Sunday, June 19, 2005

Things to do with food courts. Yesterday, Gemma and I had a food court lunch. She had potato wedges with sour cream and sweet chilli sauce. I had a small combination butter chicken and rogan josh with saffron rice. We had been wondering if there's been any academic work done on food courts. I bet Meaghan Morris had a stab at it. I did a bit of a web search but I couldn't find anything specific, although I found this list of general mall-related resources.

I researched shopping centres for my thesis because I was discussing consumerism and femininity in Kath & Kim. What a fucking disgrace that chapter was; but let's not dwell on that. Basically, I'm aware of the standard arguments about privatisation of public space and gendered consumption patterns. And we all know from the movie Mallrats and the recent business about hoodies that the mall is also a site for surveillance of young people and moral panic surrounding their public congregation (panic which centres around people using consumer space without spending money).

The food court is made for hanging out; and its component structure seems to complicate the mall's panoptic regime. Each food outlet is independent, adjacent to the rest but not associated with them. And the people sitting and eating in the common space can buy as much or as little food as they want, and take as much time over it as they want, because unlike other restaurants, the food court outlets have no control over the consumption of their product. "If you were bulimic, you could easily binge without drawing attention to yourself," said Gemma.

I'm also interested in the faux-cosmopolitanism of the food court. I remember the first food court I ever went to, at Box Hill Central in the late 1980s. It had a sandwich place that also served roast meats, a fish and chippery, a hot dog/baked potato place, an icecream place, and another place called "Asian Gourmet Affair". Nowadays we're accustomed to being able to choose from a basic selection of "ethnic" foods - an Italian place, a Mexican place, a Middle Eastern kebab place, an Indian place.

Then there are places like Ong's Food Court, an all-Asian basement which had Vietnamese, Chinese, Malay/Indian and Thai. Apparently it's modelled on the "hawker food courts" that you find in Singapore and Malaysia. And there are the hybrid food courts at fresh food markets, where stalls that sell ready-prepared meals - especially delis, juice bars and bakeries - sit side by side with stalls selling food you can take away and cook yourself.

At last year's CSAA conference, I heard a fascinating paper that focused on laksa as a diasporic dish. It talked about the dish's origins as a Straits speciality, and thus already hybridised, and drew on depth interviews with migrants from Asia to Australia: how they learned to cook laksa; how they built food-related businesses in Australia and how the locals took to them. I was thinking about this because one interviewee actually started the first "Asian" food stall at the Adelaide market back in the 1970s.

I think this kind of research is vital to understanding the food court as an imagined space of cosmopolitanism; as an encounter with the Other through bland, bain-marie fodder. In Kath & Kim, this is a source of comedy - Kath fancies herself sophisticated by consuming "cinos" and "ham and cheese pinatas". I am loath to buy into the recent inner/outer suburb divide (inner suburb=thoughtful, self-reflexive consumer/outer suburb=thoughtless, voracious consumer), and the very thought of my thesis topic now fills me with a curious mixture of rage and ennui. But I still don't want to dismiss the food court as a banal, Orientalised space where dumb suburban bogans thoughtlessly swill crappy westernised versions of exotic foreign cuisine.

I would like to view the food court as a revolutionary space where cultures sit together like curries in a combination Indian meal, or like businessmen eating their lunch on bench seats next to teenagers wagging school and mums with prams. And its very quotidian banality is what makes it revolutionary - there is no patronising search for an essentialist culinary "authenticity". You can have a Flake Shake with your falafel, and put the Vietnamese shop's chilli jam on your McDonalds fries.

(Watch this space for Mel's deconstruction of the all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.)

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