Thursday, August 8, 2013

Sweet (and sour) memories

My Sydney Morning Herald Life and Style column for this week is 'Taste sours the sweetest memories'.

Prompted by a 'traditional' Australian Chinese meal, I'm reflecting on food: its memories, fashions and relation to truth. A taste:
As the historian James Laver noted, fashions follow fairly predictable cycles. Something is daring, for example, then smart, then dowdy, then hideous, then ridiculous. The same is true of food trends: from sweet-and-sour pork to deep-pan pizza to sushi, tapas and pho. No doubt somewhere in Collingwood or Newtown, a hipster is ridiculing tapas, while eating a honey joy ironically. 
If Laver's right, "traditional" Australian Chinese food, once a culinary novelty, has moved from obscene (for my grandfather) to daring (for my parents) to smart (for childhood me) and then to somewhere between hideous and ridiculous. And it has done so, not only because it makes me wince, but also because it is an anachronism. I am gagging, not at the over-use of caster sugar and vinegar, but at my own shared, foreign-yet-familiar past. 
This cycle will not end with sweet-and-sour pig. Perhaps some of today's kids, raised on organic, locally grown, hand-made pasta ribbons will happily liberate their palates with frozen, microwavable spaghetti bolognese, made with certified GM wheat imported from the United States. "Taste the food miles," they'll laugh, in their polyester MC Hammer tracksuits. 
These vicissitudes of taste make an important point about truth, and our familiarity with it. Strong feelings, like a seven-year-old's craving for pink battered pig, are no truer than weak ones. As the philosopher David Hume noted, beliefs are just ideas we feel strongly about – they have no special trustworthiness. The same is true of appetites: intensity does not equal verity. 
My embarrassment is partly a reflection of this: shock at the foreignness of my earlier certainties. And it goes further: my tastes today are also fallible and faddish. Human judgment never jumps over its own shadow.
(Photo: Alpha)
 

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