JOHN NEWTON The Oldest Foods on Earth: A History of Australian native foods with recipes. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
John Newton’s long-standing interest in cuisine and culture has resulted in several awards and numerous publications, and has now extended to a PhD. This book presents some of his research into the provocative question of why Europeans in Australia have largely ignored native food sources.
‘The oldest foods on Earth’, according to Newton, are ‘the unique flora and fauna that nourished the Aboriginal peoples of this land for over 50 000 years.’ With some 6000 edible plants in Australia, even harsh environments like the Western Desert offer 150 different foods seasonally throughout the year. Inhabitants of lush tropical areas could choose from 750, and Western diets seem sparse and restricted by comparison: ‘the average European Australian today will choose from between fifty and a hundred foods a year.’
Furthermore, science has found that many native foods are highly nutritious. Certainly foods such as native greens, kangaroo, finger limes, turtle, wattleseed, crickets and meal worms offer exciting gastronomic opportunities, as confirmed by the book’s recipes, contributed by a range of well-known cooking identities.
Newton, in asking why Whitefellas know so little about Blackfella food, almost immediately points to ‘food racism’, which has, he says, ‘played its part in the rejection of these foods because they were Aboriginal foods’. Early colonists ‘would famously starve waiting for provisions from the Old Country rather than eat the food of the other – the wild, untamed, uncivilised, naked other’; modern-day Australians are yet to embrace truly Australian foods, despite their enthusiasm for many other cuisines.
Building on recent publications by Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) and Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu, Black Seeds), Newton points to the early settlers’ part-unconscious, part-deliberate blindness to Indigenous inhabitants’ well-organised methods of husbanding food:
… we know now that to label the Aboriginal people as hunter-gatherers is inadequate to describe the complex and time-honoured ways in which they managed the entire country.
Newton shows the lasting legacy of this shortsightedness. It has shaped attitudes not just to native foods, but more broadly to Aboriginal peoples, agricultural methods and the country itself. But, he argues, food can be a powerfully positive tool:
Food is more than nourishment. Food is culture; food shapes culture; food binds us together and forces us apart. In the same way, accepting the food of this land … will, I believe, contribute towards what I call culinary reconciliation.
The book looks at past and recent attempts to come to terms with truly Australian foods. There is, for example, an account of the second annual dinner of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria in 1847, which served Australian ingredients prepared and named in the French style (‘Le fricandeau de wombat’).
There are also heartbreaking stories of the ‘first wave’ of chefs who presented native ingredients. During the 1990s, Raymond and Jennice Kersh – at Edna’s Table restaurant in Sydney’s MLC Centre – featured Indigenous elements in their menus. Critics and customers alike ‘scoffed’.
More recently, top chef Peter Gilmore has adopted muntries, riberries and native purslane, saying he adds these and other native ingredients:
… in a gentle and thoughtful sort of way … It’s not to make it gimmicky, it’s to incorporate it as a natural seamless ingredient into the cuisine we’re developing in Australia, which is multicultural Australian food.
Newton does not pretend that a ‘culinary reconciliation’ will be easily achieved. Overcoming the foods’ unfamiliarity is just one issue. Wild foods are not always readily available, due to scarcity, seasonality, difficulty in harvesting, or the nature of the crop: fruits with big seeds and little flesh, for example. Years of expensive efforts at transforming wild-growing plants into dependable crops could result in the loss of flavour and nutritional value.
And beyond those challenges, there are complex issues raised by taking and using the cultural capital of Aboriginal peoples. In the chapter ‘Cultural Conundrums’, Newton acknowledges the necessity for valuing Indigenous knowledge and returning value to the communities:
It seems to me reasonable that European Australians acknowledge Aboriginal ownership of these foods (as they do of the land) and work with them to ensure that at the very least, some of the proceeds of sales of the plants goes back to the communities. That’s easy to say, difficult to enact. And ownership … is not the only question.
Food is woven into the belief system of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, laden with significance that non-Aboriginal people can barely grasp. Foods – not just animal food sources but plants too – can be totems, to be looked after in rituals that relate to care of the larger ecosystem. Newton emphasises this with several quotes from Bill Gammage: ‘Land care was the purpose of life …’ ‘Theology and ecology are fused.’ In looking at various Australian food enterprises, Newton sees there are culturally sensitive approaches that allow him to be cautiously optimistic.
His final chapter, ‘Walking Together, Eating Together’, presents the idea of a kind of Australian ‘Thanksgiving’, inspired in part by Bruce Pascoe’s words: ‘Having said sorry, we refuse to say thanks.’ Newton’s proposal is to rewrite the meaning of Australia Day:
… with a meal of native Australian foods shared between European and Aboriginal Australians … the meal would be giving thanks to the Indigenous inhabitants for caring for the country, and … showing us the foods of the land.
With its passionate and optimistic consideration of food, culture and ecology, The Oldest Foods on Earth parallels New York chef Dan Barber’s The Third Plate. Both range widely through science, history, anthropology and food knowledge; both champion good flavours.
A little unfortunately, however, the parallel also draws attention to differences in the two writers’ styles. While Newton has a relaxed and readable manner, it is sometimes clunky and doesn’t compel and delight in the same way as Barber’s consummate story-telling. And one small detail jars amidst Newton’s advocacy for inclusiveness. In the Introduction, he clearly addresses his book to Australians of British descent: ‘before we arrived in 1788’ (my emphasis). This immediately seems to exclude all readers without British backgrounds. Surely the significance of this book is its relevance to all Australians.
But that doesn’t diminish the importance of The Oldest Foods on Earth. In acknowledging his debt to previous publications – particularly The Biggest Estate on Earth – Newton modestly states: ‘If this book does no more than lead its reader to Gammage, it will have fulfilled its purpose.’ Newton’s generosity here is charming but unnecessary. The Oldest Foods on Earth is not just about food, but goes past that to contribute to a better understanding of black-white relationships, past and present.
John Newton The Oldest Foods on Earth: A history of Australian native foods with recipes New South 2016 PB 272pp $29.99
Jeannette Delamoir is an ex-Queenslander and former academic. She combines her passions for writing, reading, culture and food by teaching at WEA Sydney and she blogs at mmmmFULL
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