Tonight, I could eat Thai, Portuguese, Japanese, Italian, Indian, Korean, French, Afghan, Egyptian, Indonesian, Mexican, Spanish, Argentinian, Greek, Eastern European, Jewish, Lebanese or several regional Chinese cuisines. The place is so full of ethnic restaurants, I don't know where to look.
But if I am an average Melburnian, I probably won't eat any of them. I'll probably go to the supermarket and buy a box with a photograph of a meal on it containing a frozen food-like substance made in a factory and take it home and microwave it and sit in front of the television and watch The Biggest Loser or maybe heat up a jar of glop and tip it over some gluey spaghetti and call it pasta or order a takeout cardboard carton containing a disc of flat burnt dough with ham and pineapple on it and call it pizza.
If you don't doubt that there has been, over several decades, a net loss of cooking skills and food culture, take a look at the trolleyloads of packaged junk and slabs of Coke lining up at checkouts in the supermarket. And take a look at the people pushing them while you're there.
Our mothers shopped like that? Oh no, they didn't. They didn't look like that either.
The cover story in yesterday's weekly Epicure section in The Age savages current standards of culinary knowledge. Richard Cornish interviews food writer Jennifer McLagan, who takes a dim view of what people know today about food and cooking. Her book Cooking on the Bone: Recipes, History and Lore talks about the problem in relation to the cooking of meat, but there's no doubt it applies to all types of cooking.
"A few years back now, I had made an oxtail dish for a photographic shoot and afterwards the photographer, who was in his late 20s or early 30s, tasted the oxtail and asked me how to make it. To which I replied, 'Oh, just the same way you make a stew.' His answer alarmed me: 'How do you make a stew?' ... It was then I went, 'Whoah, What's going on? These people don't know how to make a stew?'"
OK, so one arty stew ignoramus doesn't make a summer of food idiots. But it's more than that. McLagan sees the loss of generations of accumulated knowledge:
"Eating is one of the most important things that anybody can do. You need to eat and you need to eat well, and you really should be cooking for yourself. This is a skill that is close to totally disappearing ... We teach our kids how to balance their chequebooks at school but not how to feed themselves. We're putting people out into the world today without cooking life skills because their parents are working and did not show them how to cook. They'll have never tasted a roast, an osso buco, a homemade stock. They will have no memory of them. Within a generation these recipes and dishes and techniques could be lost."
But we think we're enlightened because we can buy a jar of Simon Johnson sumac ... for about $10. Perhaps the vast array of international ingredients glistening on the shelves is blinding us to the fact that the food skill-set of the vast majority of the population is seriously tanking.
Incidentally, Epicure's new editor ironically recalls - in the same edition that carries the above story - her childhood in which she was part of 'the vast majority of an Australian population force-fed at home on the inevitable lamb chop and three boiled veg served with buttered, white, sliced bread.'
The image of a 1950s Australian culinary wasteland is a tired cliche that is frequently wheeled out by journalists, like a senescent aunt. It has been done to death like an overcooked turkey. Plus, I resent it. Chops and three 'veg' (I hate shortened words) were never on high rotation in the house of my childhood, but irrespective of that, any dinner plate with three vegetables on it is going to be a whole lot healthier than the pre-packaged rubbish parents are 'force-feeding' - to use the editor's term - their children today; when they're not taking them out for chicken nuggets, that is.
McLagan's analysis is closer to the mark. Generations of food skills are going down the drain, and that is a far worse scenario facing our children than growing up without the world's cuisines to pick and choose from.