Food Writers as Activists talk by Donna Lee Brien

Happily I managed to make it to this work-in-progress talk by Visiting Fellow Associate Professor Donna Lee Brien at ANU yesterday, sleeping toddler in tow. She gave a survey of her work, looking at some of the big names in Australian food writing since the 1960s and examining how they have been agitating for culinary – and social – change.

I used to work at the CCR, now part of the Research School of Humanities where Professor Brien is visiting (and I’ll be back on Mondays next week, as part of a project investigating the war rugs of Afghanistan). One of the great strengths of the CCR is the variety of the work the scholars there are doing. They come from many different fields and share a commitment to interdisciplinary and collaborative work. They’re also committed to innovative forms of research presentation. I don’t think anyone’s done an interpretive dance yet as part of their PhD, but I am happy to be corrected on that. So the audience of about thirty or so was lively and interested. And very heavily female dominated, as it happens.

The whole area of “Food Studies” is pretty new to academia, as the somewhat graceless introduction Professor Brien was given made clear. But she’s such an engaging speaker, and it’s such an interesting field that the she’d converted the graceless one within an hour. Also she had brought really quite superior chocolate crackles.

Her work is to an extent mapping out the territory – there’s been little academic attention to the field in an Australian context, and it seemed from this gathering that every nearly conversation can spark a new possible line of enquiry.

Two points she raised in her talk particularly resonated with me. The first was in relation to criticisms that cookery and food writers reinforce the domestic enslavement of women. As a mother who’s been at home for an eighteen month stretch twice in the last six years, and often sometimes struggled with it, I responded to the idea, traced to Margaret Fulton, that cookery could provide an island of creativity in a day otherwise structured to the demands of others. (There’s an excellent post on the view that there’s something necessarily oppressive about a woman cooking for her family from chef Barbara Fisher of Tigers & Strawberries.) The whole idea of female amateurism/male professionalism was raised, including mention of the ABC’s “The Cook and The Chef”. It shits me a bit, because Maggie Beer has been a restaurateur and in charge of a professional kitchen for a bloody long time. Anyway, I’ve had my spray about that elsewhere.

The second point I connected with was Professor Brien’s consideration of how we incorporate what we read in food media into what we do – how we cook and eat – which becomes part of what we are, in both the literal and metaphorical senses. Part of the context is the massive commercial success of publications about food and cooking – a spend in Australia of around $60 million per year.

It was an interesting counterpoint to some of the questions from the audience which seemed based on the conviction that People didn’t cook and what’s more People Who Consumed Food Media didn’t really make the food in the magazines or books. Apparently that is the only thing that cookery writing is for, beyond what you might call the performative function of displaying taste. (I did mention it was an academic audience 😉 One woman went so far as to say her many travels in the US had led her to the conclusion that “Nobody there cooks.”

That’s just wrong, and I was surprised how very cranky these statements from the audience made me. I have as little respect for Donna Hay as anyone, and OK, it may be bourgie to have a bunch of fancy cookbooks on prominent display in your house*, but how does someone else determine whether you’re entitled to display them or not? Is there a magic ratio? Need the pages be sufficiently splattered? How precisely need the recipe be followed? Piss off!

Like many – another outspoken female comes to mind here – I will read a number of things around an ingredient or recipe and fashion a version to suit my tastes and what’s in the fridge. Tonight I made a roasted vegetable frittata, using the roasted cauliflower I’ve been nuts for since this post at Gastronomy Domine and this one for faux mashed potatoes at Diet, Dessert and Dogs. Although I just think of it as a warm dip and have the goddam potatoes if I feel like them.

I read food memoirs and criticism in bed – in fact I’m working my way through what you might consider the English language “canon” of food memoir and the parallel one of behind-the-scenes restaurant life. (Suggestions for good reads gratefully received, btw.) I’m also now in the habit of taking a neglected cookbook from the shelf every time we go on holiday; last time we had a week at the beach it was with Rosemary Brissenden’s South East Asian Food to read. I didn’t cook from it while we were away, just read it. On the little road trip we made before that one, I’d taken Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery (Land of Plenty in the US edition), which I read cover to cover three times before I cooked a thing from it.

Professor Brien is eager to talk to people who write about food, and I’ve said I’ll pass on the details of interested food bloggers (rather than put her email address up). Leave a note in comments or email to if you’re keen.

* guilty! But the living areas are one room really, so where would it be truly tasteful to put them?


33 thoughts on “Food Writers as Activists talk by Donna Lee Brien

  1. Another bedtime cookbook reader! My mother reads her cookbooks in bed, and also reads her copies of ‘Delicious’ like it were Penthouse, complete with little moans.

    Best Beloved often comes to bed with Stephanie (2nd edition of course; the first one, cracked and aged, was set aside for the younger, tizzier model a couple of years ago) and she takes up a lot of room, something I can work myself into a snit about when I have the energy. Mostly I let him enjoy her — gives me a bit of mental space before sleeping 😉

  2. Fabulous post–I’d most definitely be interested in communicating with Prof. O’Brien. My cookbooks may not be fancy, but I do display them on shelves–much easier to get at that way! And glad you like the dip–I mean, faux potatoes. 🙂

  3. Since eating cauliflower a couple of weeks ago that had been marinated in teriakyi sauce as part of a noodle dish, and finding it surprisingly delicious I am cautiously optomistic of roasted cauliflower and also faux potatoes. I can get boy child to eat mash, if I could get him to eat cauliflower I would feel like such a champion!
    It never occurred to me to read recipe books, I must try it.

  4. I thought that the point of the Cook and the Chef was a sort of ironic inversion: the viewer had to work our which one was which. Maybe they should rename the show the Goatherd-Businesswoman-Writer and the Chef to make things clear.

    I hate the argument that “nobody cooks”. Practically everybody cooks at some point, apart from the super-rich. It is just that nobody cooks what you want them to cook.

  5. You can forget how very good that The Cook’s Companion is, &Duck – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent AGES cruising around forums and blogs to get some ideas for a particular meal or ingredient, only to find it all neatly set out in the book.

    Ricki, I’ve been making the fauxtatos about once a week – absolutely adore them. You should try ’em, Mindy. And I’ve been loving the library since I worked out they had cookbooks, and that you could search the catalogue online, be sent a text when the book had arrived and an email when it was due back. (*cough* and I photograph the recipes I like with a digital camera *cough*)

    Phil – the woman who announced that nobody cooks had just said she’d been in Austin, “home of the wholefoods movement”. Presumably one can move there for raw food vegans wearing big hats.

  6. I don’t like the argument “nobody cooks” either, because most people do cook something basic most nights, however I have shared a house with someone who really never cooked anything other than rice (in the rice cooker) and toast. Her parents don’t cook either, I’m sure they used to (hell they ran a cafe once upon a time!) but they only eat pre-prepared food now. My best mate used to go out with a bloke who’s family only ever ate takeaways too. He found watching me cook totally bamboozling and refused to eat any of it.

    I think it is fair to say that the amount of money people spend on kitchens, kitchen equipment and cookbooks does not correlate directly with the amount of time and attention they devote to the preparation of food. We go to house inspections when we’re bored on the weekends and there are some pretty fancy kitchens around the place that don’t look used or lived in (yes I know people clean up for inspections, but you can still tell the difference). I’ve also known lots of great cooks who got by without any fancy gear. Or even much basic gear for that matter.

    My cookbooks are in teh weird cupboard above the fridge, it gets too hot to keep food and wine in. I also store the takeaway menus there, which is sometimes a bad idea. Cookbooks are definitely good pre-sleep reading. Not too stressful, productive and sometimes meditative. Arabesque was beside (well, under) my bed for months.

  7. kate, I reckon it’s weirder to turn down homecooked food than to not cook it yourself. Nuts.

    And those people who only ever eat packaged food – do they ever poo?

  8. Food Studies is a new-to-here discipline is it? When you think about it, it seems like it shouldn’t be. It must have a sort of scattered prehistory across different fields.

  9. great post Zoe, sounds like a fun talk, generally i reckon that if someone doesn’t get me a little het up durring question time then there are too many sheep around.
    i don’t take cookbooks to bed, but i regularly find myself lost in them when i’m looking for something specific, the other day i was trying to figure out something new with cabbage, which led me to mince, then cummin, pine nuts and finally basil and i ended up stalking around the garden trying to work out where to put the basil this year. (the cabbage ended up stirfried with other veg and tom yum on noodles)
    Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals has a few nice bits of cook book reading in it, one could get all musey and suggest that Durrell’s mum’s reading transports the British Empire into the Kitchens of Corfu.
    All the cookbooks that we have are prominantly displayed in the kitchen,yes we have food prrrrn but the much battered and splattered Commonsence Cookery Book still gets trotted out, Yea for the CWA.

  10. I know I have at times found cooking a creative refuge. I don’t mean I whip up fancy stuff – I just have been nourished at times by doing simple enough stuff well and feeding other people relatively healthily. I don’t really care if I don’t eat my stuff.

    I don’t take cookbooks to bed but I do read them a lot. I generally count myself lucky if I get one or two recipes out of a book. But often out of crappy books I get a few ideas. I’m generally looking for ideas and what goes with what as opposed to recipes.

    I do however think a lot of people just don’t cook. I even know some of them. They even have spffy kitchens with fancy stove tops while I have a second hand stove with a leaky oven and wobbly top and nfi temp settings. Still its electric oven and gas top and anyway no matter how fancy the stove you still have to know your own oven and top and saucepans and such and get used to using your stuff. If you don’t cook much you can never form a relationship with your equipment and know its quirks.

  11. Laura, at least in so far as it’s not anthropology or cult studs, I guess. I never like to look too far into questions of this nature ; )

    dylwah, so where’s the basil going?

    FX – as a matter of fact, you did.

  12. Retro, but good:

    If you find a copy of Peg Bracken’s I Hate To Cook Book, snap it up just for the reading pleasure. But you never know (I haven’t seen a copy for a few decades) there just might be something in there which could have a revival.

    Hub and I often read the NZ Edmonds cookbook just for the laffs, especially the hors d’oevres section – crackup!

  13. I also read cookbooks in bed and like you, tend not to religiously follow the recipes.
    With cooks and chefs – many of my favourites are cooks – Cheong Liew, Philip Searle, Christine Manfield, Stephanie Alexander, Janni Kyritisis. Tetsuya never went to cooking school as such either. Simon works in the Brasserie at the Hilton, while the cook, Cheong, graces the fine dining room.
    My reading of Barbara Fisher’s article was that it was not oppressive for woman to choose to cook. The second comment on the Slashfood post claimed it to be oppressive? and that got BF thinking.
    I have a friend who writes for a food mag and they go to a bit of trouble to make dishes accessible for the average home cook/chef.
    But there are unfortunately people who don’t cook. I have met somebody who did not know that you need to put water in the pan to steam broccoli – seriously, she was at a cooking class I attended!!!!

  14. still not sure where the basil is going, tho at the mo i think that i’ll put in two ranks of bottlomless poly boxes on the nth side of the carport and the rank nearest the carport will have cucumbers to climb up the lattice and the front rank will have alternating herbs and lettuce

    FXH “If you don’t cook much you can never form a relationship with your equipment and know its quirks.”
    totally, its has taken two and a half years for my relationship with our stove to even approach cordiality (sic)

  15. Great Post, I think you’re right about how food journalism seeps down into everyday practice, but this is probably as much to do with the channels of marketing as anything else. Take this fron the Age Epicure section a few years ago:

    ‘If you’re a fan of Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks, you may have noticed she makes an inordinate number of references to “double zero flour”… And yes, you can buy it here. Available from Simon Johnson and The Vital Ingredient’.

    Where I live in the north of Melbourne it has been fairly easily available for many years. If middle-class Anglo-Celtic Melbourne starts cooking with ‘00’ flour, it’s because an Italian ingredient is praised by a British celebrity chef whose TV show is franchised in Australia with the result that it is imported by gourmet food retailers and announced as ‘available’ in the lifestyle supplement of the city’s main broadsheet.

    As for bedtime reading, try MFK Fisher, Gay Bilson’s “Plenty” or any of The New Yorker’s annual Food Issues.

  16. Anthony, I’m reading “Long ago in France” as my bedtime book now, nearly finished and enjoying it very much. As of next week, I get staff privileges at the Uni library so will track down the rest. *quiet sigh of joy*

    thermomixer – If I’m making a dish or using a technique for the first time I usually follow the recipe pretty closely. I always have excellent intentions of following it precisely and then change my mind.

  17. Sorry FX but it is almost like Zoe says. It should be so much easier for people to see the machine in action, but it is like Tupperware – you need to go to a demo at present. Sometimes they have them in Surrey Hills – check the News & Classes pages of Themomix Australia.
    The reason I started blogging was due to the lack of “support” from TMX Aust. Some people have a machine that they bought & now only use as a blender!
    Email me via my blog & I might be able to help – I don’t work for them & no obligations (either way)

  18. Her parents don’t cook either, I’m sure they used to (hell they ran a cafe once upon a time!) but they only eat pre-prepared food now.

    Reminds me of the chef at my favourite local Indian restaurant. I was trying to pick a menu for a birthday bash and said ‘come on, tell me what’s nice’ and he said ‘I don’t know, I don’t eat it.’ At least he liked Japanese and not McDonalds …

    Bev Kingston was an early Australian pioneer of writing about the culture of food. She was also interested in shopping, so cook books were a course of constant pleasure to her. But she felt very on the outside when she began teaching and writing Food Studies at UNSW.

  19. Pingback: On food: the first course « Inner City Garden

  20. Food Studies is a new-to-here discipline is it? When you think about it, it seems like it shouldn’t be. It must have a sort of scattered prehistory across different fields.

    Yep. There’s a strange, scholarly book by a man called Michael Surname Escapes Me (it shouldn’t, he was a legendary Adelaide chef at the Aristologist back in the mists of time) called The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks, kind of a history of food culture and eating. Margaret Visser on food-related cultural history is also terrific. MFK Fisher’s The Art of Eating is a compendium of five of her books and is fabulous. And Anthony’s right, Gay Bilson’s Plenty is an absolutely wonderful book, unique intellectually as in every other possible way — she is an amazing person.

    For the last few years I’ve been working as a casual thesis-supervisor, thesis-examiner and writing-workshop-runner for Prof Barbara Santich (herself a foodie of note) who runs the MA in Gastronomy at U of Adelaide out of the History Dept in collaboration with Cordon Bleu International, so there have been some quite astonishingly detailed food studies, from wildly varying theoretical and/or discipline backgrounds, coming across my desk. US fast food in China, culinary practices and cultures of Filipina women living in Australia, histories of chocolate, Australian cheesemaking, gastronomic tourism in Harlem, and most recently a (rather good) thesis on food blogs.

  21. This is good bunch of thoughtful but surprisingly unpretentious foodies worth checking out.

    Theodore “Intimate History of Humanity” Zeldin used to chair it and a couple of Slow Food people I know in Melbourne who’ve attended some of their previous hoedowns say the food, drink and discussion was well above expectations.

    And I reckon ProgDins’ chatelaine and/or some contributors should definitely cock their coques at some of this action.

    You couldn’t do worse than my oft postponed dissertation on scullion excesses in fact and fiction, “Scrubbers Vile: Down and dirty in big kitchens from Steerpike to Orwell.”

    Also, while I’m rambling on pissed, would you like Zoe a post on Elizabeth David that doesn’t mention cooking once. Now there’s someone who’s life is just begging to made into a lush sexy quirky BBC mini-series, shot on location natch!

  22. Wow! That’s amazing. I come with an idea and it retroactively happens. I must learn how to harness this awesome power for good instead of evil.

    Thanks for the tipoff Dr S. Now I know what DVD to get my mother for Xmas.

  23. Thermo – thanks for the offer. But probably no.

    From what I can see the Thermothingo would be good if one made a lot of desserts or sauce type things. I can’t see how it would help me with a roast chicken or a stir fry or corned beef or baked vegies.

    I’m not a big machine user anyway. All machines – with the huge exception of the rice cooker – end up in the cupboard and eventually given away. Well except for the toaster and the Bamix wand thingo. I’ve even got back to basically one knife for chopping etc.

    And the $1,200+ price tag is a bit daunting – when all I really desire is a second hand orange crock pot.

    And yes to whoever mentioned her, Margaret Visser is wonderful.

  24. PC, it was Michael Symons. He did an earlier book, since re-issued, on the history of food in Australia, called One Continuous Picnic. Some of his assertions therein and subsequently have proven controversial, but I fell in love with the book when he explained the development of tinned pineapple rings by reference to advances in four-colour process printing (if I remember correctly. There’s an old Penguin copy on the shelf a mere metre and half away, wedged, as it happens between Santich’s ‘What the Doctor Ordered’ and Kim Humphrey’s history of Australian supermarkets, so I really should check)

    What emerged from the two Liz David biographies published in the late 1990s was that she didn’t seem that nice a person, which kind of flies in the face the idea promoted by just about every contemporary celebrity cookbook that cooking is all about conviviality, recaliming lost forms of community, nourishing and nurturing etc

  25. What emerged from the two Liz David biographies published in the late 1990s was that she didn’t seem that nice a person, which kind of flies in the face the idea promoted by just about every contemporary celebrity cookbook that cooking is all about conviviality, reclaiming lost forms of community, nourishing and nurturing etc

    And apparently exactly the same is true of the MFK Fisher biography — but I love her anyway. Fabulous food/travel/memoir writer, great beauty, force of nature, what’s not to like?

  26. “Fabulous food/travel/memoir writer, great beauty, force of nature, what’s not to like?”

    ‘zactly. Plus the lives of very nice and straightforward people rarely make for entertaining biographies. You need a good pungent dash of chili or garlic in there.

  27. Yes pls to Elizabeth David, Nabs. I find her a bit annoying sometimes, but haven’t really read enough to judge yet.

    Pav and Anthony – I love to see the guests chatting away happily together! And thanks for the reading list ; )

  28. What’s wrong with being a bit bourgie anyways?

    I have loads of cookbooks and the only people I know with more cookbooks than me are people who’s dinner invitations I happily accept.

    And as for the “people don’t cook from their cookbooks” thing – goodness me, what a load of bollocks. The people I know who don’t cook – I mean, people who live on takeaways and TV dinners and jars of pasta sauce and do things like chicken wings under the griller or sausages with a salad from coles – don’t own any cookbooks at all. They honestly don’t care about it at all.

    Now I’m off to re-read a spanish cookbook I borrowed from the library, which I will happily cook from provided I can find a) manchego cheese and b) bacalao and c) the time.

  29. “Yes pls to Elizabeth David, Nabs.”

    Well OK then (me and my big month). I also promised Aftergrogflog an essay on the Avro Vulcan which took flight at exactly the same time Elizabeth David started turbocharging English cooking.

    Fuck me! if I’m crafty enough, I could write the same piece for both sites. Britain’s pathetic nuclear strike force and disgusting cuisine getting simultaneously revolutionised by sexy, stylish and high-maintenance and expensive delivery systems. I can see the poster!

    OK, yes, I will now and go lie down for a while with a damp cocktail napkin on my forehead.

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