Sometimes I think the whole world has gone nuts.
On the eve of the Australia Day long weekend, Pauline Hanson, political has-been and serial political candidate, who once wrapped herself literally in an Australian flag and has continued to do so metaphorically, has announced that she will no longer eat Vegemite.
Now it’s true that Vegemite is no longer Australian. It was gobbled up – metaphorically – by multinational Kraft many years ago. But only Australians actually eat the stuff. Vegemite is conveniently marketed these days in a plastic tube so that elderly Australians can take it with them when they travel overseas. I have a friend who has lived in France for over 30 years to whom I bring Vegemite so she can spread it on her breakfast baguette. Vegemite is as Australian as drop bears and sharks.
Pauline Hanson has given it up because, according to its website, it is certified Halal by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. It is also certified Kosher by Kosher Australia, though this doesn’t seem to have troubled Pauline. Vegemite is completely vegetarian, so these certifications are really statements of the bleeding obvious, like saying that an apple is gluten free, or a steak contains no dairy, although because Vegemite is made from yeast, presumably the Islamic Councils need to check that the finished product contains no alcohol. I’m not at all sure what Kosher Australia was looking for.
Rules about food are always complicated, and they often provoke irritation, whether it’s the anonymous note on the office refrigerator asking everyone to avoid keeping peanuts in the fridge, or the dinner guest who announces, much too late, that they are vegetarian / vegan / coeliac – or can’t eat mammal meat because they were bitten by a tick 10 years ago (weird, but true).
Food is closely tied to ethnic, religious or nationalist identity. It takes on symbolic meaning. A food that nobody but an Australian would eat (lamingtons, Vegemite) can be a bonding exercise, but it can also be used as a marker of difference. One of the purposes of religious dietary rules is to mark out in- and out-groups – and make it more likely that young people will marry within the group, because boys will be looking out for girls who can make spanakopita / hamantaschen / kibbeh / pavlova just like Grandma used to make.
In 1492 the last Moorish kingdom in Spain was conquered, and Moors and Jews in Spain were given a stark choice: convert to Christianity or leave the country. The Inquisition was suspicious of the converts who stayed, keeping an eye on them in case they reverted to their Jewish or Islamic faith.
One way of keeping the Inquisition off your back was to eat pork regularly and in public, as a way of showing you were a good Christian. Curiously, we know quite a lot about early modern Spanish cuisine because of the nosiness of the Inquisition, which pulled in the servants of converts to see what they were cooking – and when. Failing to cook on the Sabbath was suspicious. So, curiously, was eating eggplant (aubergine), which was seen as a peculiarly Muslim vegetable.
When the Inquisition reached Goa in the late 16th century, the people there also came under culinary surveillance. The original Portuguese settlers had been encouraged to marry local women, originally the widows of men they had killed while seizing the region, so it is not surprising that a mixed race population developed new fusion foods, such as vindaloo, where the ‘vin’ was wine or vinegar from Portugal, the chilli was introduced from South America, and the meat and vegetables were local – and doubtless included eggplant.
Delicious – but dangerous, if the Inquisition decided such a dish indicated that good Portuguese Catholics were ‘going native’. Fear of the Inquisition also led people in Goa to chop down their neem trees – though cleaning your teeth with neem twigs is hardly a rational indication of religious belief.
Vegemite and vindaloo are both acquired tastes. They say something about family background and the tastes we were exposed to as children. That’s why they both come under the heading of comfort food.
I respect whatever self-imposed restrictions other people want to put on their eating habits, and if Pauline Hanson wants to give up Vegemite, that’s fine, but personally I won’t stop consuming pork or alcohol – or an occasional Vegemite toast – any time soon. And on the eve of Australia Day, maybe it’s time to embrace a bit more fusion food – and a fusion mindset. A national cuisine based only on barbequed chops, meat pies and lamingtons is a bit dispiriting.