Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Cultural Cringe and the Unbearable Brownness of Colonial Cooking

My recent foray into Pinterest has revealed a startling trend, cookery friends. Almost every dish I make from the Colonial era is brown. Brown stews, brown pastries, brown puddings and preserves. Yesterday, I even managed to produce a brown drink.

Quite frankly, it's all a bit grim.

Looking at that page of browness, I had a mild existential crisis. All of a sudden, my Pinterest page seemed a terrible metaphor for everything Australian: not just our food, but our culture, our history, and even the vast tracts of suburbia in which I live. What if we, as a nation, could be summed up in that one unremarkable yet slightly grotty colour?

This feeling of rising revulsion at one's own country is what social studies types like to call "cultural cringe". It's a nagging suspicion that one's country isn't much chop, especially when compared to other contenders. The term was invented by my fellow-Melburnian A. A. Phillips in 1950, but the sentiment goes back to the Colonial era, and quite possibly to the settlers of the First Fleet who hopped off the boat and suddenly thought that London wasn't that bad after all.

(You can read about Phillips' essay here, if you too live in a post-colonial nation and want to thoroughly depress yourself.)

After stewing on my concerns all day, I was cringing hard. Lying in bed at night, I suddenly burst out that I was afraid that no one would ever read this blog because of the subject matter - that Australian culture was in fact an absence of culture, and that this condition stretched back to colonisation making Australian history empty of value as well.

My wife, who had been trying to sleep, commented that I was having some type of hormonal shift which she was sure would pass soon.

As I pondered the brownness of my Australian existence, a phrase from an 1865 recipe kept rattling around in my head. That phrase, to describe America in comparison to New South Wales, was "the elder colony". New South Wales was only 77 years old at the time . Compared to America's 258 years, New South Wales (site of the first European settlement in Australia) still had that 'new colony' smell.

Of course, Australian history doesn't start with British colonisation. But Australian culture is unfortunately another story. There are a few hundred Indigenous nations whose continuous history goes back around 50,000 years; and who have members that survived European colonisation. But in effect, the brutality of that colonisation ensured very little cultural continuity between those nations and the one that now inhabits their lands. Colonial Australians did their best to obliterate the Indigenous cultures they interacted with, and as a result our nation missed out on the chance to be rooted in an older culture. I believe that it is as consequence of this that we are very young, an awkward tween to America's swaggering 21-year-old.

Lying in bed with that phrase rattling around in my head, I started to think that perhaps Australia's browness isn't a cultural vacuum, but is instead the awkward national equivalent of a twelve year old trying to decide if they're a goth or a preppy. We're just beginning to realise that we can shape our own identity. It is only natural that as part of that process we are agonising over each similarity and difference between us and our parents.

I came to a conclusion. Instead of being a hopeless case, writing about Australian history and culture (brown though it may be) was an exciting opportunity. Perhaps, in my small way, I could help Australian food culture inch towards an appreciation of its history, even as it discovered its adult identity.

I felt elated, and full of the importance of historical recipe reproduction.

Well, either that or I'd had another hormonal shift.