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Is food diversity done for?

17 August 20150 comments

Traditional food is disappearing from around the globe – from the steady decline of street hawkers in Singapore to the dilution of Melbourne’s famous culinary melting pot.

A plethora of factors, including homogenization and industrialisation, have created the decline of authentic food available from local supermarkets and restaurants.

The influx of western ideas and goods in foreign lands has crowded out many local cultures, but progress in the western world has also depleted the range of local food and migrant cooking.

America, like Australia, is made up of a culturally rich landscape and has been for a long time.

Before the railway system was created in America, food that was eaten was produced almost entirely locally, recipes completely limited by geography.

During this time, the nation was made up of farmers, instead of the population of urban and suburban-dwellers that it is today.

In 1760 farmers made up 90% of the American workforce, in 1950 they made up 12.2% and 1990 it had plummeted to 2.6%.

The industrialisation of the food system lead to an array of food types being available from all areas, scattering the concept of regional food cultures.

Throughout the world similar problems of over-accessibility have greatly altered eating habits. In the last decade in particular how we eat has rapidly changed, with chain supermarkets taking over corner shops in Europe.

In Prague there was an abundance of small local markets up to the early 1990s, but the trend to become modern and westernised took over and replaced family owned business with national conglomerates.

It seems that in certain ways accessibility has confined our food tastes rather than broadening them, limiting the range of our food experiences.

But what of the food spread out on the dinner table each night? Are migrants to Australia continuing to keep their traditions alive or have food wants changed to the level of only craving the same as what everyone else is eating?

Is a home cooked Mantı still sitting pretty on Turkish dinner tables in Melbourne or has it been replaced with bangers and mash?

Helen Benny has been asking similar questions in her PhD on food traditions in local Melbourne communities.

There has been little research on the influence multiculturalism has on food trends in Australia, which is why Helen’s findings are so significant.

Her research shows that only traditional food culture is being kept alive within migrant’s homes in Australia, but also the importance of maintaining that culture.

“Eating, one of our most basic needs, imbues a sense of curiosity and generosity that allows people from all backgrounds to come together,” said Helen.

“At a broader level it’s also important because, for the average Australian, food is often the first point of contact with different cultures and cultural practices,” she said. “So it becomes an important part of intercultural communities and communication.”

“There is a danger of becoming too nostalgic about the past,” Benny said. “The people I interviewed were aware that much of the food they or their parents used to eat was of poorer quality. Another important factor in this is that many ‘traditional’ cuisines rely on someone (most often a woman) having enough time and energy to spend long hours cooking from scratch. Preserving traditions relies on some adaptations,” said Helen.

The modernisation and homogenization of our world has caused the loss of authentic flavours and recipes, but has our desire to taste the diverse and different expired too?

Helen believes it hasn’t, finding that many of her interviewees were interested in the people around them and their food, no matter what their origin.

“Several people emphasised that they felt it was really important to establish ties with and to learn the ways of other people who were in the community. There was a great sense of hope of what Australia will become.”


Ruby Brown
AMES Australia Staff Writer