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Food and the body politic: The Australian media and fear of “foreign” foods, a review

Janine Helfst Leicht Collaço

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Food and the body politic: The Australian media and fear of “foreign” foods. In:​articles/​post/​food-and-the-body-politic/​2013. Barry Humphreys, More Please, Viking, 1992, p.102. Auteurs: Heather Merle Benbow and Lara Anderson

1“The Spaghetti à la Bolognese was a total novelty for me, as were the strange twig-like fragments in the sauce that suggested that someone had shaken a dead bush over the plate. It was my first experience of herbs.”

2This text is a review of an article published this year by Benbow and Anderson about a topic that is not necessarily new, but has been gaining strength in discussions involving food for some years: coexistence of local foods and foreign foods. In this case the issue generates discussion about the idea of identity, working with the perception that foods from abroad are hazardous to one’s health, both from a biological and a symbolic standpoint.

3Upon ingesting foods, one would be consuming not only nutrients, but also values and representations. This is the theoretical starting point from which Benbow and Anderson present their argument: dietary habits oscillating between an attitude that is open to what is new (neophilia) and another, more conservative view (neophobia), characterizing the ‘omnivore’s dilemma’. Thus, neophobia takes place with foods that endanger the boundaries of health and body, the latter extended to the idea of the body of a nation. And neophilia, an attitude that promotes consumption of new foods and, according to Benbow and Anderson, is more commonly observed in wealthier social groups in Australia.

4Albeit interesting, the idea brings forth some considerations. Firstly, there was no mention of Fischler (1990), who was deeply immersed in the discussion of the omnivore’s paradox and worked in the context of contemporary dietary habit changes, the main topic of Benbow and Anderson. Changes that might take place are incorporated in the back-and-forth movement of this paradox, classified by Fischler (ibid.) as: substitution (most frequent), which consists of exchanging one element for another with no effect on the culinary structure; addition or adoption of dishes that upon first contact may seem strange, but end up adopted, a common situation in migratory flows; structural changes related to structure transfers, very common in establishments with ethnic specialties and which are privileged means for introduction of novelties; concentration or condensation, a process in which the culinary structure also undergoes interventions, especially from a diachronical consumption model to another, based on synchronicity. In this regard, Benbow and Anderson are not clear about the level at which changes take place, among what groups, etc., considering that we are faced with contact among local and foreign groups.

5Adjustment in this oscillation in diets is fundamental to organize what is considered edible and what is not, as well as considering preparation and consumption, contributing to greater or lesser dietary anxiety. This point was also discussed by Richards (1939) and reminded us that people seek security in the foods they eat, even when facing hunger. It makes sense, therefore, for Benbow and Anderson to choose to base himself on Douglas (1975) and, especially, on construction of margins operated by the relationship between intimacy and distance.

6Empirically, this model of food intake operating intimacy and distance is analyzed in Benbow and Anderson based on discourses found in newspapers (Herald Sun) and television shows (Today Night), in addition to popular campaigns surrounding encouragement or discouragement of consumption of certain foods. Not going into criteria used in selection of ethnographic material and contextualizing this for readers unfamiliar with Australian reality, development of the argument presented attempts to shed light on distinct levels of negotiations related to food, based on aversion to foreign foods and the effects of eating them: from the standpoint of the body in possible food poisoning and from a symbolic standpoint in destructuring of Australian identity. Furthermore, in this same process a vainglorious discourse comes up regarding national foods and appreciation of these foods, particularly conveyed in official campaigns that are marked by ideological speeches associated with the national state.

7The point posited in Benbow and Anderson is that when eating we may, in certain circumstances, ingest the ‘other’ and in this case the act of eating is not only threatening, but also political. This oscillation sparks interest, although no further attention is given to the fact that Australia results from various different immigration flows and for years was heavily dependent on imported products, a situation that only changed in mid 19th century, when local industry began its development. How was this ‘local’ versus ‘foreign’ relationship developed in Australia? What are the differences between such local and foreign food? And this is where we run into the first obstacle: the discourse put forth by media and official organizations is not appropriated in similar manners by those on the receiving end, and this is hardly acknowledged in Benbow and Anderson.

8Nevertheless, there is no loss in significance in the form in which means of communication presented in Benbow and Anderson construct images of ethnic cuisines and in a way manipulate public opinion by showing ethnic cuisines of specific groups as dangerous, while uplifting the national cuisine. This is no doubt a situation filled with paradoxes, since, on the other hand, coexistence with cultural diversity is considered positive in urban groups interested in exploring new flavors and manifesting its cosmopolitan character, although it is also encouraged to consume national products.

9This is not a situation restricted to the context under analysis, since food circulates and is more accessible for consumption than ever before in history, but if these encounters generate lack of trust at first, a domestication process often takes place, as pointed out by Goody (1982). Mechanisms arise for approximation with the unknown, again facing the margins operating inclusion and exclusion. In this regard, whatever mechanisms make it possible to manipulate this oscillation end up not being exploited thoroughly in Benbow and Anderson, which is at times overly generalist regarding this topic.

10Thus, in the examples listed in Benbow and Anderson, ethnic cuisines, particularly those from Asia brought in by immigrants, are considered representations of distant ‘others’ who represent a threat and intake of these foods may pollute and confuse identity boundaries, posing a danger to local ‘culture’, although no reference is made to the fact that this very culture was constructed from constant inward flows from ‘abroad’, and upon domestication took on a new status in local society, unfortunately an aspect little exploited by the authors.

11From this point of view, another consideration arises: cuisines from abroad may also be received with mistrust because, in addition to posing a threat to identity, the boundaries separating exclusion and inclusion are activated according to conveniences varying between situational adjustments. Thus, speaking of formation of identities, or acknowledgement of these identities, involves ambivalences and reflects the context in which they are inserted, especially in cases where immigration is concerned.

12Possible conjunctural solutions that do not ignore local classification dynamics arise, and are often appropriated by the new inhabitants as their own, as well as locally incorporated aspects of other places, considered as naturally local. And it is not known if this took place only in Australia, which points to the absence of a small context of these interactions in Benbow and Anderson that make possible an understanding of the differences in coexistence among distinct groups of immigrants for unfamiliar readers of this context.

13The authors said that Australia is an island under the effect of continuous waves of immigrants but, again, does not clarify the differentiations each group is faced with. If anything from abroad is ‘dangerous’, there is a hierarchy not explicit in their text, which does not show the reasons why some groups are received with more distance, such as Asians, while others, such as Europeans, are more welcome.

14It is clear, however, that Benbow and Anderson are aware of the ambivalence permeating their analysis. If from a political standpoint it is possible that Asians are considered a threat, the authors point to cosmopolitan attitude and the privileged place of ethnic cuisines, although reference is made in a broad manner.

15Nevertheless, another point made by the authors is with regards to the political contents of this cultural encounter, and here, it seems, we have an instigating question. In this discussion, however, readers are left without further information about the elements that serve as basis for the idea of national identity in Australia, regarded as homogeneous, albeit clearly from an ideological and political standpoint distant from an analysis of social and cultural dynamics to support these discourses.

16In reality, cosmopolitan consumers appreciate (or want) new flavors, to show dominance over them in an attitude that corresponds to making explicit, according to Hannerz (1990), of aesthetics of everyday practices by demarcating normally asymmetrical positions. In this case, the value that becomes important is coexistence with diversity, since in addition to being modern and having access to cultural plurality is a form of distinction.

17What could be discussed in Benbow and Anderson are that in this ambivalence the limits between exclusion and inclusion become more flexible, as well demonstrated by Van Otterloo (2001) when speaking of Indonesian cuisine in Amsterdam. Initially practiced by poor and segregated immigrants, it was a food of those who were excluded. Gradually, it became attractive when consumers with high symbolic capital (artists, intellectuals, etc.) and their followers visited neighborhoods where modest establishments serving this cuisine were located. They would taste the food, and, satisfied, they would take these new flavors to other regions not traditionally inhabited by immigrants in the Dutch capital, overflowing across different boundaries. Thus, this cuisine became popular and influenced interest about flavors considered exotic. This trajectory reminds us of what Mennell (1996) pointed out at a different moment: some adventurers are necessary in order for these frontiers to dissolve. Is possible that this process may be taking place in Australia as well.

18It would therefore be interesting for Benbow and Anderson to shed light on what is said and what actually happens. Ethnic food is considered sophisticated at times, frightening at others, but a different relationship is established next: the importance of food in making evident tensions in the multiculturalism process, using the idea that to be healthy in Australia means avoiding unknown foreign goods, a point of view adopted in political speeches and the media. The question thus arises: in order to be healthy, does one need to eat national foods? And does a cosmopolitan individual place his or her body in danger by eating foreign foods? How people negotiate with these identities in their food choices on everyday life? These questions are left unanswered.

19Benbow and Anderson then moves on to describe what was discussed and shows a lack of trust regarding the origin of foods followed by a break in a diet that is considered traditional (although what this might be in Australia is not mentioned) and the main reasons that gave rise to public health problems such as obesity and food poisoning, a new aspect introduced in the discussion that shows bias in a broader discussion of what is considered a ‘healthy diet’. Unfortunately, it is only mentioned in passing.

20In any event, the authors shows that, if on the one hand incorporation has a biological character connected to health, especially the idea of ‘poisoning’ mentioned at different moments, it would come closer to the cultural dimension and the one considered ethnical and potentially poisonous. Proximity and distance, security and insecurity are related with the risk of consuming certain foods and this point could have been explored to strengthen the relation between individual (biological body) and society (body of the nation). Therefore, in this process, risks of intoxication and disease, regarded as real, are condensed, as well as risks considered symbolic, such as loss of national identity due to an ‘Asian invasion’ that also brings forth yet another representation: lack of food.

21Benbow and Anderson conclude that the risk of contamination from a foreign food brings to the limelight the fear of losing boundaries of recognition. In several news stories mentioned by the authors, in addition to a clear hierarchy regarding what is local and what is not, there is also the matter of scarcity and fear of becoming less Australian, pointing to a scale of preferences that intend to keep intact the boundaries of Australian identity.

22Also in their conclusion, the authors note that Australia currently has a wide variety of cuisines that reach far beyond pizza or some generic stereotype of Japanese or Chinese food. This is also reflected in the current obsession of television programs, books, blogs and others, encouraging improvements in domestic cuisine, which is increasingly sophisticated and exotic.

23Nevertheless, if there is a celebration of this diversity among middle urban echelons, media tends to show foreign cuisines as potentially hazardous. This means that, if on the one hand there is openness to that which is different, in its urban and cosmopolitan version, on the other, the national side, the difference is frightening and not well accepted. Benbow and Anderson concluded by repeating their initial discussion about oscillation in the omnivore’s dilemma – between neophilia and neophobia – showing that eating is a complex habit with intentions that are not always clear.

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DOUGLAS, M. (1975) Implicit meanings. Routledge & Kegan Paul [London].

GOODY, J. (1982) Cooking, cuisine and class. Cambridge University Press [Cambridge].

FISCHLER, C. (1990) L’Homnivore. Édition Odile Jacob [Paris].

HANNERZ, U. (1990) Cosmopolitans and Locals in World Culture, In: Theory, Culture & Society, Sage, vol. 7, 237-251.Also available in:

MENNELL, S. (1996) All manners of food. University of Illinois Press [Champaign].

RICHARDS, A. (1939) Hunger and work in a savage tribe. Oxford University Press [London].

VAN OTTERLOO, A. (2001) “Chinese and Indonesian restaurants and the taste for the exotic food in Netherlands: a local-global trend”, In CWIERTKA, K. & WALRAVEN, B. Asian Food: The global and the local, pp 153-166.

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Electronic reference

Janine Helfst Leicht Collaço, « Food and the body politic: The Australian media and fear of “foreign” foods, a review », Anthropology of food [Online], S8 | 2013, Online since 04 February 2014, connection on 20 June 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Janine Helfst Leicht Collaço

FCS/UFG (Brazil),

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