Eating the Country

Article excerpt

From the Two Fat Ladies to Rick Stein' s Seafood Odyssey and Nick Nairn' s Wild Harvest, to Australian programs such as Stephanie Alexander' s A Shared Table, and Stephano di Pieri' s Gondola on the Murray, television food programs that mix travel, regional flavour and local cuisine have proved popular. In Australia the particular combination of landscape, both material and visual, with talented local chefs not only showcases regional flavours, but gestures towards the search for an elusive authentic Australian cuisine. But while the travelling television cooks show new ways to relate place and food, little effort is made to integrate Indigenous ingredients, cooking or eating practices into the emerging new Australian cuisine. This essay examines recent white Australian attempts to ingest Indigenous foods and practices, in particular Les Hiddens's Bush Tucker Man television series, so as to explore postcolonial anxieties of place, belonging, and identity that are expressed through a specific way of eating the country.

The role of introducing Australian television audiences to Indigenous foods has mostly been left to the Bush Tucker Man, who has done much to popularise bush tucker with his own particular blend of lone outback adventure and survivalist rhetoric. Bush tucker is, of course, not new. Early settlers were compelled to use local produce through shortages or limitations in their supplies (see Bradley in this volume), or were urged to by adventurous cookery authors such as Mina Rawson, who advised 'every housewife to experiment and try everything; the blacks or her own common sense will soon tell her what is edible and what is not'. (1) These early promoters of bush foods mostly focussed on animals, and provided recipes for bandicoot, kangaroo, snakes, flying fox and more.

Food critic Cherry Ripe notes that while most cookbooks from last century contain recipes for kangaroo, in most states it has not been legal to serve it for human consumption until the 1990s. Regardless of legal status, Australians have been reluctant to eat their national symbols. Ripe suggests the 'Bambi Factor or the 'CQ', cuteness quotient' as part of the sentimentality that inhibits the eating of native animals. (2) Others (for example, David Smith) suggest that our continued inability to recognise Australian fauna as 'real' animals constrains our ability to commercialise or farm them. The presumed excess of kangaroos is managed by culling hundreds of thousands of animals each year, a point that some conservationists and tourism promoters use to encourage the use of kangaroo as human food. (3) Environmental commentators such as Tim Flannery, David Smith and Tim Low, among others, advocate a move away from European foods and farming practices towards kangaroo farming and harvesting native grasses, in order to decrease our dependence on sheep and cattle and to relieve the land degradation they cause. Flannery goes furthest in expressing nostalgia for a past where people ate native animals and kept them as pets. He berates non-Indigenous Australians for failing to make full use of all biotic resources, from kangaroos to whales, and portrays Australians as 'future eaters' who, while happily chewing their daily bread are really eating away the land, destroying 'irreplaceable soil' with each mouthful. 'Many Australians would consider that the person eating a meat pie is more 'Australian' than the one eating the souvlaki. Yet no-one cares to ask whether the meat has come from kangaroo or cattle, or how much soil was lost in the production of the wheat products used to wrap the meat'. (4)

In Feral Future, Low takes up the theme of nativism, depicting many of the foods featured in the television cooking shows as invasive, unsuited to Australian biology, and destructive of Australian ecosystems. He details the impacts of runaway olives, invasions of exotic grasses, take-overs by foreign plants, and other tales of exotic infiltration. …