Spag bol and sourdough: Why we follow the crowd in times of crisis

Adam Liaw
Turn your aspirational isolation sourdough into 'doozy' garlic bread. Then serve it with some Spag Bol.
Turn your aspirational isolation sourdough into 'doozy' garlic bread. Then serve it with some Spag Bol. Photo: Edwina Pickles

QUARANTINE COOKING

The foods we choose to eat can be a delicious dinner, but they can also offer us wisdom and insight far beyond the kitchen. 

When COVID-19 hit we stripped the supermarket shelves of pasta and flour as we prepared for a nationwide bolognese and sourdough cookalong. 

But why did we run to those two foods specifically? We could just as easily have gone on a meatloaf spree, or started baking sponge cakes.

We didn't pick them at random. The foods we have chosen in this crisis gives us an insight into our national psychology – who we are, and who we want to be. 

What does making spaghetti bolognese say about us? Lots actually.
What does making spaghetti bolognese say about us? Lots actually. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Spaghetti bolognese represents security. Fifty years ago the rise of bolognese was a function of economics. Our domestic production of high-quality, affordable wheat and beef and the shelf-stability of dried pasta and canned tomatoes combined with waves of post-war migration to rocket a relatively unknown "ethnic" dish to national celebrity. Today, in a time of health and economic crisis, we were drawn to sustainable local industries without even considering why.

If this pandemic has done one thing, it has answered the question that has perplexed Australian food commentary for years. Our national dish isn't a meat pie, or a lamb roast, or salt and pepper squid. In 2020 the national dish of Australia is spag bol. End of discussion.

Sourdough, on the other hand, represents our aspirations. Our ideal of domestic life. If we were going to be locked in our homes for months on end we wanted those homes to be places of comfort. Artisan kitchens with loaves springing from ovens each morning, filling the air with the smells of fresh baking. Like the volleyball that kept SARS-CoV-2's most famous host, Tom Hanks, company in his castaway island isolation, we should appreciate the value of aspiration and hope when times are taking a mental toll on so many.

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Food has a lot to teach us. Since the beginning of civilisation food has codified human knowledge on health, agriculture, politics, sustainability and social interaction. Strict rules around what should and should not be eaten have long been a feature of both secular and religious laws.

A prohibition against eating pork is shared by Judaism and Islam alike. It's difficult to determine the origins of ancient religious practices, but it may have been that as meat-eaters pigs were prone to zoonotic viruses like Swine Flu, and banning pork was a measure to prevent outbreaks.

It may also have been that in areas like the Middle East, where these religions began, water for sanitation was more scarce and so keeping wallowing pigs was a less sustainable and sanitary practice than in other parts of the world where water was more abundant.

On the other side of the world, Confucius strongly advocated regular celebratory feasting as a measure of strengthening family bonds and political alliances for social cohesion and the stability of government. Think about that when you're trying to decide which two people to invite to your next isolation dinner party, NSW residents.

In many historical cultures women were encouraged to undergo "confinement" after giving birth. In Latin America this is known as la cuarentena meaning "the 40 days". (It's also the origins of the English 'quarantine', entering the language from the Italian quaranta giorni, a 40-day isolation period applied to ships landing in Venice during the Black Plague.)

In Chinese culture new mothers in confinement are told to refrain from bathing and washing hair, avoid exertion and eat specific medicinal foods made from specially brewed rice wine or sweet vinegar. These rules may seem little more than superstition, but with a modern understanding of microbiology and disease transmission, they make a little more sense. 

Avoiding baths when a person might have open wounds after childbirth would help avoid infection in times when water supplies were less sanitary than today. 

Limiting exertion and contact with strangers often meant a mother or mother-in-law would be present to lend a helping hand, passing on valuable knowledge to a new mother, before you could Google how to properly feed and care for a baby – knowledge that would have dramatically reduced infant mortality.

Dishes made with confinement wine and vinegar would have been less likely to carry harmful bacteria, and even the process of making the meals would have acted as a disinfection process for the cook and carer in an age before anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitisers.

"The wisdom of crowds" refers to the idea that large groups of people working independently can devise solutions to complex problems more accurately than individual experts. Our food traditions are exactly that, and we should treat them as a repository of wisdom.

These traditions guided humankind when science and superstition were one and the same, before experts and expertise. Long before most people could even read. It's no wonder we return to food for wisdom in times of crisis.

Enjoy your dinner tonight. That plate of quarantine bolognese with isolation sourdough on the side might be helping you more than you ever could have thought.