Pollan has popularised the omnivore’s dilemma as a way of understanding the nutritional problems in the industrial world.4 But the omnivore’s dilemma has a cultural dimension as well. The residual biological anxiety that confronts us as omnivores before a novel cuisine is fortified by existing prejudices about cultural difference. Our food choices involve ingesting otherness quite literally. Indeed, the difficulty in accepting a new ethnic community or migrant group has been theorised as a kind of cultural ‘indigestion,’ expressed in concerns about contaminants in ‘ethnic’ food.5 And if a certain cosmopolitan sophistication can be conveyed by the enjoyment of a variety of non-native cuisines, then, equally, xenophobic intolerance can find expression in fearful attitudes to ‘foreign’ foods.6
Public discourse about imported food draws on a range of concerns about cultural contact in a globalised and multicultural context. In late 2011, the industry and government-funded ‘Australian Made, Australian Grown’ campaign placed advertisements in major publications warning consumers about the dangers represented by imported food products. Suspect items included Queso de Valdeon cheese from Spain, said to contain high E. coli levels, and basmati rice from India that contained a ‘large number of live and dead insects.’ These and other food imports were presented in the ad as a threat to both Australian bodies and the Australian body politic. The ad informed consumers that 95% of imported food was not even tested by the quarantine service. Moreover, billions of dollars were spent on imported produce each year that could be going to ‘our farmers and their local communities.’ In the midst of the global economic downturn and in the lead-up to the food frenzy that is Christmas, Australian consumers were exhorted—in jingoistic terms—to reject foreign food in favour of ‘genuine Aussie grown produce.’7 This campaign shows that, when it comes to food and intercultural contact, the perceived threats to cultural, bodily and economic integrity are various, especially in times of fiscal crisis. Concerns around food reflect broader worries about globalisation, the economy and cultural alterity. If we ingest these potentially dangerous foreign foods, and absorb them into our bodies—and the body politic—the consequences are unknown and potentially devastating. The ‘Australian Made, Australian Grown’ campaign, like other popular discourses in the Australian media, taps into the plethora of anxieties that surround the nation in a globalised economy and a multicultural society. Many of the foods featured in the ad connote particular cultures—basmati rice from India, soy sauce from the Philippines, peanut oil from China—these are not just imported foods, they are ‘foreign’ and, predominantly, Asian foods. Read together with the ‘fair dinkum’ language of the ad, these images of ‘dangerous’ foods arouse concerns not just for physical self-preservation, but also for the preservation of Australian identity itself.
As a material substance, food has immediate biological implications. Unlike other physical expressions of cultural specificity such as clothing or bodily rituals, food is literally transformed and becomes part of the substance of the body. Thus, the saying ‘you are what you eat,’ has several layers of meaning from the symbolic to the material.8 As Roland Barthes suggested, food—far from being merely a carrier of nutrients, calories and minerals—is also a semiotic system; its attendant rules and narratives, and the choices available, make of food and eating a means of communication.9 Food is inextricably linked to both individual and collective identity. Anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss and Mary Douglas established the notion of cuisine as a language of sorts. Food and food practices, as these early theorists have shown, are an important form of discrimination between social groups. Thus, food is often co-opted as a ‘meaningful signifier of national identity’.10 The globalisation of foodways can therefore represent a significant challenge to national identity. The pressures and paradoxes of globalisation, with the migration of peoples and products across borders, are felt especially keenly in an island nation such as Australia, that has, until relatively recently, upheld a mythology—and policy—of Anglo-Celtic monoculturalism and an attendant obsession with border control. The fear mongering about potential contamination via ‘foreign’ foods is an invitation to feel, in the most visceral way, that our national body is at risk, that openness to the culinary other might be too hard to swallow.
© Heather Merle Benbow & Lara Anderson