Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Gay Abandon

It is ironic in a sense that the woman who ran Sydney’s famous Berowra Water’s Inn for 18 years has now abandoned the restaurant scene and writes with passion and beauty about the joy of simplicity in digestion.

Gay Bilson’s “On Digestion” is the second in the Melbourne University Press wonderful “Little Books on Big Themes” series that I have recently reviewed. It is a stream of consciousness, prosaic piece in which Bilson explores her new attitudes to food and eating;

”Experience is everything” she says. “It isn’t only that I am much older but that I have now have grown food... I had no knowledge then of what now gives pleasure. A different philosophy and practice is now possible.”

Of the food of Heston Blumenthal’s (pre food scare) Fat Duck at Bray in England and Spanish innovator Ferran Adria’s El Bulli Bilson's new philosophy is evident;

“The apotheosis of this extreme distance between restaurant and domestic food is the rise of what has been dubbed molecular gastronomy”.

But this is not a book concerned simply with nostalgic longing for simpler restaurant experiences and home cooking. On the contrary it is an intriguing and thought provoking tour of food and language, knowledge and practice, packaging and trust, television chefs and the disconnect between good food, food produce and price.

Bilson claims she is arguing the case for being content not to know everything for;

“Surely this is what good digestion is: a place where experience and language meet and mean the same thing”.

She expresses a slight discomfort with the need to know as much as she might know through reading, when experience and thoughtful practice would suffice. I am not convinced by this argument. The power of her food prose almost impeaches her as her own witness in the case she argues.

“The last pomegranates hang so heavily on the almost bare tree in late autumn, directly in front of the kitchen window. Cultivating them, and so cultivating ourselves, we who are interested in food beyond nourishment are moved to know more and more, to turn from garden, from the kitchen itself, to the bench with the books...”

For me, the answer to Bilson herself provides the answer to her, perhaps deliberately posited, dilemma when she writes;

“To be a great poet is to have a gift.To be a truly great cook is to have a gift also.To cook simply and to share is to be involved in gift making”.

So regarded there is a seat at Bilson’s table for everyone, and arguably, three seats for her.

The furthest stretch between language and consumption, she contends, are the advertisements for “industrial foods” with their lists of ingredients which are marvellously off putting. The problem is, she says;

“...those of us who shun foods we deem not to be food, and who read labels, have the money and the culinary resourcefulness to choose not to eat them, while those with less income, less culinary education and less choice take the additives, the long shelf life, the depleted flavours and textures, and the relatively low cost to be a normal diet.”

Bilson’s concern with the relationship between good food and money is evident throughout her essay - as to manufactured foods and restaurant meals and as to simple produce. Her self abnegation is curious but, albeit she doesn’t like crowds and is disconnected and immobilized by a solitary nature, she is, as she claims for herself, “ever utopian” . She envisages everyone with surplus produce putting it in front of their house for anyone’s taking. This she hypothesizes is a solution to “the terrible connection food has to money” Consider;

“Recently, at the beginning of winter, shops which sell fruit and vegetables were charging such a high price for lemons (mostly imported, mostly lacking the quiddity of lemons) that it became unconscionable to purchase them. It is difficult to think of one plate of food which the lemon, either juice or peel, does not improve.The many lemon trees in this area, in front and back yards, in paddocks and leaning over fences, were laden with fruit; there was a luxury of lemons.”

Nor does television escape Bilson’s philosophical scrutiny. Citing Robert Hughes quip “the victory of television over the object of its debate” she writes;

“The media pays excessive, fulsome attention to some of these chefs. They have become personalities and their food has become an aesthetic phenomenon. Via magazines, newspapers, their books and television we know their faces and their completed dishes, but there is a void in between. Television produces more evidence of real cooking, but the screen is the ultimate buffer. Television cooks and their comperes tasting a dish and expressing ecstatic satisfaction which falls flat on the glass screen come close to causing offense”.

While Bilson remains an enigma, her “Little Book” is illuminating. It is a powerfully constructed message which searches for an ultimate reality in food thinking. Its value is as much in it’s suggested solutions as in its postulated problems. Indeed the author acknowledges that the writing of Ihab Hassan has taught her much about the dangers of didacticism without effecting any cure.

Australia is fortunate to have a poet and great chef and gift maker whose mind, as Simon Thomsen recently tweeted, “remains a smorgasbord”.


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  2. Looking forward to devouring this book. I dont think anyone in OZ that writes about food quite like her. Met her in 07 & gave my copy of Digressions for her to sign, which she did, rolly hanging out the side of her mouth as she squinted at me in the Dover night.
    Its remarkable, bearing in mind her formiddable restaurateur credentials, that she came to growing her own food relatively late. Interestingly I totally agree that this has a profound effect on the way people cook from that point forward-it changes you somehow?


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