The pandemic has changed the entire food landscape, from agriculture and the hospitality industry to the home kitchen. Where to now?
A quick question. How is your sourdough starter going? This time last year they lived on benchtops around the country, a symbol of domestic resilience against an external threat. Some may have survived and become a part of the family, but most went to mould long ago, tipped down the sink and washed away into memory.
It was inevitable that the COVID-19 pandemic would change our lives, but what was less apparent at the beginning was exactly how it would change Australian food.
As a nation we've handled the crisis comparatively well, and we're starting to see the pathway out of the mess. A year on, the picture of how Australian food has been and will be shaped by this great societal stress test is becoming a little more clear.
Banana bread became a home staple in 2020. Photo: Supplied
The new home cooking
For a while the lockdowns and restaurant restrictions drove many of us back to the kitchen. There was the sourdough, of course, but we also made big batches of bolognese, lasagne, banana bread and cinnamon scrolls. Garden centres sold out of herbs and vegetable seedlings.
Our farmers are resilient and resourceful. Our restaurateurs are clever and capable. As diners, we're engaged and excited, and as cooks we're keen and connected.
Home cooking has always held a certain romance, but from the outside the domestic bliss of a kitchen turning out healthy, hearty meal after meal looks a lot easier than it is. Like learning a language or perfecting a tennis backhand, successful home cooking requires not just time but skill.
So many of the skills our grandparents and great-grandparents kept in their heads were never taught to us, not because they weren't willing to teach them, but because we failed to see the value in learning them. Institutional knowledge that was once passed from one generation to the next is now on the cusp of being largely lost.
Some of us have found new life and purpose in our own kitchens through the pandemic and are cooking more and better than ever before, but for others as the pandemic wore us down, the workload of daily cooking gave way to the mindless ease of a few clicks of an app. We realised cooking was harder than we thought.
The optimist in me thinks this collective realisation is a good thing. For years, many of us have chased an easy solution to the "problem" of cooking dinner. We've tried all manner of hacks, shortcuts and glossily advertised services to replace the obvious truth that the real key to making home cooking easier is just to get better at it.
Perhaps we're finally at a point where we can try to solve the right problem. The cooks of the past didn't have more time than we have now. Cooking itself has never been particularly difficult. If anything, it's easier for our generation than it has been for any that came before. The problem is that we have lost the skills we need to do it effectively.
As a society we need to relearn home cooking. From how to choose a good apple to how to cut an onion, what to buy in season and what to do with it, or what dishes to cook when the budget is tight.
It won't be easy. On top of learning new skills, we'll need to resist the long list of corporations jostling for control of our dinner tables. I, for one, am not willing to give up control of my family's meals so easily.
Food delivery riders ruled the streets in 2020. Photo: Steven Siewert
On yer bike
The big delivery apps are a business model built in the grey areas of an economy, in the uncertainties that exist around wages and entitlements, visa restrictions regarding working hours and supplements such as JobKeeper.
Pre-pandemic it might have been international PhD candidates delivering your butter chicken in their spare time. Then, as the supply of onshore students dried up, the slack was picked up by visa holders already in the hospitality industry whose employers hadn't returned to full employment.
The waters of legality, liability and taxation are murky, but until now the delicate four-way relationship between service, rider, restaurant and consumer has proved a polygamous marriage of convenience.
Easily accessible delivery kept many suburban restaurants in the black through trading restrictions. It provided some small income to visa holders out of work and ineligible for JobKeeper. It kept us fed after we realised that simultaneously working from home, parenting from home and making a lasagne from home wasn't quite as straightforward as we thought.
The darker side of delivery is that the services themselves took the lion's share of profits while the restaurants and low-paid riders barely got by, which is perhaps the nature of any volume business but doesn't help those trying to get someone's dinner to their front door on time.
Like the hospitality industry generally, the fortunes of delivery services are tied to immigration policy for their labour force. As our borders stay closed to international students, there won't be as many trying to supplement their living expenses with a little delivery on the side. As visa holders return to kitchens, fewer will be riding. As JobKeeper ends, others may get on their bikes.
Winter will be telling. We'll have to see whether these services are reliable on a rainy evening, while restaurants are open and borders closed.
Suburban restaurants have done reasonable trade through the pandemic, but the next six months are crucial for CBD venues. Photo: iStock
Hospitality at a turning point
The rise of delivery might have been a major issue for the hospitality sector to contend with, but the list of issues facing the industry is much longer. Hospitality is perhaps at its most transformative point in a generation as it faces enormous pressures, from within and without.
Wage theft was the big issue before the pandemic, and it has precipitated a cultural shift in the industry. Partly through employers legitimately seeing the light and transforming, but also because employees have collectively determined it's no longer in their best interests to remain silently complicit in their own exploitation.
It isn't just a matter of adjusting a few numbers on a spreadsheet. The problem has been endemic for decades and restaurants are still dealing with the fallout from it. On top of that, restaurants face a whole raft of new issues in 2021.
For a start, if restaurants were struggling to find staff before, imagine what it's like now with closed borders.
When JobKeeper ends, we may well learn a lot more about concepts such as "insolvent trading", as restaurants are forced to close, potentially leaving staff with unpaid entitlements.
Small suburban restaurants have done reasonable trade through the pandemic, but for the CBD fun factories, the next six months are crucial. The industry needs a huge injection of cash flow in the form of bums on seats (and wine on tables) through the historically slower season of winter.
On the one hand we're a public desperate to return to socialising, with a middle class cashed-up from a lack of overseas travel. A settling La Nina weather system may make for a drier winter in the eastern capitals, meaning less rain to keep diners away. On the other hand, further COVID-19 outbreaks and restrictions would be a disaster for an industry already at the brink.
If the Golden Winter hospitality so desperately needs doesn't materialise, the results will be nothing short of catastrophic.
Exports of Australian lobster and wheat suffered last year. Photo: William Meppem
An agricultural nation
Perhaps the most important lesson from 2020 is how central our agricultural sector is to Australian life. It has sat in the background for too long while we put convenience over all else at the checkout.
When we panic-bought through the early stages of the pandemic, our farmers hardly missed a beat. Shelves were restocked as fast as we could strip them. Prices stayed relatively steady, affected much more by the preceding drought than by increased demand.
But that was just the beginning of the story. From barley to wine to lobsters, Australian producers have been the collateral damage in games of diplomacy played between our federal government and China, Australia's largest trading partner.
Australian barley, which would normally have been shipped to China to be brewed into beer, now instead goes to the Middle East as animal feed at a significantly lower price.
But it's not all international politics. Grounded passenger flights have meant that producers of premium Australian goods such as seafood, dairy and fruits, which usually travel airfreight on commercial aircraft, have had to find other avenues for export. The clever federal IFAM (International Freight Assistance Mechanism) scheme has been largely successful in facilitating billions of dollars in exports.
While the numbers for agriculture may not look so bad, they aren't the whole story. The large players who make up the bulk of the export figures have had the volume and government backing to weather the storm. But smaller producers who might split sales between export and domestic food service have been savaged from every angle.
Growing your own food can help you appreciate the work farmers do. Photo: iStock
With no backpackers coming through closed borders, their regular workforce isn't here. With no restaurants operating at full capacity, their customers haven't been ordering in the same way. With no ready avenues for export, their prices are down.
Thankfully, at ground level, rainfall means yields. Agriculture is having a good year when they need it the most, but it won't mean much if farmers can't sell what they grow.
We need to support our farmers in the best and only way we can – buy Australian, and do it as if your life depends on it. The financial survival of many producers, especially the small ones, hangs in the balance.
For farmers and restaurants, there are challenges and threats coming from every corner, but we have reason to feel good about where we are. We have good bones. Our farmers are resilient and resourceful. Our restaurateurs are clever and capable. As diners, we're engaged and excited, and as cooks we're keen and connected.
Hopefully we've already seen the worst of what the pandemic can throw at us, and as we pull ourselves forward, the future of Australian food is entirely in our own hands.
Buy local. Eat local. Put your dollars into the restaurants you want to see survive. Value our produce. Grow a garden, not for self-sufficiency but to gain some perspective of what our farmers go through. Improve your cooking skills, and take control of your family's food instead of looking for the next excuse not to. Our food systems in Australia will be shaped not by what we wish for, but by what we do.