food, inglorious

It’s the dietary dilemma of the digital age. Can you photograph your cake and eat it too?

“Absolutely,” says my coffee companion Sue, who seems not to care that the artful construct of glossy chocolate she uploaded to be feasted upon by insatiable strangers in cyberspace is now but a scattering of crumbs. #myfriendthe-chocolatecake … really? Cannibal!

I’ve always had a pretty straightforward relationship with food. I like to eat it, full stop. It has never occurred to me to put it out there to be ogled at. #breakfast: Cor, there’s a nice bit of crumpet!!!

Honestly, I joined Instagram only for the articles.

Of course, it’s easy to mock the hipster taking photos of that van Gogh of smears at the restaurant table next to you. But you don’t need to see

The Starry Night in caramelised veal jus to know we have become a society consumed, so to speak, with food.

Our television screens are dominated by cooking shows, the magazine stands and bookshelves are overflowing with food mags and recipe books, and social-media platforms are groaning with images of comestibles.

On Instagram alone there are more than 180 million #food, 80 million #foodporn and 71 million #yummy posts, while #cake brings up 32 million posts.

It seems what we ingest has become part of our individual brand and as much a status symbol as a flash set of wheels, the label on our jeans or the old school tie.

What’s the best recipe for success and social approbation? From what I can deduce, it’s a doughnut and elderflower ice-cream sandwich topped with spiralised zucchini and quinoa. Tap heart, tap heart, tap heart.

But just as endlessly photographing our food is changing our appreciation of how we fuel our bodies, it’s also changing what we eat and how it is plated up. That egg wash on the ridiculously overpriced gourmet burger bun – it’s not for you. It’s a lovely photogenic glaze for the camera, which always eats first.

Forget the old dinner party rule of not raising religion and politics, today’s fault line of conversation is diet groups and food tribes. Between Pete’s paleos, Sarah’s sugar-frees, the pescatarians, vegans, flexitarians, vegetarians, low-carbists and the growing list of intolerants, preparing a simple menu is like negotiating a minefield.

This is the war against terroir.

There is, of course, a certain democracy about food: every man, woman and child needs it. But not everyone gets nearly enough. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that about 795 million of the 7.3 billion people in the world suffer from chronic undernourishment. To wit, one in nine people do not get enough food to lead a healthy, active life, and go to bed hungry each night.

That’s roughly four hungry people for every #food post on Instagram at the time of writing this. Next time we order a dish with enough calories to feed a small African village for a week, it’s worth remembering the true picture.

Life for a great many is no cakewalk.

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So, we all know modern society makes it almost impossible for the male of the species to maintain the traditional hunter-gatherer role, but my husband – bless him – still tries.

As designated shopper, each week he faces the fiendish psychology of supermarket product placement, the dizzying selection of brands and terrifying understorey of toddlers – all the while wrestling with lists, price comparisons and trolley – to emerge triumphant with goods.

Sweet chap that he is, this almost always includes a “surprise” for me: perhaps dark chocolate with sea salt, a wedge of really good cheese or a king prawn or 10.

I’ve come to relish unpacking the groceries, but this week I hit the “surprise” and recoiled much as if the offering was a chewed mouse on the doormat, or maybe even … on my pillowcase.

Not since I was in my early 20s and living in a shared house above a butcher’s shop, where peak nutrition was Keen’s curried surplus sausages with tinned pineapple, have Arnott’s Shapes crossed my threshold. Some foods are culinary cocaine!

Could anyone stop at one Barbecue Shape? Sure, you can fold the special stay-crisp packet away in a hermetically sealed and locked box and toss the key over the Iguazu Falls, but then what happens?

Next thing you are in a darkened room with an empty box and busted chains dangling from your wrists, cackling to yourself. And what do they expect? It is, according to the advertising slogan, “flavour you can see”.

My husband was alarmed that this small box had unwittingly wrought such angst.

But, look, he said – reading from the packet – “It’s light & crispy. It’s the flavour hit you can feel good about. A flavour hit with lighter crunch.”

Yes, it’s true there’s a modest calorific reduction on the traditional Shapes versus the “light & crispy” version but, by and large, the biggest Shapes-shifting has occurred by reducing contents from 250 grams in the mid-’90s to 200g in 2011 and now to 120g.

Arnott’s is not alone in this process of downsizing quantities and trumpeting them as improvements.

For example, Peckish rice crackers have recently become thinner, therefore lighter and crispier, while the Fantastic brand now offers the “Thinner Bite” that’s “30 per cent thinner”.

It doesn’t mean these attributes will extend in any physical way to the consumer, just that you might not be able to see the biscuits if you stand them sideways.

Arnott’s Shapes were first produced in Victoria in the 1950s and today 53 million packets of Shapes are reportedly consumed in Australia each year, with the Arnott’s biscuit brand found in 95 per cent of households.

According to Wikipedia, Shapes “were originally made in the shape of potato chips, but were too difficult to cut and bakers realised were a waste of dough”.

Not a lot has changed really, except of course Arnott’s is no longer Australian and it’s only the biscuits that are losing weight.

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Dead End


Our family has always been blessed, or cursed as some might have it, with a Python-esque sense of  humour. My brother actually took it to the stage and is a veteran of the Melbourne comedy scene.

When mum died on the eve of his run in the 2014 Melbourne Fringe Festival, we all knew and agreed she would want the show to go on.

Last year it was dad’s time and it looked for a while like he might die during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

We already had the line: To lose one parent during a comedy show might be regarded as poor timing, to lose two not very funny at all. As it was, dad survived the festival in April and bowed out in May.

Losing a second parent in little more than a year was incredibly painful, but I fancy dad would be laughing at the myriad absurdities that have followed his passing.

It began with the receipt of the death certificate, which came with a safety warning printed on the outside of the envelope to the effect that the person mentioned inside was dead.

That might indeed have been upsetting if the utilities didn’t keep providing contradictory evidence.

The bills arriving at dad’s place put in my mind a short story by British author Will Self called The North London Book of the Dead, published in 1991, which later gave rise to a movie of the same name.

It’s about a man grieving the loss of his mother to cancer who happens to bump into her, dead but otherwise apparently perfectly well, on a street in suburban Crouch End one Tuesday afternoon.

Later, taking tea with his mortified mum, the astonished narrator discovers that there are dead people alongside us everywhere, drawing wages, renting videos, going to the supermarket and doing all the other mundane things of daily existence but we, the living, mostly don’t realise.

This idea has always tickled me and now I have the evidence of this parallel plane in the form of dad’s gas bill.

The bill, which purported to be an actual reading rather than an estimate, puts dad’s gas at $290.47 (before pensioner discounts) for two months.

This was more than for the comparable period the previous year, when he was indeed to be found sitting in the lounge room with the gas fire on high to try to warm his dear old bones.

The conversation with the gas company was like that famous Monty Python dead parrot sketch: “I’m ringing about my late father’s gas bill.”

“Oh yes, what seems to be the problem?”

“The problem is he’s using more gas now than when he was alive.”

“Well, I can see this has not been updated as a deceased estate account. Will you be cancelling the service?”

“Umm, well maybe not if he needs it so much, I think.”

Of course it turns out to be an error, but the cynic in me thinks how easy it would be to claim that a percentage of estimated readings were actual and save the cost of sending out a meter reader.

And how about that little creep in usage year on year? Can it be explained simply by pointing out the lower temperatures in a particularly cold winter?

Just one tiny problem.

Dead men don’t need shale.

– See more at:

feet first

women's feet under x-ray

women’s feet under x-ray

A friend is feeling a tad tender. There’s been such a lot going on at work and home and only so many hours in a day.

It’s almost a perpetual conundrum for the modern woman and sometimes the only thing we sisters can do for one another is coo sympathetically and offer a slab of cake.

But it was the end of the day, so I prescribed a glass of wine, a hunk of good quality cheese, and advised her to get one of her children to give her a foot massage.

“Ooh,” says she, “no chance of that! My children are petrified of my feet – they are truly ugly.”

I kind of know what she means. I have terrible toes.

Hunched, crabbed things with pinkies that are more bunion than tootsies and certainly not helped by years of high heels with narrow, sleek shapes of the prevailing fashion.

But, I reckon most feet are … unlovely.

Even celebrities seem powerless to make gnarly feet toe the line.

They appear on the red carpet looking every inch perfection, but don’t be fooled by beautiful faces and frocks.

At the risk of sounding callous, just check out their feet.

Sarah Jessica Parker’s feet are covered with pronounced veins, Jennifer Garner’s pinkies cross back over her fourth toe, Posh Beckham’s feet look like they were stolen from a skeleton and airbrushed with fake tan, Paris Hilton doesn’t have toes as much as foot fingers, and poor Katie Holmes has made every listicle there is – and there are quite a few – for ugly celebrity feet.

Feet, even the famous, wealthy ones, are arguably the most unloved, undervalued part of the human body, which is strange when you consider they are pretty much the be all and end all of mobility.

Why else did the imperial Chinese – light years ahead in some things – indulge in the hideous practice of breaking and binding women’s feet?

The justification of the day was it was erotic and indicative of a women’s high class, when really it meant a girl could never run away on her own two, or even totter painfully more than a yard or two on suppurating, broken feet.

But the human foot is a truly remarkable thing and was made for walking … enough that the average person, with the average stride, will have circled the earth four times if they live until 80.

The 52 bones in the human feet make up a quarter of the bones in the body.

The total force on your feet during an average day totals hundreds of tonnes, equivalent to a fully loaded cement truck – and that’s in flats, which is why high heels drive physicists just a little wild.

If the weight of your body is funnelled into a heel the size of a cube of cheese on a toothpick at the retro party you are attending, it creates immense pressure.

In a nutshell, this explains why 5000-kilogram elephants can walk on grass but Kylie-sized 50-kilogram women in heels sink. All that pressure reflects back into the shoe-wearer’s heel and body … and has the potential to affect the alignment of the whole body from toe to tip.

The bottom line: Be sweet to your feet, they are really pretty neat.

– See more at:

a life in dogs


My dad has more than once said if you want to make yourself really miserable think about all the dead dogs in your life.

I don’t think I agree with him.

A life measured in dogs can only be a happy one.

Sure, there is tremendous grief in losing a loved family pet, but when you think about all the tail-wagging good times it’s impossible not to be thankful and grateful and send up a little prayer to … dog.

My dad has lived a 12 dog life.

The first was a kind of wiry terrier cross just made for little boys.

Dippy taught dad the first lessons of mateship, but also – that shocking day when that early car came belting round the corner and didn’t even stop – about the callousness of his own kind.

There were dogs of various breeds, sizes and mixed merits who followed. Peter the first dog of his marriage, Jack who worried sheep, Topsy a fox terrier who arrived after my birth and was a family fixture for almost 15 years.

Some were daft like Rabbit, so called because she’d spring through tall grass on cabriole legs and liked to eat capsicums from the vegie patch.

Laddie, at best guess a corgi shepherd cross, was highly independent. A neighbourhood character who worked a beat of cross-species friends around the town.

Bluebell was a soppy blue heeler who loved to nip ankles, Lucy a slothful dachshund inherited from a neighbour who was moving into a town house.

All have taught us something, all have left furry impressions in memory, but the last three dogs have almost been been preparing us; providing as it were pawprints for what lay ahead.

Beautiful Bonnie, I think my parents’ favourite of their canine kids, had found a home with them when her original owner died.

She wasn’t terribly young when she joined them and in the end she was crippled by painful arthritis and it was kindest to put her down, though it broke both mum and dad’s hearts.

They vowed they would never have another dog until they were moving back home to country Victoria and we found one for sale for $225,000 who happened to come with a three-bedroom house.

Mick, his original owners had determined, was too old to be rehoused – so he was sold as a tenant in residence.

He was still living there when mum moved permanently into a nursing home. But at the great old age of 17 he too had to be put to sleep.

Dad, rattling around alone at home, was persuaded to adopt a Jack Russell.

Boy was his last little mate, before dad too became so frail he could no longer walk and this month moved into the same high-care home where mum spent the last years of her life.

This dog has been rehoused with a wonderful couple with two handsome young sons called Spike and Mo and a nutty whippet called Orson. They have been keeping us updated with videos and pix showing Boyd, as he is now called, clearly in seventh heaven.

Boyd without question will outlive his former master, but it does all our hearts good to know this dog – the last dog of our dear dad’s life – will go on to inform the lives of others as they too grow to men.

taking shot


Earlier this year my friend and colleague Andrea survived whooping cough.

I say survived because there were times between when she first came down with what she believed to be a cold and her eventual diagnosis that she really thought she would die.

“I would be having coughing fits every half an hour and they were just so violent. My windpipe would close over and I would have to just heave to get the most minuscule bit of air into my lungs.

“I actually keyed triple-0 into my phone because there were times I thought, ‘I am just not going to come out of this one’.

“After being told I had bronchitis and then croup, I went back to my GP for the fourth time and told him I thought I had whooping cough and he pretty much laughed at me.”

He wasn’t laughing a week later when he had to call her back into the surgery urgently after her blood test results raised the red flag of a highly contagious disease that is notifiable by law. It was at the start of the latest epidemic of whooping cough or pertussis to grip Victoria.

Since 1990, Australia has become the “world capital of pertussis”, according to health experts, with the highest number of notifications per capita in the world.

According to the National Centre For Immunisation Research & Surveillance, adults account for half of notified cases each year and are a major source of infection, but least likely to be hospitalised.

Between 2006 and 2012, infants aged less than six months accounted for 42 per cent (1832 of 4408) of pertussis-related hospitalisations. During this period, 11 baby deaths were attributed to pertussis; half of the victims contracted the disease from an adult member of their extended family circle.

It’s too easy to blame the tiny, but vociferous, anti-vaxxer lobby. The truth is, it comes down to widespread lack of public understanding and the complacency of a generation that has grown up unblighted by the shadow of dreadful diseases such as polio and the horrifying prospect of life in an iron lung or congenital birth defects caused by rubella contracted in pregnancy.

Immunity provided by the whooping cough vaccine, which also contains diphtheria and tetanus protection and is the final jab received through school immunisation programs, diminishes over the years. It stops completely after 10 years.

By the age of 25, most people will be unwittingly walking around without cover unless they have been given a booster because they have become pregnant or have stepped on a nail or cut themselves on rusty tin.

One nurse I know thinks it’s time for government health authorities to confront the public with the truth. “If only they could see a baby unable to breathe on its own so they had a breathing tube, and every time the child coughed – even with the ventilator pushing air in the child’s lung – the child would still go blue.

“Then we’d have to disconnect them from the ventilator and bag them and so on through the night. It is absolutely horrific to see and worse when it’s so easily preventable.”

parables v policies


It has been a year since we buried my old mum. Hers was the last local funeral performed by the Reverend Ken Parker.

How she loved Father Ken: a priest of great warmth, wit and intellect. I’ve a sneaking suspicion she timed her departure to catch him before he left the district for his coastal retirement retreat.

The diocese still hasn’t replaced him, installing in his stead a rather elderly locum.

The word down the aisles is that the church believes a dedicated minister is a luxury the community cannot afford.

Now, I’m not a church-goer myself, but I’d have thought a man (or indeed a woman) in a smock was a pretty basic requirement for leading what is by today’s standards a fairly healthy sized congregation.

But apparently priests’ insurance premiums have gone through the roof and it is not just because of the number of sexual abuse cases brought by members of the community, but because of the risk the clergy themselves face in going about their business.

An unreported court case in 2012 dramatically redefined churches of all faiths’ responsibility toward members of the ministry. It followed a former member of the clergy of the Diocese of Gippsland suing the local bishop and regional church trust for failing to provide a safe working environment after he was verbally assaulted and physically threatened by a drug addict and suffered a nervous breakdown.

The question at issue was whether the clergyman was a worker within the meaning of the Accident Compensation Act and entitled to relief under WorkCover.

County Court judge Chris O’Neill found the reverend was a worker and that his employer was the bishop.

The matter was appealed but settled before hearing for a sum undisclosed – reputed to be close to $1 million. It was paid by the church, although it was the bishop who was held liable in lieu of any incorporated entity.

On one hand it seems entirely reasonable that the church, any church, should be safe for all, but it got me thinking about the role of the clergy. Is it not in the job description to try to help the drug-crazed as well as the poor and needy? Is there not a certain element of danger inherent in keeping faith?

In the Bible lessons of my childhood memory, Jesus fed the hungry, ministered to the weak and ill and risked injury to assist people in duress. Where would He be under WorkCover and OH&S laws?

Could any number of “caution: wet floor signs” allow for the parting of the Red Sea?

Would He be obliged to say: “Sorry, I don’t do lepers!”.

The other day I watched as two men in high-vis clothes erected a new parking sign outside a government building. It was just a simple matter of unbolting one sign and replacing it with another.

But by the time they cordoned off the area, erected cautionary signs, surveyed the footpath, it took almost half an hour and probably involved several hours and at least half a dozen other people in total, including meetings, requisitions and authorisations.

No one just does anything any more.

You want a miracle? Hang on, just let me convene the miracle sub-committee.

Small wonder Jesus wept.



waltzing with ned


There are two names redolent of late 19th-century Australia. The first is Ned. The shamelessly mythologised thief and murderer Ned Kelly is a recurring motif in Australian art and literature. As far as bits of steel and popular culture go, his helmet is an image almost as ubiquitous as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can.

Even before the bushranger and his cohorts were the subject of the world’s first surviving feature-length movie The Story of The Kelly Gang, written and directed by Charles Tait in 1906, there was a melodrama by Arnold Denham.

Ned was muse to one of Australia’s greatest painters, Sidney Nolan, inspiring 27 paintings in his Kelly series. Later, no lesser an idol than Mick Jagger would strut forward in 1970 to portray Ned in what was then the seventh film about this Irish convict son.

In the late ’70s there was also a rock opera written about the bushranger by Reg Livermore, while Johnny Cash wrote and recorded the song Ned Kelly for his album Man In Black.

Ned was the subject of Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang and Robert Drewe’s earlier novel Our Sunshine, which was the basis of a 2003 film starring Heath Ledger.

Ned is also a recurring theme in the work of Haha, a Melbourne street artist, and even inspired the Tin Symphony in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Now he is the subject of another musical.

Ned: An Ordinary Man, an Extraordinary Legend makes its world premiere at the new Ulumbarra Theatre in the fitting confines of the old Bendigo jail next month.

Concurrently, the celebrated Bendigo Art Gallery is running an exhibition called Imagining Ned, which features artefacts and ephemera alongside works by Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Adam Cullen and Norman Lindsay.

But if Ned is the man of the moment, then his partner, far more shy and elusive, must be Matilda.

This month marks 120 years since Banjo Paterson first publicly performed Waltzing Matilda in a small pub in outback Queensland.

While the exact etymology of the name Matilda as used to describe the swagman’s bundle is disputed, there is no doubt she’s part of the national psyche. There have been more than 700 recordings of the unofficial national anthem, ranging from classical covers to punk rock and yodelling.

In recent years it has emerged there was a love triangle behind the composition that led Paterson to jilt his long-time fiancée Sarah Riley after a scandalous flirtation with one of her best friends, Christina Macpherson. It was only in 1971, when some of her original writing was discovered, that Macpherson – great-great aunt of former Victorian premier Ted Baillieu – emerged as the co-author of Waltzing Matilda.

Now her ghost will be heard when The Man They Call The Banjo, a musical theatre production about the love story behind the song by Felix Meagher and Dennis O’Keeffe, has its world premiere at Little River this month.

So Ned and Matilda waltz on in the hearts and minds of another generation.

resurrect red pens

The car radio was tuned to an ABC station when one of those interchangeable psychologists with hyphenated names who have mastered the sound bite came on.“We have been responsible for the wussification of an entire generation,” he opined.

“Teachers aren’t even meant to use red pens to mark students’ work any more because it is considered too aggressive.”

It was a statement that resonated on many levels.

We have reached a point in our culture where we use ghastly words such as “learnings” but have become afraid to challenge and, where necessary, correct our children.

Recently I interviewed a musical theatre star who has hit her straps after years of rejection. Between gigs, she teaches and has been stunned by the number of students who unashamedly declared themselves to be triple threats.

“Triple threat” is a phrase that originated in Broadway musical theatre and refers to a performer who excels at all three key areas: singing, dancing and acting.

I got the sense that some of her “triple threat” students not only struggled to sing on key, some had two left feet and all the stage presence of a washing basket.

Yet they had reached their late teens or early 20s without anyone having dared to suggest they were anything other than stellar performers. Was it up to her to puncture the enormous balloons of their egos?

Talking to a group of students recently, I encountered a similar attitude of all-round awesomeness.

One young woman made it clear my insights were pretty much useless to her because, while I was a journo, she was going to be a writer. Seeking to find some common ground, I asked what writers she liked to read. “Oh,” she said, “I don’t like reading. I just like writing.”

Writing was her “passion” and, more than anything else, she liked writing about herself because she was, after all, so endlessly fascinating and blogged every day.

Self-confidence is one thing, but self-awareness and having a clear perception of your own individuality, including strengths and weaknesses, is every bit as important. It seems to me we have set up a generation for failure and disappointment, by sheltering and cosseting them to such a degree that they don’t know how to lose, how to compete or even board a bus alone.

A friend recently told me of a colleague who had finally allowed her 13-year-old son to catch the bus to school only because she had to go to an interstate conference, which meant she couldn’t drive him.

First, though, she had to have a test run. She dropped the boy at the bus stop, then followed the bus to school, where the boy’s father was waiting to ensure he alighted safely.

I don’t totally buy “the Generation Z and Gen Alpha are narcissists” trope but I do think that, while the most technologically savvy, they are also the least prepared for some of the uncomfortable realities of adult life.

By all means spend this school holiday ferrying the children to non-competitive activities and telling them they are stars.

Just do them a big favour and remind them there are at least 70 sextillion others in the universe.


a fear of felt


So I’m in a delightful shop called Habadash in Castlemaine on the weekend and the town is heaving with visitors for the biennial arts extravaganza that is the Castlemaine State Festival.

I have been here before. In fact, as I discover later, there’s even a quote from moi on the shop’s home page from an article written in 2007 likening it to being inside a button box with little lollies of colour, all competing for attention, calling out “pick me, pick me”. If anything, this description is even more accurate eight years on and why what happened next was even more surreal.

A woman in her early 40s, wearing a blue dress, walks into the shop and is welcomed by owner Sonia Collard. “Feel free to touch, open the drawers, have a rummage,” Sonia invites.

“Ooh. I won’t be doing that,” says blue dress looking frankly aghast. “I have koumpounophobia.”

“Pardon dear?” says Sonia.

“Koumpounophobia – a fear of buttons.”

You could almost see little thought bubbles with question marks rising above the half dozen other heads in the shop. We edged closer, while at the same time, collectively thinking … step away from the buttons.

“What are you doing in here then?” someone asks. “Because I forgot,” replied her friend, looking rather shame-faced.

“Goodness me, how do you do up your clothes?” asks Sonia.

“I’m not afraid of buttons that are sewn on, only the loose ones. My sister is too.”

I couldn’t help myself any longer.

“Were you tortured with buttons as a small child?”

“No not at all,” blue dress replies, “although I am now. My son sometimes puts buttons in my bed as a joke. I have to vacuum them up because I can’t touch them.”

We left the shop with a new word in the vocabulary and a profound sense of wonderment.

A quick Google reveals an estimated 11 per cent of the Australian population suffers from some kind of extreme, persistent aversion to something. The friend with whom I spent the weekend suffers from musophobia – the very presence of a mouse in the house causes her to quake and cry.

Another mutual friend suffers a fear of frogs, known as ranidaphobia, while her mother actually collects them, though what came first, the collection or the phobia, I do not know.

Until now I might have fallen into the phobophobia camp with a generalised fear of succumbing to a phobia, but I’m beginning to think I may have a borderline masklophobia (fear of masks) with leanings towards automatonophobia (fear of puppets and mannequins).

As someone who will cross a six-lane highway to avoid a Wilderness Society collection koala, I can’t begin to tell you how much I dislike doing “in-character” interviews.

For a week I have been feeling sick about a scheduled phone chat with a purple puppet: a foul-mouthed piece of felt with two eyes stuck on that’s half of the comedy double act Sammy J and Randy. Randy is fairly gentle and the “interview” ends on a conciliatory note.

“Thanks for running with the awkwardness of interviewing a non-human entity,” he says.

Baby steps, baby steps.