Interview with The MasterChef Judges

Eighteen months ago I got the chance to interview the MasterChef judges on the set of the second series. The interview was supposed to be for a magazine but for various reasons it slipped through the cracks of the published schedule. The interview was too interesting not to share so I have decided to post it here.

I was determined. No questions about cravats. Or about chocolate mousse cakes. Or about being unlikely sex symbols. Or about the endless conspiracy theories explaining why Julie won the first series over Poh or Chris. I had the rare opportunity to get the three MasterChef judges – Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris - together on the MasterChef set for half an hour and I was going to do my best to avoid the obvious. “We’ll have nothing to say”, Preston joked, when I told him what I wasn’t going to ask them about. Instead, I had developed a raft of question for the trio about food and eating in Australia and why they believed their runaway success of a show had changed the way Australians approach food and cooking.

And indeed there is some empirical data that it has. During the finals week of the first series the market research company Ipsos (of which I am a director) conducted a poll of 1000 Australians that found 61% of those polled felt that watching the show had encouraged them to be more creative when cooking meals at home. I shared this research with Preston, Mehigan and Calombaris and asked them - if their show doesn’t manage to produce any great chefs but changes the way Australians cook, would that be enough for them?

GM: Absolutely.

MP: That’s how we measure our success. I don’t think any of us came into this with any other idea than we might find a good cook who might somehow have a role to play. What we’ve found is the potential for this show to influence people on a far greater, deeper level.

Q: Is that a shock to you?

GM: It’s a surprise but it’s one of my greatest pleasures. Matt and I are both dads and the fact that it’s had such an enormous influence over children is such a great thing, to hear little children talking about food and produce and cooking.

MP: And actually wanting to get in the kitchen. Asking their mums ‘do we have to have sausage rolls, can’t we have a soufflĂ©?’ And mum going off and actually looking up a recipe for soufflĂ©.

GC: I have a couple of mates who tell me their mums are bad cooks. How can you have a mum that’s a bad cook? A lot of people are bad cooks or aren’t prepared to cook because they think it’s scary. I am lucky because in my family, food is natural thing. Its good, its fresh, its healthy, it comes from out of the garden. Every day is a celebration that gets you around the table. And that’s what the show’s done - get people back around the table.

GM: It has crossed a strange number of demographics. I was in a traffic jam - they were digging up Burnley Street in Melbourne - and this big hairy-arsed guy with his stop sign sees me and yells “Yah, MasterChef!” and all the guys down the line did the same thing.

MP: If you look at the changing attitudes to food in this country, food was very much something that happened in magazines but what’s happened with the rise of people like Donna Hay and magazines like Delicious is now it’s very much about people cooking. You are never going to watch So You Think You Can Dance? and crump in the back garden. But you can watch our show and then sit down with your family and eat something you have seen on it. Jamie, Stephanie, all these people have been pushing down this road for years and suddenly its happening. Food is suddenly being seen as a valid part of our lives.

Q: Famous chefs have been around for a long time. How is it different for today’s celebrity chefs?

GM: Of course it’s different. This is the first food program to go free to air on national TV with an audience that peaked at 4.1 million. Even though it’s a food slash other kind of program, that field of influence is enormous. Let’s not ignore the obvious change in how people are marketed to and how people consume. Chefs today are more of a brand than, let’s say, Keith Floyd was or Margaret Fulton was. It has changed. The market is bigger.

MP: What makes Australia unique is that in other countries food programs like Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares run on secondary channels. Australia has a history of running food programs on prime time mainstream channels. That’s unheard of elsewhere. Australians definitely have an interest in food and cooking as a mainstream mass market thing.

Q: Many of our celebrity chefs are male but the Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that on the whole women are still responsible for the bulk of food planning and preparation. It’s changing but how can we continue to encourage men into the domestic kitchen?

MP: We need more dads coming home at five and less mums coming home at five.
GM: The biggest threat to family life in general is our working week. We work more hours than we have ever done. We all know what it’s like to run to pick up the kids from after care and run home to feed them something quick before bedtime. That’s a struggle.

Q: That leads me to another question. Generally when you ask people why they don’t cook more or cook different meals beyond their usual repertoire, they say they don’t have time. Do you buy that?

GC: It’s laziness. It’s easy to cook. People have this idea that it’s hard to pop a packet of lentils in a pot.

GM: There is a certain amount of education needed but the reality is when you’ve got kids they need to be in bed by 7:30 and often it’s a struggle to get the family meal on the table by 6 or 6:30. Most of the meals I prepare at home have to be something that takes 20 minutes. For a chef and people that know their food that’s easy but for most people who have other skills it’s not easy.

GC: I come from a family with three kids where mum and dad ran a supermarket. They worked really hard to put us all through school. I have vivid memories of us growing up chopping up potatoes and veggies for dinner. When mum would get home she’d finish the rest.

GM: You have a food family.

GC: A family that loves to eat.

GM: You come from a food culture. And middle Australia doesn’t have that.

MP: Middle Australia has lost that. Once I talked to a number of Australia chefs about the relationships they had with their grandmothers. With the older chefs it was fantastic – the stories they told about granny’s sponge. And then when you got to the guys who were in their early twenties it suddenly shifted to stories about granny taking me for my first McDonalds Happy Meal. All those changes with women not wanting to be seen as ‘nanna’. They were skydiving and parachuting, living their own lives.

Q: George, I have a specific question for you. There was a poignant moment in the first series of MasterChef where you were cooking crumbed lamb’s brains and you said your mum used to cook them for you and tell you they were Chicken McNuggets. I laughed when I heard you say that. Being Italian, every ‘wog’ kid has a memory of when they wanted Vegemite sandwiches instead of the food of their own culture. Looking at Australia now, do you think your children will feel the same?

GC: It’s easy for me to sit on the outside and say ‘this is what I am going to do when I have kids’ but I am going to try and do half of what my parents did. And half of what they did would be pretty good. We never ate processed food. We just ate fresh food simply prepared. And this is what upsets me about the ‘I don’t have time’ excuse. Coming home at night, sometimes it is as simple as beating eggs together and adding some fresh parsley and yesterday’s sausages cut up, served with some crusty bread. That’s beautiful. My grandmothers passed that onto my mother and I have to do my best to pass it onto my kids.

GM: This is where things are changing and this is where MasterChef has made a massive difference. I never had convenience food when I grew up and I used to whinge to my mother when I went to friends’ places they used to get ‘bake in the oven’ chips or Findus crispy pancakes. And my mother was cooking lamb stew and I thought I had the worst mother in the world. When I grew up and became a chef I realised I had a great and responsible mum. She was a working mum but she would have got that from her mother. We’ve lost that with the commercialism and everything is so fast and pressured. It’s a shift of mindset. It’s lovely to see that with MasterChef there has been a shift of mindset in the other direction.

Q: What do you say to critics who have a go at you for promoting supermarkets and paper towels on television?

MP: There is this weird notion that if you do something commercial like an advert you have somehow sold out. If I’d somehow made some political statement about a product I’m advertising or about the morality of advertising itself in the past then this would possibly be a legitimate claim, to the best of my recollection I haven’t, so it isn’t!

GC: My involvement with Coles is in relation to fresh produce – everything from Australian lamb to Crystal Bay prawns to broccoli. If we can get people out of the convenience food isles and into the fresh food section then that’s great. No one does nothing for nothing. I am getting paid for it. I have a belief that we need to change supermarkets in this country. Look at supermarkets in the UK and then look at our supermarkets. There is a big problem with supermarkets in Australia. They are crap, they are rubbish. The majority of people in Australia shop at supermarkets. They can’t afford to eat at restaurants all the time or go to high end providores for their food. That’s the reality. If we can change the product they are getting, and I can help do that then I have made a difference that matters. The people who knock that, I don’t care about at the end of the day.

Q: One of the great things about MasterChef is as a viewer you learned about cooking by watching people you could identify with make mistakes. In the first series we saw Poh struggle and then master the deep fried meringue. She taught everyone – including you guys – a thing or two. What’s the latest new thing you’ve learned about cooking?

GC: Poh was inspirational for me. I learned a lot from her.

GM: We learned from all the contestants. They learned off each other too.

MP: Like Lucas’s dish with the silken tofu.

GM: Or tarragon salt from Julie.

MP: What we have discovered from this show is that good food is not a subjective thing. We three might have disagreed once on something – that’s on how much butter you need to put into mashed potato. That’s one disagreement over 800 dishes. That suggests to me that there is such as a thing as good food and bad food.

Q: I have two final questions – a fun one and a series one. Matt, in your book Cravat-a-licious you have a piece on dirty food secrets, food we are a bit ashamed to say we like. Yours seems to be that white squishy sliced bread. Gary and George, care to share yours with us?

GC: Ham and pineapple pizza.

GM: I have so many. I don’t have any qualms about the fact that I love a whole range of things. I love the squishiest, gooiest French cheese. At the same time I will eat a Kraft single and appreciate it for what it is. I am not a purist.

Q: Finally, I want your response to a quote from the second edition of Michael Symons’ One Continuous Picnic, the seminal history of eating in Australia. In that edition, Symons’ wrote “Australians now eat both much better and much worse” than they did twenty years ago. Do you agree?

GM: I would agree with that.

MP: The truth about Australian society is that we are polarized. People either have a huge kitchen, they buy food magazines and watch MasterChef or they have a house with a microwave and that’s it. People are pulling in different directions. And the purpose of this show is to pull as many people as possible over to our side and to show them there is value in cooking, that you can create great food in short periods of time.

GM: There are a lot of lost people out there who know we need to return to values gone by. I know that sounds a bit wanky. But a lot of us know we work too hard and that the 4 wheel drive and the 50 inch plasma shouldn’t be important as they are. It goes back to simple pleasures and food is part of that.

MP: How did Australians become like this? You take the three most laid-back cultures in the world – the Irish, the Greeks and the Italians, you bang them all in a hot climate and we should have a laid back attitude but we don’t.

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas

I know, I know, I haven't blogged for ages. Naughty me.

I am posting the talk to gave this morning at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Despite a bad cold, I had a terrific time; thanks to everyone who came and those who asked terrific questions and talked to me afterwards.

Australian husbands are the worst in the world and why it is women's fault ...

At The Festival of Dangerous Ideas last year, the president of the Islamic Friendship Association Keysar Trad argued that Australians should be open to the idea of legalizing polygyny, a form of polygamous marriage in which a man has more than one wife at the same time. When I heard about Trad’s idea on the radio, I remember thinking that it was a terrible idea. If Australian men could have more than one wife, this would simply lead to more disappointed Australian women. And husbands would have an excuse to do even less work around the home than they do now. And they would be forced to do even longer hours at work than they do now to afford multiple wives.

Men, women and unpaid work is a topic that has intrigued me since I started researching my PhD in the mid 1990s. My thesis looked at, among other things, the changing status of women from the early eighties to the early nineties. What data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics clearly shows is that during this period women’s workforce participation increased but the division of labour in the home remained practically unchanged. Between 1982 and 1992, married women’s labour force participation rose from around 40% to 53% and yet the Bureau found that during this time span married women with children who were employed full-time spent 19% of their day on unpaid work compared to 11% for men.

This was a period that kicked off with the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act. It was a formative time for women’s policy development and women’s involvement in government. A lot was happening for women in the public sphere and yet we were still doing almost as much as we had previously in the private sphere of the home.

It got me thinking; why is it that the balance in the current gendered division of unpaid labour is so difficult to shift. And who or what is to blame?

In researching my 2008 book on food I returned to the ABS data to see what had happened since the early 1990s. The news was still discouraging. The 2006 report, How Australians Use Their Time, shows that for men, the average time per day spent on domestic activities has not changed since 1992; it remains fixed at 1 hour and 37 minutes. Over that same period, the average time women spent daily on domestic activities has declined only ten minutes from 3 hours and 2 minutes in 1992 to 2 hours 52 minutes in 2006.

But (I hear you say) men work longer hours at paid work than women do! Yes but that can’t completely account for the disparity. The ABS tells us in their 2001 report on unpaid work that:

When comparing the time spent on household work by women and men employed full-time, women were more likely than men to participate in unpaid household work (95% compared with 84%) and to spend more time on this work (211 minutes and 153 minutes respectively). In addition, while there was a large difference between the time spent on household work by women employed full-time and those employed part-time, there was little difference in the time spent on this work between men employed full-time and part-time.

So in 2010 we can have a female prime minister but men still won’t put away the laundry.

The deliberately provocative title of this talk was inspired by a recent study by economist Almudena Sevilla Sanz of Oxford University who surveyed 13,500 men and women aged 20 to 45 from twelve countries on their attitudes to gender, housework and childcare responsibilities. Sevilla Sanz ranked Australian men at the bottom of the list of twelve. They don’t just trail behind the usual suspects like the Scandinavian countries but also behind the United States, Japan and Austria. This is significant given that Sevilla Sanz found that women and men living in more gender egalitarian countries are more likely to cohabit or marry (and presumably have children and boost the birth rate). Perhaps we should be giving a bonus to men who do housework rather than to women who have babies.

So are Australian men just lazy? I don’t think so. We know they work hard when they are paid to do so. Are they biologically incapable of housework? I don’t think so, if you consider the greater efforts of their brothers in other countries. Will men’s behaviour change over time, with generational change? To some extent yes, but we can’t pin all our hopes on this, as I will explain later. Is the solution to hire cleaners and buy take away every second night? The latter isn’t a healthy option and the former is only an option for some (I often wonder – who cleans for the cleaners?).

My theory is that the reason why men are so slow at changing is that women have let them get away with too little for too long.

Up until this point I have dazzled you with statistics, but now I want to share with you some qualitative research from the most recent Ipsos Mackay Report on the mind and mood of newlyweds, first home buyers and new parents. Our report, entitled Starting Out, is based on a series of 16 group discussions with Australian men and women ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-30s. The fieldwork was conducted in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Wollongong and Ballarat in July 2010.

Listening to the men and women who were involved in this research, the dissonance between the sexes in their approach to unpaid work in the home was obvious.

The men were excited about the prospect of responsibility for a new home, wife and baby. As one young dad put it:

Having a kid does change your attitude to work. It’s a wake-up call. You want to spend less time at work.

Another new father talked about rejecting the pressure to ‘do the hours’ that was present when he was single. He said:

You did the 13 hour days and you didn’t think about it. Now I get in, work and get out.

Yet for the women, their frustration at their partners’ shortcomings when it came to household chores was palpable. They were keen to discuss the constant negotiation around dividing up the domestic load, the flare-ups and resentments that emerge when one partner is exhausted and the other inadequate and incompetent. One woman captured the mood by saying:

My husband says he’ll help more. But he says, not does.

However as we were listening to these couples speak about their lives, it was never obvious what these women were doing to encourage or coerce their partners to share the load. In some cases it was clear they were fearful of demanding too much, lest it lead to conflict or an outright rejection of their requests. Or worse, there was some evidence some women shut down their partners’ offers of help. Consider this exchange between two friends in one of our groups:

Woman 1: I know a few people where the woman earns more than the man, so the man stays at home with the kids and the woman goes back to work.
Woman 2: Yeah, Craig had a good idea about that one. I said no. One, he can’t cook. Two, he really struggles with the washing machine. Three, now that we’re using cloth nappies I think Lilly would be toilet trained or running around nude!

Poor Craig. Surely learning how to boil some pasta and turn a few dials on the washing machine isn’t beyond him.

Will the division of unpaid work in the home change with time? Will the current crop of young men be different? I believe we can pin some of our hopes on generational change but not all. Reading back through thirty years of research reports written by my predecessor Hugh Mackay, it seems that every decade since the 1970s, mothers have believed their well-educated and empowered daughters will demand that their husbands be better than their fathers. In our first ever report, Mothers and Daughters, written in 1979, the mothers were convinced that their daughters would form better, more equitable marriages. As one mother put it:

My daughter is going to be different when she gets married – she won’t put up with as much as I put up with.

On the other hand, the teen daughters in that report (the 40-something women today) were scathing about their fathers’ contribution around the home but suspected their brothers were going to be much the same. Consider the following comments from that report:

Men are sort of pathetic – my Dad thinks he is great if he washes up.

My brothers are just turning out like Dad – they sit around and let Mum and me do everything.

Back to the statistics; the ABS in their 2006 report found that young men spend an average 4 hours 5 minutes a week on domestic activities, while young women spend, on average 6 hours 46 minutes a week.

I often hear women justify their greater domestic burden on the basis that we are just better at housework, more sensitive to dirt and generally place greater emphasis on neatness and order. Really? Better at cooking? Watch a couple of episodes of Masterchef and think again. Better at cleaning? I have a male cleaner who cleans my house much better than I do. You don’t need a vagina to dust a shelf; in fact I would recommend against it in the interests of hygiene. More concerned about domestic order? That might be the case, but I believe that we have been conditioned to be concerned about that, given the different social expectations and judgments made about messy women compared with messy men (remember the original meaning of the word ‘slut’ was ‘a dirty, untidy, or slovenly woman’).

I believe men can change because we find evidence of this in our research all the time. Our first report of the year was on retirees (a silly name for them as they are some of the most vibrant people we encounter in our work). We discovered a new species of male, which we call ‘The Domestic Grandad’. This is a guy who, perhaps as part of the desire for new adventures or to give back to the family after years in the workforce, is very happy to take on the role of primary homemaker and caregiver. In some instances, this is because his wife is still working or more active socially and he feels it is appropriate to be more hands-on on the domestic front. One man we met spoke of this transformation from breadwinner to homemaker:

My wife was a teacher and was teaching full-time, so we talked about it and I said ‘right, I’ll retire, you continue teaching, I’ll look after the house, the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning and everything else’ and she said ‘that’s fine’.
A former truck driver and ex-Vietnam Veteran spoke of the satisfaction derived from looking after yourself:

Now I am retired I don’t see why she needs to be cooking and cleaning after me. I come home and cook a meal for myself. I’ll do the washing up. I’ll throw stuff in the washing machine. It’s not very hard to do.

So what can women and men do to ensure that we start to change the way we do things at home in order to ensure greater equality and, I would argue, greater domestic harmony?

I would say women have to get better at picking our partners not just for their capacity to protect, provide and procreate but for their skills at child minding, cooking and ironing. Once in a relationship we need to be willing to do two things. First we have to make room for men to do stuff. There is a wonderful moment in the recent rom-com Date Night, in which Tina Fey and Steve Carell play a married couple with kids whose relationship is faltering. At a critical point in the narrative, the wife is complaining vociferously about the stress of work and family life, how she has to do everything for everyone. Her husband responds in a way I believe perfectly encapsulates the predicament of men who want to be better husbands but feel blocked in their efforts by their spouses:

I know you work hard but you know what would make the work ten times easier? Me. If you would just trust me to handle things once and a while, but you don’t. You have to do it all yourself, your way. You have me screwing up before I even have the chance to come through for you. And yes maybe I might buy the wrong toy for the birthday party or make the jam sandwich the wrong way. If you just let me do something for you, I might surprise you.

The second thing if we must feel as if we have the right to ask for what we want.

It seems that we even struggle to do this in our paid working lives; women are notoriously bad at asking for a promotion or a wage increase. It’s like we wish the boss would notice how great we are at our jobs and offer us the perks without us having to ask for them.

Similarly, it seems that women feel as if our husbands should notice all the things that need to be done and do them without us asking. Some men are capable of this but others require direct instructions, at least until they are aware, skilled or trained well enough do chores unprompted.

In addition, we should not run from the argument. I can’t tell you how many times friends, colleagues as well as the women in our research reports, say that they decide to pick up the dirty underwear rather than have an argument about it. That might seem like the easy way out at the time but it’s a martyr’s path and a miserable one at that.

Finally, if this all fails then I feel there is some room for a Lysistrata inspired sex strike. In Aristophanes’ play the women in Greece tried to stop the Peloponnesian War by withholding privileges. Similarly we can decide to shut up shop until all the saucepans are washed.

And what should men do? I believe they should grow up. Stop expecting their wives to be their mothers and start cleaning up after themselves. It’s not rocket science.

And both men and women have to do their best to fight the relentless pressures of our labour market where we seem to work more and more and have less and less time for domestic duties, sport, cooking, holidays, community activities and the beautiful, unhurried moments of life.

Real social change often happens slowly. And yet changes in the way we allocate responsibility for unpaid work are happening at snail-like speed. We are still stuck in 1992 and we can’t afford to be. I believe the quality of our relationships and our family life is at stake.

I should end with a note of thanks to my husband who washed up and put our daughter to bed as I wrote this talk.


In September I hope to have some fantastic new research on MasterChef to share on my blog. And my interview with the three judges for WISH magazine will hopefully be published before this season ends.

In the meantime, I encourage you to read Helen Greenwood's excellent article on MasterChef as well as a recent article in The Australian on the show.

Ok, ok, so they both quote me but what's a blog for if not for shameless self promotion?

This month's Vogue

In Vogue, out this week, I have a piece on family secrets. This is just part of an ongoing process of writing a family memoir.

As part of my thinking about the role and impact of family secrets I interviewed Anne Hollonds, CEO of Relationships Australia. Anne is always a thoughtful and balanced opinion leader in the area of our relationships.

Here is a transcript of my interview with her for that piece.

V: Do you find lots of people come to Relationships Australia with issues about family secrets?

AH: It wouldn’t be unusual to find people in a new relationship who haven’t fessed-up about something that happened in a previous relationship. These days generally there is a greater degree of openness about things generally, whether it’s coming out and telling people you are gay. Because social norms aren’t as rigid as they used to be. The more rigid the belief systems are in any family – if they are very religious or prescriptive about what should and shouldn’t be done – then it’s more likely there are going to be secrets because people feel what they are doing is unacceptable or might caused trouble or might upset somebody and so they keep things to themselves.

V: What would you advice be to, let’s say, a mother who had a personal secret and wanted to reveal that to her child after a long period of time? How should you go about revealing a family secret?

AH: It depends on what it is. It all depends on what the issues are, what the circumstances are, how old the child is and so forth. It also depends on the kind of family. If the family is one where things are talked about openly and they are pretty relaxed then it might be something you just always talk about and there doesn’t need to be a moment of revelation as such. It becomes part of the family story. If that’s not the case, then you really need to consider the level of maturity of the child. Around sixteen years of age is a good time in that they are already thinking about these things anyway.

V: Yes, they are probably at that stage where they are trying to work out their parents as people.

AH: Yes, that’s true. And also they might be mature but they might be going through some difficult personal times themselves so you probably wouldn’t want to load that onto them then. If there are some things that you have never gotten around to telling your kids and you should consider telling them in their early twenties. They are adults and the sooner they know the better and the risk of not talking about things honestly is that they may feel quite betrayed and question the basis of trust in the relationship. You do hear of people finding things out after one parent has died, the other parent discloses something and that can be a shock but it doesn’t mean you can’t recover from the shock. The more open and honest you are, the better it is for the relationship. It may take a bit of getting over in the first instance. There never is a perfect time to disclose things.

V: Can you imagine a situation where a family secret should be left alone?

AH: On the whole the more you disclose the better. That doesn’t equate with ‘you must say everything’. You don’t necessarily tell your partner every single thought that passes through you might. You might have a one-night stand and never tell them but if you repeatedly do that then that becomes a pattern and can create a wedge between you. It’s often a sign that you are living a separate life. If there are more and more things that are hard to talk about, it usually spells death for the relationship.

20 Questions on New Matilda

Check out my attempt to be witty and intelligent in 20 questions on the fantastic site newmatilda.

And yes I do update my own facebook page albeit I am not blogging as much as I should.

Mind and Mood April 2010

Twice a year Ipsos Mackay produces our Mind & Mood study. Our April version was released last week to clients and features in a story by George Megalogenis in The Australian today.


After finishing the fieldwork for this report, all the researchers were struck by the contrast between the Mind and Mood report we did in early 2007 and this report.

In 2007, all groups were showing signs of engagement with political issues and discussing the impending contest between Howard and Rudd. Here’s a snippet from that report:

We are finding a small but significant shift towards re-engagement with political and social concerns, partly sparked in part by the revitalisation of the environmental debate. Whilst participants in this study were rarely inclined to reveal their party of choice in the forthcoming federal election, there is a strong belief that at least there will be a choice this time around and that the election will be a genuine contest. For some who have been politically adrift over the last decade, there is a palpable feeling that politics has suddenly become interesting again. They are paying attention.

Rudd is a real contender. Before we had that fat bastard who made us fall asleep.

Federal politics has suddenly become a topic, after years of it not being a topic so much. I don’t talk much with my parents about it but when I recently went down to Melbourne to see them, we did, because it has suddenly become interesting. There is a real contest now. It’s not just because it is an election year.

Whilst some participants debated the personal strengths and deficiencies of Howard versus Rudd, the respective policies industrial relations and environment politics of Labor and the Coalition also evoked interest.

I think [John Howard] stuffed up with two things – IR and greenhouse. With greenhouse, suddenly everyone got interested and he hasn’t kept up. With IR, he has bitten off more than he could chew. He misread that. The environment, he has never been interested in that. And neither has the public until recently. With greenhouse he hasn’t changed, but the public has changed. With IR, he wanted change but the public didn’t.

In 2007, discussion about party politics merited an entire chapter in the report. This year it barely filled a paragraph as an afterthought in Chapter 1. There was some lively discussion centred on Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard however. Here are a couple of quotes about them from our recent report:

Man 1: I think Abbott was elevated quicker than even he expected to be. It certainly surprised me.
Man 2: The Libs are split down the middle and Tony Abbott put his hand up. He’s done better than anyone thought.

Man 1: Julia Gillard is a surprise package. It was a marriage of convenience between her and Rudd, but she’s got leadership written all over her
Man 2: Yeah, she’s a doer all right
Man 3: She’s a very intelligent woman. She’s tough too. Kevin Rudd will have to be careful

A future Abbott versus Gillard contest will be one Australians might perk up for.

For Mind & Mood fieldwork this time, I conducted groups in Melbourne but also Ballarat. It was my first visit to the town and it was just lovely, grander than I had anticipated but then I realised walking around that the beautiful buildings and wide streets suited its heritage as a gold town. I conducted a group at the Ballarat East Community Men’s Shed. See their link:

Among many other things, they make wooden objects. See here for a list:

I bought one of their newer products, a doll’s bed for my daughter’s second birthday.

One of the nicer aspects of my job is the chance to discover towns in regional Australia, meet and listen to the people that live there. As someone who lives most of her life in an inner-city, bourgeois bubble, these trips provide an important reality check.

Meal planning … have we lost the art?

I have blogged before about a report I was involved in last year called ‘Last Night’s Dinner’. One of the findings from the report was that most meal preparers only start to plan what they will have for dinner on any given night in the middle of the same day. Only Monday and Sunday main meals receive more time and attention, with Sunday dinner traditionally being an occasion for the family to gather together for a special meal like a roast. As the week goes on we tend to plan less and cook less, in part to do with our paid work commitments.

If you look at the chart from the report at the end of this post, depending on the dish, only 20% of less of us plan for a dish several days before we cook it.

I am a huge advocate of meal planning. I will get to the reasons in the minute but I thought I’d explain (or brag perhaps) about my meal planning process.

Every day Wednesday or Thursday night (depending on other commitments), I collect pen, shopping list and whatever cook book or torn-out-of-magazine recipes I have around. I check my schedule. What’s the next week going to be like? How many dinners do I need to prepare? How much time will I have? Lots of late nights or social commitments or not? I then work out how many dinners I will need to prepare and what types (quickies or those that are a bit more elaborate). I then start browsing through the cook books. I want a balance of red meat, chicken and seafood meals with at least one meat-less option. Once I have the weekly menu set, I write my shopping list. I check the pantry as well to see if I have any of the staples required.

I do this without fail every week. It sounds terribly anal, the height of food nerdyness but there are good reasons.

Number 1: I hate food waste. (Paraphrasing Nigella Lawson, I am always extravagant but never wasteful). If you know what you are cooking, you are much better positioned to only buy what you need. Furthermore, the more recipes you have in your repertoire, the easier it is to work out what to do with 4 eggplants that need to be cooked today or else.

Number 2: Life is too short to spend it in the supermarket. Even though I love browsing supermarket shelves for research purposes, most weeks I am doing the shopping at night after a long day or with a toddler who may well lose it once the babyccino has been polished off. So I like to know what I am doing and don’t have time to waste in the isles food planning on the run.

Number 3: I like to mix up what I make. Before the days of meal planning, I found that dinner often defaulted to pasta and sauce and my diet wasn’t as varied as it could have been. Planning allows me to think ahead about making different kinds of dishes and also helps me make sure I have the right mix of red meat, white meat, seafood and veggie dishes.

Number 4: I like to know what I am doing. Meal planning means the end of wondering mid-afternoon ‘what should we have for dinner?’ No more trying to remember whether there is risotto rice at home or not, spending way too much on risotto rice at the local deli and then returning home to discover you actually have 3 packets of the stuff. Planning saves you time, money and angst.

So why don’t we plan more? Maybe it’s because we feel our weeks are so hectic and stressful, that even if we did plan our meals, we may not feel like making them when the time comes. Or that our schedules are such moveable feasts that planning is a futile exercise. This is understandable. I often have to rethink the weekly meal plan in light of changing arrangements, but then again I always plan a few meals around ingredients that will last beyond the week (frittatas for example) or meals that can be frozen to be enjoyed another time.

Weekly meal preparation is, like restaurant cooking, a skill and a discipline. For many of us it seems, it is also a joy (only 18% of respondents in the research for ‘Last Night’s Dinner’ reported that cooking was a chore). So even thought planning to make something next week might seem to be premature, if you do like to cook, just trust once you get there, if you know what you are doing, it will probably happen.

If you plan for it, you will cook.