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Jaws
9 September, 2009  
On Digestion

In praise of food that is simple and truthful … And hold the TV chefs … Famed foodie Stephen Estcourt review’s Gay Bilson’s book On Digestion


“There are no waiters in this restaurant… There will be no choice in this restaurant… At this restaurant the food is not plated as individual serves… At this restaurant the diners will pay when they arrive… This restaurant will be local… This restaurant will be modest in all respects.”

The woman who ran Sydney’s famous Berowra Water’s Inn for 18 years now writes with passion and beauty about the joy of simplicity in digestion.

Gay Bilson’s On Digestion is the third in the Melbourne University Press “Little Books on Big Themes” to be reviewed in this organ (see Critics’ Corner).

In her stream of consciousness writing about her new attitudes to food, Bilson explains herself this way:

“Experience is everything… It isn’t only that I am much older but that I have now grown food… I had no knowledge then of what now gives pleasure. A different philosophy and practice is now possible.”

imageOf the food at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck at Bray in England, or Spanish innovator Feran Adria’s El Bulli, Bilson (pic) is not enthusiastic.

“The apotheosis of this extreme distance between restaurant and domestic food is the rise of what has been dubbed molecular gastronomy.”

This is not a book concerned simply with some nostalgic longing for simpler restaurant experiences and home cooking.

On the contrary, it is an intriguing and thought provoking tour of food and language, knowledge and practice, packaging and trust, the disconnect between good food and food production and price, plus the distorted world of the celebrity chef.

Bilson claims she is arguing the case for being content not to know everything:

“Surely this is what good digestion is: a place where experience and language meet and mean the same thing.”

She expresses discomfort about the need to know so much through reading, when experience and thoughtful practice would suffice.

I am not convinced by this. She almost impeaches her own case when she argues:

“The last pomegranates hang so heavily on the almost bare tree in late autumn, directly in front of the kitchen window. Cultivating them, and so cultivating ourselves, we who are interested in food beyond nourishment are moved to know more and more, to turn from garden, from the kitchen itself, to the bench with the books.”

For me, Bilson answers her, perhaps, deliberately posited dilemma:

“To be a great poet is to have a gift. To be a truly great cook is to have a gift also. To cook simply and to share is to be involved in gift making.”

So regarded there is a seat at Bilson’s table for everyone and, arguably, three seats for her.

The furthest stretch between language and consumption, she contends, is the advertisements for “industrial foods” with their lists of ingredients that are so marvellously off putting. The problem, she says is:

“those of us who shun foods we deem not to be food, and who read labels, have the money and the culinary resourcefulness to choose not to eat them, while those with less income, less culinary education and less choice take the additives, the long shelf life, the depleted flavours and textures, and the relatively low cost to be a normal diet.”

Bilson’s concern with the relationship between good food and money is evident. She examines that relationship in relation to manufactured foods, restaurant meals and simple produce.

Her self-abnegation is curious. Even though she doesn’t like crowds and is disconnected and immobilised by a solitary nature she is, “ever utopian”.

She envisages everyone with surplus produce putting it in front of their house for anyone’s taking. This, she hypothesises, is a solution to “the terrible connection food has to money”.

“Recently, at the beginning of winter, shops which sell fruit and vegetables were charging such a high price for lemons (mostly imported, mostly lacking the quiddity of lemons) that it became unconscionable to purchase them. It is difficult to think of one plate of food which the lemon, either juice or peel, does not improve. The many lemon trees in this area, in front and back yards, in paddocks and leaning over fences, were laden with fruit; there was a luxury of lemons.”

Nor does television escape Bilson’s philosophical scrutiny. Citing Robert Hughes quip, “the victory of television over the object of its debate”, she writes:

“The media pays excessive, fulsome attention to some of these chefs. They have become personalities and their food has become an aesthetic phenomenon. Via magazines, newspapers, their books and television we know their faces and their completed dishes, but there is a void in between. Television produces more evidence of real cooking, but the screen is the ultimate buffer. Television cooks and their comperes tasting a dish and expressing ecstatic satisfaction which falls flat on the glass screen come close to causing offense.”

While Bilson remains an enigma, her “little book” is illuminating.

It is a powerfully constructed message that searches for an ultimate reality in thinking about food.

Its value is as much in it’s suggested solutions as in its postulated problems.

Indeed the author acknowledges that the writing of Ihab Hassan has taught her much about the dangers of didacticism without effecting any cure.

imageAustralia is fortunate to have a poet and great chef and gift maker whose mind, as a famous food reviewer recently remarked to me, “remains a smorgasbord”.


S.P. Estcourt QC (pic) practises at Derwent & Tamar Chambers in Hobart and Dawson Chambers in Melbourne. He blogs at Reminiscence of a Food Tragic.