Category Archives: media

Cakes to make you vomit

I just tripped across a very funny article about a US television cook who seems to create all sorts of abominations. The commentary is funny and the pics and vid are great illustrations.

Kwanzaa Cake by Sandra Lee and Other Edible Hate Crimes

It’s very much in the vein of some of those astoundingly bad recipes you can find on places like recipezaar (alongside the good ones) and other sites.

The link in the above article to the foodnetwork no longer works, so here’s the YouTube version. We are ready to frost!

Bucket please!

France, celebrity chefs and bad diet

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the cliché about how well the French eat. You know, fresh produce markets everywhere, everyone eating good cheese and drinking decent wine. No fatties, no fast food diets, blah blah blah. We read this garbage often in nice comfy middle-class lifestyle rags and see it perpetuated in breathless television travel shows. Reality is, of course, a bit different.

The Guardian has two articles (with interesting links) about the popularity of celebrity chefs in France and the rise of one chef, Cyril Lignac, who is campaigning for better eating in much the same way as Jamie Oliver does in Britain. [1,2]

You see, the French don’t (as a whole) eat fantastic, fresh, healthy, homemade food. They behave rather a lot like Australians, in that they have access to a wide array of restaurants at many budget levels, can buy produce of reasonable quality and like to talk about food, but don’t always cook frequently and are quite fond of large meals and fatty or sweet snacks. Similar, EXCEPT that on the one hand the French have a stronger concept of good food, quality ingredients and more (cakes! cakes! chocolate! cakes!), and on the other hand have much larger numbers of socially disadvantaged or disenfranchised communities who fall entirely outside the much-vaunted food culture.

So yes, the French have great dining culture, marvellous markets (with their own flaws), etc etc. But at the same time, fast food joints are packed out with teenagers, discount supermarkets do high trade in canned and long-life foods, and frozen meals are popular in time-poor or can’t-cook households.

(There are many nuances one could explore here, but I just wanted to draw attention to the articles in The Guardian. I might write more about this in the future.)

Review: Eating Between the Lines, by Rebecca Huntley

Eating Between the Lines has received a bit of media attention since its publication recently. I heard an interview with the author, Rebecca Huntley, on ABC Radio National and found the discussion interesting. I decided I should read the book, and then Neil over at At My Table wrote a great review that increased my interest further. You should read it.

I’ve now worked my way through the book and as you’ll read below, I wasn’t impressed.

Summary review

Eating Between the Lines claims to be “A different kind of food tour” and sociologist Rebecca Huntley certainly takes the readers on a journey. The book is a series of discreet chapters exploring aspects of food culture in Australia. From the subtitle of the book, “Food & Equality in Australia”, you might expect the focus to be on poverty, access to food, and perhaps the ability to cook. In fact, Huntley ranges over these themes and adds a sociopolitical agenda involving gender roles, racism, Slow Food and more. At times, the reader might feel that the author lacks much insight into deeper cultural and historical issues, leaving her argumentation a little popular-conscience rather than achieving insightful examination. Nonetheless, many interesting pieces of information come out of the interviews and stories and the footnotes are interesting. I found Eating Between the Lines very irritating, but it’s well written and designed to hit the right “how terrible” buttons with certain types of readers. Huntley might, however, have cast her net a bit too wide, because there are enough touches of sneering through the book that she might well offend even some of her target audience.

The structure of the book

The introduction paints a picture of inner-urban living with access to many food options in opposition to a decaying suburban environment with limited choice, most of it unhealthy. The author asks “how fair is Australia’s food culture?”. She then ventures into the contrast between a wealth of television chefs cooking fancy food and the supposed realities of eating/cooking in the normal population, using obesity, other writers’ commentary about British food, and some data about purchasing habits to get the ball rolling. Each of the next nine chapters covers an issue that Huntley feels is relevant: poverty and bad eating, child obesity, domestic cooking, men not cooking, single people and food, indigenous food and social disadvantage, ethnic food and racism, local food, ethical/rich-people food trends. Huntley concludes with an honestly ideological position about food, equality, empowerment, access and more.

The author

Rebecca Huntley is a social researcher, director of the Ipsos Mackay Report on social trends, and writes for Vogue Australia.

What is particularly good/interesting/new/special?

Eating Between the Lines serves as a window on food issues in Australia (and the rich world more generally) in the mid-2000s. That’s probably its greatest value. Its timing was good, though might have been even more interesting if written after consumers began to react to the global economic problems (that’s life).

The book is well written and stimulates readers to think, but because the author is quite definitely writing to an (at least loosely) pre-determined agenda, its value isn’t really as an objective assessment of issues unless you read between the lines of Huntley’s own perspective. The footnotes and bibliography are valuable inclusions which will give interested readers more paths to explore.

Huntley interprets “equality” more broadly than some readers might expect (extending it to food choices, urban sprawl driving out local agriculture, and more). This comes as a surprise as the book develops, and at times I really wondered how chapters were meant to relate to the overarching theme and the neighbouring chapters. Certainly, Huntley covers a range of interesting topics and illuminates many issues which are worth attention, sometimes very skillfully, but it’s difficult to work them all into a coherent thesis.

The author makes some interesting points, such as “If Jamie [Oliver] wants to encourage more family meals, why doesn’t he criticise those fathers who won’t shop, cook and clean for their families?”, raising the tricky issue of whether indigenous foods should be part of mainstream Australia’s diet, reminding us that food is about sustenance for many people, and highlighting the gulf between the dietary/cooking habits of the rich/empowered and other parts of the population.

What flaws/problems are there?

This book reeks of “I know what I think and I’ll paint you a picture that shows I’m right”. There are certainly many valuable points made and examples given. But Huntley seems to disrespect some of her subjects, sometimes moments after describing their plight or using their situation to prove a positive point.

On many occasions, Eating Between the Lines presents arguments based on nothing more than uninformed conjecture. There’s little serious data, but lots of social commentary to support more social commentary. Huntley is too comfortable generalising beyond her experience. Even the introduction shows a willingness to poo-poo something that doesn’t suit her: she provides a secondhand quote of London-based Australian reviewer Terry Durack saying “I grew up in a country where good food was available to all at a good price”. Huntley then writes “… I don’t believe we can be confident of the truth of Durack’s claim that good food is available to all Australians at a good price. Not all of us live in a lucky eating country. And the top-class food familiar to critics like Durack is not the kind of food the vast majority of Australians have the time, money or opportunity to enjoy.”

Excuse me for being blunt, but that’s just rank ignorance. If Huntley understood something about relative costs and quality of food historically (and now) between different rich-world countries she would hopefully have been more careful in dismissing Durack’s statement. The vast majority of Australians have had much better access to good, affordable basic produce than most people in many comparable countries for many decades (and Durack was writing about when he grew up). That doesn’t mean the same degree of access across the population (and has to exclude people living in extreme poverty and/or isolation) or that it applies to every type of produce in every place. But Huntley’s rejection of Durack’s slightly-too-broad statement is symptomatic of an impaired openness to different experience or possibilities.

Some readers will quickly tire of the author’s cynical depiction of men as kitchen chauvinists who can’t cook, won’t cook, or get treated with kid gloves when they do manage to step into the kitchen. I don’t for a moment deny that the vast majority of men don’t do much/any domestic cooking. It’s likely that it’s primarily because of established gender roles being perpetuated/enforced by various parties, including the men themselves. But Huntley dwells on men not cooking, or only learning to cook because of necessity, with limited consideration of other factors. I found it offensive personally, and on behalf of those men who do cook as part of their normal domestic roles. Huntley isn’t scared of moments of passing chauvinism about men, gay cooks, women in commercial kitchens, fat people, and more.

I could write much more on the flaws (I’ve bookmarked about 20 examples of particularly irritating stuff), but I think you get the idea. I’ll finish with one vaguely amusing example:

In the chapter called Basic Meals for the Ultra Rich, Huntley simultaneously derides people shopping at farmers’ markets (“Sucker prepared to spend a lot of money on not a lot of food.”) while admitting she’s one of them too. To prove how expensive it is she presents a short shopping list. This includes a bag of organic apples for A$5, half a kilo of organic coffee for $11.50 and two organic lamb shanks for $8. How strange that the coffee is actually cheap, the apples are only a little pricey (assuming it’s a kilo bag), and the lamb shanks are about the same for most Australians paying typical (non-market) silly prices ($3-4) for any shanks. She didn’t even get her “here’s proof” shopping list right. I’m sure many readers could have done better.

Target audience

Oh, this will appeal to all sorts of people riding the food-consciousness wave. Ironically, the ones who’ll probably like it most are the “Bobos” that Huntley describes and sneers so effectively at in the chapter mentioned above (though they might not like it if they make it to that chapter). It’s perhaps worth reading to make you think, but not necessarily because it’ll enlighten you.

As you can imagine, not everyone shares my perspective on this book. In addition to Neil’s review mentioned at the top of the review, you could also consider this and this.

ISBN 978-1-86395-263-7 – Black Inc.

Where are the Australian chefs on Wikipedia?

I’ve been meaning to write this for months. Where oh where is the Australian culinary content on Wikipedia? It’s pitiful. Stephanie Alexander is completely absent. Maggie Beer is described as a ‘cook’ and doesn’t even get a mention in the category Australian chefs. Donna Hay is an Australian chef, apparently. Neither Gay nor Tony Bilson get an entry. And if you explore related categories, you’ll find that numerous significant restaurants are missing (Quay, Aria, Bennelong, Claude’s, Grossi Florentino, Mietta’s, Jacques Reymond, Vue de Monde, etc), while alongside the few notables (Bistro Moncur, Flower Drum, Berowra Waters Inn) are dross like the Pancake Parlour and Henny Penny.

I think it’s time to encourage food-aware Australians to get online and fix this! For all its flaws, Wikipedia still offers a great resource — especially when articles benefit from many knowledgable people’s input. Too often, the internet offers a wealth of thoroughly impoverished information. It can be improved! Although Australian foodbloggers are by no means the only people with knowledge of the food scene, past and present, they are at least some of the more community-minded participants in that scene. So come on guys and gals, get onto Wikipedia and fix the flaws, add content and perhaps make some of the PR drivel in some entries a little more informative. It’s fairly easy to sign up and do edits. Just keep it nice.

And don’t stop at restaurants and personalities! How about padding out the Australian cuisine section too. Heavens! The delightful Iced Vo Vo makes and appearance, but Cherry Ripe is subsumed into an article about a song. 😛

Think of it as a service to journalism… cos we know that with so few writers and editors left at various major papers, the quality of plagiarisable sources has to be at its best 😉

And if you live in another land, why not check whether there’s adequate content for your country’s/cuisine’s food scene?

Spread the word.

A local writer ignores the local blogging scene?

Over at the SBS Food site there’s an article about blogging called Everyone’s a Critic, published on Oct 7. I’m not sure how you find it if you don’t already know it’s there. The SBS site is slick and has interesting content, including contributions from two familiar names (Ed Charles and Phil Lees). It is also the most ludicrously over-whizbanged thing and I can’t bear visiting it cos it slows my browser down to snail’s pace.

If you happen to find the article (or cleverly click on this link), you’ll find something else strange. Here, on an Australian food website, is an article that appears completely ignorant of the Australian food-blogging scene. It dwells on many of the international names. It features a mildly interesting interview with an Estonian blogger, yet there’s no Australian blogger quoted. Indeed, when I first read it, I was certain SBS must have bought a syndicated overseas piece and not bothered to adapt it — it’s a trick we’re familiar with from our favourite newspapers. But no, the writer is Australian. Pretty poor.

At the end of the article there’s a very weak attempt at adding some local relevance by listing two local blogs — yes, just two –, one of which was last active eight months ago and was hardly prominent during its seven months of actual life (no disrespect to the owner).

It’s also comical that the article’s title (Everyone’s a Critic) bears no relation to the content. The article steers almost completely clear of foodblogging in its often controversial restaurant-review form.

Not sure if this was a case of how-many-markets-can-I-sell-this-to, an editorial flop, or a writer lacking understanding of local relevance. Whatever the reason, it was a bloody slack effort.

Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food hits our screens

Jamie Oliver’s latest social project television program, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, hits Australian screens tomorrow (Weds 8 Sep) on Ten. I guess Australian commentators will be horrified at scenes of domestic deprivation of sorts, but I expect the stark contrast between the UK and Australia will make it seem a little unreal. I was horrified at the lack of food knowledge and the horrendous diets of so many people when I lived in the UK, not just poor working class. And that was despite functioning produce markets and often well-stocked supermarkets. Unfortunately, the hottest items in the supermarkets were preprepared, microwaveable meals. Sometimes they were quite tasty, but their flabbergasting popularity did nothing for encouraging cooking skills. Lower down the food chain, crap sausages and unspeakable budget-house-brand pork pies did nothing for nourishment.

Most of Australia is a long way from this, despite our regular breast-beating about the state of the nation’s eating habits. Jamie’s Ministry of Food should serve as a warning of a state of affairs which could happen here, but most likely wouldn’t.

There has been a lot of discussion in the UK about Jamie Oliver’s new series. Of course, some of this is gratuitous Jamie-bashing (and he can come across as an ignorant twirp at times), but the various commentators’ positions are quite fascinating… criticising Jamie Oliver for being everything from clueless to egotistical to self-promoting to arrogant to middle-class-arrogant to worthy to… phew!

Felicity Lawrence in the Guardian (01 Oct) — found via Limes&Lycopene
Word of Mouth in the Guardian (01 Oct) — and check out the comments!!
Rob Lyons at Spiked! (01 Oct) — a very different perspective

As misluck would have it, I’ll be working when the first episode screens here… but I guess footage will turn up elsewhere eventually.

Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey

The findings of the 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey were released today. There’s been a little media attention, and I guess this will ramp up as the dailies run it and the various ‘stakeholders’ start saying their piece. The results? Depends who you listen to.

To quote a key finding

72 per cent of children surveyed were at a healthy weight; 17 per cent of boys and girls were classified as overweight; 6 per cent were obese; and 5 per cent were found to be underweight.

Interesting stuff. I’ve written previously [1,2] about the exploitation of inadequate data or misleading studies to harass overweight people and everyone else too. The data in the present study can be spun as cause for concern, but I’m happy to look at it more optimistically. 17% of children were classed as overweight. That’s less than one fifth of children. If you include the obese children, that’s a little more than a fifth.

Given the absolute wall of ‘obesity epidemic’ noise we face every week (sometimes every day) in our newspapers and on the television, a finding that approximately one fifth of children are overweight does not leave me reaching for the emergency button. In fact, I’d say the number of chubby kids in my primary school years might not have been particularly different. (I should hunt out the old school class photos!)

I was also heartened to read this finding:

On the days surveyed, 69 per cent of the children met the National Physical Activity Guidelines (at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity each day).

It could be better. It could be a hell of a lot worse. Almost three quarters of kids are reasonably active, despite having computers and televisions and mobile phones and game machines in their lives (and, presumably, being ferried around in 4WDs).

Measures of dietary intakes were much less positive, though I was surprised that total fat intake was within national guidelines. More depressingly, almost all performance on the various measures (activity, weight, diet) deteriorated with age (the oldest participants were 16 years old).

The survey covered 4000 children and on the face of it the methodology looks reasonable, although self-reported food information isn’t ideal. Nonetheless, the dietary results weren’t good, and it’s unlikely people were exaggerating how unhealthily they were eating. Of more concern is the overrepresentation of rich households (>A$78k pa) and the underrepresentation of poor households (<A$32k pa) in the study.

Most interestingly of all (I saved the juiciest for last), note these observations in the main report (my italics):

  • Underweight and obese children tended to have a lower physical activity level (Pal) than children of normal weight.
  • Obese children tended to report lower energy intakes than children of normal weight.
  • There was found to be no clear association between reported energy intake and level of physical activity.

(report page 2)

All up, this study appears to contribute some useful, clear information which is hard to massively misrepresent (unlike a heap of other studies out there). The demographic imbalance in the sample is unfortunate, and as far as I can see the report omits any demographic breakdown of the data, which seems irresponsible given the common claim that poor families are most likely to be overweight and have a poor diet. The full data are available for further analysis, so I hope we’ll see this gap in analysis addressed.