Why is there so little food in Australian films? There is always plenty of booze, but not much tucker. We all know that food in film is a metaphor for more complex issues, such as family, religion, race, gender and group identity. Italian films would be lifeless and Jewish films mute without their pivotal scenes of the family at table. But when it comes to food on our big screens, I can only quote Tourism Australia’s previous advertising campaign: ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’
In Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, for example, everybody drinks beer or rum between meals — but there are no actual meals. Nobody eats. Australia is yet another victim of the visual anorexia afflicting Australian cinema. I vaguely recall a tense barbecue scene in Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne and a campfire tea in Crocodile Dundee, but nobody seemed to eat in Priscilla (still the most ‘Australian’ film ever made), Babe, Strictly Ballroom or Rabbit Proof Fence. Australian films survive on very little sustenance; a delicious irony considering the famously generous catering usually found on set. Clearly, we would rather eat it than shoot it.
And now that the country is being flogged to the world in Luhrmann’s very own bigscreen, big-budget television ads for Tourism Australia, the entire world will think we value our waterholes and walkabouts over our sweetcorn fritters and ricotta hotcakes. The ads may be gorgeous, but there is not a word about dinner, thank you very much. Not a Neil Perry tea-smoked duck and sea scallop salad, nor a Luke Mangan slow-cooked jewfish with crabmeat and fragrant chilli dressing to be seen. Not even an Australian wine, and God knows the industry could do with a bit of help.
Damn it, we’re famous for our food. It’s all the Poms talk about when they get back to old Blighty after a trip Down Under. If you are a New Zealander, they will rave to you about your ‘scenery’, but if you are Australian, they just look at you strangely for being in Britain when you could be back home eating all that fabulous food. It’s all so fresh, they cry, so spontaneous, so full of flavour. Oh, the steaks, the Thai salads, the Shiraz, and oh, the seafood.
Perhaps the directive to avoid things gastronomic in the ads came from the client. Nope, Rodney Harrex, general manager of Tourism Australia for the UK and Europe says that they still dangle the carrot, so to speak, of modern Australian tucker to the 5.2 million international visitors per year.
‘We use our reputation for great food and wine as one of the ways to promote the country to potential holidaymakers,’ says Harrex. ‘We know that the Brits are motivated by images of us eating outdoors, enjoying our year-round sun and stunning scenery over a meal.’ So, Baz, where’s the beef?
We are missing a trick here. What we need is a real film with a real sense of place that casts our brilliant produce, inspired chefs and lively restaurant scene as the (metaphorical) stars; a film as seductive as Jacques Reymond’s steamed oysters with lime and vodka dressing, as resonant as Tetsuya Wakuda’s confit ocean trout with konbu, and as multi-layered as Andrew McConnell’s salt cod and parsley soup at Melbourne’s Cumulus.
Other countries make much of their food on film. Mexico is now indelibly linked with the sensuality of the food in Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate, edible proof of the youngest daughter’s forbidden love and sexual frustration. In Ang Lee’s Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, Taiwan past and present was deliciously illustrated by the three daughters of chef Chu, one of whom says ‘we communicate by eating’; while Babette’s Feast symbolised the struggle between joyful pleasure and pious morality in 19th Century Denmark. In Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, the powerful image of a raw egg oozing over a woman’s body like a free-range Japanese flag suggests the passion contained within the Japanese desire for perfection.
Stanley Tucci’s heartbreaking Big Night is as much a tale of immigration as it is about pasta and risotto; and Bob Giraldi’s more recent Dinner Rush cooks up the Old World/ New World dilemma of a modern New York Italian restaurant — and all modern New York Italians. Meatballs or carpaccio? What you eat is who you are. Renée Zellweger’s blue soup in Bridget Jones’s Diary tells us all we need to know about the Brits’ ambivalence about food.
The food in this country is rich and ripe with untold journeys, imaginings, migrations, hardships and desires. Even the fact that we have roast beef for Sunday lunch and a coconut milk curry for tea tells us who we were, are and will be. So where is our big dining table scene, our famous food fight, our coconut-crusted, passionfruit-studded sense of place?
Don’t tell me that our food culture is not strong enough to inspire Australian filmmakers, novelists and artists. The truth is uncomfortable: we are all too comfortable, too plump and well-fed. It takes lean, mean times of hunger and hardship to learn to value food as a way of telling your story. Until then, I will spend my time watching Australian films in the same way I always have; by sitting in the dark, working out where to go for dinner.