A New Generation of Bakers Have Their Heads in the Clouds

Pastry chefs and food artists are using meringue to create sculptural confections as light as air.

Article by Aliza Abarbanel

Meringue_1A lemon chiffon cake with strawberry compote, vanilla bean pastry cream and whipped cream covered with meringue bows and strawberries, by the food artist Paris Starn. Photograph by Esther Choi.

A cloud captive on a plate, a meringue is a shape-shifter, an essential component of any pastry chef’s repertoire: it can be eaten nearly raw, a lightly bronzed heap of wobbly snow atop a glossy lemon pie, or baked into crunchy smithereens. Sometimes it’s barely detectable, folded into lush buttercream frosting or hidden in the delicate shell of a macaron. Its most recent main character moment was arguably the 1980s, when baked alaska and Pavlova dominated dessert plates.

Now, a new generation of pastry chefs and food artists are highlighting meringue in modern takes on sculptural sweets. Among them are the Brooklyn-based artist and chef Jen Monroe, who has made sprawling 0.5-square-metre rose water Pavlovas with candied rhubarb bows and pulled-sugar spires for her project Bad Taste; the Paris-based baker Andrea Sham, who paints meringue discs with powdered activated charcoal and spirulina to create desserts that shimmer like sea foam; the Brooklyn-based baker Samantha Raye, who documents her frilly, poodle-shaped meringue cookies on her Instagram account, @thegeminibake; and Paris Starn, a food artist, also based in New York, who encases pistachio chiffon cake layered with strawberry compote and pastry cream in frothy heaps of pastel meringue cookies and porcelainlike meringue bows.

The meringue’s exact origins are a matter of debate. Its creation is commonly attributed to a chef named Gasparini in the Swiss town of Meiringen around 1720, but a recipe for “meringues”, described roughly as “small works of sugar both very easy and very pretty”, had already been published in a 1692 cookbook by the industrious French chef François Massialot, who is also credited as the inventor of the crème brûlée. Undeniably, though, meringue is a miracle of chemistry, which one performs by agitating egg whites (or aquafaba, for a vegan version) and sugar into stiff peaks. Heated over a double boiler, it emerges stable and fluffy, the way the Swiss prepare it; beat in molten sugar syrup and you have the Italian preparation: sturdier, plusher and even more satiny.

Long before wire whisks and KitchenAids were invented, pastry cooks for wealthy Europeans and Americans relied on bundles of straw or branches to whip up meringue for visually impressive desserts like macarons and île flottante. “I think a lot about how labour-intensive it must have been when people started making baked alaska back in the 1860s, and how opulent it must have been to enjoy it, because it’s such a process,” says the pastry chef Caroline Schiff, whose nostalgic dessert menu at the Victorian-era Brooklyn oyster and chophouse Gage & Tollner is crowned with a baked alaska. The toasted bouffant of Swiss meringue — made to order and enrobing layers of mint, dark chocolate and Amarena cherry ice cream — is the most popular sweet on the menu, outselling chèvre cheesecakes and chocolate tortes with ease.

A pistachio chiffon cake with poached quince purée, passion fruit curd and whipped cream finished with meringue kisses by the food artist Paris Starn. Photograph by Esther Choi.

But meringue doesn’t always tempt a generation raised on the brittle, chalky chocolate available at grocery stores. “It’s something I’ve been trying to sell clients on, because I love working with it so much, and they never bite,” says Starn. “I’m making things for Instagram in the hope that others will.” She reversed her own negative opinion of the dessert on a 2019 trip to Kazakhstan, where she was entranced by cookies that featured waves of crisp meringue on a biscuit base. “There was something about the cookie with another cookie on top of it as decoration that blew my mind,” she says. “Because meringue is both chewy and crunchy, it can provide nuance to a dish that wouldn’t otherwise have it.”

While maximalist cakes garnished with purely ornamental botanicals like thistles and orchids have recently found viral fame online, bakers who prefer working with edible toppings are embracing meringue’s potential as a striking and hardy decoration with a texture all its own. Julia Aden, who worked at the renowned London bakery Violet Cakes before launching Süss Cake Studio, wraps her signature tiered cakes with rippling waves of leaflike meringue cookies. And in Los Angeles, the visual artist Rosalee Bernabe shapes meringue into puffy clouds and cheery toadstools to adorn cakes for Chariot, which she describes as her “psychic pastry project”. 

“I love the contrast that a baked meringue has: shattery on the outside and pillowy on the inside,” says Monroe. Her dramatic Pavlovas are pure celebration food, whether piled high with sweet basil cream and chunky pink chains made from sugar or topped with what Monroe calls a “Creamsicle palette” of Alphonso mango curd and candied golden kiwis. Each bite is a study in textural juxtaposition, and the dessert as a whole is a visual showstopper. “People lose their minds when you bring out a six-foot [1.8-metre] Pavlova,” says Monroe. “It’s an opportunity to be sculptural and kitschy, a bit of Victorian silliness that I think speaks to this post-Marie Antoinette dessert moment we’re having.”

But meringue’s pleasures aren’t limited to aesthetic fantasy: it allows restaurants to use up extra egg whites left over from making yolky fresh pasta, aioli or custard-based ice creams. “It’s this beautiful canvas that’s also affordable for chefs,” says Schiff, noting that rising food costs and inflation are giving restaurants more reason to make the most of every ingredient. Fully baked for a Pavlova or Eton mess, meringue keeps in an airtight container for days, enabling easy assembly for kitchens without full-time pastry chefs. And as more home bakers gravitate towards an aesthetic that prioritises messy exuberance over careful piping, meringue-based dishes provide a dessert option that delights without demanding perfection. “It’s a lower-stakes, higher-chaos dessert,” says Monroe. “I’ve been slightly drunk assembling a Pavlova, and it went great. You can’t do that with a cake.” 

For a Chef Beloved by the Art and Fashion Worlds, Flowers Make a Main Course

At the artist Danh Vo’s farm north of Berlin, the restaurateur Rose Chalalai Singh created a lively lunch centred on the blossoms that grow there.

Article by Gisela Williams

Rose ChalalaiThe chef Rose Chalalai Singh collects flowers on the farm of the artist Danh Vo outside of Berlin. To the left is a bank of Rose Campion. Photography by Angela Simi.

During her childhood in Bangkok, the chef Rose Chalalai Singh recently recalled, the city seemed to be teeming with exotic blooms: there was the bounty of the flower market near the Chao Phraya River, the garlands of saffron-coloured marigolds at the city’s Buddhist temples. Later, as a teenager, she spent three years living on her great-uncle’s orchid farm in the canal-lined Thonburi neighbourhood. “Flowers have always been a part of my life,” she said. “After all, my name is Rose.”

When she moved to Europe and opened her first cafe in Paris, Ya Lamai, in 2009, flowers were harder to find, especially in winter. But still, she found them. For several years, she split her time between France and Majorca, where she fell in love with the blood red wild poppies that grow on the island; and on trips to Germany, she grew fond of the bright yellow fields of rapeseed that bloom there in the spring. Now based in Paris, Singh, 42, will often make a detour on spring walks from her apartment near the Jardin du Palais Royal to Rose Kitchen — the lively, intimate Thai restaurant she opened in the Marais in 2021 — to observe the progress of two flowering magnolia trees in the small square behind the Hôtel de Ville.

farm’s flower garden
The farm’s flower garden and a small greenhouse for growing tomatoes, chilis and herbs. Photography by Angela Simi.

In early July, she was on a floral pilgrimage of a different sort, to Güldenhof, the farm outside of Berlin owned by her friend, the artist Danh Vo, 47. Her aim: to combine her love of flowers with her love of food by creating a meal for a group of friends using edible blossoms not as a garnish but as the main course. Since buying the 7.5-acre property — a former G.D.R. agricultural cooperative that includes four large dilapidated farm buildings — in 2016, Vo has transformed it into a commune meets Gesamtkunstwerk, installing bright red Isamu Noguchi “Play Sculptures” on the grounds and working with his collaborator Christine Schulz to establish vibrant gardens, including one devoted to flowers, which were in full bloom when Singh arrived. “It’s like a garden of fireworks,” she said, carrying a handwoven basket in which she was collecting a variety of brightly coloured blossoms, darting from bush to bush along with the bees.

Singh came to cooking through the art world. As a 17-year-old model in Bangkok, she met the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija at a party and they connected over their shared passion for food. Tiravanija’s grandmother was a popular caterer and cookbook author, and he is known for incorporating food into his work, sometimes serving curry to guests at his exhibitions. Over the years, as Singh developed her repertoire, honing her take on elevated Thai home cooking, Tiravanija introduced her to his artist friends, including Vo. It was Tiravanija, too, who suggested that Vo buy a property outside of Berlin to use as a space for storage and an archive. And Singh is now one of a network of friends, family, chefs and art world figures who visit the farm on weekends to wander the gardens, talk over meals in the open kitchen and, occasionally, dance in the attic of one of the outbuildings.

A structure made from birch branches acts as a trellis to support pea tendrils. Photography by Angela Simi.
Singh picking plums. Photography by Angela Simi.
A patch of feverfew, a medicinal plant sometimes used to treat headaches. Photography by Angela Simi.

Vo designed the property to be, in part, a place for creative collaboration — there are wood workshops and a large kiln — and he encourages friends to engage with its bounty in new ways. When Singh stays, she likes to harvest and conserve whatever is in season, foraging for mushrooms, making jam from the fruit she collects or drying herbs for tea. But eating flowers was a relatively new idea that had been born one evening this past spring. Singh was cooking with the Basque chef Dani Lasa in San Sebastián, Spain, and noticed that one of the dishes was garnished with a fried acacia flower. Her friend the French perfumer Barnabé Fillion mentioned that he knew someone who had used acacia blossoms in a tempura dish. And then a month later Singh went to visit Vo’s farm and saw that the road to the property was lined with blooming acacia trees. “I opened the window and the car was filled with the scent of them,” she recalled. Once she arrived, she and Vo immediately started collecting the flowers. “I wanted to make jam and try eating them,” she said. “Then I decided to make tempura.” It ended up being so delicious — “It tastes a little like popcorn,” she said — that when Singh’s friend the photographer Juergen Teller had an exhibition in Berlin recently, she served the dish at the opening. Since that evening, Singh has continued to experiment with flowers as food, recording the dried blooms she uses in a journal.

A mix of freshly picked and lightly battered blossoms, including nasturtiums and lavender. Photography by Angela Simi.
The guests sit down to eat. Pictured clockwise from left: the ceramist and restaurateur Oliver Prestel, the farmer Philip Adler, Singh, the perfumer Barnabé Fillion and the artist and classical musician Ayumi Paul. Photography by Angela Simi.
Singh served the meal with rice, a tomato salad, sliced kohlrabi and white wine. Photography by Angela Simi.

After filling her basket, Singh made her way to the kitchen and started to dip each blossom carefully into a mixture of eggs, flour and water before placing it into a large wok spitting with oil. First, she fried a bunch of acacia flowers, then some zucchini blossoms and coriander flowers with the stems attached. She finished with green borage leaves, brilliant orange nasturtiums and deep purple pansies. She explained that each has a different texture and flavour (borage tastes something like oysters, calendula is peppery). She noted, as she arranged the flowers in clusters on a large white ceramic platter, that she wouldn’t cook with blooms that haven’t been grown by Vo or other friends. The flower industry is not known for its environmental consciousness. Plus at Güldenhof, she said, “all your senses are activated in such a pleasurable way all the time. Somehow that energy manifests in the flowers and vegetables this land produces.”

An hour later, the flower tempura was served family style on a wooden table outside the main farmhouse, along with steamed rice and a freshly picked salad of mixed greens. The Berlin-based artist and classical musician Ayumi Paul, the godmother of Singh’s son, Gabriel, was seated on a bench next to the German ceramist and restaurateur Oliver Prestel. (The evening before, Paul had played her violin accompanied by the chirping of Prestel’s pet Japanese bell crickets, which he had let loose in one of the outbuildings.) Singh was seated on the other side of the table between Fillion and Philip Adler, a farmer who works nearby and is a friend of Vo’s. He was taking a rare pause from the backbreaking summer schedule of harvesting vegetables. “Eating flowers is like going on vacation,” he said, explaining that the act of consuming blossoms was so fanciful it felt like being transported to an imaginary place. Singh, too, was on a high. “This project is making me feel so much happiness and excitement,” she said. “I feel like I am achieving something I’m meant to achieve.” Near the end of the meal, the guests raised a glass to her and toasted, “To the flower queen!”

I Can’t Believe It’s Butter

Nearly 500 years after the elaborate banquets of the 16th century, a new generation of chefs and food artists are playing with their food once more.

Article by Aimee Farrell

ButterTo accompany this story, T asked the Brooklyn-based food artist Suea to create butter sculptures in the shape of (from left) a 1928 LC2 Petit Modele two-seat sofa by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand; a 1929 Barcelona chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; a 1960 Time-Life stool by Charles and Ray Eames; and a 1967 Pastil chair by Eero Aarnio. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas.

On a late spring evening in 1536, a dinner party was held in a garden in the Trastevere neighbourhood of Rome. The festivities were presided over by Bartolomeo Scappi, a provocative chef who was known for comparing cooking to architecture, and for treating the tabletop as a stage for flamboyant displays that on this occasion included an intricately carved figure of Hercules with a lion, a palanquin-bearing elephant and a man astride a camel. Such opulence was not uncommon for the time, but what’s noteworthy is that these scenes were cast not in stone but in butter. Though food sculpture is thought to date to at least the second millennium BCE, this is the earliest recorded instance — in Scappi’s 800-page opus, “The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi” (1570) — of butter sculpture being mentioned in a European cookbook.

By the mid-17th century, such tableaus, known in Italian as trionfi da tavola — or “triumphs of the table” — had become mainstays of Baroque banquets. They were more frequently made from marzipan, sugar or ice, as depicted in Antonio Latini’s “The Modern Steward, or the Art of Preparing Banquets Well” (1692-94), which features 167 formations, including fountains, castles, angry bulls, Nereids and gods. The mastery of food signalled status, and a meal became a style of performance art. Royal households might employ upwards of 800 kitchen staff to bring such visions to life. By the 18th century, decorative butter pats were a dinner table norm in England.

In the East, Tibetan Buddhist monks have been crafting yak butter offerings since the early 1400s. They are a type of ornamental gift, typically made from flour, water and butter, depicting everything from suns and moons to lotus flowers. Stored in caves or shrine boxes, they’re occasionally left to melt in a commentary on the temporality of life — a kind of existential art.

By the late 19th century, butter sculpture had fallen out of favour in the West, relegated to obsolescence by the invention of margarine in 1869, the industrialisation of dairy production and, later, wartime rationing. But now, nearly 500 years after Scappi first crafted his statua di burro, butter sculpture is enhancing dinner tables once again thanks to a new generation of practitioners. The Egyptian-born, New York-based chef and artist Laila Gohar shapes butter into forms that range from the classical to the bizarre, from roses and Ionic Roman columns to chicken drumsticks and koi. She first found her inspiration on the walls of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in Antoine Vollon’s 1875-85 still life “Mound of Butter”. Last year, she forged miniature Venus de Milo figurines as part of a promotional series for the Copenhagen textile brand Tekla. “It’s extremely satisfying to go at it with a knife,” she says.

Suea, a cook and food creative who was born in Korea, raised in Montana and now lives in Brooklyn, felt a similar excitement when she served candles made from ghee, or clarified butter, for the first time. She says her dinner guests “literally freaked out” when they realised they could dip their baguettes into the burning candles, which were infused with garlic, rosemary, thyme, sage, chillies and lemon. One of her more ambitious experiments involved rendering the blocky leather cushions of a miniature LC2 chair (designed by Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret in 1928) in butter. Next up will be Gaetano Pesce’s globular 1969 La Mamma (Donna) chair, which is inspired by a prehistoric fertility goddess. “Butter is so easy to work with, the possibilities are endless,” she says. “And it just tastes so good.”

The Missouri-based photographer, set designer and art director Jill Burrow began sculpting with butter during the Covid-19 lockdown, modelling a brilliant chequerboard design from single hand-cut cubes of butter and jam. Forced to downscale her typically elaborate sets, Burrow used whatever she found in the fridge, turning to the “universal language of butter”, as she puts it, to amuse herself. “There’s just this instant lift when something ordinary is rendered extraordinary,” she says.

But the decorative butter revival isn’t confined to visual artists. At the Apollo Bar & Kantine in Copenhagen, the Danish chef Frederik Bille Brahe pairs huge, fluffy piles of butter, which has been whipped with buttermilk and embellished with salt, with grainy hunks of sourdough as part of a vegetarian lunch for students of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg. Bille Brahe sees these generous formations as ceremonial — a minimalist expression of butter art that he calls “a sculpture made of clouds”. The ephemerality, and easy thrill, of such butter styling is, he says, irresistible. “Some painters use blue,” he says. “We use butter.”

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 86 of T Australia with the headline: “I Can’t Believe It’s Butter”

What Does the End of Beef Mean for Our Sense of Self?

When it comes to the West’s legacy of conquering by culture, there’s perhaps no meal more symbolic than a bleeding steak or hamburger. So who are we now, as we join other societies in consuming less red meat?

Article by Ligaya Mishan

Meat is primal, or so some of us think: that it is the anchor of a meal, the central dish around which other foods revolve, like courtiers around a king; that only outliers have ever refused it. But today, those imagined outliers are multiplying. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the consumption of beef per capita worldwide has declined for 15 years. Nearly a quarter of Americans claimed to have eaten less meat in 2019, according to a Gallup poll. In Australia, red meat consumption has been slipping steadily for two decades. The recipe site Epicurious, which reaches an audience of 10 million, phased out beef as an ingredient in new recipes in 2020. Diners at some McDonald’s in the United States can now sate their lust for a Quarter Pounder with a vegan McPlant instead. Faux meat products are projected to reach about $113.4 billion in sales in the United States by 2030, according to a recent study by UBS, and Tyson Foods, one of America’s biggest beef packers, has hedged its bets by introducing its own plant-based line.

Even in the stratosphere of the world’s most expensive restaurants, where multiple-course tasting menus often rely on the opulence of a marbled steak as their denouement, a few notable exceptions have abandoned meat within the past year, including the $570-per-person Geranium in Copenhagen (still serving seafood) and the $450-per- person Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan (save for the puzzling persistence of a tenderloin on its private dining room menu through this past December). Could this be the beginning of the end of meat — or at least red meat, with its aura of dominion and glory?

Those who believe humans are born carnivores might scoff. Indeed, archaeological evidence shows that we have been carnivores for longer than we have been fully human. As the French Polish Canadian science journalist Marta Zaraska recounts in “Meathooked” (2016), two million years ago, early hominids in the African savanna were regularly butchering whatever animals they could scavenge, from hedgehogs and warthogs to giraffes, rhinos and now-extinct elephant-anteater beasts.

Yet it wasn’t necessarily human nature to do so. Meat eating was an adaptation, since, as Zaraska points out, we lack the great yawning jaws and bladelike teeth that enable true predators to kill with a bite and then tear raw flesh straight off the bone. To get at that flesh, we had to learn to make weapons and tools, which required using our brains. These in turn grew, a development that some scientists attribute to the influx of calories from animal protein, suggesting that we are who we are — the cunning, cognitively complex humans of today, with our bounty of tens of billions of cortical neurons — because we eat meat. But others credit the discovery of fire and the introduction of cooking, which made it easier and quicker for us to digest meat and plants alike and thus allowed the gastrointestinal tract to shrink, freeing up energy to fuel a bigger brain.

Whatever the cause of our heightened mental prowess, we continued eating meat and getting smarter, more adept with tools and better able to keep ourselves alive. Then, around 12,000 years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors started to herd animals, tend crops and build permanent settlements, or else were displaced by humans who did. Our diet changed. If we narrow our purview to more recent history, from the advent of what we call civilisation in the fourth millennium BCE, the narrative of meat eating shifts.

“For nearly all of humanity’s existence, meat was not a central component of people’s diets,” the American historian Wilson J. Warren writes in “Meat Makes People Powerful” (2018). Far from being essential, for most people around the world, meat has been only occasional, even incidental, to the way we eat: craved and celebrated in certain cultures to be sure, showcased at feasts, but not counted on for daily nourishment. This was true outside of the West well into the 20th century, but even in Europe before the 19th century, the average person subsisted on grains (cakes, ale) that made up close to 80 percent of the diet. The Old English “mete” was just a general word for food.

The rich were different, of course, with the resources to dine as they pleased. And not just royals and aristocrats: in 18th-century England, as incomes rose, an ambitious middle class began to claim some of the same privileges as their supposed betters. The Finnish naturalist Pehr Kalm, in a 1748 account of a visit to London, reports, “I do not believe that any Englishman who is his own master has ever eaten a dinner without meat.” The caveat was key. Those not so fortunate as to control their own lives had to make do, as the British poor had done for centuries, with mostly gruel, perhaps enlivened by vegetables, although these were perceived, the late British urban historian Derek Keene has written, “as melancholic and terrestrial and in need of elevation by the addition of butter or oil”.

So meat was both sustenance and symbol. To eat it was to announce one’s mastery of the world. No wonder, then, that the citizens of a newborn nation, one that imagined itself fashioned on freedom and the rejection of Old World hierarchies, should embrace it. “Americans would become the world’s great meat eaters,” the former Librarian of Congress Daniel J Boorstin writes in “The Americans: The Democratic Experience” (1973). And the meat that would come to define Americans was beef: a slab of it, dark striped from the grill but still red at the heart, lush and bleeding, leaking life.

Layers of inside skirt steak beneath a silver serving spoon holding a sirloin tip. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.
Layers of inside skirt steak beneath a silver serving spoon holding a sirloin tip. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.

Although the American love of meat has infiltrated almost every corner of the globe (including Australia, the world’s second-largest meat consumer, following the United States), global consumption of meat per capita remains only a third of North America’s. On average, Asians eat a quarter of the meat Americans do; Africans less than a fifth. Outside the West, a number of countries have long-lasting and sophisticated vegetarian traditions, from India — home to nearly 1.4 billion people, of whom 39 per cent identify as vegetarian and another 41 per cent restrict how much meat they eat — to Ethiopia, where more than 40 per cent of the population are Orthodox Christians and the most devout shun both meat and dairy on 250 fasting days a year.

The human response to meat is ambivalent, and not because of any intrinsic deliciousness or lack thereof. What draws us to a food or makes us reject it goes beyond the immediacy of flavour and satiation. In the countries that consume the least meat per capita, religion and food are intimately entwined; the choice to eat meat or not is for many a spiritual one. Only with the pressure of modernity and the encroachment of the West have certain cultures yielded their taboos and embraced meat.

Consider the example of early Japan. In 675 CE, Emperor Tenmu decreed that no-one in the country should eat beef. Cows — along with chickens, horses, dogs and monkeys — became a protected class of animals, released from the fate of becoming fodder for humans. Ostensibly this was done in pursuit of virtue, for in Buddhism, which had come to the country by way of Korea the previous century, animals are recognised as beings, like humans, with sentience and consciousness. And not only like humans: in the cycle of life known as samsara, your consciousness, or that of a loved one, might have once been born in animal form. So forgoing meat was not simply compassion but self-interest. The animal is your sister; the animal is you. There were also practical reasons for spurning beef. Oxen were important draft animals, with their brawn pressed into service to till the land for rice, the foundation of the Japanese diet. (The oxen may have been our brothers, but that didn’t stop us from putting them under the yoke.) There weren’t many of them — cattle use up a lot of resources, implacably devouring hay and requiring pastures to graze — and thus they were too valuable to eat. With the ban, the emperor was able to craftily codify efficient agricultural practices and, in so doing, help give shape and purpose to a nation whose unity was still uncertain. Notably, the law was enforced only from late spring through summer, when people were farming. And wild boar (before the 20th century, domesticated pigs were largely unknown in Japan outside of the southwestern island of Kyushu), deer (which would later be considered sacred in the former capital of Nara) and fish were exempt, their status as prey justified, perhaps, because they lived freely, unlike animals bred as part of one’s household, for whom one was morally responsible — or because Tenmu’s subjects, deprived of meat entirely, might otherwise have rebelled.

In the centuries that followed, the government continued to issue prohibitions on meat, and the Japanese continued to eat it anyway, if not in large amounts, because of a lack of wide-scale livestock rearing. Still, there remained some cultural consensus that meat eating was impure: those who handled dead animals, like tanners and butchers, were stigmatised and assigned a lower social status; when approaching a shop that carried meat, pious passers-by might hold their breath. The trade in animal flesh had something of a clandestine air, with red meat sold under names like fuyu botan (“winter peony”) and obake (“preternatural creature”). To this day, a particular species of wild boar is known as yama-kujira (“mountain whale”), based upon the theory that sea creatures don’t count as meat.

When Westerners started arriving in 1543, they brought with them a relatively blithe attitude toward the consumption of animals. Christianity advocated abstaining from meat only on certain holy days and as an act of personal sacrifice — not to relieve the suffering of animals but to experience suffering oneself, by renouncing a sensual pleasure and denying the desires of the flesh. Within a century, Japan had banned these interlopers, too, and shut off almost all contact with the outside world. But in 1853, the country was forced to come out of seclusion, with an American armada sitting at the mouth of what is today Tokyo Bay. Foreigners, now reluctantly welcomed, expected meat, and enterprising inns served it to them — then threw out the polluted dishes and utensils and stuck their guests with the bill, the Japanese anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney recounts in her 1999 essay “We Eat Each Other’s Food to Nourish Our Body”.

The difference in diet was a difference in worldview. “The discourse on the Japanese self vis-à-vis Westerners as ‘the other’ took the form of rice versus meat,” Ohnuki-Tierney writes in “Rice as Self” (1994). Meanwhile, in the West, similar battle lines were being drawn. “Some peoples, because of their differing conditions, are forced to live almost solely on fish,” the French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin observes, with seeming mystification, in “The Physiology of Taste” (1825), then pronounces, “These peoples are less brave than others who live on meat.” (He concedes that they might have better longevity.)

But other Westerners feared what they perceived as the eerie stamina and relentlessness of peoples inured to the supposed austerity of a meatless diet. The Indian-born British writer Rudyard Kipling, in his 1899 chronicle of travels through Asia and elsewhere, “From Sea to Sea”, quotes a fictionalised companion who marvels of the locals, “They can live on nothing . . . they will overwhelm the world.” In the United States in 1879, concerns over growing numbers of Chinese immigrant labourers led Senator James G Blaine, Republican of Maine, to declare, “You cannot work a man who must have beef and bread, and would prefer beer, alongside of a man who can live on rice.” A 1902 pamphlet in favour of Chinese exclusion put it bluntly: “Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?”

At the same time, some Japanese intellectuals were disavowing superstitions against eating meat and lobbying for a change in diet, pointing to Westerners’ physical strength and Japan’s need to compete. Less than two decades after the country opened to the West, Emperor Meiji ordered the imperial kitchen to begin serving beef.

Outside skirt steak draped over a vintage knife. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.
Outside skirt steak draped over a vintage knife. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.
A beef rib lifter stacked with strip steak and a sagebrush tree. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.
A beef rib lifter stacked with strip steak and a sagebrush tree. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.

Cows are not indigenous to the Americas. Yet the Amazon is burning, set on fire by farmers seeking more land for their cattle, and the United States is the world’s biggest producer of beef, with a projected output of 12.7 million tonnes last year, about a third more than its closest competitor, Brazil, and about $95.5 billion in sales. The beef Americans eat — roughly, per capita, 27 kilograms of it, nearly 300 Big Macs’ worth, last year — is the beef of empire.

The Spanish brought the first cows to the New World in the late 15th century. They were used to power the sugar mills in what was then the West Indies, on plantations that relied on enslaved people for labour. Later, in both North and South America, the sprawl of cattle herds became a means of wresting land from its original inhabitants. “By occupying the vast spaces between population centres, cattle helped secure colonial control of more and more territory,” writes Rosa E Ficek, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico, in her 2019 essay “Cattle, Capital, Colonization”.

For some, that whiff of conquest is a maddening perfume and, arguably, what makes beef so difficult to give up. The so-called tomahawk steak — named after the axe wielded by some North American Indigenous peoples (the word “tomahawk” was adapted from “tamahaac” in Powhatan, an Eastern Algonquian language) — is big enough to feed two and may be splendour or gore, depending on your perspective, redolent of the Old West and a country in the often violent process of becoming. In the decades after the Civil War, a romanticised vision of the cowboy was touted as American values incarnate: a vaguely lawless figure, quick with a gun, and a rugged individualist (even if in reality he was a hired hand, beholden to his boss for about $US40 a month), driving cattle across the plains while hide hunters and settlers massacred the native bison that once grazed there, and displacing Indigenous peoples along the way. Beef is the myth of the American frontier; beef is Manifest Destiny.

It was also the foundation of enormous wealth, and it wasn’t the cowboys who got rich. “It is difficult to turn a living thing into a meal,” the American business historian Roger Horowitz writes in “Putting Meat on the American Table” (2006). “Animals’ bodies resist becoming an expression of our will.” The profit lay in running the meatpacking plants, which were among the first pioneers of the industrial assembly line (and filthy, dangerous places to work, as documented in the American journalist Upton Sinclair’s 1906 social realist novel, “The Jungle”), and the railways, which carried live animals (in appalling conditions) and then, with the development of refrigerated carriages, freshly butchered meat that would eventually wind up in every corner of the country.

It’s impossible to talk about beef without talking about the arc of capitalism: livestock was one of the earliest forms of private property, and in England starting in the 12th century, the demands of grazing led to enclosures of what had once been common lands and the formation of manorial estates, where peasants with no acreage of their own had to toil for wages. Today, the mean hourly wage of an American meat worker is about $20, just over the poverty level to support a family of four, although meat packers are three times more likely than others to suffer serious injuries such as amputations, head trauma and second-degree burns. In the United States, meatpacking plants average about 17 “severe” incidents each month requiring hospitalisation and two amputations a week, according to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Carol J Adams, the author of the groundbreaking 1990 study “The Sexual Politics of Meat”, has written of the moral dubiousness of transforming “living beings into objects”. She is speaking of animals and their hidden deaths; the workers, and their suffering, are invisible, too. The meat comes to the table, a pound of flesh, carefully stripped of any sign of what it was before.

When it was made public in 1872 that the Emperor Meiji had eaten beef, 10 monks from a particularly ascetic sect devoted to mountain worship tried to storm the Imperial Palace, hoping to persuade the leader to forswear this barbarian custom. They clashed with the imperial guards; five of the monks were shot. Today, Japan produces some of the world’s most expensive cuts of beef, using secret methods that may or may not include feeding the cows beer or olives, giving them massages and generally keeping them calm and happy. Nevertheless, the Japanese eat only about nine kilograms of beef per capita each year, less than half the amount consumed in the United States (and in Australia, too).

Americans themselves eat less beef than they used to, down more than a third from a peak of 43 kilograms per capita in 1976. This is part of an overall trend of eating less meat in the United States (in Australia, beef consumption is dropping — about 41 per cent between 2000 and 2020, according to Thomas Elder Markets — however, Australians are consuming more chicken, resulting in an overall increase in meat eating). Most respondents to America’s 2019 Gallup poll said they were eating less meat for health reasons — as opposed to animal welfare or the damage to the environment from gigatons of greenhouse gases released by cows, or the 45.1 million hectares of forest that vanished between 2001 and 2015, replaced by cow pastures — which suggests that self-interest, rather than compassion, is still the most potent way to get people to change their behaviour.

Even the vegetarian activists of the 19th century often framed their crusade in terms of the ills caused by eating meat — that it turned you savage and put you in thrall to uncontrollable sexual urges, which to some diners may not have sounded so bad. Savagery was just a nuance away from virility, after all. Boorstin recounts that in America’s 1840 presidential election, William Henry Harrison was lauded for eating a plain-spoken diet of raw beef, untainted even by salt, while his rival, Martin Van Buren, was smeared with the accusation that he preferred hoity-toity delicacies like raspberries and cauliflower. Raspberries lost; beef won. (Harrison ended up dying 31 days into his term.)

The idea that not eating meat is a sacrifice (and possibly un-American) persists in the technological race to create nonmeat alternatives. The Israeli-based Redefine Meat offers ersatz marbled flank steaks, 3D-printed from vegan ingredient cartridges labelled “Alt-Fat”, “Alt-Muscle” and “Alt-Blood”. It takes pains to insist on its website, “We don’t just love meat; we’re obsessed with it,” and promises “the same great meat you know and love, simply better”. Burger King has rolled out plant-based versions of the Whopper, albeit cooked on the same grill as its beef counterparts and daubed with traditional mayo, so not, from a purist’s perspective, truly vegan. In America, Whoppers feature Impossible Burger patties that, in an uncanny valley-like moment, bleed when cut (the Australian version is made with a different, bloodless, patty).

Impossible achieves this simulacrum by deploying haem, a protein present in animal tissues but here derived from plants. (The company tested haem first on rats, which sparked the ire of some animal rights activists, for whom it undermined the burgers’ ethical stance.) Haem adds flavour, but it’s the literalism of the blood that matters, spilling under the teeth with its mineral tang. Unlike the mock meat cooked for centuries in China — lotus root standing in for bones in pseudo pork ribs, crispy layers of tofu skin mimicking the crackle and plush of duck — these fakes aim to provide not just the taste and texture but the cultural freight of the real thing, in “a continuation of meat as symbol”, as the journalist Alicia Kennedy has written. (Her book on the history of plant-based eating in the United States comes out next year.)

It’s as if the only way to get people to stop eating beef is to trick them into thinking they’re still eating it. Nothing has been lost, no sacrifice required. We can save the planet from those greenhouse gases without giving up the carnal pleasure of sinking teeth into what at least feels like animal flesh, rich with fat, its juices roiling. This is how deep it goes, the mythology of the open range and conquest, with the trickle of blood on the plate to reassure us that our own runs red. “To himself, the meat eater seems to be eating life,” the British philosopher Mary Midgley writes in “Animals and Why They Matter” (1983). For what does a bloody steak or burger invoke but something wounded, dominated, brought to its knees? Only now the diner need never wonder what, or who, that might be.

This is an edited extract from Issue 6. To read the full story, pick up a copy of our new issue in newsagents nationally, order online or subscribe to receive T Australia straight to your letterbox. You will find it on Page 39, named “The End of Beef”.

The next generation of cake bakers

For more than two centuries, pastry chefs have largely focused on precision and prettiness. But a new generation of bakers is creating deliberately messy cakes as delightful as they are subversive.

Article by Alicia Kennedy

A spread of kooky layer cakes, including, from left, Alli Gelles’ buttermilk sponge cake with apricot jam and fig leaf buttercream; Julie Saha’s matcha cake with sweet strawberry compote, vanilla peanut butter icing and moon drop grape buttercream; Gelles’ coconut sponge cake with coconut buttercream, passion fruit and hardy kiwi; Billie Belo’s sour cream cake with guava compote, rose syrup, salted Swiss meringue buttercream and rose-water gel; Saha’s chocolate cake with raspberry mint jam and vanilla rose buttercream; and Hannah Mandel’s malted strawberry cake with pickled mixed-berry jam and basil tomato leaf cream cheese icing. On model: Kwaidan Editions coat, tights and shoes; and Tableaux Vivants gloves. Photography by Jennifer Livingstone.A spread of kooky layer cakes, including, from left, Alli Gelles’ buttermilk sponge cake with apricot jam and fig leaf buttercream; Julie Saha’s matcha cake with sweet strawberry compote, vanilla peanut butter icing and moon drop grape buttercream; Gelles’ coconut sponge cake with coconut buttercream, passion fruit and hardy kiwi; Billie Belo’s sour cream cake with guava compote, rose syrup, salted Swiss meringue buttercream and rose-water gel; Saha’s chocolate cake with raspberry mint jam and vanilla rose buttercream; and Hannah Mandel’s malted strawberry cake with pickled mixed-berry jam and basil tomato leaf cream cheese icing. On model: Kwaidan Editions coat, tights and shoes; and Tableaux Vivants gloves. Photography by Jennifer Livingstone.

Billie Belo will never write “Happy Birthday” on her cakes.

As the baker behind New York City’s Cakes for No Occasion, she sees her offerings more as sculptures than comestible commodities: the tiered monstrosities ooze and drip. Her neon or pastel buttercream is often pocked with bulbous orbs that Belo doesn’t define as, say, truffles or cream puffs; in her decorating language, they’re simply balls, in flavours like lychee or raspberry, and they make her desserts seem not just alive but unwell.

After studying painting at New York’s Grand Central Atelier, she began baking for her friends’ restaurant in Hudson, New York, a few years ago, then started her online business — each one-of-a-kind cake is sold by email from her Manhattan apartment — in 2018 after refining an impasto style that betrays what she calls the “tight” Victorian look of traditional cakes, where lines are clean and excess icing is swept away. “There’s just so much caution in [that] realist style, and I felt imprisoned by it,” she says. “With cake, I want it to explode.”

Belo is part of a school of Instagram-native bakers espousing a messier, bespoke confectionary style: among them are the self-taught Brooklyn ceramist Alli Gelles, who launched Cakes4Sport last year to sell shimmering, swirling masses; Hannah Mandel, an archivist at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in upstate New York, whose Forsythia Forsythia cakes are slightly less chaotic but still tend towards whimsical buttercream blobs, as well as pools of curd in tangy flavours like pineapple and blood orange; and Julie Saha, a vegan cheese affineur in Philadelphia, who, as @foodbebo, orients her practice less around finished products than her own spontaneous spirit of play, in which her cakes will change based on how she feels — rarely is the final product the same as the initial concept.

While aesthetically distinct, these bakers are unified not only in their zany, maximalist approaches but in their rejection of their discipline’s traditions, whether it’s the recent fondant-covered smoothness evangelised on TV by so-called (and often male) cake bosses, or the standard fare of the suburban bakery, where piped filigree and buttercream rosettes were popularised over the course of the 20th century. Nor are they making the naked cakes of recent rustic wedding dominance, with their carefully combed-away frosting perimeters — in fact, what most sets these new pastry chefs apart is their complete disavowal of neatness, which has defined American cake making since the first recipes migrated from France by way of English colonists in the late 1700s. Instead, these cakes allude to the millennial childhood aesthetic of Nickelodeon slime and neon signs, of brightly beaded anklets and painted macaroni necklaces; in that way, they reflect a kind of colourful, seemingly synthetic 1990s postmodernism that has likewise influenced many of today’s rising furniture and jewellery designers.

That veneer of silliness doesn’t mean, however, that these bakers shouldn’t be taken seriously. Though the cakes may seem at first glance like joyous follies, ready to topple under the weight of their own Rainbow Brite frosting, the women behind them say they’re rallying against nostalgia and perfection in part because there’s no use looking back, because things are neither clean nor ideal as a pandemic rages on and fires or floods overtake America’s coasts. We must still take sweetness where we can get it, of course, even if these cakes also provide a way of expressing rage at — and taking respite from — the uncertainty and disappointments of the modern world. And because these bakeries are all side jobs, they provide their owners a much- needed sense of control: “I’m not beholden to someone being like, ‘I want a cake that looks like Cookie Monster,’ ” says Mandel, “because I get to curate what I make.”

Ultimately, though, a cake’s appeal rests in its ephemerality — that moment before it’s cut into and forever destroyed — particularly at a time when young artists in all mediums are reckoning with human consumption and the material waste their work may produce. “We’re still finding pottery from whatever BC,” Gelles says, discussing the crumply vases she also produces. “Am I just making more incredibly permanent trash?” Yet with her cakes — which she describes as “grotesque” — there’s no concern that they might outlast their maker or buyer, which is partly the idea. “It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day,” Belo says. “It’s going to be eaten, and it’s going to be good.”

A version of this article appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 58 of T Australia with the headline: “The Weirdness Is The Point”
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The Hinterland Restaurant Leading the Farm-to-Farm Trend

A sustainable cattle farm on the edge of Bangalow, New South Wales, is taking restaurants out of the farm-to-plate equation.

Article by Craig Tansley

Meals come served in share plates at a long table on the farm. Photography by Mia Forrest.

The road to Lismore from Bangalow is so notorious for its hairpin corners and the slow speed of the motorists in front that it was immortalised in a Midnight Oil song (“Not the Lismore road tonight”). But you don’t have to travel far on it to get to Frida’s Field, the farm restaurant that’s shaking up the farm-to-table idea. Just 10 kilometres from Bangalow (and 23 kilometres from Byron Bay), there’s a sign by the road, but you could miss it amid all this farmland.

It’s all decidedly agricultural and seemingly far from trendier precincts nearby in Byron Bay or Newrybar; the only sound you’ll hear out here is the occasional distant whine of a farmer’s motorbike and the pervading smell is of cow manure. Yet this farm restaurant, named after the owners’ beloved late pig, is where you’re more likely to find a Hemsworth these days. This is the Byron Shire’s new favourite foodie hangout, a place where farm-to-table has been replaced by a new concept: farm-to-farm. Patrons are served long-table style meals in an architecturally designed interpretation of a traditional farm shed, located on the site of the old piggery at this small-scale cattle farm.

Frida's Field is located in a converted barn surrounded by pastures. Photography by K Holmes.

Owners Edward Rawlings and Jeanie Wylie purchased the century-old farm in 2015 and have introduced regenerative practices, opening the property to the public. Their intention is to offer diners the best of what they produce, along with the best of what their fellow farmers of the Byron Shire grow.

Daniel Medcalf, former sous chef at Bondi’s Icebergs Dining Room & Bar, established Frida’s Field using his extensive local networks. Now, former Qualia executive chef and three-time winner of the Australian Good Food Guide’s Chef Hat Award Alastair Waddell has taken over the kitchen. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked at some beautiful restaurants and properties around the world,” Waddell says, “but Frida’s Field is unique. This was a great opportunity to create a truly unique dining experience.”

From the dining room, Angus-Wagyu cattle can be seen roaming the farm — there are 50 on site, rotated across 16 lots, allowing the pastures to regenerate. Just behind the dining shed, Waddell picks turmeric, tomatoes and basil from a garden grown with syntropic agricultural methods, a cropping system that mimics the way wild forests work. Chooks wander off in the distance, while guinea fowls ­­— called Brett and Dennis — peck at the earth.

Chef Alastair Waddell changes the seasonal menu every six to eight weeks. Photography by Mia Forrest.
The freshly cooked dishes are designed to be shared with fellow diners. Photography by Mia Forrest.

Lunch is a seasonal sharing menu — Waddell likes to change it up often. “Seasonality does drive our menu changes, but it’s not as black and white as spring, summer, autumn, winter,” he says. “We enjoy warm weather for much of the year, so lots of autumn and winter produce will arrive later here than down south. Some ingredients will only be at their peak for a few weeks, so we’ve committed to changing our menu every six to eight weeks.”

Today, the hero of the meal is the main: woodfired local beef with roast cauliflower purée and seaweed vinaigrette. Starters include smoked ocean trout rillettes, sourdough croutons and chive vinaigrette, and chicken and duck leg terrine, sherry soaked prunes and pickled vegetables; finished off with a passionfruit and almond cake with fresh cream.

Diners are seated at long wooden tables set on polished concrete floors below cathedral-like rafters. Through the open sides there are views to a valley of mist and smoke from chimneys of neighbouring homesteads. Looking around, you’ll see a combination of Byron chic and casually dressed locals. There are generous servings of the region’s stock-standard calico and white linen worn by twentysomethings with practised pouts. But mostly locals are enamoured by the lack of pretence. There are plenty of diners in comfortable jeans simply here to eat beautifully fresh food in a welcoming setting; they’re not here for their Instagram feed.

On March 25th, 26th and 27th, Frida’s Field is hosting a nose-to-tail beef workshop run by Head Chef Alastair Waddell, three-time winner of the SMH Good Food Guide’s One Hat Award, together with Frida’s Field founders Edward Rawlings and Jeanie Wylie. The workshop will be followed by five-course nose-to-tail long lunch using Frida’s own holistically-reared Angus-Wagyu beef.  For more information, see here