I’m not the biggest foodie in the world. In fact I find the whole “food” scene tedious and perhaps a little morally dubious. Spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a meal seems wasteful when you could just eat something simple. Even something free.
There’s also something colonial about the endless, faddish quest to find the next great taste or flavour. Viewed this way, the foodie scene seems pretty exploitative and self-interested. At least at the upper, celebrity end. The end that’s relentlessly pushed at us on TV these days.
In this endless rush toward fad and the next amazing flavour or taste (which, by the way, is no different to other forms of entertainment like the music, film or sporting industries) an important ingredient in this dish (see what I did there) is to add a moral dimension to the whole enterprise.
I suppose with so many everyday working people thinking “get a real job,” these highly paid performers must sometimes feel a need to justify their existence.
So, inevitably, in Australia, the foodie scene has turned its attention to the redemptive, if not reconciliatory properties of using bush foods.
Yep, these “pioneers” are blazing a trail across the starched linen tables of yacht clubs and hatted restaurants across inner Sydney and Melbourne. Closing the gap one serve of Flinders Island salt grass lamb with native coastal greens at a time.
They seem to have discovered – in the same way Captain Cook “discovered” – bush foods and now we all need to sit at their feet so they can impart their wisdom as to why Lemon Myrtle and Finger Limes can cure all those nagging invasion ills from a time back when everyone was still eating cured partridge.
But all is now forgiven because here comes a “food revolution that really matters!”
That’s right, the people that matter in Australia (“chefs such as Peter Gilmore, Maggie Beer and René Redzepi’s sous chef Beau Clugston”) have given their seal of approval to Koori food, the “Oldest foods on earth!”
Before I put my napkin down, ease my chair out then walk to the bathroom to throw up – lest this is good old cultural appropriation all over again – I need to dig further. Apart from the few fledgling Indigenous run restaurants and catering companies starting to spring up, how does this seeming interest in culture aid communities?
Does simply adding a sprig of lemon myrtle to a fillet of steak mean all of a sudden you’re eating “native?”
What’s in this for Aboriginal people?
A look at the “Australian” attitudes to native food over the years is instructive.
Colin Bannerman had a look at a few cookbooks featuring bushfoods and found a few broad themes as to how they are viewed in Australia.
Firstly, there are the old colonial survivalists like the Bush Tucker man. This guy represents the bush as alien but able to be survived when you had to. Enough to get you back to civilisation and a cold beer with a tale to tell your rugged mates about how you wrestled a Crocodile and ate its eggs. That sort of thing. That bloke made a fortune back then. White man as front and centre and “taming” the bush.
Then there are the ecologists which have as their central theme the idea that bush tucker is less environmentally damaging than the introduced foods so we should be eating them for that reason. This school of thought is heavy with anthropological observations about the uses of food and at least acknowledge Aboriginal people if not specifically considering them centrally. It’s still a white thing.
Next are the foodies. As mentioned, these people run the restaurants and grow the bush foods in a market which will hopefully soon take off. I don’t know how well positioned Aboriginal people are to take advantage of any boom in this area. My suspicion is that they are well on the outer and an afterthought.
These suspicions were partially confirmed upon viewing the website of the native food industry peak body, the Australian Native Food Industry Limited (ANFIL). In their statement “Marking 5 years of accomplishment” they list their key areas of research interest.
They include “securing recognition of their [bushfoods] traditional status by Food Standards of Australia and New Zealand.” Which raises the question are these people (who as far as I can make out are pretty much just white farmers and restauranteurs diversifying into a new area) authorised to claim something as “traditional” without actually belonging to the ongoing culture which created and owns these “traditions” in the first place?
If not, this is good old appropriation to make a killing.
Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the history of Australia.
I actually dined in one of these restaurants recently and took my Auntie from La Perouse. I was shocked to learn from the waiter that the place is not Indigenous owned or operated. I don’t know why but I thought it was. Maybe it was the ochre colouring used in the logo and the dot painting-style art used. More shocking still was the distinct lack of interest shown in Auntie’s own deep practical knowledge of bush tucker when she yarned to the waiter about it.
That’s not cultural. That is misunderstanding where food sits within culture. It’s disrespectful.
I’ve since read the mission statement from their restaurant which boasts the “best regional and Australian produce” and of “supporting local farmers.” They also state their “team is passionate about showcasing Advanced Australian Fare to lovers of fine food.”
Advanced Australian Fare? Really?
I couldn’t find anything on their site about Aboriginal people or culture. No acknowledgement.
Which brings me to Bannerman’s final category of bushfood cookbooks. These are the ones produced by communities themselves.
These are almost always situated within culture. They are concerned with the transfer of knowledge and the “right way” to do things. He quotes the preface from an Arrente cookbook:
“I’m making this book for the ones who are growing up now to read, so that they will be able to look at it in school and learn about what the people before them had, so that you will all know these things. And so that your teachers can see this too. I’m also doing this so that white people and people from other places can read this book and learn how things are.”
That is culture. Imparting knowledge so others can “learn how things are.”
“How things are” doesn’t seem to overly concern ANFIL who have as another research priority the “Development of a ‘flavour wheel’ by an expert panel of food tasters, to help chefs and producers describe their products with a common lexicon – just like the wine tasting guides – only more nutritious.”
What “expert panel?”, what “common lexicon?”
The expert panel is Aboriginal people. The common lexicon is our culture.
Here’s a video of my Auntie out at La Pa talking about our food. No need to develop a fucking flavour wheel… it’s already here in our communities. Has been for 50000 years.
Is it all too hard because they might have to acknowledge blackfellas for once or (god forbid) cut them in on some of this potential export boom?
And it is “our” food. Aboriginal people claim ownership. Before, as Bannerman says, “European culinary invasion sees itself as having extinguished native food title.”
Or the full realisation of the muscular Bush Tucker Man which Lesley Instone describes as being;
“Like Daniel Boon and Crocodile Dundee before him, the Bush Tucker Man represents the white man who knows ‘native’ lands and knowledge better than the Aborigines themselves.”
The ANFIL website also contains links to various federal government reports into the viability of various native plant species as export opportunities.
An example of this is a report from 2009 called “Health benefits of Australian Native Foods” produced by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, an agency of the Commonwealth government.
In a summary reading I can find no mention whatsoever of Aboriginal people in this 52 page report. Nothing which mentions usages, expertise and culture. In fact, the report states it is targeted at;
- the Australian native food industry
- the general food industry, and
- health-conscious Australian consumers with an interest in diversifying their daily diet with native Australian fruits, herbs and spices.
In other words, the buyers and sellers. Of which, presumably, blackfellas don’t count because they have a long history with bushfood which views it as sacred, within culture and not just another resource to be exploited in the headlong rush to “strike it rich.”
Again, Australia is on the make. If it isn’t sheep or gold or beef or coal it’s bushfood. And Aboriginal people are of little use. Same story since 1788.
They certainly won’t be considered as owners of anything. Except maybe as “traditional owners.” The type of owners that don’t get a cut of anything or a say.
All this seems like another reason to sigh and despair. Kooris are pushed out of the way again by the Australian juggernaut.
However, out of all this I see something powerful and transformative for Blackfellas.
The issue of cultural food sovereignty is extremely important for Aboriginal people.
I feel that food is an under-utilised political and restorative tool for our mob. Especially urbanised and dispossessed Aboriginal people.
It could also be an important tool for healing many of our most intractable social and health issues.
Let me explain.
In other cultures food is a sacred part of their culture as it is in ours. Nurturing and protecting the animals and plants is central to culture. Just as, say, Jewish people keep kosher, Muslim people stay Halal and Hindu people offer prasad to the deities before meals.
For Aboriginal people it is no different.
In most parts of the continent traditional diets have been largely lost. Replaced with European foods which came with the invaders. This is part of the missionising project of the Australian state. Now Aboriginal people are almost wholly reliant on European foods and it has removed our food sovereignty and all that knowledge and expertise about our food, where to get it, how to prepare it and how to eat it.
Worse, the foods which have replaced these sacred bush foods are the very crops which were the part of the underlying dispossession of the lands themselves. Drive along a country road and see all that sacred land fenced off and what is growing there? Wheat, barley, oats, beef and sheep. All European foods which Aboriginal people continue to consume because of the past attempts to destroy culture.
Farming was the original driving force for the theft of all that land.
One nickname I have for Australia is “the spacious rapacious,” because the initial expansion across the continent wasn’t one of “we’re going to exterminate all you blackfellas solely because you’re not even human and we hate you” – although for some of the Australians I’m sure this was true – I believe it was more like, after seeing the amount of land available to exploit they thought “get out of our way, we’re on the make.”
And any Aboriginal people who didn’t get out of their way paid with their lives.
So now 200 years later I’ve been thinking of a way to clean up my diet, morally, so I don’t support and ingest these foods which aren’t spiritual, are alien and were the very foods of whose production led to so much despair and tragedy for Aboriginal people.
I’ve attempted to create a diet for myself which is 100% cultural.
All bush foods, all native. Just like the ancestors. Koori Kosher.
This is what I have attempted. Other Aboriginal people are starting to put food sovereignty/decolonisation into practise as well. And realising the importance of food sovereignty as political action. I’d love to hear from more people who are doing the same.
First, I scaled back the meat. That’s the easy part.
No fish which isn’t native. A lot is available so that’s not a problem. Seafood too. Muttonfish, Crays, Bugs, Lobster, prawns, yum.
Kangaroo, Crocodile and Emu are fine too, where you can find them.
No beef, no lamb, no chicken, no pork, no bacon, no ham. Oh well.
Fruit is virtually out. Not that the ancestors ate much which was sweet. That was one of the best things about their diet… very low sugar.
It is possible to find finger limes and Davidson’s plum. Which are fruits, but sour.
Other plants are the big problem. There’s Macadamia’s of course, but you can’t live on just them. I use the oil in my cooking when I can.
Some plants are available to grow and my Botany Bay greens are coming along nicely. Nowhere near enough to sustain me meal after meal though.
And the really, really big problem is the staples. I’d love to report I’ve tracked down a steady source of yam varieties and the seeds ready to make johnny cakes to replace my bread.
But I haven’t because they don’t exist to buy as far as I’m aware. In fact, the lady at the native nursery I went to near where I live said it would require a whole paddock just to feed one household for a year on pencil yams the same way potatoes do.
The issue there is that I don’t have a spare paddock to myself, or the time to do any cultivation, or the equipment, etc.
So for now my “Koori Kosher” dream is sitting on the backburner. It doesn’t make me less determined to finally go an entire day, or even week on traditional food. It will happen one day!
It does mean, though, that when I eat Kangaroo I give thanks. I thank the ancestors and I take my time. It is special, spiritual.
There is a far larger dimension to this as well though. One which could go a long way toward shifting the poor dietary health outcomes amongst Aboriginal people at last.
Aboriginal communities need to prioritise reconnecting with our sacred food. The food of the ancestors. It is the gateway to restoring hope, pride, health and culture. Just like language (that’s an article for another day). This is a central plank of self-determination. Especially in urban areas where it is harder to connect with culture, tradition and the bush.
For example, for the many Aboriginal kids removed or estranged from culture, not having language or ceremony, food would be an easy way of connecting directly to culture. Imagine it, the kid says to his friend “I can’t eat McDonalds or drink alcohol because I’m keeping spirit and eating cultural this week. I want to.”
I’m sure it would make people feel proud. Especially if “keeping cultural” with your diet comes from within community, maybe where they also grow and harvest cultural food for their (and other) mobs use.
There’s a fledgling industry for you. Done right. With authority. It would allow economic independence and competence, if not expertise. People in communities would be world experts in their own sacred foods. That’s connecting to country and culture.
As Instone says “food, country, ecological knowledge and care occur within a seamless web that binds people and place. There is no dissociation or division between country, food and culture.”
And for once it wouldn’t be the same old top-down crap we get from governments when it comes to fixing “problems” in communities. Current measures are so alienating. Outside experts, using outside methods to fix outside problems (colonialism) using outside products (like European food). Just the same-old assimilationism we’ve always seen.
But all this can’t be simply as an adjunct to the existing Australian/European culinary culture. Sure sales of cultural food could ensure the survival of potential Aboriginal-run farms but the central point of growing and harvesting the food is for the reclamation of culture, health, power and pride.
Sovereignty, in other words. Food sovereignty.
Lesley Instone, ‘Eating the country’, Journal of Australian Studies, No. 86, 2006, pp. 135-141
Colin Bannerman, ‘Indigenous food and cookery books: Redefining Aboriginal cuisine’, Journal of Australian Studies, No. 87, pp. 19-36.