Originally sent: 29 December 2005
After getting back here from Australia, I had a trip to Sihanoukville for Australian Volunteers “In Country Meeting” which I could only describe as an “utterly pointless AusAid-funded junket”. I used those exact words on the evaluation sheet of the meeting, so hopefully it will filter back to AusAid so they’ll know that AVI are spending your taxes on my weekend at the beach. The highlight of the weekend was getting a free pack of everyone’s favorite panic buy, Tamiflu (now 38% effective against flu, says the instructions) and eschewing workshops for a beachside bar that served pina colada by the bucket. Once we’d taught them that there is no Creme de Menthe in pina colada, everything went smoothly.
We’ve acquired a motorcycle from our friend H while he’s in Hawaii, so M and I are learning to ride on a 250cc Suzuki Grasstracker with a sticker that says “Big Boy” on the side. H left me with the single instruction “phil: basically, don’t crash and you’ll be fine”, so I’m managing to follow it so far when I’m doing laps of the block. We’re buying a vintage Vespa from another volunteer when they leave in the New Year, so it will be a fairly large step down in terms of raw power and credibility in the eyes of our local motorbike taxi drivers. Riding a motorbike is just like riding a 200 kilo bicycle that goes at 100 kilometres an hour. It’s a whole lot more fun than driving a car, in my vague recollection of what driving an automobile was like.
Christmas had a boozy, secular carapace filled with four kinds of meat. We bought Australian lamb shoulder for the first time since we’ve arrived and despite eating a lamb meal each day while we were in Australia, it was still outrageously delicious on the barbeque. M even cooked a monstrous Christmas pudding the week before. It takes a special commitment to the cause to boil a dessert for 7 hours in the tropical heat. To give you some idea of its mass, the ten friends we invited over for Christmas dinner polished off one third of it. Cambodians have embraced Christmas as they embrace all things Western: as a mark of success and modernity, rather than something in the spirit of ecumenism. The lack of hype surrounding Christmas here is a positive; going to work on Boxing Day, not so positive.
To fill in my time at work when I’m not looking for another job, I’ve started ranting about local food at www.phnomenon.com, mostly as a vanity project. As you’ll notice, I’ve done a fairly slack job of reviewing any Khmer food so far, but an in-depth job of reviewing the beer.
We have a vague plan for New Year’s that involves staying in Phnom Penh and drinking the leftovers from Christmas. Is there anything you can make with bad Thai-brewed brandy?
I’ve been searching around a little for the etymology of the term “dude food”. Even though its use seem to blossom in the late 80s, it seems to have been around for a long time, referring to cowboys. The earliest that I can find is from journalist and author Caroline Lockhart’s first novel in 1911, Me SmithFrom Google Book Search
The Jonas family grows pork that makes most other pork taste like that foamy pizza topping ham-substitute. If you’ve ever planned to cut down on how much meat you eat and then reward yourself with the best, this is it. You’ll remember where you were the first time that you ate it. Tammi Jonas is a friend, so that completely colours my view of their success and probably, the bacon.
But to paraphrase Amartya Sen, there’s no such thing as an apolitical food problem, and the problem that they’re solving agrees with my politics.
Maybe it’s me getting older, but I’ve started thinking more about food in the long term rather than day-to-day eating. Guaranteeing the future supply of the food that I want to eat is just as important as eating it in the short term. Part of that problem is how to put a relatively small amount of capital upfront to ensure that it happens. As much as I can do that at my local butchers or supermarket with what I buy in the short term, there is no transparency of supply.
So here’s a rare chance to support mine and your own food security. The Jonas’s have a crowdfunding campaign up at Pozible for a small-scale boning room and refrigeration. Funders are rewarded, quite literally, with pork.
I hope that it is the start of something much bigger.
Originally sent: 12 May 2005.
I spotted my first rat on the way to work this morning which was the size of a small pony. It was headed in the direction of my house. Things bode ill.
I’ve just finished my first few weeks of work and it has been incredibly hard and exhausting. I’m the only native English speaker and despite the excellent language skills of my compatriots, I’m still not sure if people understand me or are just agreeing with me to save face. In the process, I swear that my ability to speak Khmer and English is rapidly declining. My position description is ill-defined and so I’ve spent most of the time meeting with people in the vain hope that they can tell me what I was hired for.
I seem to have been hired in lieu of getting cash from AusAid to pay for the projects that I should be working on (marketing income generating activities and the organisation generally). So at this stage I’ve got no funding to immediately implement anything at all. I’ve still got to meet with the chief accountant to see what I can squeeze out of the existing budget until the next round of funding in July. On the up side, everybody seems overwhelmingly pleased to have a Westerner to display at meetings and I do get the standard Cambodian two hour lunch break.
SCC, the organisation that I’m advising, is doing some fascinating work using Buddhist monks to implement HIV/AIDS prevention and care activities in Phnom Penh, Siem Riep (near Angkor Wat) and Battambang – so there will be monk stories aplenty in the coming months. I saw a monk smoking a cigar while talking on a mobile phone but didn’t think that it was prudent to take a photo because it was during a staff meeting with him.
To keep myself busy outside of work, I’ve bought myself a mountain bike for the regal sum of $35 so that I can immerse myself in the sheer lunacy of peak hour in Phnom Penh at speed. Rumour has it that you drive on the right hand side of the road but I can neither confirm nor deny this. Right of way is granted to whomever has the heaviest vehicle travelling at the greatest speed, regardless of signage, red lights or any other man-made barricades. Despite driving like the possessed, everyone acts courteously when you cut them off or run them down.
Speaking of barricades, if you have a wedding, you can erect the marquee for your hundred guests across the entire street in front of your house to further mar the flow of traffic. One was built on my way to work complete with separate catering tent, golden stupa, styrofoam Angkorian ruins and traditional Cambodian gamelan band; all scenically located within vomiting distance of the miasmal open sewer. Short of building the marquee directly over the top of the roiling sewer, there wouldn’t be a worse place in Phnom Penh to spend a few days in a tuxedo or wedding dress in the 40 degree heat.
Apart from the catering tent.
M and I moved into our house about two weeks ago. Our landlord lives next door and he is the nicest man in Phnom Penh, possibly because we pay him ten times the monthly Cambodian minimum wage for our house. When we arrived, he had already done about four of the tasks that we thought would be a real hassle with our substandard Khmer, like refilling the gas bottle and getting some spare keys cut. Another expat lives upstairs. The bathroom is a vision in lurid maroon. The whole house is tiled, so we can just hose the place out when the dust gets unbearable.
My two favourite beers at the moment are Love Beer (because let’s face it, who doesn’t? It even tastes like love) and Black Panther Stout (because The Man can’t keep the black beer down!). I’m also a bit partial to ABC Stout because their advertisements feature a Cambodian guy who looks like James Bond pimped out like Snoop Dogg. Confusingly the two top-selling beers here are Anchor and Angkor. Thanks to the infinite wisdom of Khmer pronunciation, “Anchor” rhymes with “ranch or”; and “Angkor” rhymes with “Anchor”. Angkor also means about five different things depending on how you pronounce “or” and thankfully none of them are mortally offensive when you slur drunkenly. You really can’t go too wrong either way, when it costs $9 for a whole slab.
In corruption news, the Cambodian Government just signed a 30 year agreement leasing Choung Ek – the Killing Fields Memorial and grimly popular genocide tourist attraction – to a Japanese company for $15,000 a year. The site is currently clearing a $20,000 per annum profit, not to mention that for better or worse, it is a vital piece of the Khmer peoples’ public heritage. My only guess here is that the Government knows that some sort of tourism apocalypse is headed for Cambodia (like a bird flu outbreak or a Commonwealth Games) because the tourism market has been growing at 100% per annum for the last 4 years. I smell a rat larger than a small pony.
The relative Google search volumes for various popular Australian cake recipes.
If you’ve been on Twitter over the past week in Australia, the slightly bewildering hashtag #activatedalmonds has been in ascendency. Pete Evans, chef, reality television judge and corporate spokesperson for Weight Watchers and Sumo Salad was eviscerated 140 characters at a time over a weekend newspaper fluff piece that documented his day of eating:
7am: Two glasses of alkalised water with apple cider vinegar, then a smoothie of alkalised water, organic spirulina, activated almonds, maca, blueberries, stevia, coconut keffir and two organic, free-range eggs.
8.30am: Sprouted millet, sorghum, chia and buckwheat bread with liver pate, avocado, cultured vegetables plus ginger and liquorice root tea.
12.30pm: Fresh fish, sauteed kale and broccoli, spinach and avocado salad, cultured vegies.
3pm: Activated almonds, coconut chips, cacao nibs, plus green tea.
6.30pm: Emu meatballs, sauteed vegetables, cultured vegetables plus a cup of ginger and liquorice root tea.
It’s the sort of empty listicle that a PR rep answers on behalf of the talent by email; a gaily-colored box of text to further brighten the weekend’s non-news. Something a bot might write on your behalf. They’re hardly the most hard-hitting or meme-worthy pieces of newsprint. Collective schadenfreude is Twitter’s raison d’etre and on this occasion, it could taste the slight alkalinity of blood. Why did this article in particular spawn a virulent response?
Search any newspaper website for the word “superfood” and you’ll get a similar bucket of nutritionism snakeoil. Pete alone is not spearheading an unforeseen interest in spirulina or the weird hubris of passing off food as nothing more than a nutrient delivery system.
Evan’s sample menu is aimed at any number of masters: his corporate sponsors, his reality television employers or the subscribers of the Sunday Age. It plays to the obsessions of desperate, rich dieters and smacks of a strange corporate fealty. It’s not the daily diet of a man who eats for the unambiguous pleasure of doing so which is what the public is lead to believe about chefs.
Celebrity chefs are strange advocates for good eating. When commercial imperative clashes with chef’s previous personal tastes and ethics, commerce wins every time. Here’s an ad for a cheap pilsener starring Ferran Adria. Here’s organic chicken aficionado Jamie Oliver making industrial chicken sandwiches for fun and profit. Pete’s transgressions aren’t noteworthy alongside his international counterparts.
There is something about the deep commitment to his routine that is unnerving. He didn’t crack at 3:00pm and eat a pastry from the catering table. No midnight drive-thru at KFC, eating powdered mash and gravy one-handed on the drive home, crying into the empty “Family” sized bucket on the couch. This was the first image that came into my head when I thought of Pete Evans’ diet. I barely know who the man is and expected the worst.
When we see the growing “backlash” against foodies, it seems to be against this deep commitment. I hate the term “foodie” because it has no real definition and seems to encapsulate any particular interest in food from haute cuisine to ethical eating. You can as easily be labelled a foodie if you can comfortably follow a cupcake recipe or you’ve taken a decade to write the world’s definitive history of cupcakes. There’s no shortage of nuanced nouns to pigeonhole people who eat. But foodie backlash it is, not gourmet backlash or glutton backlash; an all-encompassing counterattack on the commitment to food.
Instagramming your meal to death.
Steve Cumper, Australia’s best food blogging chef, recently noted the new zealotry for “real food”, the modern hipness for home-growing everything and being the person who shoots, skins (and photographs) the rabbit pre-terrine.
This real food is apparently unencumbered by status, it is home grown, it is foraged, its is hunted, it is gleaned, it is not, as Lance Armstrong put it, about the bike, or in this case, not about the Kodak moment.
This is honest, unprocessed, un-wanky, un-restauranty, un-gather your photographer mates around you to capture the ad hoc picnic in the dis-used cannery on the wharf kinda food. This is the kinda food that doesn’t need embellishments, is SO un-gourmet, shrugs off pretensions and artifice and reveals itself to a few hip but grounded uber-cools who operate high in the coolosphere where the air, I’m told, is crisper.
The trouble is: Why are people like me hearing about it all the time?
I feel smug when I publish what I grow in my garden, mostly because growing up outside the city, planting a vegetable garden was unremarkable and the least noteworthy of domestic pursuits. Hopping the back fence with a .22 to shoot dinner was just something that I thought most kids did even if it wasn’t the case. It didn’t seem to mark any deep commitment to food because it was common amongst neighbours.
And the Internet didn’t exist.
The backlash isn’t so much about the commitment but the conspicuousness of people’s commitment to food whether it is Pete Evan’s voluntary deprivation or hearing about real food all the time from Facebook updates and blow-by-blow degustations captured on Instagram. When I hear that people want out of Facebook, I wonder how boring their collected acquaintances are and I’m certain what they had for dinner is a large part of it. Where previous backlashes against foodies was more about the excesses of gourmets, it is now all-encompassing because our friends don’t know when to stop; to leave the unremarkable experiences unremarked and save the best for conversation.