Published in The Sun-Herald, 13/1/2008 by David Dale.
"Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are," said the French philosopher Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826. "A strong cup of tea and an iced Vo Vo" said the Australian politician Kevin Rudd in 2007, suggesting how to celebrate Labor's election victory. So that's what he thinks of us?
Well of course not. Rudd was parodying the traditional teatime of the 1950s for which John Howard held such nostalgia. If he'd meant to describe this nation in the Noughties, Rudd would have said "a skim latte and two Tim Tams".
Our coffee consumption (2.4 kg per person per year) is more than double our tea consumption. The Tim Tam (invented in 1964) outsells the Vo Vo (invented in 1906) more than ten to one. In fact, Australians eat 380 million of the insidious cuboids a year.
But that's not to say we're a nation of bikkiephiliacs. Our annual consumption rate of 7kg of biscuits per person falls well behind the American rate of 9kg per person. Nor are we a nation of chocoholics — the average Australian consumes 4.4kg of chocolate a year, while the British eat 9.2kg each a year and the Swiss consume 11.3kg each.
So if we're not chocolate biscuits, what are we? According to a survey of 1700 eaters by the economic analysts Bis Shrapnel, we're sangers and chips. Look at this chart:
Australia's most purchased takeaway foods: 1 Sandwiches; 2 Hot chips; 3 Hamburgers; 4 Cakes/ pastries; 5 Chinese food; 6 Pizza; 7 Fried or grilled fish; 8 Ice cream; 9 Meat pies; 10 Filled rolls.
Apparently every Australian buys 20 sandwiches and 18 orders of potato chips a year, as part of an expenditure of $9 billion on 1.4 billion takeaway meals – up 3 per cent on the early Noughties.
To me, this news is more depressing than the notion we might be the land of tea and Vo Vos. I've nothing against the chip, but I must confess a bias against the sandwich that began when my mother got into the habit of sending me to school with white bread slices squashed round spaghetti from a tin.
Spaghetti sandwiches have no swapping value and by lunchtime they're so soggy your thumb goes straight through them. Now that I'm grown up, I will never eat a sandwich again, not even when it's disguised with a trendy name like focaccia.
Obviously millions of Australians were never traumatised by their school lunches. The only good news in the Bis Shrapnel survey is that over this decade our consumption of sandwiches and chips has remained static (the way they do in the gut), while our order of Chinese takeaways has risen from six a year in the early Noughties to nine now. Chinese is apparently most popular with eaters over 35, while sushi is the Asian choice for people aged 18 to 24 and Thai for people between 25 and 35. That sounds pretty progressive.
Now back to the bad news: Hamburgers are declining in popularity, while rolls are rising (reflected in Subway outlets – 851 of them — now outnumbering McDonald's outlets).
I don't care how they dress them up, filled rolls are still a form of sandwich. It would take only the slightest hint of economic downturn for unscrupulous operators to start filling them with tinned spaghetti. And then society would be on the toboggan.