Is There Life Beyond The Barbie?


According to Sam Kekovich, "our world would be a better place if we just came together as mates over a lamb barbie, just like we do down under." He warns us that "we’re facing a pandemic: UnAustralianism" because "as a planet, we’re not eating enough lamb."

So … mates. That old Australian leveller. Mateship, we’re told, is a core Australian value with roots in the interdependence of convicts, ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli, surf lifesavers and the CFA. Note the blokiness of the string of ubiquitous examples trotted out each time somebody wants to wax lyrical about the egalitarian values of mateship — then try to imagine discussing the "mateship" of the Country Women’s Association.

It seems we have a gender situation on our hands — which is where we would be even without the invocation of "mates" by getting to the "barbie" anyway. The great Australian barbecue is a gendered culinary space and many a woman has sneered about "mates around the barbie" and how little labour most men actually do to prepare or to clean up after a barbecue dinner, let alone to create any of the side dishes. Is this really the inclusive national imagery of over 20 million Australians?

To be fair, if we really want to talk about "national" food, a barbecued meal is well suited to our climate, the freshness of our ingredients and the relatively casual lifestyle of Australians — factors that are to a great degree present across culture and class. So it seemed reasonable enough for Matt Preston to carefully avoid naming a national dish and instead to gesture toward a national style, the barbecued meal (as long as you ignore the common barbie discourses of hyper-masculinity). Maggie Beer backed him up with a similar claim, arguing that to barbecue lamb rather than roast it is more suitably "Australian".

Around Australia Day this year, it wasn’t just the meat lobby who was pushing for discussions of a national dish, there were the usual discussions of national identity and food. Former chef and advocate of local, seasonal foods, Rebecca Varidel conducted an informal poll on Twitter and posted her results which showed more diversity than the roast lamb, meat pie and sausage responses to News Ltd’s poll, including a number of responses asserting the distinctiveness of Australian salads, lightness and ubiquitous seafood.

And yet, when Masterchef finalist Poh Ling Yeow claimed that salt and pepper squid might be emerging as Australia’s national dish, there were some rather strong and negative responses. One food blogger went so far as to assert that he "can’t accept something [his]grandparents never heard of as a national dish", and continued, on the topic of the UK’s chicken tikka masala, "I don’t care that it was invented by an Indian chef in the UK, that makes it Indian, not from the UK."

This is the kind of nationalist fervour more often expressed around questions of religion than food — though the recent petition to remove the halal certification from Vegemite certainly indicates the depth of feeling engendered by food as a national symbol, especially when combined with religious mores.

Here’s the rub: who appointed any of us as authorities on Australia’s national dish? Differences in cultural, class and familial histories will obviously inform the variety of opinions on what constitutes such a thing. And further, chefs and scholars will often bring a critical perspective to the discussion, as evinced by their unwillingness to pin down a singular dish, and their apparent interest in discussing styles, hybridity and what cultural theorist Ien Ang has called "complicated entanglements" which are a necessary condition for "living together-in-difference".

Just as Keating promoted the national benefits of multiculturalism in Australia, so Howard turned it into the "m" word. Where is the leadership that will lead us out of the darkness of dogma and help to reclaim our sense of Australia as a hospitable, cosmopolitan nation ethically engaged with the region and the globe?

It’s also worthwhile asking what’s at stake when so many Australians leap to defend nostalgic Anglo-Celtic meals as the national dish, particularly when for most of them it’s a childhood memory rather than a weekly experience. What happens if we collectively agree that something about the national dish has changed?

Or if we go further and declare that our national dish is now salt and pepper squid? It is arguably more pervasive than roast lamb and certainly cuts across class and culture: salt and pepper squid is loved by punters down at the pub; served with aioli it will win the hearts of most so-called "foodies"; drizzled with Shaoxing wine and five spice, it is a local Chinese hit.

In her 1998 book We Are What We Eat, Donna Gabaccia reminds us that "eating habits both symbolise and mark the boundaries of cultures" and later argues that American "food reveals that we are cosmopolitans and iconoclasts […] We ‘play with our food’ far more readily than we preserve the culinary rules of our varied ancestors."

Similar lines have been advanced about Australian foodways, like Cherry Ripe’s 1993 insistence that "it is not to do with lamingtons or Vegemite, meat pies or sausage rolls, pavlova or peach Melba. We have actually developed a particular, and distinctive, Australian style in our food."

Food historian Barbara Santich reiterated Ripe’s claim a decade later, arguing that "we refer to a contemporary Australian style, the product of inventiveness and a certain insouciance applied to a strong foundation combining familiarity with, and respect for, other culinary traditions."

And yet here we are another decade on, still "debating" whether our national dish should be roast lamb or meat pie, both hangovers of our colonial heritage and both deeply unsuitable as staples for our climate and contemporary cosmopolitan lifestyle.

In Benedict Anderson’s seminal 1983 work on nationalism, Imagined Communities, he argues that although most of us won’t know the vast majority of our compatriots, we have "complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity". Central to Anderson’s conception of how a national community is imagined is that it is reliant on a shared vernacular language. Australia’s multicultural food scene offers a multitude of vernacular foodways and by weaving them all together we build a cosmopolitan society.

The nation I want to imagine myself into is the one built upon our collective openness and committed to maintaining the idiosyncrasies of Australia’s vernacular foodways. And so, 101 ways to cook a squid?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.