"I never want two days of my life to be the same." Maeve O'Meara
"Maeve is what Jacinta Ardern is to politics: a voice of hope in a sea of trouble, a shining light in a dark world where everybody seems to hate everybody else. In short, she is the antidote we need to celebrate." Ingeborg van Teeseling - The Big Smoke
Maeve O'Meara is a grandmother. Well maybe she was very young when she had her first child, and maybe he isn't that old either. Or maybe it's just that 60 or even 70 is the new 40 or even 50. Or maybe it's just attitude. After all some people seem old at the age of 30 don't they?
All of which is sort of an aside, but also in a way a reflection on the lady herself. Although this post comes from a lucky dip, it's really also a sort of A word from ... post, although this particular foodie is not a famous cook, even though she has now published around 12 cookbooks. Not that I'm saying she is not a good cook. I'm sure she is. Somebody who is that interested in food cannot help but be a good cook - and she has had ample opportunity to learn from the best in the world. She may not be the most literary writer in the world - I did not find any amazing quotes from her. She doesn't have Nigel Slater's way with words for example. And yet her influence is huge - you could say that she is one of the main reasons that Australia has embraced immigrant food, and therefore, to a slightly lesser degree, it has to be said, the immigrants themselves.
"Maeve’s Australia shows us the best we can be. And that goes further, much further than food. Food is made by people, men and women we don’t regularly come across, in neighbourhoods we are slightly scared of. Meave, in colourful t-shirts and with a big smile, introduces us. Tells us, lets us experience, that there is nothing to be afraid of, that it is ok to venture into Haberfield or Oakleigh. That the big man who looks so forbidding is in reality thinking about tabouleh or nougat instead of a way to kill you." Ingeborg van Teeseling - The Big Smoke
As her name suggests her family origins are Irish - well at least a couple of generations back. She grew up on Sydney's lower north shore with parents who were a journalist (mother) and a compositor (father), and so a home with words, and books and pictures all around. Not knowing what to do when she left school, like many Australians, she set off to see the world which is where she found her sense of adventure - and where that quote at the top of the page comes from.
On her return she did an Arts degree and became a journalist - at first in print and then in radio and tv. There was a stint in Ireland and more travel including a holiday in Tunisia in which:
“In a simple mud brick house, the women taught me how to cook couscous, and how to pound spices – it sparked something.”
Even though I have now read a couple of interviews, and watched one from SBS I'm not quite sure when it was that that the interest in food developed into what has become her career really - finding out about other people's food and conveying that knowledge to others. It began with The Food Lover's Guide to Australia, in which she and Joanna Saville toured the country finding immigrants from everywhere also scattered everywhere in Australia and asking about their food traditions. It was a new concept and won many awards. When Joanna Saville left the program to pursue other avenues Maeve O'Meara continued on with Food Safari.
She talks of how the idea came from some friends who asked her to take them on a tour of Lebanese restaurants in Sydney. Seeing their enthusiasm and their curiosity, and also with suggestions from her partner Toufic Charabiti - a Lebanese himself - Food Safari was born. The concept was simple she says. A particular cuisine was featured each week, in which the audience was introduced to the ingredients and techniques of that country, and then shown how to cook some of their favourite dishes - often in ordinary people's homes but also sometimes in restaurants. It was a winning combination of recipes and an introduction to hitherto unknown food - and restaurants. O'Meara saw it as a great celebration of home cooking. but her partner says it is all down to her own friendliness, interest, and genuine warmth:
"She makes the people we film feel extraordinary. How can you not fall in love with that?" Toufic Charabati
And I should also say here that Toufic Charabati is the producer/director of the Food Safari series, so they must have a good relationship. It's not every couple that can work together. Her three children are from an early 10 year marriage, although the children's father has always been around for them. So one assumes the relationship is still friendly.
Food Safari has also shown us that Australia is "the most multi-cultural food nation on earth" - a secret that should be much better known - and SBS and Maeve O'Meara are doing their best to prove that. Although the concept of Food Safari has evolved over time - first into a whole series on France and one on Italy, and then most recently series of Fire, Earth and Water - it is still suffused with a multicultural/home cooking vibe. The programs demonstrate that it's not just that we have all these varied multicultural traditions, it also satisfies 'ordinary Anglo' Australians who "want to know what they're having and how to do it".
In 1998 she also began actually showing 'ordinary' Australians 'what they're having and how to do it' by setting up her food touring company Gourmet Safaris. Obviously because of COVID19 the international tours are not currently operating although I see that a tour of Vietnam is scheduled for March next year, Sardinia and Corsica in July and Portugal in September. Whether they go ahead or not is another question. But there are tours within Australia, some very local and brief, some longer. I had a look once, and did consider the possibility but wasn't quite game - mostly because I don't think it would really have been my husband's thing. Maybe I should do one of the local walking tours one day.
I believe that Maeve O'Meara herself goes on most of the overseas tours, although she does have longtime partners on each one who have local knowledge and expertise. She maintains that the Gourmet Safari business satisfies her "lifelong curiosity about food and its connection to culture and relationships."
“There’s a moment on every safari when you put a local person who loves their culture and their food and wants to share it together with a guest who really wants to learn. In that meeting of interests, and that matching of two people from other ends of the earth, there is absolute sparkle.
They are the great moments, the ultimate ‘feel good’ experience for me, and they are moments of celebration because food is more than food in that moment – it’s a tool for connecting people. I’m just a bridge for people into other worlds, and that, to me, is gold.”
You don't have to be a chef to be a food celebrity. And maybe the achievement of Maeve O'Meara and SBS in bringing 'ethnic' food into the homes of ordinary people, and hence into what we can now buy in the supermarkets, is even greater than that of the chefs. It's people like her after all who bring those chefs to our attention.
"nobody in this country has done more for multicultural Australia than she has. After twenty years of Gourmet Safaris and almost ten years of Food Safari on SBS, we now know what lemongrass does for food and what a quandong is. We know where to get the best kimchi pancakes and how to make our own jeon. She has introduced us to the right way to build a hangi and how long to cure your prosciutto in the shed. In short, she taught us how to eat what we are, where we are, and who we are. And in doing so, she has made strange, normal and multicultural part of us, whoever “us” might be" Ingeborg van Teeseling - The Big Smoke
I, for one will forgive her for the rigorous authenticity that sometimes is just a step too far, because perhaps we should take that step. We might find that it wasn't that hard after all.