Let's bin the overcooked moralising

Bookmark and Share | Chris Berg
The Sunday Age 19th July, 2009

When MasterChef announces its winner tonight, it will have done more than inspire a few home chefs to cook half a pig's head, as third-place winner Chris famously did.

MasterChef takes an overwhelmingly positive perspective on modern food and home cooking. This is actually pretty rare. A lot of the discussion about modern food is highly political and deeply pessimistic. Even popular shows that try to celebrate food can't quite welcome the base pleasure of good cooking. Gordon Ramsay won't stop mumbling about "local produce" and the evils of imported ingredients, and Jamie Oliver seems just as desperate that we grow our own vegies for the good of the planet as he is that we make our own pasta sauce from scratch.

Cultural critics have spent the past decade trying to convert our dinner into an ideological statement. We're told we face a future torn between a diet of instantaneously prepared frankenfood made primarily of transfats, or a diet that is richer in politics than flavour - with a functional, expensive and bland mixture of local, organic, slow, GM-free and fair-trade food.

So it's refreshing to watch a food show that doesn't even pay lip service to all the over-cooked moralising about the "ethics" of food. You get the impression 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.

And MasterChef recipes almost always involve some nutritionally mischievous ingredients - sugar, butter and the ubiquitous salt. This, too, has upset some people. One nutritionist, Catherine Saxelby, was particularly concerned that the show has "no regard for health or nutrition", arguing that MasterChef makes "the basic chop, potato and two veg look boring when there's actually nothing wrong with it from a nutrition point of view".

That makes sense: a dish consisting of a chop, a potato and two vegies is extremely boring. If nothing else, MasterChef will have encouraged a few more people to think carefully about food preparation and variety. After all, it is often out of boredom with home-cooking that we go for takeaway alternatives or just defrost frozen food.

The variety of food cooked by the MasterChef contestants - and the high standards they are able to achieve with easily sourced ingredients - also reflects the powerful consumer revolution in food that is changing what and how we eat. It's no secret that the food we eat is different from the food our parents and grandparents ate. Sushi and home-cooked burritos would have been completely alien to most Australians just a few decades ago. The way foods have migrated because of globalisation is a story of long-term developments in food culture. But it's not hard to find examples of how our tastes are rapidly expanding right now.

In my local Brunswick supermarket in the past month, the chorizo sausage has gone from being a niche delicacy, offered only as single, vacuum-packed sausages tucked away near the freezers, to being offered in large, fresh multipacks proudly displayed with the other meat. They're now just opposite the mince. And you can't get more mainstream than mince.

Incidentally, this new location also puts the chorizo within a sausage-throw of the okra - a weird, slimy fruit used primarily for gumbo, a Cajun and Creole stew. Many Australian-born generations before us would have had no idea of what okra was, let alone what to do with it. Yet it sits comfortably in suburban supermarkets, where space is at a premium.

Seemingly inconsequential technological developments are providing us with fresher produce at the humble supermarket. Lettuce and baby spinach is now most commonly available in pre-packaged, sealed plastic bags, rather than exposed for consumers to grab at. This began in Europe in the 1980s but has only recently had a big impact here. A seemingly minor change, sure, but it's the little things that count. According to Packaging magazine Australia (it's "Australia's premier packaging news"!), most of the innovation in packaging is developed for the food industry - like "oxygen scavengers", those weird little sachets that come with pre-made tortillas.

These changes in technology and taste have made it possible to narrow the distance between elite restaurants and home cooking, changes without which MasterChef would not be as engaging and relevant to the nearly 2.5 million Australians who watched the show's final week. We are served a lot of ideological pessimism about contemporary home cooking. But MasterChef shows that the proof is in the eating.