ANZAC Biscuit Diplomacy: a statement on food, national identity, and home-made costumes involving paper plates
|date:||21 July 2014 08:49|
"We have two children going to school now and both of them are expected to be racially harmonious. Don't forget to get the cricket bat when you pick up T."
Every time the school has a Racial Harmony Day we spend too much time cringing over all the earnestness and too little time constructing home-made Sydney Opera House costumes from paper plates.
H, if you're reading, you're an inspiration and also a lesson. If we'd got on the paper plate bandwagon we may not have had to console our daughter today on account of "not being Chinese", which (I can't quite untangle this) has something to do with flags, seaweed, and pretty dresses.
Her father, at the last minute, threw her into a yellow T-shirt and navy (close enough) culottes and handed her a cricket bat. Great Australian tradition, he said. You can just picture them playing it in the Dreamtime.
As for me - I was on catering, but rather than whip up an enticing batch of lamingtons (H, be my mentor) I frittered my time on a philosophical debate with an absent ambassador over the diplomatic nuances of food.
My reference book was The World On Your Plate - collaboratively written by various ambassadors to Singapore as part of a fundraising effort for the Tang Tok Seng hospital. What dish, I wondered upon receiving it, had the Australian High Commissioner brought to the same table as the Filipino Adobo or the Laotian Laap? Could it compete with the historical richness of the Spanish Paella? Could it embody as much festiveness as the Chinese Jiao Zi?
ANZAC biscuits. That's what he brought. So... yes. And also... huh.
Not that there's anything wrong with that
I'll be the first to stand proudly (by which I don't mean "to attention", but "at a carefully-calculated ease from which one can shoot a rabbit or reveal an oversized knife with a fluidity of movement which defies expectation") and say there's a strong argument for the ANZAC biscuit, not least of which is that it's a darn tasty biscuit.
But it also embodies many of the fine qualities we like to think of as being part of the Australian National Character.
It hints at resourcefulness - being the far greater sum of the basic ingredients which constitute its parts; practicality - being so full of golden syrup they won't spoil under pretty much any storage conditions over pretty much any period of time; and tenacity - whether you subscribe to the school of make-em-so-they-won't-break-even-if-you-fold-em-in-half, or the school of make-em-so-they-won't-break-even-if-you-bang-em-with-a-mallet.
Nor do I want to spit on the biscuit's origins: the war that forged not only our nation, but a very fine movie starring Mel Gibson and a tradition of pilgrimage to Gallipoli in which I, myself, have partaken, and during which we really did watch that Mel Gibson movie. Far be it.
The ANZAC biscuit, in sum, is a great biscuit indeed, and one that any Australian should dutifully shovel into the mouths of the coming generation until they learn a fond affection for it, borne either of genuine taste and sweet memories, or (failing that) of a kind of oat-based Stockholm syndrome. It is just that important.
Still. I wonder if it's the right message for today.
Modern Australian cuisine is something I recognise when I taste, but can't accurately explain. It's what SBS Food describes as an unashamed mix of inspiration from South-East Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, and just, like, wherever.
It's vibrant. It's multicultural. It's fresh and boldly-flavoured and maybe just a teensy bit disconcerting. What it isn't is the very same mixture of oats and syrup your Grandfather grew to love in the trenches of Europe, fighting a war at the behest of Mother England.
So it's tricky.
WWCD (What Would Camilla Do)?
I asked recently-repatriated chef, Camilla Baker, what she'd do, and she said salads and grills. A sort-of tabouleh, perhaps, but with generous quantities of cous cous rather than bulgur, coriander instead of parsley and mint, and shreds of BBQ chicken mixed through - plus some chopped lettuce.
Or go for a noodle salad, with honey soy chicken wings and snow peas. Bonus points for including fresh ginger. Satay's another option, with an English garden salad on the side.
More Paul Hogan than Mel Gibson, in other words.
In the end, we went for the sort-of tabouleh plus a watermelon and banana fruit salad with yoghurt, and sent the kids along with cricket bats and "footballs". We totally should have gone for a paper-plate opera house - mistakes were made - and I don't think ANZAC biscuits should be absolutely off the list.