Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Threads in Australian life and history

While this doesn’t always happen, I think of Wednesday as my Australiana day. It’s sort of a chance to stand back, to unwind.

In a comment on Sunday Essay – the niqab, Cory Benardi and questions of feminism, Evan commented in part: ”I think part of the story of recent history is the increasing role of money in our private lives and the outsourcing of the private (eating in cafes, buying fast food, domestic gardening and cleaning) - the 'woman's world'.”

In my own short history of the genesis of the women’s revolution compressed into two columns each of 500 words (History revisited – bobbed hair & the start of a revolution, History revisited – the women’s revolution) I concluded:

I doubt that the women’s revolution could have happened without these two things, labour saving devices plus improvements in health care. Labour saving devices gave women extra time while still maintaining family responsibilities. Improvements in health care meant that women had to spend less time in child rearing. The combination led to a social revolution.

In a way, Evan’s comment captures another element of Australian life. Now with two careers plus family responsibilities, we have to outsource what we can. We are all just so very, very busy.

If you look at Under the Tuscan Sun or, more recently, The Hundred Foot Journey, they feature food and family dining, if in different ways. Watching the audience reaction to both movies, there is a sort of nostalgic hunger for more leisurely days when people could take the time to eat together. In Australia, it is the migrant groups including the Italians and Chinese who have maintained this tradition. Most of us are just too damn busy to eat together.

My most recent Armidale Express History Revisited column was given the headline by the sub-editor Belshaw’s brief history of measuring the time.  That’s pretty accurate, for I was tracing the emergence of the modern tyranny of time. This is very recent indeed, for you couldn’t have the tyranny of time without time measuring devices at personal and work level, without the segmentation of the day into discrete time blocks. Once you have this, then you can focus on getting maximum results from any block or blocks of time. Then you can make yourself an expert in (victim of) time management.

In his history of Australian food, One Continuous Picnic, Michael Symons argues that Australian food owes less to "Englishness" and even to immigration than to the early industrialisation of our food supply. Symons appears to have fallen in love with Tuscany in the 1970s, the Tuscany of the rustic idyll and long lunch, the Tuscany that so many Australians are in love with today. That colours his view.

Unlike Tuscany, Symons states, Australia has been bereft of a peasant culture. We have almost exclusively nourished ourselves with a "mechanised, chemicalised and rationalised" version of factory food, far removed from the point of its origin. To Symons’ mind, the creation of a unique Australian national cuisine is an opportunity missed. Between the late 1800s and early 20th century, before the processing and industrialisation of food took full hold, Australia had city farms and markets and a host of keen, cosmopolitan gourmets.

There is at least some truth in that view. In Black Kettle and Full Moon, an examination of daily life in a now vanished Australia, Geoffrey Blainey heads one chapter “Feed the man meat”. Unlike Europe, meat was cheap and plentiful in the Australian colonies. In a day when meat was plentiful but spoiled easily, butchers and butcher shops were everywhere. By contrast, vegetables were harder to find unless you grew them yourself. Flour, meat and tea formed the heart of diet. Yet, and this comes through in Blainey’s book, Australians then ate a greater variety of foods across the colonies than would be the case later.

I don’t fully understand the changing pattern of Australian food. Like other aspects of Australian domestic life, our documentation of the past is actually quite recent. There are many stories to be discovered and told. But then, that’s part of the fun of history.

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