FOOD: Apr 05, AU Edition

Eli Jameson says the best way to keep kids slim is to run them around – not tax their snacks
We Australians are a funny lot: we are either fiercely individualist and independent, reflecting the best of our settler virtues, or we curl up in a ball, scream “it’s all too hard!” and demand that the government come in and pass a law to solve our problem-of-the-moment.
This second instinct – which threatens to make Australia have more in common with California than just wine and weather – is kicking in more and more often these days. With an alleged “obesity crisis” in the news seemingly every week, an unholy alliance of journalists and public health professionals have teamed up, demanding that Something. Be. Done.
Up until recently, the focus has been largely on “junk” food and its advertising, and in a country with no guaranteed right to freedom of speech, there has not been much outcry at the idea of banning companies (specifically sinister American ones) from promoting their products and making them seem as attractive as possible. After all, the reasoning goes, if Australian kids aren’t subjected to all that evil advertising for maccas and other unhealthy foods, they’ll all of a sudden turn into those mythical European kids we hear so much about who skip to school with lunch pails full of roast squab, farmhouse bread, and little flagons of extra virgin olive oil.

Lately, though, the debate has taken a new and potentially expensive turn. The co-director of something called the NSW Centre for Public Health Nutrition, Karen Webb, has recently come out with a proposal that the government step in and regulate the price of food. “There needs to be some pricing regulation for lower energy-dense food versus the unhealthier alternative,” she recently told Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph. “In some areas, it is obvious there is a problem – for example, soft drinks are cheaper than milk.” Of course, this is not the sinister conspiracy Webb makes it out to be: mixing cornsyrup and water and getting it to market is a lot easier and cheaper than maintaining and milking a herd of cows and getting their perishable produce into refrigerated shelves.
There was a time when sane people would hear that some academic was trying to tax them into changing their eating habits, and they’d respond in a calm and clear voice that World War II-era rationing was over, and perhaps you’d just like to wait here while the men in white coats come? Yet, amazingly, Webb’s argument seems to have support: the Australian Medical Association, among others, has come out and said it would get behind the idea. After all, fat people have higher medical bills, higher medical bills are paid for by the taxpayer, therefore the taxes are just a way of making sure the large pay their fair share, and so on.
Of course, it’s also just another way to encourage the notion that everything one does as an individual, even what one eats, is the business of everyone else, including the state – and ignores the fact that “the personal is political” is not just a bad bumper sticker, but also a really bad idea in practice. The last thing we need are Cuba’s infamous block captains checking up on the contents of our fridges.
The reasons some kids are fat in this country are easy enough to see, and using taxes and levies to monkey with the prices of various foods will change nothing except the government’s bank balance. It’s hard to imagine the price point at which an over-indulged kid’s parent would stop fattening his or her offspring like a foie gras goose and start buying from the local wholefoods cooperative: would $8 for a Big Mac be too much? How about $12?
No, the problem isn’t that healthy food is too expensive, thus kids are too fat, and therefore a whole new government institution needs to be spawned to fix the problem. In fact, with a minimum of time, knowledge and skill, fresh fruit and vegetables can be found and cooked, often for far less than something pre-prepared.
Webb and other healthy-living advocates ignore the fact that there’s a lot more to an individual’s food choices, be he rich or poor, than sheer economics.
It’s that nobody makes their kids get out and do anything: everything from parental terror over drugs, booze and “stranger danger” to regulations such as bike helmet laws which make healthy activities that much more marginally difficult have turned Australia into a country where parents would rather let their kids sit around and play with their X-box, “so at least I know where they are and can keep an eye on them”.
And there’s a bigger point, too, that is often missed in this sort of discussion. It’s that no matter how much one likes fat-free food or organic food or expensive gourmet food, sometimes a Big Mac just tastes good. And no amount of tax is going to change that.
THIS 389 IS A 10
To hear the marketing boffins tell it, Australia’s vintners haven’t had a bad year for ages (or at least since they came on the job). If you believe the press releases – a.k.a. “tasting notes” – every vintage is a stand-out classic that’s destined for the cellar, and can just as easily be opened with tonight’s steaks as put away for the eighteenth birthday of a child who hasn’t even been conceived yet. So when Theresa at my local bottleshop told me the ’02 Penfold’s “Bin” range was tipped to be as good as those of the 1996 vintage, I was skeptical.
I shouldn’t have been. Especially at the higher end of the range, Penfold’s has come out with some real standouts this year – especially their Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon and their Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz blend (famously referred to as “poor man’s Grange”). Unlike some of their offerings of recent years, which I feel have often been over-oaked or over-fruited or otherwise just somehow out of balance, these manage to hit just about every note right, right now. One can only imagine how they’ll be in ten years time.
Although Penfold’s claims, in an admirable moment of honesty, that the 407 is a bit closed and needs a few years to open up, I found that after a really good swirl in the glass, it woke up and filled my nose with multiple layers of cabernet fruit. Even better, though, was the 389: I got started seriously drinking red wine in the early 1990s and, when I could afford it, 389 was my favourite. The 2002 vintage instantly reminded me why this was, as the fruit and oak are so elegant and perfectly matched that if they could enter “Dancing With the Stars”, they’d win hands down.
The rest of the range is good, too, with the Bin 138 being an easy-drinking favorite, full of approachable Grenache grapes that could make even die-hard white drinkers put the chardy back in the fridge.