We could look to popular food television heavyweights like MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules for our food knowledge and inspiration. And many do. But speak to Rebecca Huntley and she will tell you why she no longer watches such shows and why she doesn’t believe in recipe books.
A leading figure in the field of social research, Dr Huntley is an author, social commentator, mother, and director of Australia’s longest running qualitative social trends study, The Ipsos Mind & Mood Report. As such, she is paid to delve into the thoughts and feelings of everyday people.
In her Curiosity talk at the Festival, On the Ethos of Eating, she looks at why food and cooking have always been so important to her and what she has learned listening to thousands of Australians talk about their approach to buying and cooking food.
Dr Huntley has strong opinions and presents them in a way that is both captivating and purposeful. Backed by her PhD in gender studies, she is passionate about the inequality surrounding the way we eat and she touches on such issues in her book, Eating Between the Lines: Food & Equality in Australia. Particularly, in how the task of cooking still falls largely on the shoulders of women: “A deterioration in cooking skills has been blamed on women who are too busy working.”
While there is a broad assumption that families eat takeaway because “Mum can’t be bothered cooking as she’s too tired”, Dr Huntley believes this is unfair, and needs to change.
The dynamic between what we observe and what we actually do with food is intriguing, and Dr Huntley insists that the two do not equate. For this reason, food media is fundamentally flawed, and fails to present sustainable solutions to how we deal with food.
“When we approach food and nutrition from a calorie perspective, and whether a food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it just doesn’t work,” she says. “This is not an effective long-term strategy. Nor is one where we are expected to take into account 70 new and different ingredients.”
She has a lot to say about food. The question of where we source our food sparks surprising passion: “I have a real issue with people who say that we should only buy our food from farmers’ markets and local growers, and the idea that we should never set a foot in the supermarket. This is kind of pathetic. Kudos to you if you can shop that way but, really, you are unique. It’s just not mainstream. The simple fact is that the majority of people source their food from the supermarket.”
Instead, she believes it’s important to take an interest in where our food comes from and support initiatives through supermarkets.
One of Dr Huntley’s most controversial perspectives is that food knowledge and skill should not be limited to food media nor what lies on the pages of cookbooks. This may be difficult for some TV audiences to come to terms with. She says food-related shows do not promote the notion of eating at home. “They want people to eat out at cafes and restaurants and all the chefs involved have restaurants.”
Added to this is Dr Huntley’s belief that the more we eat out, the less we question the source and quality of the food and the less practice we get at preparing it. This is why she is on a mission to help change the way we approach food: “If I have an hour, I would rather be cooking than watching others cook.”
Dr Huntley says while watching the first series of one cooking show, her husband claimed they actually ate more takeaway during that period than home-cooked meals. With such programs scheduled at times when people would normally be preparing and cooking dinner, “anything that takes you away from that won’t get you where you need to be”.
And as for recipe books, she says being able to improvise with food is an essential skill. “To be able to open your fridge and say, ‘right, I have half a leftover baked chicken and some vegetables’ and then pull something together from that; recipe books don’t do that,” she says. Instead, the Internet can and does fill that void, and now “people use the internet to find out how to cook a new protein source”.
While Dr Huntley admires people like healthy food advocate Jamie Oliver, she believes that trying to get everyone passionate about food is never going to work. In reality, only a small percentage of people absolutely love it. “People have other interests [they are passionate about], whether that be reading, knitting or cooking.”
Instead, she suggests taking a modest approach, and that it is more important for everyone to engage at a certain level. “We need to look at different ways to teach people about how to prepare a meal, whether that be a seven-year-old child or a 70-year-old widower.” Research indicates people can usually master eight to 10 core recipes, then to build on this it’s simply a matter of teaching people to make small, sustainable, changes.
“Perhaps it’s a matter of adding more vegetables, incorporating some fish or becoming proficient in the use of one new ingredient or cut of meat. It’s about getting people to a place where they can confidently prepare a simple, not overly complex meal, not to the point where they’re a contestant on MasterChef.”
Dr Huntley also suggests families take a more pragmatic approach, “where everyone shares the responsibility and has input into creating a family meal. That may be shopping for the ingredients, doing the preparation or cooking the meal itself, a shared experience where the role is no longer entirely focused on the woman”. She believes the pressures and time constraints that women face when preparing food will only change when opportunities are found to involve men and children in the kitchen. “There is no reason why children as young as six or seven can’t get involved in basic cooking, rather than just making cupcakes.”
Rebecca Huntley has a new book, Does Cooking Matter? due for release later this year.