‘EATING IS NOT merely a biological activity, but a vibrantly cultural activity,' the food anthropologist Sidney Mintz reminds us. Our eating and shopping choices are now frequently imbued with complex moral choices. Should we, for example, be buying locally produced foods, with all the benefits for our own region and our health that this may provide? Or should we be choosing Fairtrade goods, with all the benefits for producers in the developing world, but with a much larger carbon footprint from transportation?
The associated questions – of whether Fairtrade is actually fair, and what exactly ‘local' means – can lead to similar impasses. The idea of local can vary from twenty to two hundred kilometres, and some people define it as a region or even a country. Such discussions slide into food politics: the ethics of food production and consumption and, in particular, the sustainability and viability of food systems. This politics is being shaped by figures outside government: chefs and farmers, environmental activists and concerned consumers, as well as all kinds of media producers, publishers and writers – especially food writers.
Food writing includes recipe and cookbook writing, food journalism and restaurant criticism for magazines and newspapers, books of food history and anthropology, and food-focused biographies, memoirs and essays. Travel writing often crosses over into discussing food, as does scholarly writing on nutrition and health, science and environmental issues.
Fiction, too, is in on the action: novels featuring recipes, menus and other cooking-related information are perennial favourites. There are restaurant-based romances, but by far the most significant – in sales numbers – is the subgenre of mystery known as the culinary cozy. Starring amateur detectives who are chefs or caterers, restaurant critics or gourmands, police officers or private detectives interested in food, these books not only contain richly written descriptions of cooking and eating but, when most successful, plots that revolve around food.
There are online manifestations of all these kinds of writing about food, with foodie blogs attracting ever more attention. Last year more than two million people visited Australian food and cooking websites. Online and in print, hybrids are also common, such as cookbooks built around collections of poems or local histories, and novels, memoirs and blogs on non-culinary topics that include a high proportion of recipes and other food-related material. These permutations create interesting dilemmas for bookshop staff. Lizzie Collingham's surprise 2006 bestseller Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (Vintage) can be found, for instance, in the cookbook, food essays and criticism, history, travel, biography, and home and gardening sections of bookshops.
Although the number of books sold in Australia has been relatively stable since 1995, with around 130 million sold in most years, books on food have been selling in ever larger numbers over the past decade. Nielsen BookScan, which logs most Australian retail sales, reports that in 2006, two million food and drink books, worth almost sixty million dollars, were sold. Food and drink titles make up a similarly considerable proportion of the Australian magazine industry's annual sales of more than one billion dollars. Of the six thousand magazine titles available, many are from overseas but, in terms of circulation, most of those in the top hundred are Australian. In 2007, there were four food magazines in the top-selling twenty, and eight in the top fifty; Australians bought six times more food magazines per head of population than the British. The flow-on effects to our culture are significant: revenue from the sales of popular cookbooks helps subsidise the production of texts with smaller readerships, such as literary fiction, poetry and history.
MARK KURLANSKY, THE author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (Penguin, 1997),Salt: A World History (Random House, 2002) and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (Random House, 2006), believes that writing about food is ‘about agriculture, about ecology, about man's relationship with nature, about the climate, about nation-building, cultural struggles, friends and enemies, alliances, wars, religion. It is about memory and tradition and, at times, even about sex.' Yet the global food industry works with the entertainment industry to entice consumers to embrace a ‘live to eat' attitude – where to eat is primarily an act of purchasing. In such a world, food writing can become what Warren Belasco has called the ‘handmaiden of consumer culture'. Paul Hertneky has characterised readers of ‘food porn' as ‘lavishly endowed foodies [who]...gorge on images and words, rapturous words, stern words, clever words, words in the mouths of stars, experts, chefs and doctors, words off the fingertips of those like me, who obsess about food, unleash our imaginations on food, craving and coveting it, loving it and fondling it, very much fearing it, and essentially having it replace sex in our middle age.'
Television chefs in particular make each cookbook an extended advertorial for themselves and their range of branded products. Yet some of these celebrity chefs are also generating debate about important issues. Love him or loathe him, Jamie Oliver has influenced both public behaviour and government policy. His exposure of the abysmal lunches provided by schools pressured the British Government into spending an extra £280 million on healthy food for students. His exposé of the conditions in which battery hens are raised resulted in sustained increased sales of free-range poultry and decreased sales of factory-farmed chickens across the UK, as well as complaints that the increase in free-range chicken sales would be greater if producers could keep up with demand. In direct response, some British councils have banned battery-hen eggs from kitchens in schools, nursing homes, town halls and canteens.
A NUMBER OF prominent Australian food writers and TV presenters have been similarly concerned with matters beyond cooking advice. The issues that have particularly concerned them include the work-life balance, gender equality, sustainable and ethical agriculture, biodiversity and genetic modification, food miles and fair trade, food safety and security, and obesity, diabetes and other health issues. In these areas, they are not only media commentators on contemporary concerns but, at times, forward-thinking activists and campaigners for change.
Margaret Fulton's cookbook and magazine writing has, since the 1950s, both affirmed the importance of creativity to cooking and encouraged the use of convenient, time-saving products. In this, she has recognised women's changing roles and their increasing desire and need to work outside the home. Her writing has gone a long way towards making women's domestic work visible, and she has encouraged other women to take up meaningful work (even if it meant less time in the kitchen), both by positing that other career paths were possible and by her involvement in mentoring schemes.
Fulton is a fine example of the food writer as activist. In 2003, the giant multinational Kellogg's sought to patent in Australia the recipe for the chocolate-flavoured no-bake confection known as chocolate crackles, and have the trademark registered. In 1953, a trademark had been granted to Kellogg's for ‘Chocolate Crackles', for what was described as a ‘breakfast cereal term'. In the intervening fifty years, though, the chocolate crackle became a standard item at children's parties, fairs and cake stalls across Australia. Indeed, it is often included in folklore studies and surveys of iconic Australian foods, alongside the meat pie, Vegemite, pavlova, lamingtons, Arnott's biscuits and Aeroplane Jelly.
Legal advice suggested that this new 2003 trademark would mean that anyone selling chocolate crackles, or reproducing the recipe, would have to do so under the Kellogg's brand. The company would be entitled to payment, or a percentage of the profits from any sale. Newspaper articles noted this would mean that any cake stall with a sign reading ‘chocolate crackles' next to a plate would be in breach of the new trademark; but the real resistance to Kellogg's claim was animated, and organised, by Australian food writers – led by Margaret Fulton, who wrote on the subject in newspapers and magazines, and participated in radio talkback programs. She drew attention away from the question of who invented the recipe, and focused on a statement by the government patent office, IP Australia, that any decision would need to consider the ‘normal understanding of the words in the community', and whether anyone else would need to use the recipe to carry on their business.
At the same time, Fulton became involved in the debate about genetically modified foods, and she brought to her many readers' attention that in the US, shareholders were reacting negatively against Kellogg's plans to use genetically engineered ingredients in their products. Fulton became the face of Greenpeace Australia's part of the international boycott of Kellogg's products and, in the same year, 2003, she launched the second edition of a guide to non-genetically-modified ingredients, the True Food Guide, for the organisation.
I would not want to make inflated claims for Fulton's involvement in the legal situation, but a scan of newspapers, and women's and food magazines, from this time shows a significant increase in the number of articles about, or including information about, GM foods. These discussions included health concerns regarding allergic and toxic reactions, and possible increased resistance to antibiotics and cancer risks. Environmental problems were covered, including genetic pollution, the creation of so-called superweeds, and the potential increase in herbicide use and pesticide residue, as well as concerns over long-term effects on soil fertility, biodiversity and food security. Also discussed were the socioeconomic ramifications of food monopolies controlled by a few multinational companies. The debate had moved a long way from deciding who owned the recipe for chocolate crackles.
OTHER WELL-KNOWN AUSTRALIAN food writers of the past few decades – in particular, Beverly Sutherland-Smith, Peter Russell-Clarke, Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer – have promoted local, seasonal and fresh foods, and campaigned for improvements to the welfare of farmed animals. They have questioned the safety and nutritional quality of contemporary foods, especially highly processed products and those grown with chemical pesticides and fertilisers. They give voice to concerns about the social justice of sustaining rural industries and rural communities, in so doing discussing more sustainable and ethical ways of farming. And they are promoting resistance to supermarket-led food culture. Their guidance on resisting the big chains' marketing is often published in mainstream magazines, meaning it sits beside the very advertising it critiques.
One the most overt examples of Australian food writers' activism is the Adelaide Declaration. On 26 October 2005, a group of ‘powerful' food professionals – including broadcasters, educators and producers – met at the inaugural Adelaide Food Summit to challenge state governments and other bodies to address the future of Australia's food and the health of its people. The declaration called for access to ‘good, safe and wholesome food' for all; government support for ‘sustainable small-scale agriculture on the fringes of large population centres', as well as ‘agricultural traditions – like organic farming – that strengthen biological diversity'; and schools to provide information on basic cooking, gastronomic and health issues. New food technologies, the signatories said, should be adopted with the utmost caution.
Johan Pottier, at the conclusion of his recent study of the social dynamics of food security, wrote: ‘studying food issues, whether within households or in the offices of policy-makers, must not be "just academic". The aim of such research must be to understand and to transform [behaviour].' Australian food writers, by making us think about what and why we eat, and how it affects our world, are contributing to such discussion and understanding and, hopefully, such transformations of habits.