You can’t step off a plane in Australia without someone rushing up to boast about the excellence of the nation’s restaurants. Forget Paris, New York, Rome. Eating out in Australia is the best in the world. Not only that, but nowhere else offers such a variety of culinary traditions. The tiniest and most remote place on the globe seems to be represented somewhere in Australia by a restaurant.
Food is food, not history. So whatever a country’s unsavoury history, it is no reason not to appreciate its cooking. Australians blithely dine on the cuisine of a country that, if it had had its way, would now be ruling them from Tokyo. The millions slaughtered by Mao have caused no loss of appetite for the various cuisines of China. German food is less popular, but that is not because of the horrors of Nazism; it is because it is seen by the self-obsessed to be stodgy and unhealthy. Nachos and paella are consumed with no qualms about Spain’s brutal empire. Mussolini might not have existed for all Australia’s spaghetti-eaters care. As for Pol Pot – have you heard about the really groovy little Cambodian place down by the harbour?
Food is not history, except in the case of one country, which a certain loud minority of Twitter-babbling Australians is incapable of regarding with the sane cosmopolitan detachment they imagine themselves to show towards the rest of the world. That country is Great Britain, fons et origo of Australia’s national institutions and of the forebears of most of its population. And still, to the chagrin of some people, seat of its monarchy.
Great Britain has on its history the indelible blot of not only having had an empire like the Germans and Japanese, but of having had an empire that – thanks to two generations of Marxist-derived indoctrination in schools and universities – is now known to have been just about the greatest force of evil in the history of the universe. There’s no point in saying other empires have been worse. Australians can’t argue rationally where the British are concerned. Of course many British loathe their empire as well. But in Australia the hatred instilled by post-colonialist history courses is compounded by the chippy republican anti-Britishness long present in this country, inherited from Irish immigrants of the nineteenth century.
So when, in the course of widening ever further the horizons of Australia’s culinary appropriation, a restaurant opens in Brisbane calling itself the British Colonial Co. and announcing as its inspiration ‘the stylish days’ of the British Empire, there are shrieks of protest from the self-appointed sages of social media. The offence is compounded by the new restaurant’s description of its cuisine as reflecting the ‘exotic’ dishes brought back by ‘imperial travellers from the Caribbean, India, the Far East and Africa’.
Before long, it was being called ‘racist’. By choosing a colonial theme, according to one historically illiterate user of the restaurant’s Facebook page, the restaurant has ‘romanticised colonisation with no respect to the fact that generation (sic) greatly suffered in Australia because of it.’ A wit chimed in, suggesting a visit to the restaurant if you are ‘in the mood for imperialism and genocide for dinner’. Someone called Reuben Acciano, a ‘social media manager’, boasted, ‘I fixed British Colonial Co.’s ad for them’. Like a street graffitist, his infantile intervention consisted of daubing words such as ‘genocidal’ and ‘enslavement’ over an image of the restaurant’s homepage, and adding the phrase ‘plundered culinary traditions’. That’s pretty rich in a country like Australia with no national cuisine of its own.
The British Colonial Co., as is always the way, has caved. It has now replaced its website text with some blather about ‘the adventure of east meets west’ and says it is ‘upset and saddened’ that its ‘brand is causing offence and distress to some members of the community’. This is touchingly naïve. These ‘members of the community’ take offence in their sleep. They don’t really care about anyone who has ‘greatly suffered’ under colonialism or any other oppression, past or present.
The British Colonial Co. should have the courage of its convictions and carry on as it began. There are still plenty of people in Australia, a majority even, who admire Britain and its traditions. ‘Nothing wrong with being proud of the Empire. Britain did more to elevate the standard of living in more places around the world than any of the natives ever did,’ said one brave soul on Facebook, impervious to the risk of vituperation.
The fury will soon subside as the offended transfer their outrage to something else as easily as they move from cuisine to cuisine. History too has moved on from the empire at the heart of the fuss. The sun used to never set on it. Now it never sets on those who rage against it.