Tuesday, March 31, 2015

'Australian gustatory memories' in Focus

The 'Alimentary' column in Focus began with contributions from Oscar Mendelsohn's circle of friends which tended to limit its scope. Mendelsohn hoped that his journal would 'help raise eating in Australia to its rightful place as a fine art', his contention being that satisfying the senses of taste and smell was as important as satisfying those of sight and hearing. To that end he encouraged submissions from readers on eating facilities in all and any Australian cities and 'notes on food and beverages generally', assuring would-be contributors that 'we are willing to print reviews on new lines of foods and drinks as cheerfully as those of plays and books'. (Focus August 1946)

Not all his readers were as enthusiastic about the notion of raising eating to a fine art. In September 1947 Mendelsohn published a letter from 'B.C' of Milson's Point, Sydney under the heading of 'Alimentary Fan Mail',
Alimentation - phooey! I belong to the C.B.C. (Corned Beef and Carrots) cult. (Can you beat the dish, mother's masterpiece on washing day?) Candidly, Focus is generating a tribe of food fanatics. There is a nitwit element in mankind which refuses to learn the rudiments of alimentation, and flits from dish to dish in the hope of finding an elixir.
What poor old B.C. would make of our current fascination with food we can only try to imagine. However, he needn't have been too concerned that things would change in Australia any time soon.

For the September 1946 edition 'Pot' contributed another piece for the 'Alimentary' column entitled 'Australian Gustatory Memories'. Here he lamented that, although the Italian and Chinese restaurants were all 'reliable and artistic', they actually meant little in the grand scheme of things.
They have catered only to a small stratum of the community - mainly the artists and other intellectuals who have sensibly elected to carry their good living to the stomach as well as the mind - together with a still smaller section of the arty, to whom such places are mildly interesting; also, they have retained all their native character and are in no sense Australian.
According to 'Pot' breakfast was the best meal to be had in Australia, even allowing for 'the dreadful and atrociously expensive manufactured and depreciated cereals' copied from the US, the grey coffee and the 'leathery' fried eggs. He extolled 'the simple combination of a grilled steak with an egg coyly perched on it' as 'one of the few Australian culinary inventions'.
When the steak is  really grilled and not deep-fried and the egg is poached or lightly fried on both sides, and if there are some piping hot, crisp chipped potatoes on the plate, a good start of the day is assured.
He also suggested that a really good breakfast would include a selection of properly chilled fruit juices.

For lunch, 'Pot' praised the culinary inventiveness of the 'double-cut roll' which he attributed to Adelaide. This was a variant on the American triple decker sandwich, but in Adelaide, where he believed Australia's best bakeries were to be found, the fillings were of better quality and more varied than elsewhere. Most sandwiches, he implies, made use of some variation on 'flabby Kraft cheese' and 'dry, dark-hued corned beef'.

Alas steak, eggs and chips and well prepared sandwiches do not make an Australian cuisine.

Aside from one or two memorable meals, all of them pre-war, Pot had little to say in praise of Australian cooking. In general there seemed to be a lack of respect for freshness and precious little inventiveness. When it came to crayfish for example the Americans grilled them, and produced chowders or fried them in butter but the best Australia could do was a curried version which he described as 'dreadful'. Similarly in most places in Australia roast beef was 'respectable enough' but 'rather dull' when all it needed was 'the intelligent use of herbs' to make it into something much more interesting. And this from a man whose favourite breakfast was a well prepared steak, a non-leathery egg and crisp chips!

 Two things should be noted about Pot's remarks. Firstly, he was talking about food served outside the home, so we shouldn't assume that 'B.C' and other members of the Corned Beef and Carrots cult were necessarily averse to, or unfamiliar with, the use of chives and lemon thyme and rosemary as Pot suggests. And the meals he praises are all remembered from a time before there were any war time restrictions , when oatmeal porridge could be eaten with unlimited amounts of thick cream.

None the less, these themes - lack of any cuisine that could really be called Australian; lack of respect for freshness despite a preponderance of good ingredients;  simple, unadorned food that could best be described as 'dull';  a readiness to adopt manufactured and 'depreciated' products; and a general disinterestedness in the notion of eating as a 'fine art' - all raise their heads again the best part of forty years later in Michael Symons' One Continuous Picnic. But it's hard not to have a bit of sympathy for B.C and his CBC brigade. There really isn't anything wrong with a good piece of corned beef, carrots, peas, mashed potato, some white sauce, or maybe even some cauliflower cheese. Today we would call this 'comfort food', to turn to when we are tired of flirting from one new dish to the next. The secret of these 'dull' meals is all in the quality of the ingredients and, most importantly, the care of the cook. Perhaps we should consider that B.C's mother really did have the skill to produce a masterpiece on washing day.

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