Thursday, 21 January 2016

In the Country of Crabb and Kebab

Unless you were living under a proverbial rock called commercial television in Australia these past few months, you are probably aware of the hullabaloo surrounding an episode of ABC's Kitchen Cabinet where journalist Annabel Crabb interviewed former immigration minister Scott Morrison. While this infamous televised encounter is no longer on iView, be assured that 'ScoMosas' (or Morrison's version of Sri Lankan samosas) has not only entered popular media lexicon in Australia, but has even inspired the ire of critical race theorists and independent media commentators.

Despite having a girl crush on Crabb's nifty desserts, 50s frocks, and penchant for witty political columns, I have to agree that the scorn is mostly well-deserved. While some are wary of the extreme lifestylisation of journalism, especially on a public broadcaster, this can remain ethical and balanced in the right hands. With the ScoMo episode, however, Crabb failed to scrutinise the former minister's repugnant decision to turn back Sri Lanka asylum seeker boats, especially in the context of the food he was cooking and serving her on the show. It was almost as though leftie intellectuals and Sri Lankan-Australians would be appeased by the kind gesture of ScoMo preparing curry and samosas, and stretching their imaginations to recognise these exotic culinary items as standing in for real brown people. Look hither, SBS executives and food writers - 'Making the Other' is a notch better than 'Eating the Other', especially when Annabel Crabb approves.

I won't be surprised if an ironic ScoMosa turns up in hipsterville Australia in the next month or so. For the rest of the nation though, Crabb's lack of scrutiny is not out of step with the understanding of the role of 'ethnic food' in establishing a multicultural society. In their work on food multiculturalism in Australia, Rick Flowers and Elaine Swan argue, 'There is a long history in Australia of concerted efforts to construct food as a medium through which people learn about other cultures and as a sign, when they eat diverse cultural foods, that their cities and regions are more tolerant of difference' (2012). These signs work at the level of official multiculturalism policy and pedagogy, as well as in everyday banal intercultural encounters. Given this, my quip is that we ought to see much more of the latter to disturb our middle class assumptions about multicultural food narratives as always, already triumphalist and engaged.
A Vietnamese-owned grocery store in Marrickville, NSW which is a site of many banal intercultural encounters
In the prelude to the summer holidays, SBS screened a three-part series called Kebab Kings that epitomises the various dimensions of what these everyday intercultural encounters over food can be. While the documentary was marketed as 'a bite of multicultural Australia', the twitter conversation is indicative of a wide-ranging audience that tuned in for the drunken conversations, and not just the incidental social commentary. The series also inspired its own kebab shop-specific hashtag, #kebabble, which continues to draw feedback on the show, and the featured shop-owners whose ethnicity and religion are a point of interest, yet not fetishised.

One of my favourite 'scenes' is when a Muslim worker at the Collingwood store describes the music of the Quran to his British customer. The latter is unfazed and compares his to genres he is familiar with. This real encounter did not give me the sort of warm fuzzy feelings typical of the 'aid an African child to feel good' genre, or the tearjerking invoked by wretched stories of war and conflict in 'other' places. I am not suggesting that these stories don't need to be told, but rather that they are not the only way of representing and encountering people who happen to hail from non-white cultures. With all its flaws, gathering around a kitchen table, whether in a television studio, a suburban house, or a kebab shop, gives us a pathway that we can reflexively employ to share stories. We must, however, try and do so with the understanding that there are narratives and feelings we can readily relate to, others we may habituate to, and still others that we will never fully comprehend or experience. Anyone up for dissing a ScoMosa at OzTurk this Saturday?