Memoir

Finding the fundamentals of culture

On forging meaning through food

THE SURGEON PEERS at my scan, then looks up at me.

‘I can fix that,’ he says, pointing two fingers at my throat. ‘We cut a seven-centimetre hole in the front of your neck, then push your windpipe out of the way,’ he says as he gestures left with his fingers. ‘We push your oesophagus the other way,’ and again the two fingers pointed at my Adam’s apple waggle. ‘Then we go in deep.’

By this stage I’m feeling queasy. But he’s not done yet.

‘We take the spongy disc out, then chisel grooves into the vertebrae.’ I blanche. He pauses and tosses a portion of plastic spine from his desk drawer, two replica bones that have an artificial disc embedded in between.

‘And then we put in this. It’s amazing technology. Your spine actually grows into it,’ he enthuses as I start to reel and squirm.

‘It sounds, um, risky,’ I manage to croak.

‘Really?’ he says, more slowly, eyebrows raised and genuinely surprised. ‘Oh, well, yes, there’s a chance you may have trouble swallowing again. And people have been known to lose their voice.’ He thinks for a moment. ‘And I guess you may suffer from the loss of conscious control of your bowels…then there’s the usual risk from infection and anaesthetic…’

I didn’t listen to the rest. Though there was something about a tiny chance of death. I vagued out until he came back to the now and reassured me with words to the effect of ‘but none of that has happened when I’ve operated’.

Farming is hard work. You put your body on the line most every day to grow food. I know, because I’ve done it for the past fourteen years, using manual labour, not fossil fuels, to create food from our small patch of Earth. I’ve wept, screamed, laboured and bled, and have produced thousands of kilos of food for us and our visitors to eat, and now have this lifting accident to show for it. It’s the price I pay for doing the job I love. A job I think has merits beyond the stuff I grow, though this price is higher, far higher, than I’d like.

A month after seeing the surgeon I’m taken down by the tusk of a pig to the ankle, which leads to several stitches, three hospital visits, two sets of IV antibiotics and an infection that proves mightily hard to combat. The gouge takes two months to heal and it’s only good to go in the week I get the new disc in my neck (and some feeling back in my left hand). To great relief, I retain my ability to swallow without pain. And control of my bowels.

 

I’VE ALWAYS HAD an admiration for jobs that produce something. Jobs that make stuff for us to live in, or wear. Jobs that feed people, heal wounds or craft paper. Jobs with meaning. Some of these jobs have risk attached, of that I’m too acutely aware. But I never really think of them as culture per se.

Valuing a job that creates something tangible is probably why, on leaving school, I opted to become a chef; I liked the idea of making food, and hopefully making people happy. It’s probably why I farm, because doing something physical, to produce something you can actually touch, is wired into me. For a while, though, in between those roles, I produced nothing except words. Words about food. Sometimes, in my work as a recipe writer for magazines, those words were to help people cook better. And for a decade or so, those words were also focused on dining out, as I reviewed cafés and restaurants across the nation, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne.

And reviewing restaurants, I reckoned, wasn’t a real job. It wasn’t a job that made anything of substance. Dining out for a living – eating food and then banging on about it – isn’t a job that anybody would really miss if it suddenly vanished from the globe (except perhaps for those who do it!). It is a job that is, almost literally, just piss and wind. Or so I thought at the time.

It turns out I was only partly right.

While recuperating from surgery, I had a strange request from Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. Well, more specifically from Julie Gibbs, a cookbook publisher and now also a researcher for the venue who was approaching all kinds of people in the food industry. She wanted my first ever restaurant review. Perhaps my first article for a newspaper. She wanted to know things about how I came to be a chef who writes, a chef who farms. A cook who grows food to serve in his onsite restaurant. There might be documents, she thought, about how I became a cook who has been in the public eye, as a ‘hatted’ award-winning chef, then as a public palate: a restaurant critic. Clues to how I became a food broadcaster while also being the writer of a dozen books on what we shove into our gobs. As a purveyor of pleasure, and how to get pleasure from your own kitchen to put joy on your own table, I found a request from a museum, those bastions of high culture, a little odd.

At first, I thought it was crazy talk.

A museum interested in food? Not just food, but Gibbs seemed particularly interested in that very shallow end of the deep pond of gluttony – those who find their dubious ‘work’ critiquing restaurants. Someone who produces nothing, except words, whose tone or syntax can affect a business that never asked to be publicly outed. A person who lives much of their time in places whose linen they couldn’t afford for their own house, who sips out-of-their-league wine in glassware (stemware to those in the trade) that they would never invest in for their own cupboards. And who eats the fruits of the labour of two of the most underpaid groups in the nation – farmers and hospitality workers – fruits provided by the newspaper for free, while the critic is actually getting paid for the pleasure. A museum interested in that sounded not just silly, but wasteful.

Isn’t a museum’s role to find important stuff? Important things that humanity has done, or created, or that nature has crafted and gifted us? Things that lift us out of the ordinary, to amaze, to rejoice, to celebrate?

 

I THOUGHT A lot about what makes a real job during lockdown, even during the relatively short one we had on our farm in southern Tasmania. Covid didn’t change my milking routine. Or my feeding of the pigs. It didn’t change the amount of weeding the market garden needed, or the angle of the sun at the solstice. Photosynthesis, that miracle of the Earth where a plant makes sugars out of thin air, each leaf the original solar panel…well, photosynthesis continued unabated. Farming, the job of growing food, took precedence during the shelter-at-home orders that swept the nation and the globe. While our onsite restaurant was closed to the public, our team and I gardened, farmed and cooked. In a way, little had changed.

We had purpose. We harvested. We had to cook, to take food to markets, to feed our community and to give the people who work here a reason to care.

And while we did that, there was something missing, despite the literally backbreaking work. This place, the team we’ve built, the crops we grow, were started with hospitality in mind: the welcoming of strangers to our long farmhouse table. It seemed that while we worked as hard as we ever had, to use and not waste the surfeit of our land during the lockdown, we had purpose but not meaning.

And that’s why, perhaps, Julie Gibbs eventually came calling. Food, the sharing of it, the significance of it and the purpose of it, is not just to fill our bellies. It’s there to build culture. Yes, it fuels us. Yes, we can swoon alone over a plate of grilled asparagus with a soft-boiled egg, or a bottle of Stargazer’s elegant cool-climate chardonnay. But what food actually means, in a modern context, is deeper than that because food – the growing, making, sharing, eating of it – is culture. Coming together around food is how people are designed.

I think Covid proved that to a lot of us. Suddenly, Australians were left with no option about where we could eat. Or with whom. For some, the situation went on for months; that strange scenario where the only people you could share a meal with were the ones with whom you shared bodily fluids.  Or at least a roof.

Food, despite my obsession with it from soil to stomach, I now know is just an excuse. It’s the reason to come together. When we sit down to eat we realise how much more we have that binds us than we have that divides us. People are hardwired to want to share their lives, to see others around the table. A coffee, a beer, a meal: they are all reasons to connect as individuals, as community, as humanity.

There’s no point growing food, cooking food and serving food if nobody shows up. We tried that on the farm during Covid. Food is merely the pretext to bring people to the table. To break bread, to tell jokes, to laugh, to cry, to woo and be wooed. Every time we come together, and food gives us that reason multiple times a day, we can build humanity and culture. Food doesn’t exist outside of culture, and in fact is an intrinsic part of what makes us, well, us.

Our nation, our community, is built in part by those things that aren’t tangible. Yes, stories matter. Art matters. And so does that thing we do around the table each night when we share the moments that resonated in our days with those we are lucky to have around us. Growing food, the alchemy of making something tangible and delicious from the raw ingredients of soil, water, air and sunlight, is a noble act. You don’t need to hurt your back to have a real job, though, or to contribute to the cultural wellbeing of this land. Like farming, I reckon cooking food is also a noble calling. But so is sharing the joy of food through writing, through broadcasting, through Instagram or over the phone. It even worked – for a time – on Zoom. Sharing of food in a more distant manner is less vital, perhaps, but still important in nurturing a heaving, joyful mess of humanity. 

If Covid taught me anything, it’s that my one-time job as a restaurant critic had its own purpose. Its own meaning. Yes, as the name implies it involves some finding of fault, and it has its own shallow moments. And, yes, the role has resonance for only a fraction of the community who have the spare cash, the time or the proximity (and the palate) to care. There are more urgent roles, jobs that do humanity more fundamental good. But most people don’t have those jobs, either.

Writing about food so that others can share your joys doesn’t make it less important than designing a video game, training horses, competing in an Olympic marathon, doing bookkeeping or studying the microbiome in soil. It’s just a different job, one that has its roots firmly embedded in how to make people happy. And what I now appreciate is that happiness around the table is one of the great ways that Australians build a sophisticated society. How we get to that point doesn’t really matter, be it as a grower, a cook, an eater, a writer or a reader. It’s in the small moments that real people, commoners like you and me, build the community on which we all rely and forge a culture that will make us all proud. Food allows that to happen to all of us, from the germinating of a seed to the crafting of a sentence. From a dish as humble and glorious as boiled just-picked pink-eye potatoes to the most ostentatious restaurant in the land. And while much of what makes our society unique is born at the kitchen table, some of that way of life might well be fashioned by the person who writes about it.

 

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