But is there cause to get flustered?
THE great contest of the kitchen is over. For the second year in a row, MasterChef skewered the public imagination. Surprised and gratified parents are ceding command of the stovetop to their children – this can only be good.
And that’s not all. Every time the judges minced through their forkfuls and tenderise contestants with their ambiguous gazes, the nation was reminded that what we eat requires close attention. The show ignited passionate debate from newsrooms to tearooms. It inspired people to cook for one another.
Extrapolated slightly, these are three invaluable cooking lessons: food matters; food is cultural; and food is social.
But the show also had a bitter kick: food is corporate.
I visited a Coles supermarket recently. MasterChef flags cluttered the window and crowded the head space. Cardboard signs cloaked the alarms at the entrance, declaring: “MasterChef has chosen Coles to supply quality ingredients to the pantry.”
Spuds weren’t just spuds: they were MasterChef spuds.
Broad signs arched over each aisle, like banners at the end of a race, spurring the shoppers on: “To cook like a MasterChef cooks, shop where a MasterChef shops.”
But if you care about food, the aisles of a supermarket must not be your finish line – even if they are decorated with the logos of our most popular TV show.
This time last year, before the MasterChef finale, Chris Berg from the Institute of Public Affairs penned a column for the Sunday Age celebrating the show for disregarding “over-cooked moralising about the ‘ethics’ of food”. (The inverted commas are his).
“You get the impression,” he wrote, “that even if a MasterChef contestant used ingredients that were artificially grown in a chemical factory by robot arms, the only thing the judges would be interested in would be taste, texture and presentation. You know, the reasons why we enjoy eating.” (This, I should clarify, was intended as a compliment.)
Another of Coles’ slogans, however, is: “it all counts”. And so it does. The choices we make when we buy our food have a staggering array of consequences, not the least of which is visited upon our taste buds.
Other possible dangers, to list only some, are: obesity, diabetes, animal cruelty, land degradation, chemical runoff, biodiversity loss, climate change, packaging waste, rural social decline and worsening world poverty.
When we shop at a supermarket, according to the dictates of MasterChef merchandising, we outsource our responsibility for these problems to big businesses, whose concerns end with their shareholders.
There are alternatives. In a recent essay for the New York Review of Books, the American writer Michael Pollan lauded the rise of the ‘food movement’, the many citizens groups digging in on issues that span the industrial food chain.
Here in Australia, the food movement is similarly flourishing. It encompasses angry parents who are demanding better labelling and safety standards, bans on genetically modified crops, and an end to the junk food ads that target their children.
It comprises chefs and climate campaigners, permaculturalists and public health professionals. It includes, too, the swelling ranks of backyard and community vegie gardeners, and the gastronomists and convivialists who frequent farmers markets and slow food eateries.
The movement is disparate and sometimes contradictory – for example, animal rights activists might clash with organic meat producers. But Pollan argues that the views of these citizens and activists coalesce “around the recognition that today’s food and farming economy is ‘unsustainable’—that it can’t go on in its current form without courting a breakdown of some kind, whether environmental, economic, or both.”
Food, then, is political.
“Food is invisible no longer,” Pollan goes on, “and, in light of the mounting costs we’ve incurred by ignoring it, it is likely to demand much more of our attention in the future, as eaters, parents, and citizens. It is only a matter of time before politicians seize on [its] power.”
Despite our renewed flair for flavour, inspired by MasterChef, we must remember that not everything of consequence appears on the plate. The corporate conquest of our kitchens is still underway.
Published in Online Opinion.