Thursday, January 26, 2006

Tall poppy syndrome

January 25

Selina Kayman, one of my favorite Australians and a former producer for NBC's Weekend Today show, told my about what Australians call "tall poppy syndrome," in which someone who tries to rise above the crowd, like a tall poppy is quickly chopped down.
This, she told me, is an important part of egalitarian Australian society, in which you're not supposed to put on airs, act arrogantly or otherwise make a big fuss about yourself.
Ah, but America's different, she told me. Here, you're supposed to be self-aggrandizing and boastful. You're supposed to toot your own horn. You have to be a self-marketer.
This is what she'd heard about the United States when she moved here. So she wrote the most arrogant letter she could imagine about herself. She wrote that she was absolutely the most fantastic television producer ever to come out of Australia and that NBC would be downright foolish not to hire her, or something to that effect.
It worked, she was hired. She stayed for several years and then went home to Australia, where she has a son, Jake. He's 11 months old and just as cute as a button.
I know that because I saw a picture of him today. Selina's husband Simon is a publicist who still spends a fair amount of time in New York, where he promotes Australian products. Today he was working on a press lunch at Le Bernardin called Flavours of the Outback.
An Australian wine company brought in chef Andrew Fielke to do a tasting of indigenous Australian foodstuffs, much of it wild, uncultivated and still probably pretty much like it's been since the Australian aboriginals started eating it as early as 60,000 years ago.
To give you an idea of how long a period of time that is, Neanderthals are believed to have gone extinct just 30,000 years ago.
Australians have been promoting this stuff for awhile. I first saw it in 1997, when I lived in Thailand and met chef Jean-Paul Bruneteau, who was visiting from Sydney. I sampled sea trout wrapped in paperbark and flavored with muntries, potato soup with aniseed myrtle, and kangaroo steak in a sauce flavored with Tasmanian pepper berries.
Today, Fielke prepared a multicourse lunch, but first he walked us through a tasting of the indigenous products he brought along. Some of them were unique and had intriguing aromas and tastes, certainly a welcome addition to the global pantry. Others, mostly tiny, berrylike things, tasted like mere whispers of the fruits that we've cultivated and, if you ask me, improved on over the millennia. Some were inedibly astringent, others were pasty and bland. Some no-doubt had suffered from being frozen or otherwise manhandled during their long journey from Down Under, but some clearly just weren't very good.
Fielke described them all in glowing terms, and used words like "fantastic" and "beautiful" a lot, as though saying it would make it so. I think that he, too, had been told about the need to be a tall poppy in the United States. But finger limes, kakadu plums and bunya nuts are not tall poppies, and pretending they are takes away from the glory of the truly interesting olida, lemon myrtle, wattle seed and pepperleaf.
The presentation reminded me of the Australian olive oil producers who accosted me at a trade show once with declarations of how far superior their olive oil was to anything anyone in Europe had ever dreamed of making. It also reminded me of the Australian food writers who were on a trip to Greece with me and, when asked, as representatives from every country were, to talk for a few minutes about food trends in their country, went on for 20 minutes about how far superior the food in Australia was to anything that was coming out of North America ("Tetsuya's food brings Charlie Trotter to his knees!").
Tall poppies that silly don't even deserve to be chopped down.

What I ate:
Australian tasting plate of sugar cured barramundi and desert lime dill mustard dressing, yabby bisque with coconut lemon myrtle foam, oysters with finger lime "caviar," bunya nut hummus, marron tail in tomato-sweet pepperleaf gelée
Tasmanian ocean trout baked in paperbark with lemon aspen beurre blanc
Australian beef brisket braised in palm sugar master stock and served with Thai herb and mints salad with rivermint dressing
Australian cheeses with aniseed myrtle figs and pepperberry lavosh

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