Food Culture in the Anthropocene

“For a revolution that supposedly failed, the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s scored a string of enduring victories. Environmentalism, feminism, civil and gay rights, as well as styles of music, fashion, politics, therapy and intoxication: In more ways than many of us realise, we live in a world created by the ‘60s … Hippie Food … makes a convincing case for adding yet another legacy to that list: the way we eat.” Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times Book Review last weekend, reviewing Jonathan Kauffman’s book. The brown rice, tofu, stir fry and lentil stew blandness of that early wave of Asian food was in reaction to the “series of food-processing innovations developed during World War II — powdered soups and juices, cake mixes, dehydrated coffee, etc.” Pollan wrote.

 

In writing about the food culture at the Sydney Opera House from the perspective of the building, how it impacts the architecture, I touched all too briefly on two elements that could have been entire chapters on their own. The logistical demands of events and catering, and the broader cultural impact of the kitchen garden at the Art Gallery of NSW as an element of the landscape planning for the building’s expansion.

Instagrammably pretty food and colourful celebrity chefs provide a focus for talking about food in the short term in the same way that skilled performers in any branch of the arts do but what’s harder to convey because there’s no easy way to observe it over a necessarily long time frame (the seven years I researched my book, for example) is measuring how all of the food businesses within arts precincts are part of the cultural ecosystem.

Catering’s perspective is useful because the food isn’t the first and only focus in the way that it is in a restaurant, it’s part of an entire event and when that event marks a significant milestone — a wedding, anniversary, birthday — there are food types and rituals that are essential to these celebrations: wedding and birthday cakes, champagne and candy on Valentines Day. There’s room for reinterpretation but when the associations and rituals become too bizarre or unrecognisable the food becomes meaningless in a way. I remember reading a story in a science magazine, Technology Today, I think, about the way that Chicago Chef Grant Achatz had taken advantage of the region’s r&d facilities serving fast food manufacturing to take new techniques and processes and apply them to fine food, so deconstructing the elements of a dish, and changing the physical properties of the food at a molecular level that it became unrecognisable. There was mention of a sprig of rosemary being burned, placed in a test tube and stood on a table in front of diners to invoke the sensation of a family roast in an unrecognisable lamb dish. By experimenting too far outside the culture he’d reduced food elements to an abstract, Samuel-Beckett-like series of tics.

Beyond the ritual associations, catering on a large scale taps straight into the issue of how our food is grown. Dan Barber, a chef who has both a farm and restaurant in upstate New York reconsidered the food production system, creating a revised food paradigm that he calls the ‘third plate’: “It was to predict that the future of cuisine will represent a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking about cooking and eating that defies Americans’ ingrained expectations. I was looking toward a new cuisine, one that goes beyond raising awareness about the provenance of ingredients and — like all great cuisines — begins to reflect what the landscape can provide.” The book of his research shows the chef standing back and responding to the produce that results from a varied plant and animal ecosystem that enriches the soil rather than cherry picking individual ingredients. And Rene Redzepi has created a philosophy of responding to regional strangenesses in produce and seasonal limitations, first in Denmark, and also Japan and Australia.

 

The Opera House is so famous globally that in recent years, along with other world famous landmarks, it’s been a handy visual indicator for the global dimension of disasters in sci-fi movies. Seeing phenomenally large and savagely ugly machine monsters lurching up through the water in Sydney Harbour between the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Pacific Rim … or troops of Cybermen stomping in front of the Taj Mahal or Eiffel Tower in Doctor Who… you immediately grasp that the whole world is in peril.

Large scale catered events require massive quantities of food on a one off basis: feeding around 5,000 people for events on New Year’s Eve at the Opera House requires the hiring of at least two cargo shipping crate sized mobile coolrooms and a freezer. And sourcing the food for large events can show the weaknesses of the entire food system. My book covers the period 2011 through 2016, and for the beginning point, and for the first half I was working at Matt Moran’s Aria Catering when Simon Sandall was Executive Chef. Being interested in logistics and systems I was always asking Simon questions about the big picture. It was a time that the wild weather effects of the Anthropocene epoch began to become commonplace. The response to an immense flood in Brisbane in 2011 (that affected Aria’s restaurant in Brisbane when power was knocked out for days) was treated as the rare occurrence disasters had always been: benefit concerts and albums were created. At the Woolworths self-checkout machines you could add a donation to your purchase for a campaign to benefit flood victims. The shelves were practically bare of fresh produce as a result of the regional effects of the flood that hit Brisbane.

 

After that floods and wild weather events became so commonplace no albums and concerts and campaigns were created. It became business as usual. Huge events are planned several months in advance, and though Simon carefully calibrated his menus to seasonal availabilities, as time went on the effects of the weather became more noticeable. Pale and yellowing salad leaves, stressed and parched by drought, misshapen and variously sized fruit and vegetables, an issue when cherry tomatoes for 1,000 canapés need to be the same size, and produce being generally unavailable started to happen more often. It was fascinating watching Simon’s creative process evolve from a strict uniformity of appearance to a presentation style that looked at how elements could be combined visually, by colour and texture as well as flavour, in a way that could be adapted within the theme of the event, if changes needed to be made.

Extreme weather events have brought food culture to an inflection point with as wild a contrast as that of the hippie and convenience food era that Michael Pollan talks about. A bucolic farm-to-table agricultural culture may be increasingly threatened by not just wild but unpredictable weather, potentially affecting growing cycles. And with cities being threatened, with mass evacuations having happened in the last few years in New York and Houston, a city based farming system based on hydroponics is unreliable too if power is to be knocked out.

There are two fascinating responses to this new lack of reliability and safety in everyday life. The first is BladeRunner 2049’s farms. (see photo 2) The natural world is completely dead and what the film calls ‘artificial agriculture’ is the only source of food. In the book of the art and concepts for the film Tanya LaPointe writes: “On the edge of the megacity, Sapper Morton cultivates a high-protein food source called Nematodes. These small, white, stubby worms were biologically designed by Wallace Corporation to become the principal source of nourishment in the world. They are farmed in pools of dirt under plastic domed tents to protect them from outside pollution. Some farmers, like Sapper, use additional bisectors to fertilise their harvest. Denis Villeneuve was thrilled to introduce an exotic farming technology that looked like nothing we’d seen before. ‘Nematodes are very resistant and easy to grow,” he explains. “More importantly, they offer high return on investment.”

And thinking about what luxury and comfort mean in the world today, I’ve been fascinated by Tiffany’s everyday objects … disposable drink cans, tinned food tins, paper cups, rendered in precious metals. They describe it as whimsy. But it’s weirder than that. We may have moved way beyond the concept of canned food and tinned drinks as sparkling innovative cuisine as they were presented in the 1950s but the concept of the emergency kit becomes stronger. (L.A. residents have long been encouraged to keep canned goods, bottled water, first aid kits etc. as an earthquake kit.) The catalogue has its fetish items … Tiffany blue dog leads, and gold paper clips … but stand back and look at it conceptually there’s a shift here, towards street culture (in gritty black and white documentary photographs), of finding beauty in a world of “brutality and chaos” as Denis Villeneuve says of Blade Runner 2049’s. There’s also the ghoulish thought that the “Return to Tiffanys” tags usually on keyrings, worn as pendants, could be useful identifiers at a time of disaster.

In the 1960s the contrast between differing food cultures was between foods that were industrially processed or individually prepared calling upon the wisdom of ancient food cultures. But both depended upon the stability of home and family, however patterns of eating and social interactions were changing. Now the contrast is between a stable food system, whether it be industrial or artisanal, and the possibility that food production may be so disrupted by wild weather that we won’t have a choice as what to eat, we’ll be grateful for anything at all. Do we now have to consider a healthy food system as one that has adequate banks of preserved supplies to respond to a disaster? Do creative chefs now consider that as a necessary element when considering food production’s big picture?

 

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