Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Magic Pudding is the National Dish



Recently an online newspaper reported that the official AFC Asian Cup Facebook page “seems to have decided a question which has agonised Australians for years by declaring the meat pie our national dish. The page put together the ‘national dishes’ of the countries participating. Snuggled among machboos for Kuwait and sushi for Japan is the meat pie for Australia.” Like a red rag to a bull the editors sent out an invitation to readers to say what they believed was the national dish of Australia.

Blog responses were predictable enough. Vegemite, which is a spread and not a dish, was named in terms going from the adulatory to the derisive. Bloggers, most predictably from the Port Jackson area of the country, threw in the prawn as though that were the only thing Australians cook on a barbecue, and obviously the national dish. No further thought necessary, apparently. There was a curious nostalgia for roast lamb and a total lack of nostalgia for roast kangaroo. Opinions went back and forth on the thread, with little to raise the discussion above the level of the LCD. Pavlova made its traditional entrance, together with the traditional arguments that pavlova is at least New Zealand, if not in fact further back than that. Pavlova bowed out gracefully. At least one or two bloggers had the wit to observe that Australia not only doesn’t have a national dish, neither should it, anymore than it has a national costume, or even a national flag that anyone agrees on. This was all seen as a good thing and typical of what makes Australia great amongst the nations of the world. This author, under a thinly disguised pseudonym, offered the following dish for consideration.

The Magic Pudding is the national dish.

He then went on to elaborate. It's a cut-and-come-again pudding, he reminded his well-read Australian audience, in other words it just keeps on giving and there seems no end to its goodness. It is whatever kind of pudding the diner desires, rather like our attitude to food generally. Everyone fights for a slice and tries to keep it from being stolen by covetous Pudding Thieves. Pudding Thieves might include asylum seekers, genuine refugees and anyone else 'we' have decided should not have a slice of our Magic Pudding, because it's all ours, all of it! And we will jump in the billabong with it rather than let anyone else have a bit. Even though the Magic Pudding is a ‘silly old bugger’ (Thank you Bob Hawke!) who grumps the whole time, he's the one who gives us everything we want, twice over. And are we thankful? Not often enough.

Pudding Thieves might be the government of the day, too. This last opinion got more ‘Likes’ than any of my other opinions, indication of the political bent of this particular online newspaper.

Norman Lindsay published ‘The Magic Pudding’ in 1918 and it depicts the world and ways of Australian bush life that were by then already changing. At least, that bucolic life of the open road, reminiscent of another contemporary children’s classic published in England, ‘The Wind in the Willows’. The characters in Kenneth Grahame’s book lovingly detail the class types of the English countryside; Lindsay does the same with Australian types. In both books the characters have a zest for life that sometimes gets them into trouble, they deliver recitations of original poetry at the drop of a hat, and each have their own tale to tell. The main difference is in the rumbustious and egalitarian nature of Lindsay’s people. The book is said to have been written to settle an argument: a friend of Lindsay's said that children like to read about fairies, while Lindsay asserted that they would rather read about food and fighting.

Food and fighting are the driving force of the narrative. Indeed, all four Slices (his name for the chapters) are more or less the same story told in different ways. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and everyone will fight to get it for themselves. Sharing is only possible if you are a friend of the person currently in possession of the pudding itself. And the pudding itself is a character, a tetchy individual to say the least for all his generous giving, who remains mightily unimpressed by the attitudes of his owners, whoever they may be at the time. He lectures and berates: humans are a bunch of duffers, even when they know they are on to a good thing.

The social, national, theological, psychological and other implications of the story are rich. Whatever Lindsay’s own view of the matter of his literary invention, the story can quickly be read as a description of different attitudes of the European Australian settlers to the land, to possessions, to food distribution, and to love of neighbour. It would be an understatement to say, for example, that selfishness is a prime characteristic of the main actors. They are anthropomorphic, taking on the adopted personae of koalas, possums, wombats and so on, yet any resemblance to the actual behaviours of these animals is limited. Bunyip Bluegum, Sam Sawnoff, Benjamin Brandysnap and the rest are not zoological but entities living out their version of the good life, safe from such realities as the original inhabitants of the land or the pressing facts of international affairs. At the end of the story the ‘rightful’ possessors of the Magic Pudding abandon travel on the open road for life at home, complete with vegetable garden and facilities. The pudding is kept permanently in place with his own accommodation, all sign of things to come in Australia after 1918.

When we enter a milk bar or swishy delicatessen these days, say in Lindsay’s towns of Creswick or Ballarat, or in the great metropolis of Melbourne, we are confronted not just with a tray of meat pies, but with an assortment of every kind of pie imaginable. Here is a list from a recent visit: lamb and rosemary, Thai chicken, beef Burgundy, steak and mushroom, shepherd’s pie, curry vegetable … The wonder is not so much the pies themselves but the sheer choice. We observe other citizens come and order the pie of their choice, then watch them eat the lot without further thought, as though it were their God-given right and only natural that such plenty is theirs for the taking.

The Magic Pudding is the national dish.

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