Talking Food: gastronomic ramblings ABOUT THE FOOD WE EAT

Food is more than just fuel - it is a social experience; one of the simple pleasures of life. The sharing of food is an important human interaction and is often symbolic. We discuss business over a meal. The sharing of food is a sacrifice and a symbol of acceptance. Feasts cement agreements, treaties and alliances. We patch up quarrels with a shared meal. We join together with family and friends to share good times with food and drink. We meet new people over dinner. We seek to woo a lover with a special dinner. We have feasts for birthdays, weddings, religious ceremonies, cultural ceremonies and even funerals. In contrast, a solitary meal is often a punishment – being made to eat by oneself in a corner of the room or being made to eat in silence, implicitly excludes the individual from the social group.

I love food. In fact I’m addicted to food. Food has been my passion since a very early age fuelled by my family’s love of food and culture. My early years were spent in the rolling green farmlands of central England enjoying the pleasures of fresh produce and country cooking. We spent our holidays in Europe tasting the diverse regional flavours from the shores of the Mediterranean to the northern regions of Scandinavia and the Arctic seas.

More recently I have experienced the pungent flavours of the Orient and the subtle spices of South East Asia and Japan. My taste buds have been excited by the wide and diverse range of flavours that spoil us today – everything from freshly picked wild berries from the English hedgerows to chocolate-coated ants from the Chilean mountains. I have been lucky to eat in some of the best restaurants in the world – some well known and celebrated, others undiscovered and simple. I have experimented with and cooked some memorable meals (as well as some my friends would rather forget!).

The diverse and rich food supply available to us today in Australia never ceases to grow and amaze me – and its full potential is still yet to be realised.

As a Food Scientist and a lover of fine food, food is my life and my passion. In fact I have been a victim of my own excesses. Several years ago, spurred on by a few days in hospital, I went on a weight loss diet shedding over 20 kilogrammes – the equivalent of my son who was 4 at the time!

Now this is an important subject – the press tells us that we are the second fattest country in the world, that about 25% of Australians are clinically obese and the rest of us are likely to be overweight. Our diet is the subject of everyday mass media stories. Whist we love the excesses of the Two Fat Ladies, Nigella and Jamie, and purchase more cook books than any other people on the planet, we also spend a small fortune on weight watching and aspiring to look like Jennifer and Brad.

It was not so long ago that being fat was a sign of wealth and status. Throughout history, feasts and the sharing of food were an important social gathering. Only the wealthy could put on gigantic meals – so gluttony and excess was the domain of the privileged. Yet today, obesity is a form of disability and a subject for ridicule. Fat is out and thin is in. The poor overeat and the rich condemn them.

Fat, it seems, is the new enemy. Now that the smoking battles have been won (at least from a regulatory point of view), fat is the target of the “health police”. We are told that “Fast food”, indulgent desserts and “convenience” foods are all laden in fat and sugar. And since we now have a plentiful, cheap supply of food, combined with our sedentary urban lifestyles, we are all in danger of eating to excess. Our modern western diet is, according to many, literally killing us.

But we should remember that fat is also flavour. The majority of flavour compounds are fat bound and fat is what gives most food its flavour. And fat is necessary for cell maintenance and reproduction. There are good fats and bad fats. Then there is sugar. Sugar and other carbohydrates are necessary for energy and vitality – we just need less of them.

Food sustains us – without it we will die. Unlike smoking, we cannot eliminate food!

Nor should we want to. Food is more than just fuel – it is a social experience, one of the simple pleasures of life. Food is a potent symbol – a reflection on the way we live. We are all interested in food, be it cooking, fast food, processed food or just sustenance. Food should be a pleasure – not a problem.

Yet fewer and fewer of us are cooking. More and more we are relying on processed foods, fast food chains and preprepared meals.

Much of the obesity ills are being blamed on the processed food industries, and particularly “fast food” with its cheap high calorie convenience meals. The fast food industry defends itself saying that there is no such thing as junk foods only junk diets – everything in moderation. There is some truth in this so long as everyone is able to make informed choices. There is no one single “superfood” that is going to make you healthy just as there are no single foods (in moderation) that are going to make fat. Good diet is about informed choice – quality instead of quantity (the mantra of a reformed fatty!)

Processed food is not in itself the problem. “Convenience foods” have been around for centuries. There are many “gourmet” foods available today that were originally developed for travellers and people in a hurry– old fashioned processed fast food! Products such as pork pies, sausages, pate, pickles, satay sticks, noodles, frittata, pizza and so on. Many of our old-fashioned gourmet foods are processed – bread, cheese, olives, wine, pickles, preserves etc. Captain Cook would not have made it to Australia without processed preserved foods.

Modern food processing preserves nutrition and provides variety. Processing is necessary to make some foods safe and edible. Modern processing ensures a varied food supply for everyone that is clean, safe and readily available – something our ancestors did not enjoy. Certainly fresh is best when there is a choice, but without processed foods there would be limited variety and many of us would go hungry.

Now, I am not defending “fast food” as such. Unfortunately, many “convenience meals” are nutritionally unbalanced. Certainly they are very safe – food safety in our industry is paramount. They are made from quality ingredients. They are consistent. And they are affordable. But some are flavourless having been over processed for safety and shelf-life, relying on highly flavoured sauces for taste. Many are high in fat as they are deep fried – we love deep fried food! Many are high in sugar – we have an instinctive love of sweet things. Many have an inappropriately high calorie to bulk ratio – meaning you have to eat more to feel full.

The food industry often claims that it only produces products people want. This also is essentially true – if a product is not liked and does not sell, it is quickly removed from sale. The products available to us are largely there because we want them. The issue is really one of education, choice and the social aspects of eating.

Since less of us are cooking and relying more on preprepared foods, it is behoven on the food industry to assist in educating the consumer about healthy eating. It is important that we teach our children the basics of selection and moderation. Almost all food is good food in a balanced diet. We all have different tastes and all have different needs. Thankfully we all have diverse interests (life would be very dull indeed if we all agreed and all did the same things!) – and not all of us want to be “gourmets”. One man’s bread is another man’s poison. The call by some of the “food police” to ban processed foods and put a tax on fat and sugar is unrealistic and unnecessary. Food should not be used as a reward or a political tool, but as part of the social fabric of life.

The sharing of food preparation and meals is an important social function – one that is less common today due to small family units (1 in 4 households in Australia today are a single adult) and time poor consumers. Herein lies one of the major issues – with our busy lifestyles today, we have less time to cook and sit down to enjoy a meal. Fast food is by definition “fast” – eaten on the run. We skip breakfast, rush lunch and eat dinner in front of the television. Regardless of the quality, there is little time to savour the flavours and share the social experience. We spend less time in the kitchen and more time in front of the computer or at work. Food becomes fuel rather than a pleasure. And when we do cook, it is as a hobby or interest rather than a shared family experience. Close family ties in rural England initially fuelled my love of food.

We had time to enjoy the gathering, the cooking and the eating. It is this social interaction that is just as important as a quality, varied and readily available food supply.

The study of Gastronomy looks at the social aspects as well as the history and culture of food and eating. Particularly with food, we often look back in time to the “good old days” when we had time to enjoy “comfort food”, when tomatoes had flavour (and flour had weevils!) and we forget the modern advances. There has been more innovation in the food industry in the last 40 years than in the previous 40 thousand – and it is the application of gastronomy to our future food supply that excites me.

So come with me on a culinary journey. I will attempt to add interesting titbits to this site on a regular basis – but remember, I go on work trips and holidays as well so please forgive the irregularity…but above all enjoy.