Monday, December 21, 2009

A Recap on the State of Higher Education in Australia

It's time to pull a number of disparate pieces on issues facing the academy into one place, so why not do it here on my nuts eclectic blog?

Finally, I'd like to finish by pasting in the feedback I received to an email I sent out to a number of sessionals (all postgrads or ECRs, mostly from Arts) at Melbourne University. I asked them: 1) are they paid for guest lecturing, 2) are they provided with office space, and 3) are there other issues with underpayment or unpaid work? Here are their responses in full, with identifying details removed:


December 2009

1

I have done guest lectures this semester at Melbourne and was paid for them- they were repeats from the year before. I also did some at Deakin and was amazed by how little I was paid as they didn't seem to have a rate for new lectures (i.e. that you have to write the whole damn thing up and spend about 10 hours on it if you're never given it before). In this regard, Melbourne seems to be taking into account the work required to generate a new lecture.

At Deakin there is no office space per tutor, but you can apply for a room throughout the semester at a specific time so you can set up a regular consultation time or work before or after classes. I've never taken advantage of this, but it's a nice gesture. You would know the score in Culture and Communication where there is little provision even for sessional coordinators. I'm sure Melbourne would want to at least meet what Deakin is offering.

The biggie in terms of unpaid work at Deakin is the online components of subjects. They have many off-campus students and the students in general seem to use the online sites (the equivalent of the LMS) much more than I've ever seen at Melbourne. We don't ordinarily get paid for this time, but I would always spend maybe 8-10 hours per week on there.

The biggest problem is using sessionals year-in, year-out. In the study I did at Deakin, I found that there were people who had been sessional tutors for 5-10 years, many of whom wanted an ongoing position. One guy at Deakin just got an award for 14 years service or something similar. People should not be sessionals for this long and there needs to be "stepping stone" positions that have a little more job security, but may not have all the trappings of tenure.

2

  1. I have given a 25 minute lecture (there were three of us making up the entire lecture with 25-minute talks) and no one was paid -- as far as I can tell.

    2) we don't get space as a casual tutor, but I have one as a PhD student, luckily.

    3) I was tutoring in a subject that required us to post and respond to an LMS question every week. This took up a fair bit of time, with no payment to account for it.

3

    1. Yes I am paid to give lectures. But unless lectures are asked for they are not given to postgrads in our department. I only got one lecture this year and I had to literally beg for it. This is not the coordinators' fault, the school has no money!
    2. We have office space but it is shared. The worst I experienced this year was one desk and computer for 25 tutors!
    3. I had to mark blogs this semester and I was only paid for 1200 words each while the blogs were supposed to be 2000 words each. It was also made clear to students that they wouldn't be penalised for writing more than the 200 words. I was marking up to 5000 words and being paid for 1200.

    My main gripe is that there is no way a department (particularly in Arts) can give you any sort of career path or reward long service. I have tutored 10 semesters of classes and will have to apply with everyone else next semester while rationing my money over the summer break with no guarantees.

4

While I was paid an hourly rate for guest lecturing, the figure really didn't represent the work in preparation to give the lecture, so I would say that in my experience guest lecturing is pretty underpaid. Especially if, as a tutor for a subject, you are asked to give multiple guest lectures. Instead of recognition as co-coordinator, or what have you, it seems cheaper and easier to be designated as a guest lecturer...

I had office space, but this was only because I'd applied for one as a postgrad through my department, i.e. there was no relation between my work as a tutor and having this office space. Even though I was one of the lucky ones, and I do realise this, the conditions were definitely less than ideal, since students would come for consultations while office mates would be in the room. An uncomfortable inconvenience for all involved - and who's to say which of us had the most right to the room at the time?

There is a finite provision for payment for student consultations - you probably know what this is, I've forgotten. Perhaps five hours per semester? Anyway, this is supposed to include all email correspondence, as well as a weekly office hour, which we are obliged to offer. That's right - the school/coordinator creates this expectation in the students that there is a weekly office hour to meet with tutors, but at the same time, tutors are told by admin at the end of semester that they will only be paid for 5, or 8, or whatever the set figure is. Let me say that this is a pretty clear example of pressure to do unpaid work! In any case, students come by outside of this office hour, and email traffic is enormous. QOT forms at the end of the teaching period ask so many questions about whether students felt like their teaching staff were supportive/available if they didn't understand material, etc, so obviously this is a major issue to do with the quality of the school. But not one they are willing to their staff pay for.

I'm sure I'm merely one in a large chorus, but hope this helps,

5

1 - Yes, I'm paid to give guest lectures and have never been asked to do so without pay

2 - As a casual tutor I share an office - there are two small offices between 20 tutors which is woefully insufficient and despite the timetabling of office hours to try and ensure they don't clash, they often do. It it is very difficult to listen to student concerns when other tutors are coming and going at the same time.

3 - I think that casual academics in this particular school are basically treated with respect and fairness. We could always get paid more but more of an issue is the lack of career paths - in other areas (eg natural sciences) there are a lot more research fellow positions that people can move into post PhD before going on to an academic B (academic A appointments seem to have died out) but in the Arts/social sciences these are few and far between. The university should be doing a lot more to create early-career academic positions as they will need these people to take over when the baby-boomers all retire.

6

I would love to respond to your questions! I have been employed at the university as a casual lecturer and tutor over the last two years.

1) I have always been paid for guest lectures and they are offered as paid work.

2) But with no office space. I have been using the communal postgrad office space which can disruptive to others if students wish to discuss anything.

3) The main issue i have with payment for work is pay negotiations that are still happening when a job is offered, which holds up a contract being drawn up. Postgrads should have time to be able to consider these details before accepting the job, but unfortunately there have been instances where this has not yet been resolved before teaching begins.

7

  1. We are not paid to give guest lectures, but we are told in advance that
    they will be unpaid. So far I have successfully negotiated with individual
    course coordinators that I be paid out of their teaching relief fund. I
    cannot speak for others.

    2. The school offers casual tutors use of two shared rooms with shared
    pcs, but tutors can only use them temporarily (i.e. to the best of my
    knowledge there is no lockable space )

    3. Tutors are not paid to attend lectures, although many do, especially in
    their first year of teaching a subject. More alarmingly, tutors are
    expected to attend meetings with their course coordinators but are not
    paid to do this. I have managed to wrangle pay out of one coordinator,
    declined to meet AT ALL with another for the entire semester of teaching
    (to the course's detriment) and had to pay one of my own tutors out of my
    own pocket when I was the coordinator for a course.

8

The issue I have with sessional teaching at Melbourne perhaps doesn't easily fit into some of the questions you've asked - even the last one.

Tutorial and lecture preparation time is underpaid. The simple rule here is to only work for the hours you get cash for. However, it's completely unrealistic, and prone to cases of self-exploitation from dedicated sessionals with a commitment to high standards. The University knows this, and it's a difficult issue maintain an argument on - for one thing, it gets caught up in the differing perspectives on the quantity and quality of 'knowledge work' measurable within a particular time frame. This is different from a set period of delivering material to a class.

Semester bleed is another issue I'm sure that you've heard about already: cases of late work, plagiarism and administrative commitments drag on well beyond the last paycheck.

Something else that bothers me is the inflexibility of coordination of course materials, subject descriptions and course design. To some extent, this covers both sessional and tenured staff - for cutting-edge programs to be developed there needs to be some modification of the massive lead-in to subject proposals (two years advance for the structure of assessment criteria in some cases) - nevertheless it impacts more on the quality of teaching from sessional coordinators since they often cannot deliver material effectively within an outdated framework and have little authority or recourse to adapt structures or the security to take risks (or even the paid hours to manage innovating subjects). This affects labour practices in the sense of morale and quality of teaching, paid or otherwise.

Oh, and also - don't get me started on new media and labour! The celebrated blogging software from University of Melbourne is a time-sink and massive case of exploitative teaching practice. Not sure if anyone has mentioned this yet.

9

I've just finished up as a sessional lecturer/tutor/course co-ordinator this semester, and wanted to give some feedback.

Overall, I think I had things comparitively good - office space, good admin support etc - but there were a couple of points I think it's worth raising. The main issue I encountered was the assumption that teaching stopped with the final lecture. Given that both the major essay and the exam were after this date, I was effectively not paid at all for the fairly extensive consultation I felt obliged to give students in those weeks. More importantly, from both mine and the students' perspectives, I think there's a problem with the assumption that casuals will always be available both during holidays and well into the following semester. When a student has, say, special consideration and is submitting after the due date, there may actually be no one connected with the course around to mark it. Hope this of some help!

10

No i have never been paid to give a guest lecture - I'm always just told that it will look good on my CV but it doesn't really to put down a whole lot of separate guest lectures when i have also had an actual lecturing position.

Usually there is one space offered for all the tutors but cause so many people use it i often had to find another space for tutor consults outside of my allocated hour.

The extra assignments or short answer questions that some of the subjects have on a weekly basis take up a lot of time and are mostly unpaid for tutors.

11

1) did not have an office

2) did more work than the hours I was paid for. That was mainly preparation and marking.

Now - what's your experience? We need as many voices as possible if we ever hope to have an impact! Collectively, we have power to see real sectoral change - individually, we might be able to fight for ourselves, but we won't see institutional and national improvements.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why I resigned from the University of Melbourne Council

Here's the article I had published in Crikey on Wednesday 9 December 2009.

Melbourne university post grad student Tammi Jonas writes:

On Monday, I resigned from the University of Melbourne Council in protest against the University's exploitation of its casual labour force, which is largely made up of postgraduate students. I myself was asked to teach a seminar for free that I had previously been paid to present, and chose to use my own example to fight for the many others who are all too frequently put in this untenable position.

You can read my resignation in yesterday's Crikey, or else on my blog, as well as the email inviting me to teach for free. The withdrawal of my labour from an exploitative system is a strategic and ideological choice I started to make a few years ago when I opted out of tutoring in the Arts Faculty, where remuneration and conditions are woeful, as they are at so many Australian universities.

So a few facts: casual staff are delivering about 50% of the university sector's teaching, Data from DEEWR also shows that there are more women than men employed as casuals, which has particular implications for women with children, who we know are still doing the lion's share of caring for children. Casual staff have no paid leave and no job security, let alone a clear career pathway. As the sector grapples with understanding how it will replenish its ageing workforce, it continues to employ people under casual contracts with no plan to integrate them into the future workforce. Meanwhile, some 60% of Australia's PhD graduates leave the sector entirely, a figure that has been climbing steadily for many years.

So what does all of this mean to the average postgrad who thinks, 'great, I'd love to teach!' There is great disparity in wages and conditions between institutions – I'm assured that Melbourne University is by no means the worst offender.

Many tutors attend lectures as part of their preparation for tutorials, but at most institutions this is unpaid. The Head of the School of Political and Social Sciences at Melbourne has informed his casual staff that “Tutorials are not designed to go over lecture content – they should be capable of standing alone. Where they are merely going over lecture content, they are not doing what they are designed to do.”

This is a total furphy – of course tutorials are designed to support the lecture content, though not to slavishly 'go over' it. Would he be happy if the lecture that week was on racism in the media and the tutorial was on feminism in India? This same head of school also asserts that there is no need for face-to-face meetings between subject coordinators and tutors, and that the “LMS [an online space for learning materials, with discussion forums] seems a suitable format in which staff can communicate with each other.”

This is his justification for not paying for meetings – whilst tutors spend MORE UNPAID time on the LMS. Tutors are also often asked to give guest lectures without pay, sometimes 'lucky' to receive a bottle of wine. A lecture can take up to a week to prepare when you're doing it for the first time, so even when it is paid at the rate of 3 hours per hour of delivery, it's totally insufficient.

Many tutors are not provided with any office space in which to work or consult with students, and those who are must share an office, which can be very awkward if meeting with a distressed student. Those without offices meet with students in cafes or other public places, which is even more awkward with a distressed student.

Many casual staff talk about 'semester bleed', whereby they must attend to issues around academic misconduct and students contesting their marks well after their contract has finished. And a number of universities don't even pay for end of semester marking, which can take dozens of hours to complete. It is unconscionable that institutions whose very raison d'etre is to contribute to the global public good are exploiting their least powerful members. The old 'we don't do it for the money' argument has worn thin.

I say no matter WHY we do it, they're going to have to pay us.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Stop the Exploitation of Casual Labour in Universities!

At the recent State of the Industry conference in Sydney, there was a great deal of talk about the exploitation of casual labour in universities, especially that provided by postgraduate students. The very next week, I was invited to teach a seminar for free that I have been paid to deliver for nearly two years. In outrage and out of solidarity with others in similar situations, I decided to resign immediately from my position on Melbourne University Council and use the example to reinvigorate the long-standing campaign to improve remuneration and conditions for casual academics. I somewhat naively thought that I would send my email to the University Council, receive a dismayed response, and continue with the campaign in my role next year as President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA). I say naive, because somebody immediately leaked the email to Crikey. Since it's now public, but behind a paywall, here is the email, with two minor omissions to attempt to protect the privacy of staff members who are not willingly complicit in this system of exploitation, and who should not be placed in such a position as to have to ask postgrads for free labour.

CAPA will be very active next year in attempting to secure better remuneration and conditions and improved career pathways for casual academics, as well as more access to resources and collegial cultures, and we hope to work closely with the NTEU on this. I urge all casual academics to make your voices heard, and to withdraw your labour if it is not being appropriately rewarded, if you are in a position to do so. For those in better circumstances, I urge you to show your support for the others!

The email in question:

Dear Chancellor and fellow Councillors,

It is with disappointment that I submit my immediate resignation as a member of the Melbourne University Council.

Below is an email I received from a staff member at the Melbourne School of Graduate Research inviting me to teach a seminar for which I have been paid these past two years for free, due to lack of funding. (The staff member, by the way, was mortified to be put in this position, and has always been a great proponent for paying the presenters, as well as an excellent coordinator.) As most of you will know, I have been campaigning against the exploitation of casual labour, especially that of our postgraduate students, at both the campus level as President of UMPA (now the GSA) last year and nationally as VP for the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) this year. I was elected 2010 President of CAPA last week, and intend to continue advocating for casuals in that role.

You may or may not know that the Arts Faculty made a 'strategic decision' to stop paying for guest lectures last year, which has put countless postgraduate students in the position of offering or agreeing to teach the lectures for free in the belief that it will be good for their careers - never mind the many unpaid hours it takes them to prepare and teach, which is often in addition to paid work elsewhere. The GSA and CAPA believe this situation is absolutely outrageous and indefensible.

I will not be teaching any of this or other universities' subjects for free, and nor do I encourage any other students to do so. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have a scholarship are, as CAPA publicised last year, living just below the Henderson Poverty Line. The small increase in APAs won by CAPA for next year will nudge the scholarship just above the poverty line. And yet a university with a billion dollar budget has the gall to tell us that it does not have the resources to pay for our labour. I for one am responding by withdrawing my labour entirely from this system of exploitation, and strongly encourage others who can to do the same. We can all at least agree not to teach for free, but also where possible, not to teach under the appalling remuneration and conditions facing casual tutors.

As a Councillor, I am clearly not in a position to speak out about the outrageous, unethical management decisions being made by Melbourne University, and so I would like my resignation to be accepted immediately. It is also against my own ethical position to remain on a governance body that will allow the University to continue to move in this direction, where its least powerful members are so desperately undervalued. I would also bring to the Council's attention that across the sector, sessionals are doing over 50% of the teaching, and postgraduates make up 57% of the sector's research and development output. What is strategic about disenfranchising this labour force?

I wish you all well as you endeavour to govern an unmanageable state of affairs.

Sincerely,

Tammi



Dear Tammi,

Many thanks for your participation in the eResearch training program for graduate students in 2009. I have really appreciated your enthusiastic participation and feedback from participants for your Web 2.0 & Social Media for Research Students: Wikis, Blogs and Beyond has been very positive. The University of Melbourne seems to be leading the pack with this type of training and [there was a presentation by Melbourne] at the eResearch Australasia conference earlier in November. [We] believe that the program has been instrumental in raising awareness across the university of the importance of equipping our research students with eResearch skills and tools. At the e-Volution eResearch Symposium at the University in September, the DVC-R, Professor Peter Rathjen, highlighted the need for a University-wide strategy to educate and train RHD candidates in eResearch. He identified the need for all RHDs to be aware of and to incorporate into their daily practice, elements of University policy on data research management, including data access and integrity, and to develop their eResearch skills. The program also features in the draft eResearch strategy for the University.
Planning is underway for 2010. I am hoping that you will be able to participate in the program next year. However I need to tell you that MSGR are unable to pay presenters next year. So I understand that this and /or study demands may be a barrier...or any other reasons.... Please let me know at your earliest convenience if you can participate and if the nominated date suits.
Face-to-face classes will continue – and we are planning to expand, adding some new topics, e.g. Video collaboration: EVO & other collaboration tools; Overview of HPC and Visualisation Services; and Digitization. In addition MSGR and Learning Environments will develop an eResearch 'toolkit' in the newly launched Graduate Research Portal on Sakai. All research students will have access to the portal in 2010.

--
Tammi Jonas
PhD Candidate, Cultural Studies
University of Melbourne
Vice President (National Operations), Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA)
www.tammijonas.blogspot.com

"I awake each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savour the world. This makes it hard to plan my day." E. B. White

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ten Things Postgrads Want: An Ironic Manifesto

A panel of four will deliver a version of the following ironic manifesto on Thursday at the Cultural Research Network's State of the Industry conference in Sydney. We would be delighted to hear your thoughts on these demands in advance.

Research students account for 57% of Australia's university-based research and development. Around 50% of the teaching in universities is done by sessionals, many of whom are postgrads. Our average age is 35. We are emerging academics in our own right, and we would like that to be recognised and supported in the following ways:

  1. Match scholarships to candidature (4 years) and make part-time scholarships tax exempt.

  1. Increase flexibility in visa conditions for international postgraduates.

  2. Ensure postgrads have access to adequate facilities and resources, such as office space, printers and meeting rooms.

  1. Provide sufficient funding over the course of candidature for each RHD student to cover costs associated with the production & dissemination of our research.

  1. Improve collegiality within our departments, with both emerging and established academics, through regular disciplinary seminars and social gatherings.

  1. Provide discipline-specific and 'generic skills' professional training programs.

  1. Provide institutional support and guidance for pursuing non-academic careers.

  1. Offer all RHD students university-funded programs to develop teaching credentials.

  1. Establish national standards for sessional teaching, with fair and transparent remuneration.

  2. Establish short-term ‘Early Career Fellowships’ (available 0-5 years post-PhD) to bridge the gap between PhD submission and first appointment/postdoc.


What do you want?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The 17th Symposium of Australian Gastronomy

When I say I'm doing a PhD on food and identity in Melbourne, I get some fairly extreme responses from people (like the political advisor in Canberra who nearly dropped his files, spluttered and kind of shouted, “FFS! Well, then, so am I! I eat out a lot in Melbourne!”). Many people ask me how I got such a great topic, and so I point out that we choose our own topics, and I just happened to choose exceptionally well.

In fact, if you're interested, I chose mine because I had been working on spectacular performances of national identity in my previous degree, and wanted to bring my interest in identity home, so to speak. If I was going to embark on a number of years focusing on a research topic, it felt important for it to relate to my home/family life. I didn't want a topic that took my entire intellectual life outside the familial headspace, nor too frequently away from our suburban bliss. And so it dawned on me... food is central to my identity, as a cook, a migrant, a mother... and it clearly is to many others in Melbourne and beyond. And I'm tired of people insisting, “Aren't we lucky in Melbourne? We're so multicultural, just look at all our restaurants!” Sure, I thought, but how cosmopolitan are we? And can I do a PhD and keep cooking with a passion? Et voilĂ . A beautiful research project was born.

Given people's responses when I tell them my topic, you can imagine their faces when I said I was off to the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy. “Oh, what a terrible PhD you have. Off to eat and drink, are you?” Well, yes. Yes, there was definitely some excellent eating and drinking to do (though the Saturday night dinner at Ming's was a let-down that I won't bore you with here, and picnic lunches on 40C days were challenging). There is certainly no shame in eating excellent quality sustainable and ethical food, which we did a fair bit of in Adelaide. And while we enjoyed some lovely food and wine, we talked about everything from food security to frugality to food and wine festivals. As it says on the website, “More than any conference, the Symposia of Australian Gastronomy embrace participatory gastronomy in a way that nourishes the intellectual component of these events.”

One of the crucial strengths of the Symposium is the diversity of its participants, who are academics, chef and other food industry professionals, and many food 'enthusiasts'. It seems that everyone who attends, whether they are professionally or academically involved with food or not, is deeply engaged with food as cooks, gardeners and crusaders for sustainable, ethical and delicious foodstuffs. Melbourne Uni's 'Knowledge Transfer' team could learn a bit from this organic and dynamic 25-year-old Symposium.

You can see this year's program here, and the proceedings will be published (though I've no idea how long this takes).

I was the first paper up on Saturday morning, and the Symposium is like Meredith – it's a single stage event (no parallel sessions), so the house was packed. My paper was on practices of frugality between different generations and cultures in Melbourne. In my interviews, what I've found so far is that there seem to be as many similarities in these practices as there are differences, and they're not easily split along cultural or generational lines. I argue that those who are most skilled at 'doing-cooking' (Giard 1998), who are expert at 'good housekeeping' (in the kitchen, at least), seem to be most likely to be contributing to 'global good housekeeping'. I also argue that those who are good at being frugal express a sense of competence, of mastery, which gives them a remarkable sense of their own agency, which in turn enables them to further contribute to global good housekeeping. My paper was well received, with a lot of positive and interesting feedback over the ensuing two days, and I'm still basking in the praise I received from the warm and passionate Maggie Beer.

Some highlights from the other papers:

Felicity Newman spoke on 'God or Greed? The Business of Keeping Kosher', with some remarkable ethnographic data on the difficulties of truly keeping kosher, including a video of a woman who has two kitchens so that one can be reserved for the stringent requirements of Passover. Felicity ended with concerns about what happens to Jewish communities when they give up their kosher food cultures.

Julie McIntyre gave a great paper on 'Wine and Political Economy in Colonial Australia', very amusingly debunking Governor Phillip's attempts to sober up the local population by turning their efforts to growing wine (inspired by Adam Smith). I think we can all agree more than 200 years later that more wine has not made Australians more sober...

Polly McGee wins the rock star status for the conference. Her paper, 'Donna Hay's Newie—the Narrative Economy of Celebrity Chefs' was a compelling romp through the three primary modes of celebrity chefs: sex, ethnicity and/or salvation. You can imagine which of the celebs she claims are selling through sex (and the innuendo during her analysis of Nigella was priceless, leaving the audience in slightly hysterical laughter), which are selling 'authentic' ethnic identities (Kylie Kwong, Luke Nguyen...) and which can give you salvation through sustainable, healthy and ethical food choices (Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingtall...).

Bernadette Hince took us on a deeply personal journey of a life of frugality. Belittled by her sisters for 'meanness', 'miserliness' and allegations of keeping food until it's not safe, Bernadette chose a sympathetic audience to despair of their 'profligate waste'. A final question to the audience was about 'chuckers' and 'keepers' – are those who buy bottled water statistically more likely to be the 'chuckers' of our society? An interesting methodology to explore...

The final highlight amongst the papers was Christian Reynolds, who has just completed his Honours at the University of Adelaide. Christian gave a fantastically engaging paper entitled 'Towards an Understanding of Food's Economic and Cultural Power in the Political Sphere', full of entertaining asides and moments of amusing self-deprecation. His paper detailed theories of hard and soft power, applying them to the use of food as a tool for coercion, whether by proffering it or withdrawing access to it. “Who sat next to the President at the G20 Summit?” was a great question to explore the broader cultural context of meals where power is exerted, and left everyone a little unsettled about who we'd be sitting next to at that night's banquet.

The banquet was the sumptuous affair you might have expected, prepared by Sharon Romeo and David Swain of Fino, who just won Restaurant of the Year in Adelaide's Food Awards. Unfortunately, we didn't get copies of the menu (unless you were quick enough to grab one of the few on each table, which I wasn't) and I was too caught up in a stimulating conversation with Ross Kelly, who has convened two of the previous Symposia with his wife Maria, to make good notes. Hence I won't detail the meal here for fear of misrepresenting it...

The Symposium did have its inevitable moments of tension between the so-called 'town' and 'gown' – I was asked by one food industry professional, “but do you cook?” as she claimed that academics are often too far removed from reality (and unfortunately she didn't give me the opportunity to reassure her that I am a devoted and passionate cook, etc...). In fact, a couple of people mentioned the tired theme of academics who are too narrow and out of touch, though the academics I met over the weekend were all deeply involved in food – in their kitchens, their gardens, their children's schools, and their offices. I hope this Symposium (and the 16 before it) has contributed to breaking down some of the assumptions people carry about those inside or outside the academy, which I believe has been one of its intentions for a long time. Those who started the Symposium in 1984 must be commended for their vision, and for their continued commitment to ethical, sustainable and delicious food, which is so essential to us all.

In the end, we were really just a room full of intelligent and passionate people who care about what we and the rest of the world grow, cook and eat. To echo this year's organiser Roger Haden, long live the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Food and Community at Church St Enoteca

Church St Enoteca
527 Church St, Richmond VIC
(03) 9428 7898As I've claimed before, the Twitterverse runs on a gift economy, and so last week Stuart and I found ourselves the grateful and delighted guests of the charming Ron O'Bryan (@ronobryan) at Church St Enoteca, along with @myfoodtrail, @jetsettingjoyce, @mutemonkey and @cookingwithgoths. It was Ron's last regional dinner of the year, the Tour of the Obscure, designed around six obscure Italian wines which were complimented by food from the region of the grapes.

I don't carry a particularly good camera, and these days I rely on the iPhone almost entirely (which has a terrible camera), so if you want to see great photos, check out My Food Trail or MEL: Hot or Not. These lovely bloggers also gave a detailed description of our meal, which was delicious start to finish, so I won't give such detail here. Highlights for me were definitely the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene upon arrival, the divine salad of prosciutto with shavings of raw artichoke and fennel, and broad beans, almond and lemon, and the rabbit, fennel and cotechino brodo with rabbit cappelletti. These two dishes were totally heavenly combinations, and fed my current obsessions with rabbit, filled pastas, and cotechino very nicely.

But now it's time for me to digress, or rather return to what are really my central interests in our dinner at Church Street Enoteca...

First of all, a quick word about social media, food and community. I've never been a regular reader of any particular blogs, though I usually enjoy reading casually when I have the time. Predictably, most of the blogs I look at are food blogs, though I do love a dose of a good feminist or political blog. Since Twitter, however, I now follow many dozens (dare I say hundreds?) of food bloggers, food enthusiasts, chefs, and food scholars (yes, we're a real category), as well as people representative of my other interests in social media, politics, and feminism. On Twitter I have very rapidly expanded my 'communities of interest', and have had opportunities to meet many of the people I follow, such as at Enoteca last week. I've followed Ron for awhile, and have really enjoyed his tweets about sourcing sustainable and ethical ingredients. We've even had a couple of exchanges over the questions of what people are looking for and will pay for when eating out, where I shared some of the findings from my own interviews. And so what a pleasure to then be invited to join the other bloggers to taste his delectable food, followed by a great discussion with him about his upcoming new venture in St Kilda, where he will be showcasing local, seasonal and where possible, organic and biodynamic foods.

Ron is clearly passionate about his cooking and the quality of his ingredients. This passion extends to the ways that food supports community, and his educational dinners that focus on regional cuisine see all sorts of people sitting side by side learning, tasting and conversing. Our dinner was served a la famiglia, with big share plates down the middle of the tables. As Ron said when he was introducing the meal, he served us family style in order to bring people together, and he even suggested that people would probably eat something they hadn't tried before, which would give us more to talk about. Of course he was right, and our table was abuzz with conversation about what ingredients we were seeing and tasting, and comparing notes on flavour and texture. In fact, it was nearly midnight before we all left, a late hour we had chattered our way to without noticing.

So in terms of creating a congenial environment, Ron's really nailed it at Church Street Enoteca, where quality ingredients are transformed into truly delicious regional Italian dishes, and interesting individuals connect to form rich and diverse communities.

Thanks, Ron! We look forward to checking out the new venture soon!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Palak Paneer Kofta

The first time I went to India in 1998, I fell deeply in love with the food. As a vegetarian at the time, I delighted in the lengthy menus with a small 'non-veg' section at the back, and couldn't get enough of all things palak (spinach). Two particular favourites were palak paneer and alu palak.

In the middle of our month's travel through the north, we found ourselves stuck in Agra for an unexpected extra night (due to thick fog and a malfunctioning ILS at the Agra airport). Exhausted from long bus rides, insouciant touts, and endless transport delays, we splurged and stayed the night at a family-run guest house near the airport called New Bakshi House (and it really was a splurge at $42 for the two of us, including breakfast and a hot shower, when we were used to paying around $10 a night). The main treat at Bakshi House, however, was not the comfortable beds or hot water, nor even the delicious home style food, but the lovely hostess, Rani, who shared her recipes with me. As I banged on about my love of palak and paneer, Rani assured me this Indian cheese was very simple to make, and gave me her recipe, as well as others for kuku, alu palak, malai kofta, ghobi, yoghurt, and another I wrote down as 'a Chinese dish'. Although she was adamant that paneer was very simple to make, I perhaps simply wasn't a confident enough cook yet to believe her. It in fact took me nearly a decade before I attempted to make my own. Here is Rani's recipe:

Paneer

Boil 1 litre half & half (her sister-in-law Tina had lived in America for 17 years, so perhaps she introduced the half & half idea?). Add 2 tspn lemon juice. As soon as milk curdles, remove from heat. Put cheesecloth in sieve. Pour milk mixture through & cover lightly. Leave 1 ½ hours or more (you may rinse the curd at this stage if you've added too much lemon juice).

I think that for many years I simply didn't trust the simplicity of this operation. Surely the paneer wouldn't form? Trust me, it does every time, just like that. I now use ordinary full cream milk, and for a family of five I find I need to do about 3L to make enough paneer for a meal (it makes about 500g). I also usually press mine as it rests in the sieve, unless I'm making paneer koftas, since I'll be crumbling the paneer anyway. I also save the whey, which you can use if you're making chapatis or parathas. If not, as per @crazybrave's suggestion recently, I simply add it to the chook scraps.

Here's what I did with my most recent paneer, which I will usually make before lunch if I want it for dinner. This recipe is adapted from my favourite Indian cookbook, bought in Calcutta, “Desi Khana: The Best of Indian Vegetarian Cooking” by Tarla Dalal.

Palak Paneer Kofta

Koftas: for 500g paneer, I add about 4T plain flour, chopped coriander to taste (loads!), chopped chilies to taste, pinch of bi-carb soda and salt to taste. Form into balls and deep fry until golden brown. Rest on paper towels.

Paste: bash up loads of garlic, pistachios, poppy seeds (not too many as they're bitter), ginger & chili (if no children will share this meal) – all to taste, which means lots of garlic especially in our house. Tarla adds grated coconut, but when I was short of any, I actually used coconut cream & just add it after the other ingredients fried for a bit. She also uses cashews, which would be equally delicious I'm sure!

Chop up a giant bunch of spinach and cook it lightly with about ½ cup of water until it's fully wilted. Blend the spinach to a puree and set aside.

Heat ghee in a cast iron frypan and cook the paste for 3-5 minutes, until the garlic loses its acerbity. Add a couple of tablespoons of coconut cream and cook for another minute or two. Add about a cup of full cream natural yoghurt and cook on lower heat for another minute or so. Add the spinach puree, 1T raw sugar or jaggery, salt to taste and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes. Add the koftas to heat back through and serve. :-)

My kids adore this dish, as do adults. You can serve it with rice and naan or pappadums. If you make it spicy, it's worth serving a raita as well. As for the paneer, it's also delicious simply on its own – I have to hide it from the kids while I'm cooking or there's never enough...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wild Oak (Olinda) needs to focus on the kitchen

Bring your wallet, but leave your palate at home... seemed to be the theme of Dandenong ranges dining...

I generally prefer not to write scathing reviews of restaurants, on the theory that everyone has a bad night, and if it happens to have been the night I came, well, bad luck for me, but it would be unfair to slam the place on one tasting. I am about to break that tradition, because the food we were served at Wild Oak in Olinda was so bad it had absolutely no place being served. To ask a diner to pay for what was on the plates in front of us was the height of egregious poor form.

From the beginning then. When researching places to eat in the Dandenong ranges, I came across a number of recommendations for Wild Oak. The chef, Ben Higgs, seems to be highly regarded (though I later realised that a lot of my opinion was formed from his own PR), and promotes himself and his restaurant as showcasing the best of seasonal, regional produce. Excellent, we said, and had a look at the website. I saw that Ben runs cooking classes, and had a browse through the offerings: Moroccan Made Easy, Vietnamese Master Class, Sushi Master Class, Tapas and Pasta Class were just a few on the extensive list. Wow, apparently this guy can teach you how to cook the whole world, I joked, and decided against checking availability. I wonder what his actual speciality is, I wondered...

After a gentle stroll from our lovely B&B to the restaurant, we arrived excited to see what the hills had to offer. As we approached the building, I noted that the cooking class kitchen is in a sort of fishbowl at the front of the restaurant, and the word 'ego' came to mind. I quashed those thoughts in anticipation of a nice meal of local ingredients. The restaurant was busy, and staff were very attentive. Not only were we seated quickly, the second our bottoms hit the seat a waitress appeared with a complimentary starter. Lucky us, we thought, until I looked at the plate...

Two slices of tuna and pumpkin nori roll, served on a mango and red onion salsa, on top of what we think was a balsamic reduction (the waitress didn't know). It looked like con-fusion on the plate, exacerbated by a) only having a knife and fork, and b) the fact that the rice appeared to be a solid mass. Ah, I thought, he's being clever, and that white stuff is not actually rice. Reluctantly prodding at the roll with my fork, I managed to separate a grain of rice from the rest of the glutinous mass. Good lord, it's rice. (Reminder: Ben teaches a Sushi Master Class.) I don't believe you should criticise food you you haven't tasted or books you haven't read, so I took the plunge, and promptly wished I had a different rule about criticism. It was not just as bad as it looked, but worse, with its gluey mass of starch, tasteless filling, inappropriate mango and red onion, and totally unnecessary balsamic (?). Oh, and somewhere in there was some more starch in the form of individual corn kernels. Yuck.

I cautioned Stuart to order conservatively now that we had insight into what was on offer. A waitress took our wine order and told us she was exhausted as they had catered a 60th that day for 90 guests. We commiserated, ordered a bottle of wine, and made quiet jokes about the menus in front of us, mine splattered with the detritus of someone else's meal. I haven't even complained yet, and they're already spitting in my food, ha ha.

For entree, we decided to go with the special on offer, a tapas plate (reminder: Ben also teaches a Tapas class), though I did mention to Stuart that the titles of the dishes weren't promising: Atlantic salmon rillette (we're pretty far from the Atlantic...), duck liver pate encroute, warm marinated olives (what sort? Marinated with what? Why warm?), wild mushroom and basil frittata, and Spanish chorizo sausage with aiolili [sic]. Hoping that Ben wasn't the one writing the menu with such poor descriptors, typos, and splatters, we soldiered on, thinking he may want to work on his PR at this stage...

And so the tapas arrived. We gazed at the plate, trying at first to discern which was the rillette and which the frittata in the dim light. Poking what was in fact the rillette with my knife, I discovered it was very difficult to actually cut through the butter on top, and insisted that Stuart experience this misery. We then proceeded to taste each item, discussing our newfound intention to simply leave, but wanting to be fair and taste the tapas. The rillette, served without any little toasts or bread, was indescribably bad. It tasted of tinned salmon, and appeared to have been sitting in a fridge for quite some time. It dawned on us that we were probably eating the leftovers from today's function, which would explain the disastrous 'complimentary starter'. The frittata similarly did not taste at all fresh, was cold, and was apparently devoid of seasoning. The pitted olives appeared to have come from a jar, been tossed in a mild vinaigrette and then warmed in the microwave. The pate tasted fine, but was not so much 'en croute' as 'on a fluffy bit of foccacia' & doused in a sickly sweet sauce, and the mild chorizo was okay, but served with a huge blob of rather bland aioli the texture of Miracle Whip.

Time to go. I appealed to our friendly young waitress, and told her I was very sorry to put her on the spot, but that we wanted to leave without our mains. The poor thing looked politely horrified, and asked what the matter was. I gently explained that the food was awful, but that we were happy to pay for our bottle of wine and take it with us. She spoke to Ben, who all the while was working hard directly in front of me in the open kitchen. He glanced at us, after which the waitress returned and said they wouldn't charge us for the entree, and that she was sorry. Ben didn't come over to speak to us, nor was there an apology from the kitchen. We paid, left, and got a takeaway pizza from around the corner, which we took back to our cottage and had with our very expensive bottle of wine (it's one thing to pay $36 for a bottle in a restaurant, another to take it away...). The pizza was pretty good.

I like to think that had we waited for our mains, which would have been cooked by Ben, that they would have made up for the earlier dishes. But unfortunately, he's allowing things to come out of his kitchen that are bad enough to drive people away without waiting to see. The extensive PR work Ben's done on his website, with the classes, tours, speaking engagements, etc, ad nauseum won't make up for dropping the ball in the kitchen, which is where it really counts.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

A Mongolian Feast!

Yet another wonderful opportunity to revel in developing community around food arose yesterday. My lovely mate Benj, who is working on a doco on Mongolian hip hop, invited us to join a night of feasting at his place. He invited some of his Mongolian friends, who invited their friends, plus his other mates who've spent time there and/or worked on the film with him – and us, the ring-ins because of our shared passion for food and community. :-) It was quite an interesting social experiment, really – put a bunch of strangers in a room together with food, get one group to teach the other how to make something from their culture, and add vodka. Trust me, it was a raving success!

The evening began with some of the predictable stilted moments as we all sought to find common ground. Mostly, the Aussies were busy asking the Mongolians questions about the current political situation as they've just had a change of government (and I won't tell you who asked 'does China appoint your leader?' - duffer), as well as learning more about what brought them to Melbourne (all are students, and all intend to return to Mongolia when they finish). I realised how little I really know about their country, including how much closer the Mongolian language seems to be to Russian than it is to Chinese. Most had brought a plate to share, so after recovering from an earlier outing to yum cha with Billy, we tucked in to a variety of pickled salads, a beef noodle dish, kim chee and khuushuur (deep fried large beef dumplings). And of course, that gave us plenty more to discuss.

One interesting observation by Zula, who is studying finance at Melbourne Uni, was that the beef tastes quite different here in Australia. Upon further reflection, we agreed that it might be due to the large scale farming methods used here and the relatively unvaried diet of the animals, as opposed to the free ranging of herds in Mongolia and the diversity of grasses in their diet. Zula reckons the beef in Mongolia is gamier and, essentially, tastier. I know it made me want to taste some!

Most of us were drinking vodka, though a number of people did enjoy Stuart's homebrew and I noted that a couple of the Australians who had lived in Mongolia stuck to wine. I should really have taken better note of that, as I suspect they had learned a lesson up there. What I understand today is that our drinking habits, usually restricted to wine and beer, are totally unsuitable when drinking vodka. One should really sip small glasses of the stuff if you're going to have it at all, but I know I for one was impressed at how smooth it was (especially the delightful Mongolian Chinggis) and drank it rather like I do water. Ahem.

After a couple of drinks and a bit to eat, it was time to make the buuz, which are steamed dumplings. We made three fillings: beef with red onion & garlic, lamb with red onion, garlic & coriander, and another lamb with the same fillings, but with kim chee added as well. To salt the mince, Zula dissolved salt in hot water and we mixed that through, which also made the mixture more moist. At one stage, we forgot which bowl had the beef and which the lamb, and I think because it was quite cold from the fridge, it was difficult to smell the difference. I suddenly remembered that a cook should taste everything as you go along, even crazy raw stuff (thanks to Masterchef!), and that actually there is nothing crazy about raw beef anyway (and so presumably lamb, too?), so tasted for the difference. I love those visceral moments when you feel like you're inhabiting your 'real cook' disposition.

The dough for the wrappers was equally straightforward, made simply of flour and water. It was then rolled into long cylinders, chopped into smallish pieces, slightly flattened and tossed into a bowl with more flour to dust it well. Next each piece is rolled quickly from the edges to make a circle, leaving the centre slightly thicker than the edges. A scoop of filling, and then to quickly fold each dumpling closed in a pretty (sometimes) little flower-like shape. Some were folded more like gyoza, which was meant to identify them as the ones with kim chee, until people got confused and just rolled them however they wanted. Fortunately, I don't think any kids ended up with a kim chee buuz! The girls told me that one's grandmother would usually teach you to make buuz, and the shape would be according to her habit, so would vary from family to family. This is exactly what Masa taught me years ago about Japanese dumplings, and what I learned in Vietnam about spring rolls. Standing there in the warmth of Benj's kitchen, chatting, cooking, learning and tasting, really epitomised what I love about food – it's such a conduit for engaging with people and their histories, and even in an unfamiliar place, it's ultimately such a homely experience.

videoOnce the buuz were made, they were steamed for about 15 minutes and then served. They were all very delicious, and I discovered the pleasure of adding a little pinch of kim chee or pickled cabbage and carrot to each bite rather than dipping them in a sauce. We made dozens of them, but they still disappeared very quickly.

After the buuz, the Mongolians sang some traditional songs, with a haunting sound reminiscent of throat singing, though it wasn't actually. In response, the Aussies sang Waltzing Matilda and Botany Bay, though our mastery of the lyrics was somewhat wanting. Throughout the feasting and cooking, our three children and the three Mongolian children present ran madly around the house, stopping to grab a fistful of lollies each time they passed through the lounge room. And perhaps inspired by Benj's filmmaking talents, they spent quite awhile 'making a film', but needed a camera with night vision, so moved on to finding ghosts.

I've often compared food with music in terms of its cultural significance, issues of authenticity, and capacity to bring people together. Last night was a brilliant example of exactly that, just as the weekends we spend with Benj and the Binks in Violet Town harvesting olives are particularly joyful as they're centred around food and music. I'm sure I'm not the only one who had a really lovely time, learned a great deal, made new friends and tasted new horizons last night.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The fragility of the scholarly identity, or 'what the hell is my PhD about?'

So there I was, with 12,000 words I had poured out over a few weeks, after months of deepening my understanding of the literature on cosmopolitanism. When I commenced this PhD, many moons ago, I wanted to understand how our interactions with many cultures' foodways disrupt and transform our identities. I wanted to hold 'authenticity' under a bare, swinging lightbulb and interrogate it until it confessed its sins, including false ones. I thought I'd start to understand why some people are heavily invested in food as community and nurturing, while others are motivated by a desire to distinguish themselves as sophisticated, knowledgeable and gourmet. I wondered how in the world I could find out what 'really' motivates those who are interested in food. This led me to delve into the huge body of (mostly 'white') cosmopolitan theory, which fortunately led me further until I discovered the wonderful diversity of writing on cosmopolitanism by those from the 'centre' and the 'periphery', men and women, across a multitude of disciplines.

And that's where I went astray. I am undisciplined and easily influenced, so what should have been a foray became a mission which turned into a thesis plan. Cosmopolitan theory is important to my thesis, but it is not my thesis. In reviewing the literature in that one area of import, I got lost, and one of the things I most lost was my own sense of authority. As I filled my empty-pitcher head with expert theory, I totally lost my mojo. As much of the writings are sociological and anthropological, I also started to worry about my 'sample size', and suddenly proposed to interview dozens of households multiple times across Melbourne. Grasping for a piece of masculine authority to 'say something important' (and general) about Melbourne, I forgot that I began with a much more modest yet complex proposition, to map narratives of situated identity negotiations around food and foodways.

Fortunately, Ken threw me a lifeline back to the boat of me. Admittedly, his toss was forceful and I might have drowned before I could catch hold, but I'm now safely back on board. And what lovely sailing there is ahead. I love my PhD. It's about people, and food, and stories. It resists generalising. It argues that there isn't a simple, normative identity that either resists or replicates itself around certain foodways. Rather our interactions, our engagements with food and foodways are always a negotiation, a transformation. Sometimes we are accruing cultural capital and not much else, others we might only be accruing calories and still others we might be feeding ourselves and the world, one meal at a time. I don't want to 'test cosmopolitanism' like it's a competition (thanks, Jean, for reminding me of that). I want to map its banal instantiations, absences and desires. I certainly don't want to speak with the cold authority of the good empiricist, but rather with the dreamy confidence of... well, me. Thank goodness I'm back. :-)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Salami Day with the de Bortolis


Sometimes, the stars are just aligned, and nothing you do will stop the goodness coming your way. At least that's how it felt when food blogger and Twittermate @tomatom offered me the opportunity to accompany him to the de Bortoli family's annual Salami Day in the Yarra Valley. This came on the heels, by the way, of the wonderful @Ganga108 offering to ship some cookbooks she was clearing out to any address in Australia; mere days later Kylie Kwong's Recipes & Stories landed on my doorstep. The Twitterverse is an amazing land of plenty, especially if you hook up with your real community of interest. But back to Salami Day...

The day began before first light, as Ed and I followed our Google maps blue dot on the iPhone (well, technically the blue dot follows us, but on the return trip after hours of grappa and sangiovese, I was pretty sure we were following the dot...) up to the de Bortoli vineyards. Just as we pulled up, the sun having just risen, there was the pig, which had just been sawn in half. Within minutes, the head and other bits were on the table, where family members Maria, Dominique and Angelo set straight to work. (They had actually already butchered two pigs the day before, so were definitely in the groove.) There were only a dozen or so people around at this stage, including Darren de Bortoli (Managing Director) and his sister Leanne and her husband Steve, the winemaker and manager in the Yarra Valley. Just to prove what a small world Melbourne is, Stuart's dad's cousin Andrew Chapman was there taking photos for the family, accompanied by his lovely wife Josie.

As some headed off for their first coffee with a shot of grappa, Josie and I grabbed a knife each and helped shave the fat off the underside of the skin, which was then chopped up to be used for the cotechino sausages. The fat itself was a very pleasing smooth texture that felt scrumptious on the hands. These pigs had followed the strict diet for the last few months of regular acorn feasts, and the flesh was a beautiful dark pink/red as a result. In the adjoining area of the shed, another pig (not raised by the family) was on a spit for the sumptious lunch we would enjoy later... but we didn't have to wait long before platters of salumi and freshly made ciabattas did the rounds, closely followed by trays of grappa.

By this stage, Maria, Dom, Angelo and the local butcher had made great progress on the pig, having sliced all the flesh from the bones (except the hams, which were left intact to cure and I believe some for prosciutto?). The meat was in pieces about the size of my fist, at which point they spread it across the metal tables, added the spices (chili, fennel, salt, pepper, and saltpeter), and mixed it up a bit by hand. Next it was time to pop it through the mincer (and the need for a nice big electric mincer becomes readily apparent when you see how much meat has to be processed!).As more people arrived and the accordion started to play, the atmosphere got both more festive and less intimate. For someone doing a PhD trying to unravel the difference between Hage's 'cosmo-multiculturalists' (some would call them the 'foodies': people who are 'into' food for reasons of social distinction) and cosmopolitans (food + community = understanding, openness to cultural difference), the shift at this point was interesting. I felt enormously privileged to have been there from the beginning with the family, neighbours and friends, and had really enjoyed the easy comradery of the communal butchering.

After the mincing comes the salami stuffing. The previous day, they had made the salami with collagen casings, which are made from pork intestines, but reconstituted to get a more even and stronger consistency - hence those salami were quite straight and even as they hung in the cool room. Today they were using intestines (long enough to stretch round the shed!), so ended up with lovely curved salami, which Angelo expertly dipped in near boiling water, then tied up with twine to be hung.

I believe the main salami made would be described as sopressata from Calabria (but I could be wrong). There was some venison brought by the butcher that was also made into salami - apparently venison is too lean for a good salami (too dry) and so was mixed with the pork and fat. Finally the cotechino was made, requiring two times through the mincer with different blades to churn through the tough rind. Whereas the salami will be hung for about 6-8 weeks, the cotechino could be eaten immediately - I was told that you can boil it or cook it slowly for quite awhile to soften it up further.

The morning drew on towards lunch, by which time the crowds had really arrived and the wine was flowing freely. About a hundred of us sat down to a beautiful meal of pork sausages made the day before (to chef Tim Keenan's recipe, which has renewed my belief that there are really good sausages to be had in the world - yum!), served with wine soaked caramelised onions and grilled polenta with a salad of mixed greens and vinaigrette. This was followed by a beautiful array of cheeses and that fresh ciabatta again. I enjoyed the charming and interesting company of Darren de Bortoli over lunch, and we conversed for hours on his family's history, community, cultural diversity and cosmopolitanism in Australia (with a few forays into American politics and friendly disagreements over Howard).

As the afternoon waned, the conversation moved from kids' lunches ("We used to be weird for our salami sandwiches, now they're so common the kids say they're boring and want sushi! Sushi, for God's sake!"), to the resurgence in interest in the 'old ways', such as the salami days. Darren made the point that even the 'skippies' are into it now, and someone laughed that "people are calling them 'foodies', when all they are is wogs!" There was much talk of how the southerners (Italians) maintain the salami day tradition, with the requisite grappa, wine and sociality, whereas the northerners have the salami day, but just get in, get the job done, and get home again. This 'northern/southern' discussion was from people who were third and fourth generation Australians, yet still maintained their regional distinctions here in Australia. Fascinating!

Alas, it was time to bid the generous de Bortolis grazie e arrivederci, and follow our blue dot back into the city, where the children and Stuart had excitedly prepared us a three-course meal (not realising I would be too full to eat much!). I look forward to a sausage making day with the children one day soon in our own attempts to nurture our community with food and ritual.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

From White Australia to Cosmopolitan Melbourne in 40 years: really?

The recent coverage of Sol Trujillo's parting comments that Australia is a racist country, in fact, 'backwards', has got me thinking. Here I am, writing a paper about the ways in which Melbourne is or isn't cosmopolitan and how I'm testing that question via Melbournians' foodways, and Sol pops up and says he's found the country racist.

The media have been typically inane in their coverage, and the sound bites from members of government have been similarly disappointing (in that horribly predictable sort of way). No matter what one thinks of Trujillo (and I'm sure many people have rather strong sentiments about the former CEO of Telstra), and further no matter what his motivations are for making the allegations now, as he unhappily departs, the issue remains that a Mexican-American claims he has suffered racism in this country. He may or may not be 'right', so to speak, in that it's entirely possible that nobody who made him feel he was being singled out for his race in some way actuallly meant to, or harbours any racist sentiments. Then again, to suggest Australia is devoid of racism is high farce, and you may as well join the ranks of Stolen Generations deniers like Andrew Bolt immediately. Of course there's still racism in Australia, as there is in America, China, England, and everywhere else in the world. Why would Trujillo not have felt some of that? Dismissing his claims so snottily, as have the politicians, seems permissible because he's such a figure of power, but do we want to be those revisionists? I don't.

Imagine if the claim was from a well-respected academic, say, Ghassan Hage, that Australia still harbours a great deal of racism. Oh, Hage has made that claim, and still is in many nuanced and polemical ways (yes, I believe you can be both nuanced and polemical). And Hage gets mixed responses, it seems. What about a woman making claims of sexism in the workplace? She'd probably be told she was imagining things, if my experience of Australian reception of such critiques is anything to go by.

Is Australia 'racist' and 'backwards'? As a national imaginary, I certainly believe we are not such a place anymore. The top-down rhetoric since Hawke and Keating has been that we are a multicultural country, a tolerant nation, arms wide open. The bottom-up response certainly seems to be increasingly matching that hopeful national imaginary, though we will never be rid of division and unfortunate habits of essentialising Others, no matter who 'we' are. Trujillo probably rightly perceived that he was sometimes marginalised by (especially the more homogeneous white, middle class) Australians who were unaccustomed to cultural diversity in 'their' territory. I'm sure most of them didn't mean anything by their behaviour - but the folks he would have been with would probably be better described as cosmopolitan capitalists than cultural cosmopolitans.

How far have we come since the White Australia policy was officially repealed in 1967 (though not operationally until about 1973)? It's not that long ago, really. The people who supported that different national imaginary are not just still around, they're largely running the country at the moment. Is it any wonder that the World Values Survey is finding that with generational change comes higher levels of cultural cosmopolitanism - expressed as a belief of 'belonging to the world'. Perhaps if Trujillo sends one of his children (does he have children?) back to Australia in another five or ten years, they'll have a different story to tell. In my 16 years in Australia, I've found it to be increasingly diverse and comfortable with difference, but then, maybe that's merely a reflection of either a) I moved suburbs or b) I want to believe the cosmopolitan version of us in order to reify my own sense of myself as cosmopolitan. Hence my project of interviewing a broad cross-section of people in terms of age, ethnicity, education, income, etc is so important - to stop all these (stupid) common-sense claims about what Australia 'is' or 'isn't'. Now to write that paper...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Great Pho Party '09

So I'm back. Hopefully this blog will come alive again now that I'm back to focusing on food and identity full time in my PhD (after a manic year off as a worker). But on to the real story...

Last weekend, to celebrate receiving a scholarship for the rest of my PhD (yay!!), I invited about 20 of my friends and family who have been through the first couple years of my part-time student/mother/worker struggles with unfunded study. Most are fellow students, all are lovely, and most also really like pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). (N.B. I know I should use diacritics, but am too lazy to go copy them and paste them here, so indulge me.) I had never made pho before, though in a cooking class in Saigon I was shown the basic method for pho bo (beef pho). As the grateful recipient of a lovely big 15L stainless steel pot for last summer solstice, what better way to use it than to make pho for loads of people? Well, you'll see that my lovely pot wasn't as big as it seemed...

Friday morning, Stuart and I wandered dreamily through Minh Phat (Vietnamese grocery off Victoria St, Richmond) gathering crucial ingredients, then over to a fruit shop for a few missing herbs (esp. sawtooth coriander) and finally the butcher for the meat and bones. I first asked for 4kg of shin bones and was told they didn't have any. Weird, huh? I accepted this bizarre response and asked for 4kg of flank, which I got (and realised was A LOT of meat!). I then asked for 1.5kg of topside, whereupon the woman serving me lfinally ooked quizzically at me so that I said, "I'm making pho". She appeared quite excited about this and thrust a bag of beef balls at me, insisting I needed them too. Sure, why not? Finally, she asked me to wait, rushed out back and dragged a huge bag of bones in, pulling four out and telling me, "for you, no charge today." I was delighted (and she clearly was too - I guess not many Anglos pop in to get ingredients for serious quantities of pho - and I think she must originally have thought I wanted their bones for a dog?), thanked her graciously, paid for the rest (only $47 for all that!) and then Stuart and I lugged our 10kg of meaty goodness back to the car and rushed home.

Dearie me, I wish I'd started the stock earlier, but I think I had extra bone, which made up for a slightly too short cooking time... so now it's 11:30am, guests will arrive at 7pm, and this stock wants a minimum of 6 hours...

Method & Ingredients

Remember, I was cooking for 20 (and ended up serving 25, with plenty of ingredients except the rice noodles, which ran out for the last 5 of us, but I had some dried to make up the shortfall).

4kg shin bones
4kg flank, cut into pieces about 15cm long
1.5kg topside, sliced thinly
4-5 brown onions
8-12 shallots
2-3 bulbs ginger
6 cinnamon sticks
12 star anise
4 brown cardamom pods
6 cloves
1/2C salt
1/2C sugar
1/2C fish sauce (buy a good brand, which should say "Nuoc Mam Nhi" - any from Phu Quoc are great)
4kg fresh rice noodles
spring onions, finely sliced
sawtooth coriander
coriander
bean sprouts
Vietnamese basil
chilies, sliced
lemons, quartered
chili paste
hoisin
nuoc mam cham (dipping fish sauce: fish sauce, lemon, garlic, chili, sugar)

First, take your bones and soak them in warm water with lemon juice and a generous pinch of salt for about 1/2 hour. This starts to release the blood so you will get a clear stock. Then pop them into boiling water for a further 5-10 minutes, before transferring them to your stockpot full of boiling water. I put them into my 15L pot and simmered them there for about 3 hours, skimming the scum off the top frequently.

While the bones are simmering, lightly bash the cinammon, cloves, star anise and cardamom to break them into smaller pieces, then dry roast them for a few minutes in a (preferably cast iron) frypan (to release more of their oils before adding them to the stock). Put the spices into a muslin bag and drop into the stock.

Next, hold the onions, shallots and ginger over an open flame until chargrilled and set aside to cool. When cool, pull and rub the blackened skins off, cut the onions in half, and pop all of it into a muslin bag. Add these to the stock after about 2 hours.

Next, you're going to add the flank to cook for 2-3 hours. This is when I realised I needed the bigger pot. Stuart dragged his brewing pot out for me, which is about 40L - it takes up 2 burners but does the trick. :-) Add the salt, sugar and fish sauce now. After 2-3 hours, pull the flank back out, pop it into a baking dish with some of the stock and leave to cool.

Once the stock has been simmering for about 6 hours (you can definitely go longer - this is a minimum), pull the bones and muslin bags out and strain it through a piece of muslin into a clean pot. (I was able to put it back into the 15L pot at this stage - and I had added some water when I went into the big pot.) Did I mention that it's very very helpful to have a second person around when you're making this much pho? Stuart was very helpful and appreciated!

Your stock is ready! The flank should have cooled, now you can cut it into bite-sized pieces (and I removed a lot of fat whilst doing this - very happy chooks Saturday morning!). Taste the stock and adjust seasonings if you need to with salt, sugar or fish sauce. It's also common in Vietnam to adjust with msg or 'pork powder' or 'chicken powder', which are msg-free stock powders (Knorr is a favoured brand in Saigon). I was very happy that I had no need to add any.

As guests are ready to serve, have your flank in one bowl, the topside in another, a pot of boiling water next to the stock, and your rice noodles ready to go, as well as your array of plates of herbs, lemon, bean sprouts, fresh chilies, and chili paste and hoisin. I used Stuart's brewing sieve to dip the noodles into the boiling water to heat and soften them before placing them into a bowl. Next, I added the raw sliced topside, then boiling stock, then flank pieces before handing the bowl to the grateful recipient to add their own herbs, etc. Voila!

My favourite comment of the evening may have been, "I'd pay $8.50 for this" from a Vietnamese Australian friend, though I did also appreciate, "it tastes just like real pho in Saigon", even though much of my theoretical work thus far has been contesting notions of authenticity and its instability as a category, let alone its essentialising tendencies... I guess the point is that we all agreed it was rather delish.

I think next time, though, I might cook it for just 10 people!