I love the smell of carcinogens in the morning: the smoke rising as the grey of the charcoal begins to glint with red; the pink, viscous flesh, brief host to flies while it awaits its incineration; those plastic ranks of sauce bottles all gummy at the nozzle.
It wasn’t quite like this in Gouger Street, Adelaide, that Saturday in March. What we had here was more serious than your usual barbie: here the local tradition of blackening slabs of dead animal in the open air was to be fused with more foreign, more European, traditions of alfresco conviviality. The street was closed to motor traffic and some of Adelaide’s best restaurants had set up street stalls with charcoal grills, woks, cast-iron pots. The customers lined up with their paper plates and plastic cutlery and returned to eat whatever they’d bought at long tables: common tables, that was the point, sites (it was hoped) of informal and spontaneous conviviality; none of your anomic Protestant individualism here. People seemed to be having fun. A few days later I heard someone refer, without apparent irony, to ‘the spirit of Gouger Street’; but that was only after we’d left town for the Adelaide foothills and the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy.
This was the fifth symposium and the first to put on a public face: all that eating in Gouger Street, followed the next day by more eating and a good bit of talking in the Adelaide Festival Writers’ Week tent. All these symposia have followed a similar pattern: something between forty and a hundred cooks, restaurateurs, academics, food writers and other generally interested parties have gathered to talk, to hear papers and to eat. And, of course, the eating has always entailed rather more than the prawn cocktails and pallid chicken normally associated with academic conferences. In fact Gay Bilson — who has attended all five of these gatherings — has gone so far as to suggest that the entire symposium should be seen as a sort of journey towards the final night’s banquet. Gay, Michael Symons and Graham Pont were convenors of the first symposium, where, according to the published proceedings, the meals were all intended to make a statement. Rather an ominous idea, that, but a good deal more friendly in execution than it sounds in theory. People still talk in rapt tones of the banquet at that first symposium back in 1984, where Phillip Searle put on a bizarre and exquisite feast served by white-faced clowns. According to Michael Symons, himself a restaurateur as well as the author of an excellent book on Australian food, there was indeed a political statement being made here:
During the symposium, discussion had drifted to whether good food was reserved for elites. This puritan criticism does not bother Searle, but he had to persuade others that this was no ‘bourgeois wank’.
Hence the clowns: jokers, tellers of unpalatable truths, waiters at a grand banquet in an upstart country. The idea neatly symbolizes a number of the preoccupations of these meetings.
First, there is the concern over the status of food in Australia (the proceedings of that first symposium were entitled The Upstart Cuisine and one of the sessions focused on the question ‘What can we do about the Australian cuisine?’); then there is the rather anxious desire not to seem up oneself; and there is also a delicious mixture of academic gravitas with an elegant, self-conscious frivolity. All of which is fair enough given that these symposia are not devoted to such easy matters as nutrition, food production and how to beat an egg white until peaks form, but to the impure subject of gastronomy.
‘Gastronomy’, according to the person generally credited with the invention of the subject, ‘is the reasoned comprehension of everything connected with the nourishment of man.’ It governs all of human life and encompasses natural history, chemistry, physics, cookery, commerce and political economy. The definition comes from Le Physiologie du Goût, a collection of ‘gastronomical meditations’ published in 1825, just a year before the death of their author, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. In fact, the events in Gouger Street this year were intended as a re-enactment of the vision described by Brillat-Savarin in his final meditation. Here, Gasterea, tenth and most amiable of the muses, descends to earth for her festival, held annually in the place she loves best, which is (wouldn’t you know it?) ‘that city, the queen of all the world, which imprisons the Seine between the steps of its palaces’. On that solemn day, Brillat-Savarin tells us, the city is wreathed in incense, its people crowned with flowers. In every street and in every square the tables stretch further than the eye can see; all ranks and ages sit down together and happiness is universal.
Well, we had the tables (though not nearly as many as Brillat-Savarin calls for), we had the egalitarianism (though the punters looked a pretty middle-class lot on the whole) and we had a bit of the happiness, which is as much as anyone can ever hope for. No incense, though, no flowers and, thank God, none of the rest of Brillat-Savarin’s vision. What he had in mind was a real festival, which meant having a real religion, with a temple, ‘a unique monument of simple and majestic architecture’, statues of the goddess, venerable priests, the lot. But if we had gone the whole hog in Gouger Street, Graham Pont could well have been one of the priests. He is religious enough in his approach to describe himself as a ‘disciple of Brillat-Savarin through and through’. Pont has devoted a great deal of attention to the Gastronomy Symposium, which, with the pride of a founding father, he describes as ‘a leading institution in the world’. There are others, notably the Symposium on Food and Cookery held annually in Oxford, but Pont believes that we have the edge over them because we have what they lack: a defining philosophy summarized in that word ‘gastronomy’ and enshrined in Brillat-Savarin’s little book.
The previous symposium was held eighteen months earlier at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and the symposiasts were dispersed about the town in hotels, motels and private houses. This year, however, we were all together. This year we went into retreat.
Rostrevor is a religious seminary in the Adelaide foothills. It’s built pleasantly enough in a sort of Antipodean Romanesque style, and I was relieved to discover that my room fell well short of the standards of austerity demanded by the Rule of St Benedict. Uncertain as to what sort of entertainment would be on offer, I had brought with me a couple of bedside books. One, naturally, was Brillat-Savarin (in the Penguin translation, inexplicably entitled The Philosopher in the Kitchen): you couldn’t be without it at Rostrevor during the symposium any more than you could have been without a copy of the Little Red Book in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. Difficult, though, to justify my other choice: a woeful little number published last year called Linda McCartney’s Home Cooking. Linda McCartney is a vegetarian. So, it seems, are Paul and all of the little McCartneys:
We looked at each other and said ‘Wait a minute, we love these sheep — they’re such gentle creatures, so why are we eating them?’ It was the last time we ever did.
Sheep are out, then. So are fish, even though some of them are far from gentle in their private lives. And it’s just as well: animal fat is no good for you and fish swim in polluted waters so they’re no good for you either. There’s no reason, though, to regret old-style eating, because this is ‘the new age of food’, the age of textured vegetable protein. Thanks to textured vegetable protein, sheep may safely graze while their human friends tuck into vegie sausages, schnitzels, burgers and pasties. Textured vegetable protein is low in fat, too, ‘has no cholesterol, no nasty gristle’, and can be stored indefinitely on the shelf or in the freezer. (This must be a big plus in Linda’s eyes: ‘The real advantage of microwave cooking is when you use it in conjunction with your freezer’, she tells us, just failing to get her grammar into conjunction with her enthusiasm.)
I kept quiet about Linda’s book during the Symposium, though I had a vague feeling that it might be a symptom of something significant about food and cooking in the late eighties and early nineties. One shouldn’t be too hard on Linda: bad cookbooks with famous names attached to them are nothing new. (Don Dunstan, an old friend of the symposia, is unusual in being a famous person who’s put his name to a very good cookbook, and probably even more unusual in that he wrote it all by himself.) On the other hand, some books are bad in a very instructive way, and this is where Linda might just come in. Her problem is not that she’s a vegetarian — all sorts of people are vegetarians, and a paucity of animal protein has been nothing but beneficial to Japanese cuisine — but that she seriously thinks vegetarianism can be defended with such jejune arguments and practised in so vulgar a way. For all her protestations that cooking should be fun and the kitchen the centre of the house, it is clear that she just hasn’t put her mind to it, that she just doesn’t care.
But what is really alarming is the fact that her book should have been put out by Bloomsbury, a good, intellectually fashionable publisher. Can this be a sign that the educated middle classes are beginning not to care either? It’s trendy to care about whether or not the food we eat is good for us, but perhaps aesthetic quality — a major concern in the status-conscious eighties — is going the way of the yuppy and the futon. There’s a limit to the number of ideas you can hold in your mind at a single time and it may well be that, in minds like Linda’s, Elizabeth David has been supplanted by David Bellamy.
Which may mean that in a few years time those of us who are still fronting up to these gastronomic symposia will look even more eccentric than we do now; because these little gatherings are for people who think about food more intently than ever Linda has.
It’s fun, the kind of wild theorizing that goes on at the symposia, but it does sometimes worry me. Could it be said that a lot of these intellectual foodies are just theorizing around food, rather than addressing themselves directly to the subject? And might not this mean that the subject itself does not repay close intellectual attention? It could be: neurophysiologists have had a lot to tell us about hearing and sight, but very little to say about taste, and this may well be because taste is a less complex, less structured sense about which there is simply less to say. But this is probably a pessimistic view of things: we can still address the subject directly without dropping our intellectual standards. Susan Parham showed this on the first day of the Symposium with an exciting paper on food and town planning. Her paper was full of direct, practical significance for restaurant design and town planning. It was a model of what these meetings ought to be about.
So, in a different way, was the little talk given by Tom Jaine, former restaurateur, editor of the British Good Food Guide, founder member of the Oxford Symposia and officially a convenor of this one (though basically he was there as the Honoured Guest from Overseas). Jaine’s view is that banquets need to be distinguished from meals. Banquets, well-planned and formal events, are what the French do; they’re what the classic French restaurant offers you in miniature. Meals, on the other hand, are an English sort of thing, often concentrating on a single much-loved ingredient (oysters, say, or goose) and often quite boring as a result. Banquets, with their rich sauces, their disguised flavours and their surprises, offer the chef an opportunity to display his talents; meals don’t.
Listening to so much wit and intelligence being brought to bear on the subject of food made me realize what was really wrong with Linda McCartney. It seems an odd thing to say about someone as simple-minded on the subject as she is, but her trouble is that she’s not innocent enough. The symposiasts at Rostrevor were all innocent in that, while their interest in food may have been informed by political or moral considerations, it was never subordinated to them. Linda’s book doesn’t offer you food that’s to be enjoyed for its own sake; it offers you food as a way of showing how ecologically right-on you are. But no human activity can really be understood except in its own terms and for its own sake. This is the message of gastronomy: it urges us to talk of food in terms uniquely appropriate to the subject; terms that both transcend and embrace mere biology, mere economics, mere aesthetics even. Which means that the gastronomy symposium, regardless of the moral and cultural fashions of the age, is nothing less than a bold assertion of the integrity of our understanding.