Marshmallow, Masterchef, Magnificence

Beauty is symmetrical. At least, the scientists seem to think so. Listening to physicist Frank Wilczek on the latest episode of the wonderful podcast On Being, the definition begins to broaden. Humans seek symmetrical beauty everywhere, from the majestic shape of the cosmos, to our systems of justice and ethics. For beauty is not only in aesthetics, but also in our concepts of right and wrong. Beauty is balanced and fair. So it is with food. 

I am a food fetishist. Although my love of food pornography doesn’t extend to sexual longing, it certainly ascends to a spiritual comfort. I am a sucker for a fashionable food fad, the kind that flames out before the meal leaves the frying pan.  Quinoa, kale, protein balls, and the apparently messiah-like chia seed: they’ve all taken pride of place in my kitchen over the last few years. I feel better for it, but I don’t know if this is because of the supposed superhero health benefits, or if it’s just the cheap thrill of being part of the ‘in’ crowd. I’m a hussy if nothing else, after all.

The effervescent lift that comes from gazing through a colourful cookbook, resplendent in the artificial alchemy that is food photography, is akin to reading the illuminates of medieval manuscripts. Each tome feels sacred, fresh and alive. A window into a lifestyle that is only a quick nip to Woolworths away (along with a grocery bill that would make any sensible baby boomer splutter and pass out). 

But while I was flicking through a particularly millennial, and dare I say, Sydney cook book this weekend, even I had to put it down in frustration when I discovered the dessert chapter. It was filled with fruity smoothies, raw cacao balls and cakes that included whey protein as a key ingredient. If I was at someone’s house, promised desert, and found myself in front of something sprinkled with bird seed, I’d call bullshit. I may even, depending on how much organic wine or alcoholic kombucha tea I’ve swallowed, call the host a wanker.

Because food is beautiful. And beautiful is balance. So I’ll take my dessert with sugar and actual chocolate, thank you very much. 

Continuing my frankly filthy affair with marshmallow, my wife and I descended to the carnal delights of a Donna Hay s’more biscuit sandwich. 

Imagine this. Two chewy chocolate biscuits, the outside crust just set, hiding a thick, rich dark and buttery paste within them. They’re dusted in malt biscuit crumbs. They look like asteroids from outer space. A thin smothering of melted chocolate (God’s liquor) across their bellies. Two marshmallows - one feathery pink, the other snow white - are rested between them. And then, with this sugary sweet stack in your hands, you gently squish. The heat makes the marshmallow melt, and the result is the eruption of a glossy ooze. When you put it in your mouth, you almost instantly contemplate death. You are so certain that life can never be better. The flatly bitter chocolate, the sticky biscuit, the sweet snot of the marshmallow. Congratulations, you have now seen God. 

It was a treat. A weekly baking experience that is quickly becoming a tradition. On that particular evening the biscuits were accompanied by a tasty, but undeniably healthy, dinner. A brown rice stir fry, strewn with brussel sprouts, pineapple doused in ginger and a thin dusting of chilli. It was a ridiculous menu, but it was balanced, and beautiful. 

As a food pornographer, I’m a sucker for Masterchef. And while I’ve abstained from regular viewing for the last handful of seasons, the gargantuan marketing campaign, complete with celebrity names like Saint Nigella Lawson and Mad Uncle Heston Blumenthal - pulled me in. 

It’s television junk food, and probably not in a good way. When I sat down for the Sunday premiere, I was quickly reminded of the reasons why I’d abandoned the show for a few years. There’s just too many elements that make me feel…uncomfortable.

There’s the reality television adherence to formula that you can almost recite with your eyes closed. Contestants cry over their dead relatives. There are some over ambitious cooks whose dishes flop. There’s the excited proclamation from the judges, ‘This is the best xxx we’ve ever had on Masterchef.’ There’s the teary relatives. The gluttonous five nights a week programming. The EXACT SAME half a dozen music cues that Channel Ten insists on hanging onto. (Honestly, you guys can afford to commission a composer for at least another half a dozen.) These are all irritating, but forgivable. 

The most irksome part are the judges. A large portion of the show is made up of watching three white men in expensive suits eat whatever is brought to them. The show’s contestants span genders, religions and races, but the judging line-up hasn’t changed since the show’s conception.  The blokey, stern affection the judges give their male apprentices is only slightly less skin-crawly than the eagerness with which they take the young female contestants ‘under their wing’. 

There is no greater metaphor for privilege, for Australia as whole, than three white Aussie blokes supplied with an infinite amount of the best food in the world. And we sit and watch as entertainment. 

The contestants and food, meanwhile, have become downright Olympian in their ambition and skill.  Any notions of your average ‘home cook’ being an entrant on the show are now ridiculous. On Sunday’s premiere, Matt Preston praised a contestant for their dish that was at ‘the next level’ but he was relatively unimpressed with technical elements such as a tuile as this was ‘just what home cooks do now.’ 

What the fuck’s a tuile? 

Balance is beauty. And while Masterchef is a well-made show that’s wonderful fun to watch, it’s not beautiful. And just as porn doesn’t represent sex, Masterchef, one of the country’s most popular television events, doesn’t represent food. 

But we are all guilty of a little ugliness. I am, after all, a privileged white male, who can run to the grocery store at any time and make anything my palate desires. I teach teenagers in neighbourhoods where this privilege isn’t prolific. They attend their weekly drama classes chugging down on a half litre of coke from the neighbourhood evil food conglomerate. It’ll be the third or fourth of the day.  The word ‘diabetes’ isn’t in their vocabulary. Yet. Neither is risotto, sashimi or, for that matter, tuile. And if they’re unfortunate enough to see the occasional glimpse of Masterchef as their sole piece of food education, it’ll only prove to them that cooking is an intimidating skill designed for a special few. 

Not that Masterchef should hold itself to being responsible for the nutritionally under educated. But Masterchef viewing, like everything, should be part of a balanced diet. Eating beautifully is the cornerstone of a healthy and fulfilled life, and I am too frequently the victim of my own imbalance. The spectacular should be balanced with the humble, the rigorous health diet with the spontaneous over-indulgence. And all should be balanced with the occasional mindful observation of our own privileges and tastes. A sweet, sincere utterance of gratitude for this beautiful life.