Julian Burnside and Stephanie Alexander believe food is the key to social change. It’s what unites an otherwise unlikely pair: the highly successful commercial barrister, QC, refugee advocate and patron of the arts, and the beloved chef and food writer (author of Australian food bible, The Cook’s Companion). “I like food, like many people do, and she’s good at that,” says Burnside of Alexander. “And she has a social conscience, and I think I have a social conscience.”
It’s an understatement. Both have an Order of Australia for their work on social issues: Alexander with her not-for-profit Kitchen Garden Foundation, a education program that teaches schoolchildren about food (its environmental and health impact, how to grow and prepare it); Burnside for his work as a human-rights advocate, notably with refugees and asylum seekers.
They both think we have a lot to learn about food, which is why you’ll see them next week at sustainable food celebration, festival21. “Education is probably the answer to everything,” says Alexander. “But I don’t want people to be too holier than thou about it – because it is simple stuff, food. We make it too hard!
“You don’t need the exquisite double-damask tablecloth,” she says. She also happily admits she’s the first to love a good tablecloth, but insists we could all cook a good meal on the fly – if we tried. “You’ve probably got an egg in the refrigerator; you’ve probably got some garlic, and an onion … ”
Good food isn’t about privilege. “Many children in middle-class schools have just as little understanding [as anyone] of how their broccoli grows, or what silverbeet even actually is,” says Alexander. “Much less how you cut a leaf of it – how you can roll it up and chop it and sautee it with garlic, or put it with ricotta and fresh pasta. That lack of awareness goes right across the board.”
She is impatient with people who insist good eating is a luxury. “I think it’s because they don't know how to shop, or they don’t know how to cook. You can sit out in the back garden and have a big loaf of bread and a bowl of mussels, and a glass of wine. It costs very little.”
Burnside points out how easily – and cheaply – meals can bring communities together, praising organisations such as PeaceMeals which puts on dinners with long-term residents and recently arrived people. “These do not have to be state dinners – these are just simple meals. People need to urge their local town hall to start arranging meals like that. Town halls are well set up to arrange it.”
“If you sit down and break bread with someone, it’s difficult not to understand them,” Burnside says. Most of the people he encounters who are hostile to refugees, “have never actually met a refugee. You could introduce an Australian to every Afghan Hazara boat person who’s come here in the last 15 years, and they’d get on fine with each of them. But they still say, ‘I don’t like boat people’. We are xenophobic; we fear outsiders, but that’s not the same as racism. We get on well with individuals. Which is why the idea of sitting down to share a meal might help break down some of [our] prejudices.”
People seeking asylum in Australia have always brought a lot to the table, it’s hardly news. Take the Greek, Italian and Polish communities after World War Two. “Our acceptance of those people has, to a significant extent, been carried by us appreciating their food,” Burnside says. He grew up in Melbourne in the ‘50s and remembers when people were appalled by “foreign food”: say, squid. “I mean, that was just beyond, beyond! But they saved us from lamb and three veg.”
Alexander agrees that anything we have going for us food-wise, we’ve learnt in the last 50 years. “Anglo-celtic culture has not been noticeably successful in introducing a sensual appreciation of food. In our grandparents’ generation, it was almost reprehensible to show too much enthusiasm for what you ate. Whereas in the Middle East, in Asia, in Europe, coming together around a meal is the absolute first choice for celebrating anything – it could just be ‘the day’.”
Restaurants owned by migrants – from Lebanese to Vietnamese – became popular because they were interesting and inexpensive. “We began to see these people as people who had something to offer us,” Burnside says. “It took us a little while. We could do it again; we could do it right now.”
He is worried about the effects of climate change and food (in)security on the world’s refugees. Environmental refugees aren't currently recognised by the 1951 UNHCR Convention. “And can you just imagine Australia being invited to expand the definition of refugees?” Burnside gives a grim laugh. “Politicians have acted unscrupulously so as to persuade us that these people are a problem, as opposed to being an opportunity.”
“Let’s face it, it's just a matter of luck that we’re not in the same position,” he says. We can enjoy good fortune, but it’s important to acknowledge it – internationally and locally. “If you enjoy a good meal and go outside and see a homeless person and you ignore them – do nothing in your life that will help them or people like them – then yes, you’ve missed the point,” he says. “On the other hand, if someone’s obvious poverty makes you recognise your obvious good fortune, and you act on that and do something to improve their fortune, it’s not wasted.”
The main point both make is that you can push for change at the same time as savouring the good things. Engaging with food and community should be fun; that’s what makes change stick. “Dinner with friends – good wine, good company and good conversation – is, in my view, one of the things that makes life worth living,” Burnside says.
Stephanie Alexander and Julian Burnside sit down at the table at festival21 at 9pm on Friday December 11. The entire festival is free, but book to make sure you get a seat.