Nice Work in the Kitchen


2009 was the year of the kitchen. The finale of Masterchef commanded an audience of over 3.7 million as families all over Australia tuned in to see who would win the golden spoon: the roseate Julie with her perfect pink lamb, or the flamboyant Poh with yet another whimsical Chinese-Malaysian inspired construction featuring an ingredient of which no one had ever heard.

Meanwhile small children everywhere plated up their Play-Doh in a nest of wattle blossom and waited for the inevitable applause.

A new cooking craze was born.

2009, we were encouraged to think, was the year Australians wanted to play nice on television. Out with that potty-mouthed scallywag Gordon Ramsay and in with the cravated charms of Matt Preston, our own home-grown man mountain: a seismic shift in attention which might help to explain why The Chaser fell from grace, why Kyle got the boot, why Hey Hey fell flat, and why a biscuit changed its name.

In 2007, The Chaser could do no wrong, well almost. Having single-handedly brought down the Howard government with their APEC stunt, it might be remembered that The Chaser‘s capacity to offend was exemplified by Andrew Hansen’s "Eulogy Song" which playfully satirised the lives of a number of recently dead people, upsetting not only John Howard but also Kevin Rudd. Both stood up for the supposedly offended Australian public — who apparently wanted more of the boys.

Cut to 2009, and the third season of The Chaser’s War on Everything was brought to an abrupt halt by a sketch which was probably trying to say something clever about sick children and cancer — if only someone could have worked out what the point of it was. Having sailed so close to the wind for so long in the name of edgy comedy, The Chaser‘s satiric sloop was scuppered on the rocks of the new niceness. "Enough," everyone chorused.

Also scuppered was Kyle Sandilands whose career as the "nasty" judge on Australian Idol was terminated following a very nasty radio moment on 2Day FM when a 14-year-old admitted to having been raped whilst undergoing a lie detector test as part of a regular segment on the afternoon show Kyle co-hosted with Jackie O. While hardly solely responsible for a segment dreamed up and endorsed by the show’s producers which had run for a number of years, Sandilands bore the brunt of the public’s ire — inflamed by a self-righteous media suddenly eager to uphold ethical standards and the need to play nice with unsuspecting members of the public.

A public, it might be noted, that included a sizeable audience for the resurrected Hey, Hey Its Saturday, a show in which the persona of the nasty judge had long played a vital role. Red Symons re-invented himself as an avuncular presence on Australia’s Got Talent, but back in Hey Hey‘s prime it was Red who banged the gong on the Red Faces segment and told the would-be talent what everyone was thinking but was too nice to say on television.

With over 2.6 million people watching, Hey Hey was finally called to account for their racial politics by Harry Connick Jr who suggested that white folks dressing up in blackface and fuzzy hair in order to mimic the Jackson Five was simply not acceptable anymore. This appeared to come as a surprise to Daryl Somers and the producers of the show who had endorsed the segment — as well as to a considerable chunk of the public who hadn’t realised that this was no longer a nice thing to do. It was perfectly nice 20 years ago, after all. The boundaries of good taste, it would appear, are mutable — which brings us to biscuits.

In the aftermath of the Hey Hey incident, a moment which sparked a great deal of healthy debate about what does or does not constitute racism in Australia today — a chocolate and vanilla biscuit fell foul of the new niceness.

Sam Watson, the deputy director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland wrote to the Coles Supermarket chain protesting that their so-called Creole biscuit reflected a "deep undercurrent of racism in white Australian society". (Presumably Watson has not yet got to the Australian brand of cheddar cheese known as "Coon", something Harry Connick clearly doesn’t know about or he would probably cancel all his Australian tours forthwith.)

The word "creole", as my Compact Oxford Dictionary tells me, was originally used by African slaves to describe their children born in America and derives from a number of possible French and Spanish verbs to do with breeding. As far as I can tell, the word "creole" has less to do with colour and much with where one comes from.

This is evident when we go back into the kitchen. There, the term "creole" signals the fusion of original influences to accommodate what is locally available — as in the West African-inspired cuisine of Louisiana. I can see Matt Preston licking those lascivious lips even now. Creolisation in the kitchen is clearly a good thing — although whether one dares to call it that is another matter entirely.

One person’s delectable creolisation is, it seems, another person’s totally unacceptable term. All which brings us to the inevitable conclusion that not even Masterchef may be safe from the new niceness it has done so much to engender. One can only wait.

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