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The politics of pastries
On Chris Hipkins' sausage rolls, the world of ChatGPT recipes and the most disappointing weekly snack.
Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome to The Boil Up, The Spinoff’s weekly food newsletter produced in partnership with Boring Oat Milk. Written by me, Charlotte Muru-Lanning. It’s lovely to have you here!
At this point in his tenure as prime minister, Chris Hipkins’ fondness for sausage rolls will be familiar to most of us. While in London last week for King Charles’s coronation, he was presented with sausage rolls twice – first on a quaint doily-lined foil tray by King Charles and again by British prime minister Rishi Sunak, paired, naturally, with Wattie’s tomato sauce. "I was incredibly touched by the gesture, as you will see from the fact that there's only two left. They were exceptionally good," Hipkins told media after the meeting with King Charles.
Contextually, it makes a lot of sense. Sausage rolls, which have culinary roots in ancient Greece and 19th century France, gained popularity in London in the early 1800s as a cheap street food, and have since transformed into a quintessentially British delicacy.
And I’ll admit, as someone who’s obviously quite into food, I find all this talk of sausage rolls very charming, but it’s also kind of intriguing if you delve a little deeper.
References to a particular brand of kai have become a defining symbol of Hipkins’ time as a prime minister. Since he began the role he’s shared his love for pies, especially steak and cheese, which prompted journalists to hunt down his favourite pie shop. Hipkins has regularly reframed the government’s focus as being on “bread and butter” issues, in defence of its recent policy cull. Heck, even his nickname “Chippy” is a reference to a carb-loaded food. But sausage rolls have certainly been the most notable food association.
Sausage rolls are a wonderful thing, and I honestly have no doubts that Hipkins genuinely enjoys them. But I also think it would be naive to pretend that this genuine enjoyment isn’t being exaggerated for political effect. Food is political and, as I know from writing about it, it’s a wonderfully accessible tool for communicating more complex ideas. Sausage rolls in this case could be seen as shorthand for New Zealand-ness, working class identity, authenticity and, more generally, a kind of commonsense brand of politics.
Hipkins isn’t the first politician to attempt to win over voters' hearts and minds via their stomachs. We love to see politicians with food. When she was prime minister Jacinda Ardern name-dropped Alison Holst sausage rolls as part of the daily rituals of working in the Beehive during lockdown. Ardern was regularly photographed tongs in hand behind a snag-lined barbecue (we could delve into the references to gender politics here too, but that’s for another time), and she made regular reference to Morrinsville's Golden Kiwi Restaurant – the fish and chip shop she worked at as a teen. John Key made no secret of his love for another sausage-based product, the hot dog – with an infamous picture to prove it. For some reason unbeknown to me, I have a picture saved to my laptop of a suit and tie-clad Key and then-deputy Bill English posed with impressively sized cheese and ham toasties in a sports bar. Rightfully, they both look utterly delighted with their plates.
McDonald’s has been a popular choice among the National Party, with Luxon last year posing for photos at the drive-through of the franchise he worked at as a teenager. In the early 1990s, the National Party “brat pack”, comprising Bill English, Roger Sowry, Nick Smith and Tony Ryall, posed with Big Macs for a photograph mimicking the famous 1980 “fish and chip brigade” shot of Labour politicians David Lange, Michael Bassett, Roger Douglas and Mike Moore tucking into a generous portion of fish and chips. A politician who surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, bucks this trend for the stodgy and beige is Winston Peters, who tends to reach for far more eclectic and diverse kai like raw mussels, fish heads and phenomenally hot tom yum soup, and has proudly touted his fondness for eating a pie with a knife and fork.
Anyway, I digress – the general point is that food has been used, often cynically, as a political tool in Aotearoa: to craft politicians' images, signal political leanings, reflect policy concerns and forge connections with voters. The assumption being that if you eat like voters, you understand voters.
And to fail at this can be disastrous. For example, it’s been suggested that ex-British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s inability to eat a humble bacon sandwich in a “normal” manner in 2014, which was documented by way of some extraordinarily awkward photographs, led to the end of his political career a year later.
The reassuring sausage roll is perhaps most useful politically not for its own identity, but for the way it distinguishes itself from more politically onerous associations that foods like, say, tofu, hummus, alternative milks or homemade muesli might bring. The latter being seen as markers of the out of touch “urban liberal elite”. That’s why you’re unlikely to see Chris Hipkins, or any politician that’s vying for “the middle” for that matter, posing for photo ops with a bowl of silken tofu or divulging to journalists an obsession with oat milk flat whites. Politicians in the middle want to be seen as connected, ordinary and in touch – food is a relatively easy proxy through which to do so.
I’m not here to criticise this strategy in convincing middle voters – sausage rolls are likely a very useful vessel for communicating an understanding of what certain types of people care about. However, and I mean no disrespect to sausage rolls or to any deliciously carby food, I suppose it's somewhat disappointing that in a country with so much diversity and unique kai of its own, beige bakery fare with resolutely British roots remains the taken-for-granted emblem of authenticity and of “everyday New Zealanders”. In 2023, it’s a tired and outdated idea of how people eat in this country, what the working class looks like (they’re not solely male and Pākehā) and a rather revealing reflection of which voters matter. When you extrapolate more broadly what that means about our broader political landscape, it’s even more grim. Whether we like it or not though, I suppose politics is easier to digest if it's wrapped in pastry.
The Boil Up is brought to you in partnership with Boring Oat Milk.
Stone fruit season is winding down. Gather up the last plums from under the tree or pull them from the freezer and turn them into something cosy and yum, like this oat milk upside down cake from Carter Were. Click here for the recipe.
You can’t go far on an internet scroll without hearing about ChatGPT and it seems the technology has now entered the kitchen. Or, to be more specific, the complex and politically charged world of recipes. In an article for The Spinoff this week, Fran Barclay considers the rise of the AI language model as a Kitchenaid for recipe formulation. While acknowledging its convenience, Barclay raises flags around ChatGPT’s lack of cultural competency when it comes to compiling recipes: “AI has been trained to recognise patterns in flavours and ingredients, but it hasn’t been trained to respect or credit the cultural identity of the dishes it creates,” Barclay writes. ChatGPT’s rather ham-fisted approach to recipe compilation turns out to offer a unique glimpse into the bias woven throughout its own coding. Just how obvious some of its recipe gaffes are serves as a refreshing reminder that the now ubiquitous technology still has major limitations. If, as Barclay riffs, “no chef is an island, and no recipe is a blank slate”, then the question remains as to how long it will take ChatGPT to learn that.
Stricter sales restrictions on alcohol are set to come into force in Auckland after the Supreme Court unanimously dismissed appeals by Foodstuffs and Woolworths New Zealand last week, reports RNZ. The issue began eight years ago when Auckland Council introduced a policy to limit alcohol sales, which has so far been delayed by court cases and appeals by the supermarkets. The Supreme Court agreed that restrictions may be justified if there's a reasonable likelihood they would reduce alcohol-related harm. The decision means that in Auckland, alcohol will no longer be sold past 9pm at off-licence stores like supermarkets and bottle stores – two hours earlier than currently allowed. It also allows the council to restrict new off-licences.
As part of the seemingly endless ebb and flow of food product discontinuations and resurrections, 1990s corn chip favourite CC’s will be making a temporary return next week. "The fan favourite will return to the shelves of participating dairies and petrol stations from the 15th of May, as part of Bluebird's 70th birthday celebrations," according to a Bluebird press release. Don’t get too attached though – the tortilla chips will only be around for about three months, or until stocks last. CC’s, originally from Australia, haven’t been on New Zealand shelves since 2010 (other than a limited run in 2019) when they were replaced by their far more addictive American counterpart Doritos.
The local Employment Relations Authority has found that fast food retailer Wendy’s failed to pay staff for public holidays. The company, Wendco, is run by West Auckland’s Lendich family and has the exclusive licence to operate American burger chain Wendy’s Hamburgers in Aotearoa. As of 2022, Wendco operated 22 fast-service restaurants across the country and employed around 450 staff. According to the report, Wendco breached collective agreement clauses including the “Mondayisation” of public holidays, and failed to pay some workers an average daily pay for unworked public holidays. The ERA said the case needed further investigation as to whether the total number of breaches was limited to the five affected employees or was a broader problem.
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The weekly snack
Disappointingly, there have been no snacks for me this week and so will be none in this newsletter. I have a ruptured wisdom tooth and have been feeling suspiciously Covidy too, so fun food, especially the kind that’s most often crunchy, chewy or cold, has been off the menu for me this week in place of soft and decidedly bland kai. As they say, when it rains it pours – but I hope to be back to usual snack programming in the next newsletter. 0/10
Talk next week!
Hei kōnā mai, Charlotte