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How food connects us: in good times and bad

19 minutes

Episode Notes

Do you have a family recipe that keeps you together? Most of us have at least one dish in our repertoire that holds decades of memories – or even family history. Did you revisit that recipe this year? One of Australia’s eminent food historians shares how food keeps us together, even when we are apart – both in good times and times of crisis, and why your family recipes help you through hard times.

Female Voice:      [00:02] Hi, Ginger. You asked about family recipes. My Grand-mum [Nan] used to make the best coconut ice, but she never used a recipe. After she died, we realised no one had ever thought to write the recipe down and we tried lots of different recipes, but we just couldn’t make a coconut ice as good as Nan’s.

                              About 30 years later, I was mentioning how much we miss Nan’s coconut ice to my sister-in-law and she said, “I’ve got Nan’s recipe. She wrote it down for me.” And she gave me this torn-off slip of paper in Nan’s spidery writing with the recipe and it’s every bit as good as we remember.

Male Voice:          The first time I remember being productive in the kitchen, and I use wiggly fingers around the word ‘productive’ because when I was maybe five or six in Scotland and I was allowed in my [01:00] grandpa’s kitchen. No one was allowed in my grandpa’s kitchen.

                              And so, I helped him, and again, wiggly fingers around the word ‘helped’, to make his chicken soup. It’s the stuff that sticks to your ribs in the cold Scottish winters. It’s the stuff that fixes colds, and flus, and broken bones and everything. You name it, my grandpa’s chicken soup fixes it.

Ginger Gorman:    So, tell me something. How is the food that you cook at your home connected to your own family history?

Elias:                     [inaudible 01:35] even though between the chicken and rice. It’s far more than that. It’s chicken that’s been marinated in garlic and allspice, and seasoning. Traditionally, you’re meant to use that rice as stuffing for the chicken, but the way my mum does it is just [decorative]. It’s almost like a deconstructed stuffed chicken with rice.

Ginger:                  Elias was born and raised in Sydney. His family are Lebanese on his mum’s side and Palestinian on his dad’s [02:00] side. Now, he lives in London and when he moved so far from home, the thing he found himself missing the most was actually his mum’s cooking.

Elias:                     I remember trying to make it the first time and having my mum on FaceTime and my mum just had this big grin on her face when I told I was making [inaudible 02:18] and stuff like that. It was a really memorable FaceTime session. And yeah, as you can imagine, ever since then, cooking and food had become much more of a dominant topic in our chats than usual.

                              We talked about tradition, we talked about the history of the recipes and the family, and we talked about where the ingredients come from. And tried to pin down where her mum learnt the recipes and where her mother-in-law, my father’s mum, learnt the recipes.

Ginger:                  Elias’ story is both unique and pretty typical at the same time. And that’s really the thing about food, isn’t it? Most of us have at least one dish or recipe in our repertoire that holds not only beautiful flavours, but decades [03:00] of memories or even generations of family history.

Elias:                     I never got the chance to meet my paternal grandmother on my dad’s side and I have vague memories of my maternal grandmother on my mum’s side because she died when I was about six years old. So, in many ways, when I’m cooking these dishes that have been passed on to my mum and been given to me is like building a bridge for me to both of my grandmothers because they sacrificed a lot to come to Australia.

                              I really feel those sacrifices keenly and really wondered, “Oh, my God, I’m cooking this dish that my grandmother, whichever one, cooked like 50 years ago, 70 years ago.” It just makes me go into a rubber hole, thinking, “Wow, my family has been really lucky to climb up the social ladder in so many ways because both of my grandmothers were illiterate and both of them came from poor families. So, it’s just making me wonder what they went through, what ingredients they had access to at the time and how I’m so lucky to be able to access these ingredients today [04:00].

Ginger:                  So, why is food so much more than just a source of sustenance and why does it unite not just families, but often whole communities?

Barbara Santich:   I know food can be value laden, but it can also be value neutral and I think that is one way in which it can help, in a way, break down barriers, but reinforce community.

Ginger:                  This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman.

                              Today on the pod, I’m looking at how food connects us in the good times and in times of crisis.

                              Barbara Santich is one of Australia’s most esteemed food historians. She’s Professor Emeritus in the History Department at the University of Adelaide [5:00].

                              When the pandemic hit Australians back in March 2020, first we panicked and emptied the supermarkets of staples, so stuff like dry pasta, rice and frozen veggies.

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                Because people weren’t used to making do and not having a vast pantry that they used to, instead of thinking, “Today’s Monday. Well, it must be shepherd’s pie,” the attitude today is, “I’ll open my pantry, I’ll open my fridge, I’ll go to the supermarket. What do I think I might do?” And that availability 24 hours a day in some instances, seven days a week, that has been with people for so long that they’ve forgotten how to make a meal out of almost nothing.

Ginger:                  Then we got bored, or at least some of us did, and people started turning to things like cooking and baking to pass the time. And I’m sure you’ll probably remember that loads of people started sharing [06:00] pictures of their perfect dinners and their perfect sourdough on Instagram.

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                If you’re at home, working at home, as an awful lot of people were and still are, then you do have the time to do it because it doesn’t take a lot of time in total, but it does need that attention at certain times. And so, it was not everybody who was making sourdough bread.

                              It was those who had the knowledge, those who had the means, those who were allowed to work at home. Not everybody could work at home. Essential workers couldn’t work at home. They couldn’t make sourdough. So, it was confined toa certain group of people that might be described as having cultural capital and gastronomic capital.

Ginger:                  It’s really interesting, Barbara. So, you saw it sort of as an elitist thing almost.

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                Yes, I did. It did become competitive because it’s not an easy thing to do to make really good sourdough bread. And so, if you do succeed, [07:00] then yes, you probably feel like this is worth bragging about.

Ginger:                  So, what does all this say about modern Australians?

                              One way to answer this question is to actually look back and think about how Australia responded to historic crises, the big ones, like the World Wars and the Depression.

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                Those days were very different. It was a very different Australia, a very different Australian society, a much more homogenous society. And people tended to do the same things. Everybody would have a roast on Sunday. Everybody would make that roast last for another couple of meals. There were standard dishes. There was a much more limited repertoire of dishes than people have today.

                              Today, we have a huge amount of diversity in what we eat and what we cook, what we expect to eat and what [08:00] we expect to be able to cook. And we get this from social media, we get it from television, we get it from all sorts of influences. Another thing is that people were used to making do with little. Their pantry contained perhaps less than half of the staples that we would have in our pantry.

Ginger:                  Is it possible that that was helpful in a crisis whereas now, because we expect that we can get soya sauce, we expect that we can get pasta, we expect that we can get flour very easily, when we can’t get those things, we almost don’t have the skills to make do, whereas my Nanna, for example, who lived through the Depression and so forth, she could actually make a meal from almost nothing.

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                Yes, because they tend to think that they need a much bigger pantry and a much bigger variety of ingredients. We have so much choice now in the supermarkets, which is where something like 71% of our food comes from that was not available to people who were living 100 Years ago. [09:00]

                              We have, say, four varieties of peanut butter. We have 10 varieties of oatmeal. Everything comes in more than one variety. It’s not just a product. It’s a product in 10 different guises. You’re expected to choose between those. That’s not a choice that people had to make 100 years ago.

Ginger:                  When we think about the Depression, how did people behave in terms of trying to make sure their family had enough despite perhaps not having food supply, despite perhaps not having very much money or any money to feed their families?

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                There was food relief packages that were set up by the various state governments in various ways, either in kind or in coupons that you could take to the butcher and get so much worth of meat. So, those were set up by the different state governments.

                              During the flu epidemic, there were voluntary groups set up by churches [10:00] and volunteers to provide food and clothing and medicine to families that were affected or to people who needed it. That’s a very different situation to what we have now.

Ginger:                  And what about things like gardening and growing your own food as a way to get a more constant, but also a cheaper food supply?

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                First of all, there were a lot more people living in rural towns and on farms. So, there was more opportunity and more need, in a way, to grow your own than there is now because we’ve got supermarkets that they didn’t have. Growing your own vegetables was also encouraged during the Depression.

                              There have been no statistics gathered as to how effective that was, but when they did start to gather statistics on home production as a percentage of total Australian production, and this was in the mid-1950s, I think. In the mid-1950s [11:00], home production of eggs was 46% of total production. So, that means that an awful lot of people had a few chooks in the backyard. Home vegetable production was about 10% of total vegetable production. So, again, that’s really a significant contribution to supply.

Ginger:                  I wonder how communities used food to connect or to support each other in that time.

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                I think that there was more sharing of foods. It was 32%, I think it was, at the peak of the Depression were unemployed and there weren’t so many women working then. So, if that was the head of the family, then that’s an awful lot of households that are not getting any money.

                              A lot of men, as you know, went swagging and people generally helped them. There were lots of anecdotal reports of people going to a house, knocking on the door and getting something in return for [12:00] chopping some wood or doing some odd jobs. People were willing to help. It was not just a donation. There was something both ways.

Ginger:                  What about that notion of self-sufficiency you were talking about? Is it just individuals that are wanting to be self-sufficient or is it something we need to strive towards more as a nation?

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                Oh, I think we need to strive more as a nation and I think that this has been recognised not just in food, but for other things, whether it’s blankets, or whether it’s T-shits. And those things can be made much more cheaply somewhere else and so, we get them from somewhere else. So, there has been a call for some time for more self-sufficiency in Australia in all sorts of areas, not just in food. We grow the food, but we probably need to do more of the processing and packaging and whatever.

                              We’ve had this [13:00] policy, especially in seafood, where our most expensive seafood or the most valued seafood goes overseas because people there are willing to pay more for it than people here. And it would be good to see a greater use of Australian produce and reduce the dependency on imported products in many of the categories, in which there is now a high proportion of imported products.

Ginger:                  I can imagine some commentators would hear what you are saying and throw their arms up in horror and say, “This is very protectionist what you’re actually suggesting.” How would you respond to that idea?

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                Yes, I think that it also comes down to us, all of us, being prepared to pay more for our food and for our T-shirts, for that matter, [14:00] because we’ve got so used to getting things cheaply to buying on price and the supermarkets have fostered this. I will accuse them of that. They have fostered the fact that buying on price is what you do. The cheaper, the better. And I do think that we have to get rid of the cheap food mentality and pay a proper price.

Ginger:                  It’s interesting the way in which the pandemic has really exposed a lot of our vulnerabilities as a community, as individuals, but as a nation as well. I don’t think anyone ever dreamed that you couldn’t buy toilet paper or flour, for that matter, because I am a baker. I bake all the time.

                              And it was interesting though because some people did start using polenta and other things. There were actually threads of discussion about what can you use instead. And I actually loved those discussions because I thought it was bringing out the resourcefulness of humanity and that doesn’t go away. That’s happened in history, but it can [15:00] happen now if we need it.

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                Yes. Well, if you can’t make a chocolate cake because you haven’t got any flour, perhaps you’ll make some oatmeal cookies.

Ginger:                  Yeah, that’s right.

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                No, you won’t make oatmeal cookies. You’d make oatmeal biscuits.

Ginger’s Mum:     Are we going to do all eight mangoes?

Ginger:                  I don’t know. They’re big ones.

Ginger’s Mum:     I think you might have to put them in the food processor because they’re quite firm.

Ginger:                  Do you want a better knife than that?

Ginger’s Mum:     No, that’s fine.

Ginger:                  Remember when I said that most of us have at least one dish or recipe in our repertoire that connects us to our family history? That’s me and my mum making our special family recipe, mango mousse.

Ginger’s Mum:     I often used to make it for dinner parties, but you loved it.

Ginger:                  It says ‘well drained’, so were you using canned mangoes?

Ginger’s Mum:     No, I never did. I always used fresh ones and if I couldn’t get fresh ones, I didn’t, you know, so I only made it in summer, basically.

Ginger:                  The problem [16:00] with it is it never sets.

Ginger’s Mum:     Well, I use leaf gelatine. I always use it. I have done for years, ever since a German aunt showed me the leaf gelatine more than 30 years ago.

Ginger:                  It’s funny because Kitty, obviously she’s only seven, but she keeps asking you to make it for my birthday or Christmas because she knows it’s my favourite.

Ginger’s Mum:     Well, I think we’ll splash out then and make it.

Ginger:                  Whatever your family traditions happen to be in December and January, this year they might feel really different. With restrictions on travel and limits on how many people can gather in one home, what will Christmas lunch look like for Australians in 2020? Here’s Barbara Santich again.

Barbara:                Family gatherings won’t happen in the same way, but perhaps what people will do is they will eat the same things that they have, say, always ate, whether it’s Nanna’s potato [17:00] salad or whatever it is. They’ll agree to eat the same things and then in a way, they’re sort of sharing in the way that the thanksgiving turkey unites all of America.

Ginger:                  That’s a really beautiful idea because I was imagining all these lonely people separated in their own houses, feeling miserable on some of those really important festive occasions. Of course, I’m not suggesting for a moment that everyone in Australia celebrates Christmas.

                              But there are certain times, even like New Year’s Eve where we do get together, we do eat mangoes and we do eat prawns or whatever it is. So, you’re suggesting that possibly if I’m in my house in Canberra and someone I love is in their house in Perth, we’re eating the same potato salad as a way to connect, even though we’re miles away and we’re on Zoom.

Professor Emeritus Barbara:                Exactly, yes. That’s what is called commensality, eating together at the same table. And you can eat at the same table without being physically at the same table [18:00]. You can do it by eating the same thing, but certainly not at the same table, but it gives them that feeling of togetherness.

Ginger:                  Thanks for listening to Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman.

                              Next time, we’re connecting communities. How do good neighbours become good friends?

                              If you liked the pod, spread the word. Share a link on your social channels. Review us and tell your friends. See you next time.

[End of recorded material 18:40]

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