Eating our Coat of Arms: imagining a Commonwealth Cuisine

The idea of eating Australia’s coat of arms occupied some media attention over the 2013 Australia Day long weekend when a fast food chain marketed its ‘coat of arms burger’ (rather confusingly as ‘a new anthem that you eat’).  As is often the case in such discussions, ideas of what constitutes a coat of arms were rather hazy.  For this article, it means the whole design, known as the full achievement.

What was meant as edible in the above case was the supporters of the Commonwealth Arms, the kangaroo and emu (reduced to a meat patty).  It apparently did not include the black swan in the Western Australia quarter.  The lions in the New South Wales and Tasmania quarters, and the piping shrike in the South Australia quarter seem unlikely culinary items.  The wattle sprays usually depicted with Arms might contain foods such as wattle seed and wattle flour, but they weren’t included in the patties.

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of the Commonwealth of Australia, granted by Royal Warrant in 1912

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of the Commonwealth of Australia, granted by Royal Warrant in 1912

The Arms of the states and territories set out a veritable degustation: Queensland has sugar cane, wheat, beef, lamb and venison; New South Wales has wheat and kangaroo; Tasmania has apples, hops and fresh water; Victoria has kangaroo, olives and corn; South Australia has wheat, vines and citrus fruit; Western Australia has kangaroo and swan; Northern Territory has kangaroo, conch and cockles; ACT has swans and rose and Norfolk Island has kangaroo and laurel (bay leaf).

The inclusion of edible elements in national coats of arms is a feature of some three quarters of Commonwealth countries.  The Bahamas has a blue marlin and a conch; Barbados has sugar cane and dolphin; Canada has maple and rose; Cayman Islands has pineapple and turtle; Dominica has banana; Grenada has roses, corn and banana; Guyana has sugar cane and rice; Jamaica has pineapples and crocodile; St Kitts and Nevis has sugar cane and coconut; St Lucia has roses; Turks and Caicos Islands has conch and lobster; Kenya has chicken; Lesotho has crocodile; Mauritius has sugar cane and venison; South Africa has wheat; Namibia has oryx; Botswana has beef, sorghum and fresh water; Zimbabwe has fresh water and kudu; Zambia has maize; Tanzania has cloves; Ghana has cocoa; Seychelles has tortoise, coconuts and swordfish; Bangladesh has rice; Malaysia has pinang (areca or betel nut); Maldives has coconut; Pakistan has wheat and tea; British Indian Ocean Territory has turtles; Ascension has turtles; Tristan da Cunha has lobsters; South Georgia has venison; New Zealand has wheat; Solomon Islands has crocodile, turtle and shark; Tuvalu has mussels and bananas; Cook Islands has flying fish; Fiji has cocoa, sugar cane, coconut and bananas; Samoa, Tonga, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Cyprus and Malta have olive branches.  The United Kingdom has roses, shamrocks and thistles.

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of Tristan da Cunha, assigned by Royal Warrant in 2002

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of Tristan da Cunha, granted by Royal Warrant in 2002

This list does not included representations of sheep as wool or a golden fleece rather than meat, or of horses.  Deer, as a metaphor for venison is included, as are thistles and other plants mainly known only to ‘wild food’ connoisseurs.  There are occasional examples of edible national emblems outside the Commonwealth, such as the olive branches of the Israeli Arms, or US state seals and other emblems, but they are uncommon.  More usual are agricultural implements, especially in former communist state emblems, but they are no longer common.

There are two rhetorical questions often asked: are Australians the only ones who eat their national symbols?  Does eating national symbols show disrespect for the symbols and/or the nation they represent?

As this quick survey shows, Australia is far from being alone in having edible and culinary symbols and elements in its national Arms.  In fact, a very diverse and tasty ‘Commonwealth menu’ could be prepared that should suit many gastronomic tastes, drawing upon wild and farmed animals and plants, spices, herbs, seafoods and sweets.  Perhaps this is an opportunity for a budding restaurateur?

The issue of disrespect or offence is more complex.  Eating a nice swordfish steak does not immediately bring the Seychelles to mind, yet it is one of their national heraldic beasts.  However, if a dish is listed on a café menu as a country’s ‘coat of arms’, do we defile their sovereignty by eating it?  Another fast food chain recently withdrew its ‘Virgin Mary’ labeled dish of chips with tomato flavouring after complaints that it (the name) was offensive to Catholics.  So, is it the denominating of a national coat of arms or a religious icon as a ‘food’ that is the problem?  After all, kangaroo meat is freely available in supermarkets and butchers, but I never seen it marketed as ‘Dexter Supporter’, or any sort of coat of arms.  Should the namers of new fast foods be scorned for their lack of cultural sensitivity, or should heraldists ‘piggyback’ on their view that any controversy generated by such names is free advertising and good for their bottom line, as a means to educate the public about national and community symbols?

A confusing culinary message?   Image by Andrew Leigh, Cosmos, 2008: http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/opinion/fry-me-kangaroo-down/

A confusing culinary message?
Image by Andrew Leigh, Cosmos, 2008: http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/opinion/fry-me-kangaroo-down/

None of the media commentary suggested that being offended by the marketing or eating of produce that is also represented in national symbols should be against the law.  A civic space remains for public debate and comment – and therefore opportunities to promote heraldic knowledge and understanding.

Do we, for instance, by some sense of appreciation for culinary heraldry, come to understand something of another culture when we knowingly eat its symbols?  Do we, in some primal sense, absorb something in the same way a warrior might have once eaten his defeated opponent’s liver (or other organs) to both honour and ingest his warrior spirit?

What if we slice and eat a cake with a national coat of arms depicted in the icing? Perhaps respect is shown or offence avoided more by the way a ‘heraldic food’ is served and consumed than by the way it is marketed?  Is leaving most of the swordfish steak on the plate, or using the armorial cake in a juvenile food fight, really where offence is given – to the fisher, the farmer, the cook, the cleaner, the rubbish tip attendant? Similarly, is the not uncommon practice of placing a coat of arms in a floor pattern, where it is walked on every day, disrespectful?  There are no simple answers, and it is important to understand the context for these issues.

Heraldically, however, there is an interesting question of why does food, or food sources, feature so prominently in British-influenced national heraldry?  We might suppose that it would be a feature of Mediterranean, Chinese, Indian, South East Asian or Middle Eastern heraldry, of cultures where me imagine cuisines are so much more exciting and adventurous than our own.  It is a question probably more suitable for debating over a long, slow lunch, and I look forward to any reader’s thoughts on these gustatory ‘brain food’ delights.  Bon appétit!

(Originally published in The Australian Heraldry Society’s Members’ Circular, No. 158, January-February 2013)

References:

‘Coat of Arms Burger Launch @ Grill’d, Shafto Lane, Perth CBD’, www.Perthfoodjournal.com

‘Royal Bunfight: Monarchists warn Grill’d will roo its menu’, MX, 21 January 2013, page 1

http://www.franchise.net.au/news/grill-d-criticised-for-coat-of-arms-burger

‘Advance Australian fare’, The Cook and The Curator – eat your own history, 26 January 2013,

http://blogs.hht.net.au/cook/advance-australian-fare

‘Stay in Touch: With a happy face and a sandwich to go’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4th February 2013, page 14

http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/first-world-problems

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