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

Neil Perry on Sydney’s Best Saturday-Night Dining

The legendary Australian chef and restaurateur reveals his top tables to book for the weekend.

Article by Lucy E Cousins

Chef Neil Perry holding a plate of Sydney rock oysters from East 33. Photography courtesy of east33.sydney

When you talk to acclaimed chef Neil Perry about the restaurants he loves, you need to settle in and get comfortable. Whether he’s talking about his love of Sydney rock oysters (“the best in the world”) or his choice of wine (“I love classic Australian reds”), his passion for the culinary arts is obvious and he takes his time to really explain each locale. And when I dare to admit that I haven’t been to one of his favourite restaurants, he candidly (but pointedly) asks if I’ve been living under a rock. It’s less of an insult and more incredulity that I haven’t had the pleasure. “You need to go this weekend,” he commands.

And even though he has gained a substantial reputation in the restaurant industry after decades of success — or, as he humbly puts it, making “a living” from it — food is still everything to him. “Food is my entire life. I love eating it. It consumes every waking moment because I’m either reading about it, cooking it, travelling to experience it or I’m basically making my life, my craft out of it,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle for me. It’s not about how many hours a week I work, because I’m working every minute I’m awake.”

The Sydney-based chef spoke to T Australia’s Lucy E Cousins about where he recommends in his hometown for a Saturday night dinner.

The bar at Poly restaurant in Sydney. Photography courtesy of Poly.

Saturday night… dining along

Poly has just really beautiful service. It’s owned by Matty Lindsay, who also has Ester. So the cooking is fantastic; really intuitive and inventive and, most importantly, delicious. There’s also a really big bar, so you can sit up at the bar solo, and I really like sitting at bars and eating. It’s also good because there’s quite a big snack section of the menu as well. I very rarely would eat a main there, actually. Instead, I’ll eat lots of little snacks and drink wine by the glass. I always think it’s just a nice thing to do when you’re by yourself to get a few different flavours. You don’t have to just eat one plate of food.” Poly 74–76 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills

Mud Crab from Golden Century. Photography courtesy Golden Century.

Saturday night… with a crowd

“Tets [chef Tetsuya Wakuda] and I used to go to Golden Century all the time in the ’90s when it first opened because it was open late and because of the quality of the live seafood. And like all Chinese restaurants, it’s not the place generally for two people to be dining unless it’s something like Flower Drum or Spice Temple. You really want six, eight, 10, 12 around a big table ordering lots of seafood, like beautiful steamed prawns and salt-and-pepper lobster and mud crab, and my favourite, steamboat abalone.” Golden Century 393–399 Sussex Street, CBD

Cold Prawn Ramen from Chaco Ramen. Photography courtesy of Chaco Ramen.

Saturday night… for a casual dinner

“So, on Crown Street is Chaco Ramen and it used to be Chaco Bar; they used to do ramen at lunch and yakitori at night, and it’s the best yakitori in Sydney and it’s the best ramen. And so Keita [Abe, chef and owner] split the restaurant and he opened — which I’m going to tonight, actually — Chaco Bar on Victoria Street [Potts Point]. He’s done it beautifully and I love sitting at the bar. It’s the best yakitori. But the ramen is just a killer and my favourite is the chicken coriander, which is really spicy.” Chaco Ramen 238 Crown Street, Darlinghurst.

Sydney Rock Oysters delivered from East 33. Photography courtesy of east33.sydney.

Saturday night… on a date

“Well, Sydney rock oysters are the best oysters in the world. There’s no doubt about that. Our first Australians have been eating them for about 60,000 years; they’re the original native ingredient. Between the border of Victoria and the border of Queensland on the east coast of New South Wales is the only place you can get Sydney rocks. And it’s like owning Champagne. Sure, there’s lots of sparkling wine out there, but there’s only Champagne in France that produces champagne. It’s the same for me with Sydney rocks. I’ve tasted oysters all around the world and nothing has tasted as amazing as those incredible iodine explosions of flavour, the minerality and the saltiness and the brininess that Sydney rocks bring. The vast majority of oysters in the world are Pacifics [Magallana gigas] and I don’t really rate them massively. There’s nothing nicer than being at home and knocking the lid off some oysters you’ve had delivered and having a beautiful glass of wine with my wife.” East 33

Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sydney CBD.

Saturday night… celebrations

“Rockpool, it’s the best. It’s my daughter’s 27th birthday on Saturday and I’m taking her to Rockpool. I just love eating the greatest ingredients in the world cooked with wonderful craft and there’s no better place in Australia to do that. I mean, the produce that goes into that restaurant from all our amazing fishermen around the country and all our amazing beef producers and then the dry-ageing in-house process and in-house butcher and in-house fishmonger… you just can’t get better quality product on a plate. And there’s no better room in the world to drink beautiful wine in as well. It’s the full package, for me.

Rockpool is the place I always go to celebrate anything that’s special. My daughter got married there in January, which was just phenomenal. I always order a steak and pair it with a bottle of wine. I love some of the really classic Australian reds; they’re not outrageously expensive, wines from Windowrie, Rockford is best for shiraz, Mount Mary, some of those really old classics. Yarra Yering Dry Red No. 2, they’re as good as wine gets, really.” Rockpool Bar & Grill 66 Hunter Street, CBD

Neil Perry retired from his role as culinary director at Rockpool Dining Group, which owns Rockpool Bar & Grill and Spice Temple among other restaurants, in July 2020. He remains a consultant and he has recently worked with East 33 on its Chef Series.

The Sydney Restaurants Reinventing Childhood Classics

Local chefs are serving comfort food with a twist to those yearning for years past.

Article by Alana Wulff

Finger Bun by Humblebakery. Photography by Caroline McCredie.

In Marcel Proust’s classic novel “In Search of Lost Time”, the reader is guided toward a passage in which the narrator dips a madeleine into a cup of lime-blossom tea. Taking a bite of his quintessentially French dessert acts as a sensory trigger of memories, resurrecting his childhood and instantly transporting him to his past: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.”

While we may be far from old-world France, ‘Proust’s madeleine’ metaphor as a trigger for nostalgia is just as poignant as ever, with reinvented childhood classics popping up on menus throughout Sydney. In the inner-city borough of Surry Hills, a row of pink finger buns sits patiently inside glass casing, soon to be snapped up by early risers and first-in-best-dressed customers at Humble Bakery. It’s just one of many local cafes currently offering a curated selection of reimagined classic pastries, sweets and baked goods.

The brainchild of Ben Milgate, Elvis Abrahanowicz and Joseph Valore (also known for Porteño, Bastardo and Bodega x Wyno), Humble opened in late 2020 as Sydney dipped in and out of lockdown. It has a delightfully diverse menu, but it is Humble’s reboot of the classic finger bun that has emerged as most popular, attracting customers from all over Sydney. “When we were brainstorming what we were going to do here, the finger bun was brought up because it was the type of thing you either got in the canteen at school or when you were on a holiday or road trip with the family,” Milgate says. “We always try to recreate things people froth on and we always try to find the thing that’s going to make a comeback.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that after a year filled with pandemic stress and an overwhelming global news cycle, the quintessentially Australian finger bun is having a moment. “It definitely gets the most airplay on social media and people try to get in here early enough to get one,” Milgate says. With its pink cream cheese frosting, desiccated coconut and a separating slab of butter, the bun has found new life, but the question remains: does it have the power to transport customers to the past? Milgate believes so. “It takes you back to a time when life was a lot less stressful and easier going.”

As the world becomes increasingly uncertain, it seems we are yearning for that which we know to be dependable — even when it comes to food. “We have five senses for good reason, but it’s the sense of smell and taste that are the most associated with food, nostalgia and memory,” says Professor Johannes le Coutre of the Food & Health division at the School of Chemical Engineering within UNSW Sydney.

Unlike visual or auditory appeal, it’s the flavour (taste and smell) that’s particularly significant in consumption and nostalgia, as flavour is partially hardwired and partially imprinted into our systems. “It becomes rapidly complex, but in a way it’s something that carries real emotional value,” Professor le Coutre says. This emotional value, combined with a sense of communal fragility following the struggles of 2020, has in many ways helped establish a new appetite for retro food.

Lamingon by Huxton's. Photography courtesy of Huxton's.

At Huxton’s in Bronte, the unassuming lamington has reached cult status thanks to a revamp of the original recipe. Created by head chef Lilly Fasan, each lamington is joined with a layer of seasonal mixed-berry jam, soaked in panacotta, dipped in milk chocolate and rolled in large coconut flakes. “It’s a labour of love, but they’re a bit of a work of art,” says owner Cameron Simpson.

Each month, Huxton’s sells 800 lamingtons on average, with customers driving up to two hours to source one of their favourite Australian treats. “We’ll get people ordering a lamington at 7am, but we also get people late at night looking for them too — in a way they’ve broken down the barriers of when it’s ‘appropriate’ to eat a lamington,” Simpson says. More than just a delicious any-time treat, the lamington comes weighed down with cultural nostalgia that Simpson believes plays a large role in its popularity at the cafe. “It reminds a lot of people of what their mum or grandmothers might have made them when they were little,” he says. “During times of uncertainty and even big events like Christmas people always switch back to brands and foods they know, love and trust. For us, there’s definitely been a swing towards tried and trusted items.”

In his latest book, “Australia: The Cookbook” (Phaidon), chef, cafe owner and author Ross Dobson’s ode to these nostalgic dishes shines more light on Australia’s longstanding love of sweets, pastries and cakes. “The book is largely about what people used to cook at home, but I did a lot of research as well as looking back through piles of recipes from my own mum,” Ross says. “There were all of these comforting things I found myself quite attached to.”

While Ross’ memories certainly play a part in his appreciation of these recipes, he also believes our desire to return to the comfort of foods from our past is closely linked with the lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. “When Covid hit, people suddenly found themselves wanting to bake, and I think there was a shift to nostalgia and this idea of wanting to cook more at home in general,” he muses. “Yes, the supermarkets were running out of toilet paper, but they were also running out of basics like flour — the baking aisles were empty.”

Passion Flummery from Australia: The Cookbook (Phaidon).
Iced Biscuits from Australia: The Cookbook (Phaidon).

With his Penrith cafe located below residential units, Dobson notes the customers he would cook takeaway dinners for were also bringing him their own homemade desserts and slices as gifts. “During Covid that kind of food became appropriate because it was something you could have for yourself or share with others over a cup of coffee or tea,” he says. “That’s comforting — that sweetness reminds you of better times and I think it just made people feel safe and secure while also allowing them to yearn for days gone by.”

Redefining comfort food as a way for people to cherish the past and enjoy a stronger sense of self-identity is further strengthened by the routine and ritual of communal cooking and dining. “It’s not just about building blocks, energy and calories — we know that people eat for longer and tend to eat more if they are around a table with others,” Professor le Coutre explains. “There are countless studies that show food has a social as well as a pleasure element.”

Someone who understands this intimately is Grant Lawn, owner of Bush in Redfern. “People come here looking for comfort,” he says. “We’re not highly priced or overtly cutting-edge or non-approachable. We see the same faces over and over again, especially throughout the pandemic.” Filled with contemporary takes on childhood classics, Bush’s menu is celebrated for its wide-ranging nod to days gone by. Its fairy bread & butter pudding touches on the experiences of childhood parties, while the wattleseed damper with honey butter stirs up memories of camping and cooking over the coals during family trips.

“When creating the menu, I really try to look at my own experiences as well as those of the general public,” Lawn says. Soon to be added to the menu is his take on the schoolyard at recess with the launch of Bush lunchboxes. “For the first one we’ll do celery-and-peanut salad, Vegemite-and-cheese damper, dill pickle and a chocolate brownie,” he divulges. “It’s like a little packed lunch from Mum.”

The renaissance of sentimental foods raises an interesting question: what will future generations look back to when considering their own experiences with food? “It’s exciting to see where this will go, because a lot of these items won’t ever go away, but other things will come up,” Professor le Coutre says. “The food we’re making now may be the nostalgic food of the future.” As time marches on, the goal for business owners such as Lawn continues to be providing customers with feel-good menu options. “If we can tap into nostalgia and put a smile on someone’s face, that really is powerful… It’s more than just the taste of the food.”