Flora Pell: the cook and her turbulent career
Alison Wishart, National Museum of Australia, 13 April 2011
SHARON CASEY: Good morning and welcome to the Friends. Alison Wishart is a curator with the National Museum of Australia and is responsible for putting on a wonderful series of staff seminars here quite regularly. She’s worked as a curator previously at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville, the State Library of Queensland, and of course here at the National Museum. She has a BA Hons from the University of Queensland and has completed a Masters in Museum Studies and Cultural Heritage at Deakin University. I believe the Flora Pell stuff is part of Alison’s thesis – or research work at least. I am looking forward to hearing Alison’s talk on Flora Pell.
ALISON WISHART: Thank you, Sharon. I am going to stand behind the lectern because I need my notes but then I hope we can make it informal. I am happy for you to ask questions, make comments and things like that because I can see there are probably some very experienced cooks in the room, and Flora Pell was an excellent cook. I will tell you about what I have come to learn about Flora Pell and how much I respect her. Then there will be plenty of time for questions and discussion at the end.
I began doing this work when I came to the National Museum with someone by the name of Adele Wessell. Adele actually works at the Southern Cross University based in Lismore, but she was lucky enough to get a fellowship to come to the National Museum and study our cookbook collection. She sent around an email saying, ‘Is anyone else interested in cookbooks?’ I responded. So we got together and discovered our mutual interest in cookbooks. We think that writing about food should be taken seriously because food writing and cookbooks are both an agent of, and a record of, historical and social change. In my talk today I will talk about how cookbooks, and particularly cookbooks written by Flora Pell, are both agents of and records of social change and historical change in society.
We have particularly been focusing on Flora Pell’s most popular publication called Our Cookery Book. I hope by the end of this talk you will agree with me that it reveals a lot about Australia and about women in the first half of the twentieth century, which is when Flora Pell was writing, but I think equally her work can resonate for us today in the twenty-first century.
I will briefly try to sketch how Flora Pell’s writing about food has advocated changes in society and also reflects some of those changes. Who has ever watched Nigella Lawson or Maggie Beer on the tele, those celebrity chefs or cooks? Well, they weren’t the first. They have a predecessor, and her name is Flora Pell. [image shown] While she may look more like the type of cook who would smack your hands for licking the bowl than suggestively lick her fingers, as Nigella Lawson does, don’t be deceived: Flora Pell was a first-rate, published and celebrated chef. She travelled to the USA on a study and lecture tour of cookery schools in 1923, had her own spot on Melbourne’s 3LO radio, which is now 777 like the ABC local radio station in Melbourne, from three years from 1925 to 1928, and she toured business women’s and charity groups to talk about cooking. Her ideas about nutrition, domestic economy and the education of girls were often taken up and promoted by her friend Stella Allan, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Vesta’ in a weekly ‘Women to women’ column in the Argus newspaper, which was a Melbourne newspaper. In this weekly ‘Women to women’ column she talks about some of Flora Pell’s ideas.
Flora Pell’s influence extended well beyond the kitchen. Her three cookbooks are highly regarded [image shown]. You can see the use of Flora Pell’s name in the title of the third one: Miss Flora Pell’s tested Cookery Dishes and Valuable Home Hints, which I think implies that, by the time it was published in 1925, Flora Pell was a household name. Her most popular cookery book is the centre one: Our Cookery Book. It was reprinted over 24 times from 1916 until the 1950s. Its sheer popularity and endurance we think make it an important object of study.
Recently Adele and I spoke about Flora Pell at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in March, and before that we wrote a small article for The Age that was published in the Epicure section, the foodie lift-out section. About 25 Victorians have contacted me after that with their memories of Flora Pell, and here are some of their comments:
My mother Lynette Parker adores Flora Pell’s cook book which she treasures and refers to many times, over and over again.
Alicenne Stevens said: ‘My mother and her sisters swore by her book and I still have my mother’s battered copy. Mum used to say she liked her because the instructions were so clear, almost basic - Mum used to joke they were: walk into kitchen, approach the stove etc.
Then Lorna Roberts, Nelva Roberts and Valerie O’Bryne’s mothers used the book at school and say that ‘Flora Pell was our bible’.
Alison Taylor says: ‘My mother always quoted Flora Pell as an authority - the recipe book was used over and over until the pages were badly discoloured and the book fell apart.’
Has anyone else got a cookbook like that at home? Do any of you have relatives or ancestors who used Flora Pell’s cookbook? I think it is more of a Victorian phenomenon because she taught in Victorian high schools – or they were becoming high schools.
Finally there are three other women who received copies of Our Cookery Book as wedding presents, well after the last publication date in the 1950s. And Coral Ware was given a copy when she got married in 1967.
Just to give you a bit more information about Flora Pell the person, she was born in Melbourne on 12 March 1874, so about 137 years ago. She started work as a teacher when she was 15 and went on to become an instructor in cookery at schools in Geelong and Bendigo, and then in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton - a bit like today where you have to do your regional or country service before you can get a job in the city. In 1906 she organised the cookery section at the Victorian State Schools exhibition, which provides an early glimpse into the importance she placed on food in what we call ‘nation-building’ and the contribution that she believed women could make to that.
When she was promoted in 1908 to the supervisor of cookery at the Melbourne Continuation School, her report card says:
This was written about her in 1908. I want you to remember how highly she was regarded by her employer, the Victorian Education Department, in 1908 because we will come back to her career with the education department a bit later.
She goes on to rise through the ranks of the Victorian Education Department until she is headmistress of Collingwood Domestic Arts School - which is still standing – that opened in 1915. Whilst she was in charge of this school, she seized the opportunity of a meeting in Melbourne in June 1918 when all the state education department directors came to Melbourne and she organised for her cookery students to prepare and serve a four course luncheon. There was the Victorian Premier, the Minister for Education, the Director of Education, the Mayor of Collingwood and all the state education directors. She wanted them to taste the achievements of her students, and they were most impressed. So she knew that good cooking could be persuasive and strategic.
Now we will have a look at some of the ways that Flora Pell used her cookery book to try to change society.
Patriotism - Through her cookbooks and her teaching, Flora Pell espoused patriotism. She believed that nation building starts in the kitchen and she wrote in 1906:
Good home life, good food, good nutrition, good citizens, good nation - that’s the link she is drawing.
Now I am going to show you a photograph of a cookery demonstration which Flora Pell organised in 1906 at the State Schools Exhibition [image shown]. I want you to look carefully at the way the classroom is decorated. Now here’s photo of a classroom at the Melbourne Continuation School where Flora Pell taught [image shown]. What have you noticed about these photos?
AUDIENCE: The flags – the Australian flag.
ALISON WISHART: There were a series of flags in the other one as well. I acknowledge it’s common to have a photograph of the reigning monarch on the classroom wall well into the 1980s but I think these flags are noteworthy. These images of cookery classrooms sent me looking for photographs of science, maths and sloyd, which is what woodwork was called then, classrooms from that period - that’s what the boys were doing when the girls were doing cooking - but none of them had flags festooned above the students’ heads. As we said, according to Flora Pell - nation building starts in the kitchen.
Our Cookery Book was first published in 1916 during the height of the First World War. With a rolling pin and a knowledge of nutrition, Pell is teaching women to raise up an army. This is the cover of the first cookery book when it was published [image shown]. She is one of the first cookbook authors to talk about the importance of nutrition. In Our Cookery Book, she stipulates the daily intake of foods that she called ‘body builders’, which today we would call proteins. She also talks about ‘heat producers’, which we would call fats, and ‘energy producers’, carbohydrates. Then she also mentions water and mineral salts. Today nutritionists would also say that vitamins and fibre are an important part of our diet, but these elements of a diet were not ‘discovered’ in a sense until the 1940s.
When Adele and I were doing this research, we commissioned a nutritionist from the University of Canberra to examine Flora Pell’s recipes and to compare her recommended daily intake of protein, fat and carbohydrate with that recommended by the NHMRC, which is the National Health and Medical Research Council.
This is what we found [image shown]. Flora Pell was advocating that for a man doing moderate work you needed 20 per cent protein, 20 per cent fat and 60 per cent carbohydrates. The NHMRC Australian macro nutrient distribution range (AMDR) – [are 15-25 per cent protein, 20-35 per cent fat and 45-65 per cent carbohydrate] so Flora Pell’s figures are definitely within that range. Interestingly, the fat one is at the lower end of the range when this is at the time when suet, butter and animal fats are very highly used in cooking because we haven’t learnt about olive oils, different sorts of trans-fats and that sort of stuff. Her ideas about nutrition were ahead of the time, I think. Pell’s writings about nutrition encouraged changes in the way people thought about food and cooking.
Her writings also talk about the role of women in society and in terms of this she was a living contradiction. On the one hand, she wrote and taught that a woman’s place was in the home and that it was her ‘heaven-appointed’ mission to be a ‘wife and homemaker’. On the other hand, Flora Pell had a very successful career. She rose through the ranks of the education department to be inspectress, as they were called then, of all the domestic arts and cookery centres in Victoria. Through royalties from her cookbooks and her career she gained financial independence, something which a minority of women of her age and era would have experienced. She didn’t marry until she was 60 years old in 1935.
Ironically, she wrote in her 1914 report on the 62 centres under her guidance at this time:
We laugh at that today but, in Flora Pell’s time in 1914 and 1916, career paths for women other than being a wife, a homemaker and a mother were only just beginning to open up. You really had a choice between marriage or domestic service up until then. But now around this time girls were starting to get jobs in factories and could serve in shops and be dressmakers and milliners. Some middle class girls are being trained to be school teachers, secretaries or nurses, and these were positions that attracted very few men until more recently.
While these opportunities for women were limited, they did start to challenge the long established and traditional notion that a woman’s place was in the home. What was happening is that girls were leaving school at the age of 14 but they weren’t allowed to enter the work force until they were 15, so they didn’t have a lot of time at home with their mothers to learn about cooking, domestic economy, how to run a household and things like that. Flora Pell was arguing strongly for cookery and household management lessons in schools and the development of domestic arts colleges. She decried the fact that girls were not displaying the same aptitude for domestic duties as did their mothers and grandmothers. She even makes a link, with the help of the church, between the return of soldiers after World War I coming back to Australia - and many of them came back with venereal diseases - and the fact that these girls were drifting between the ages of 14 and 15. So they had finished school but they couldn’t start work, and she was quite concerned these girls would drift into the paths of these men returning from World War I because there was a great spike in venereal diseases in Australia after World War I. Part of her argument was that we need to give girls structure and a place where they can go and not be tempting these young men. It was all about women’s responsibility not to get themselves into some trouble or strife.
According to Pell, teaching the efficient management of the home involved stressing the scientific approach to good nutrition, domestic hygiene and the elimination of waste. There was a larger purpose to this. Pupils should regard their work not just as benefiting their home but as serving the national good and upholding the importance and the dignity of labour in the home rather than seeing it as ‘servile employment’.
So Pell believed that nation building starts with women in the kitchen and that steps must be taken by the government to protect the ‘integrity and dignity of home life as a factor in national prosperity’. For Pell the benefits of homemaking extend well beyond the kitchen, and she believes there could be no higher employment than homemaking. She says that homemaking:
She really promotes the role of women in the home. She sees it as a civic role, a public role in a sense, even though it’s happening in a private sphere and it’s directed outwards towards serving the broader community. In this way she sought to change the way society viewed the teaching of domestic arts and a woman’s role in the home, and I think in a sense she was an early advocate of domestic feminism as well.
Flora Pell also had a lot to say about the education of girls. Her career follows the expansion of the systematic instruction in cookery and the domestic arts movement. We would call it home ec today, probably. She was the supervisor of cookery at the Melbourne Continuation School in 1908 and Headmistress of the Collingwood Domestic Arts School when it opened seven years later. This Collingwood college that I showed you the picture of before, the big, grand building, that is the same college where Stephanie Alexander started her kitchen garden program. So the theme of that college continues today.
In 1924 she became inspectress of all the domestic arts centres throughout Victoria, and this was a position she held until her retirement in 1929. In these roles and through the publication of Our Cookery Book which became a textbook, Pell imbued her students with both the general principles of cooking and a strong sense of the importance of cooking and eating which goes well beyond the kitchen.
Support for the training of girls in domestic colleges happens around the time that other organisations are springing up such as the National Council for Women and suffragette groups. In 1915, the Victorian Education Department responded finally to public pressure for more domestic training for girls and they established two domestic arts colleges in Melbourne, in Fitzroy and Collingwood. Girls between the ages of 12 and 14 would attend these centres for two days per week to learn about cookery, laundry, sewing, household management etc and then attend a normal high school for the other three days of the week for the three Rs.
Flora Pell was passionate about her job. She firmly believed that a girl’s education was incomplete if she hadn’t been trained in the principles of ‘true household economy, cookery and nutrition’. These three things are covered in detail in Our Cookery Book and her other cookbooks. It’s interesting because we can get an understanding of what her thoughts about that were like 100 years ago.
She didn’t believe that homemaking was innate in women. She argued that we needed to be trained in the ‘scientific and business principles needed for the organisation and running of a modern household’. In this way she was advocating that the state - not mothers or grandmothers - should be responsible for training girls in household management, and that homemaking is not necessarily a natural or a cultural activity. Through her writings about food and women’s role in society, Flora Pell is advocating for a change in the education curriculum for girls.
I have just talked about how Flora Pell’s influence extends beyond the kitchen to encourage patriotism, a re-evaluation of the role of women in society, particularly their importance in the home, and to elevate the importance of education of girls in domestic arts. But now I am going to turn and look at how Flora Pell’s writings about food reflected changes in society at the time.
Our Cookery Book contains a recipe for Belgian pound cake. Now there might be other cookery books that have that recipe that you have used. Belgian pound cake was a reminder of the popular support garnered for Belgium during the First World War. Other cookbooks published prior to the First World War, such as the Country Women’s Association Cookbook and the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union Cookbook changed the name of their recipe from German pound cake to Belgian pound cake to remove the reference to the enemy.
In 1926, Flora Pell was asked by the Victorian State Dried Fruits Board to compile a recipe book with 50 recipes containing only dried fruits. This cookbook was distributed free of charge to encourage more Australians and Victorians to eat more dried fruits. Why? Why the focus on dried fruits? One of the reasons was that Australians were only consuming about one-third of the fruit that we were growing, and the rest of it was being exported, and much of the fruit that was being grown was being grown by returned soldiers on soldier settlement farms. Therefore, cooking with dried fruits was seen as another patriotic act and a way of supporting soldiers who had returned from the war.
Another outcome of World War I was the increase in popularity of the temperance movement. Do you all know what the temperance movement is? Yes, good. Some people today don’t. The membership of the Victorian branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union nearly trebled during the 1920s from about 3000 in 1920 to 9776 members in 1930. They were the largest state branch. Their political power was evident after they successfully campaigned for the closure of Victorian hotels and public bars at 6 p.m. in 1916. They helped to convince 47 per cent of adult Victorians to vote for the reduction or abolition of liquor licences in a referendum in 1920.
Our Cookery Book was first published in 1916, during the depths of the First World War. As we have already heard, Flora Pell promoted patriotism and believed that nation building starts in the kitchen with good, nutritious food. She argues:
I am going to come back to the temperance movement in a minute. I just need to mention that the genesis of Our Cookery Book was in Flora Pell’s extensive teaching career in Victorian schools. By the time she publishes this book in 1916 she’s been teaching cookery for over 27 years.
When she wants to publish her book she writes to the Education Department requesting permission for Our Cookery Book to be used as a school textbook. The idea was that it would replace the loose recipe students were required to purchase for one shilling. They had to purchase 30 cards for a shilling, they would always lose a card and have to buy another one etc. But the Education Department refused her request saying they didn’t want the students to have to purchase a book. Flora Pell was undeterred. Our Cookery Book was published by Specialty Press at a retail price of one shilling and sixpence. It was quickly taken up by cookery teachers and students who felt they were getting much more value for money to buy a book than to buy these 30 little cards.
Publicity for the cookbook in newspapers proclaimed:
When the Education Department saw this, Flora Pell received a strongly worded letter from her employer demanding to know on whose authority had she issued a textbook. Flora Pell writes back to the Education Department and says that she worked on the cookery book in her own time, did not authorise the use of the words ‘textbook’ in the advertising, and then she goes on the offensive and quotes an independent reviewer who expresses this opinion in the Argus:
I think that is one of the reasons why her book is regarded as a bible and why so many people still treasure it and love it today. Then Flora Pell gets another letter back from the Education Department on 26 August 1916 stating that Our Cookery Book was not approved by the minister and could not be recognised as a textbook. They intend this will close the matter. Well, they didn’t know who they were dealing with.
It’s unclear from the records in the Victorian public records office whether Pell actively encouraged the use of her cookery book in schools or just neglected to discourage its use, but in any case Our Cookery Book gradually replaces the department’s recipe cards. Its use as an unofficial textbook may have gone unnoticed by the department if not for the vigilance of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1926, ten years after Our Cookery Book was first published, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union discover that school girls were using a cookbook that contained half a cup of brandy in a fruit cake recipe - shock horror! But, as I have already said, remember how strong the temperance movement was in the 1920s: its popularity was growing and its political power was immense. And alcoholism was a real problem after World War I. It was the cause of a lot of domestic violence, a lot of street violence, and there was a really strong push to try to improve society by removing the scourge of alcohol. There’s the white ribbon campaign where girls would join a club and wear a white ribbon and sign a pledge to never drink alcohol. It was a very strong movement that had a lot of political clout, and the Education Department was well aware of this.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Victoria doggedly lobbied the Education Department for two years and were finally successful in having all recipes with intoxicating liquor removed from later editions of Our Cookery Book. What happens in this fight is that Flora Pell argues her case. She says, ‘We never cook the fruit cake recipe in our classroom because it takes too long to prepare and too long to bake in an oven. We don’t have five hours in a classroom to bake this recipe, so I am not teaching girls to learn how to cook with alcohol and that you have to have a bit of alcohol in the fruit cake to preserve it and to keep it. And it’s only half a cup.’ Anyway - no, no, no.
Specialty Press, her publisher, don’t want to lose this incredibly popular, well-selling publication, so they write to the Education Department and say, ‘We have removed all recipes with alcohol in them and we have removed any advertising about alcohol. It’s all going to be okay.’ So they republish the cookbook without alcohol in it. In a sense, Our Cookery Book is an example of the power and the persistence of the temperance movement in Australia in the 1920s. What’s ironic is that Flora Pell’s writings about food indicate that she subscribed to the ideals and the principles of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the associated Housewives Association. All three - Flora Pell, WCTU and the Housewives Association - encouraged women to continue in their traditional domestic role and elevated the importance of the housewife.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union are happy now that alcohol has been removed from the recipe book, but the Education Department is not because her cookbook is still out there as a textbook. So Flora Pell is called before the director and the two top bureaucrats in the Education Department on Saturday, 14 July 1928 and reprimanded for publishing a book for cookery teachers in Victorian schools. She’s also accused of promoting her book in schools and then collecting the royalties, so there is a conflict of interest. At this point, the department considers publishing their own textbook. They do the maths and calculate that after the costs they will make a profit of about £300 a year if they were to publish their own textbook. They actually commissioned the start of this textbook and they asked Flora Pell to be one of several co-authors - quite a humiliating thing to be asking someone to do, I think.
However, then they discover, in a typical act of bureaucracy, that there is 1900 sets of unused recipe cards sitting in departmental offices and they tell all of their schools that the students are to purchase these recipe cards until they are used up rather than the books. It’s not the end: Pell’s loyal colleagues petition the department on her behalf stating that they want to continue using Our Cookery Book and pointing out that it contains information about nutrition and how to use the best cuts of meat that are not in the recipe books. The Education Department ignores these pleas from its own teachers and accuses Pell of orchestrating a campaign and seeking to undermine the authority of her employer. She is accused of treason in a sense. As a result of all of this, Flora Pell resigns from teaching due to ill health in November 1929. This brings to an end the 46-year career of a teacher who in 1908, you might remember, is praised for her efficiency, professionalism, tact, skill and ability.
It’s amazing to think that this seemingly innocuous cookbook could cause so much trouble and lead to the downfall of a competent and highly-regarded teacher and administrator. I kept asking myself: if Flora Pell was a male teacher who showed this kind of initiative, dedication and expertise, would she have been treated so appallingly by the department?
Another area in which Flora Pell’s cookbook reflects changes in society is the link between food and the environment. This is one of the drawings in Our Cookery Book and you also get drawings of a cow and a pig [image shown]. From an environmental point of view, Flora Pell was probably ahead of her time in advocating and providing recipes for alternative source of protein to meat. She also encouraged cooks to use many different cuts of meat so that no part of the animal was wasted. Who can remember recipes for using tongue, tripe, brains, tails and trotters? These days all we do is chicken breasts and the other bits of the animal seem to get used for fertiliser, cat and dog food or whatever.
Today we would do well to heed Flora Pell’s advice about minimising food wastage and making economical use of the cheaper cuts of meat and leftovers so that we leave a smaller food footprint on our planet. Australians now waste $5.2 billion worth of food every year, which gives Flora Pell’s cookery book some contemporary relevance. This finding was revealed in an Australia Institute survey into the amount of food that Australians throw away uneatened and the reasons why, including our behaviour around meal planning, shopping and food wastage.
Figures like that confirm the importance of education about food that goes beyond the kitchen. The environmental costs of this sort of wastage are huge, and the impact on our household budgets and grocery bills is enormous. Flora Pell understood the way food traverses the boundaries between public and private, between the broader community and home. For Flora Pell, food was political; it was a source of civic and personal responsibility. She offers her readers two things simultaneously: a self-image that fitted a fairly traditional female role of the woman as nurturer and homemaker, but also broadening that role so that women embrace a new and maybe less familiar civic roles as nation builders.
Her food writings both reflected social changes and advocated for them. Our relationship to food provides insights both to our past and our present, taking the value of food writing clearly beyond the kitchen to what it communicates much more broadly about our society and our attitudes. That’s all. [applause]
ALISON WISHART: I am happy to try to answer questions and would love to hear your thoughts or comments about that.
QUESTION: Speaking of those cookery cards, I am just wondering who wrote those recipes, who provided that?
ALISON WISHART: They were probably written by Miss Fawcett who taught Flora Pell. One of the delights of being an historian is that every now and then you strike gold. When we wrote that article for The Age Epicure, one of the people who responded was the step- granddaughter of Flora Pell and she had inherited some of Flora Pell’s original cookery cards that were in the Education Department. That was how she was taught to cook from when she went to school in the 1880s. I think they were probably written by Miss Fawcett who had taught Flora Pell.
QUESTION: Thank you for a very interesting talk. I wonder how many male teachers wrote maths books or science journals and weren’t in fact held up for that kind of thing?
ALISON WISHART: I wonder about that too. Doing archival research is often frustrating because it takes a long time to dig through departmental files, and all of this correspondence between Flora Pell and the department was in a file named Red Cross Society so you would never think to look there. It was a footnote in someone else’s research that led me there. I had an hour left at the archives in Melbourne and went, ‘Oh my God there is so much stuff here, it’s fantastic.’ It really is like striking gold. I haven’t looked into other correspondence files in the Education Department but that would be really interesting to do.
Another thing Adele and I have just discovered is that Flora Pell taught in the public education system. There’s a private education system running alongside this where women from more middle-class and upper-class families would go to night school or schools during the day to learn to cook. So Flora Pell actually has a competitor. There is another woman, Grace somebody, who publishes a cookbook in 1915 very similar to Flora Pell’s in Victoria. They must have known each other. So that’s the next little tangent of our research.
QUESTION: Do you know when the schools started to teach housewifery and laundry as well as cooking? It’s a while ago now since I went to school but that was part of our curriculum?
ALISON WISHART: Are you asking when did they start to teach that?
QUESTION: I was wondering whether the cooking schools did teach those skills.
ALISON WISHART: Yes, they did. We can look at the prospectus. The department had a prospectus from 1912 which had cookery, laundry skills, sewing and things like that.
QUESTION by Tom Campbell: Two comments: You talked about this issue of around the 1930s or earlier before that about women in the home. I happen to work in mostly Catholic church history these days but I worked in Anglican church history and the education systems. I can assure you that, even as recently as 1930, there were Catholic bishops lamenting the fact that women were being too well educated, that their right and proper place was in the home caring for the family and being the driving force of the family. The registrar at Sydney University in one particular case lashed out and said, ‘We actually do have students doing advanced degrees,’ and things like that.
The second issue is that Pell was talking about them being trained in these things. I don’t believe she was saying they shouldn’t be well educated in other things. Equally there were convents, and I am particularly thinking of the Dominican sisters of Santa Sabina in Strathfield where a brilliant woman back in the 1920s called Sister Angela, who actually grew up back of Walgett, New South Wales, wrote incredible stuff about the fact that we lock ourselves away, women should still be taught astronomy and all sorts of other things not just limited to the home. So it cut both ways.
ALISON WISHART: That is definitely true, Tom, and I do agree with you. Flora Pell was advocating for the establishment of domestic arts colleges where the girls would be there two days a week and then the other three days of the week they would go to a high school and learn reading, writing, arithmetic and other subjects as well. What would happen with these domestic arts colleges is that they could be converted into sloyd classrooms - an amazing co-location of teaching - it would swap over and boys would come and use them for woodwork and things like that.
Your first comment about bishops and priests saying women should be in the home a bit more in the 1930s. It’s important to remember that was around the time of the Great Depression as well when work was very scarce. So there was more of an emphasis on finding jobs for men than on finding jobs for women.
QUESTION: Would your research into the impact of her teaching on society include the relative position now where, as you say, we use chicken sides and throw the rest away? When we came to Australia as migrants and when we first married, I remember Mary used to buy a chook and then out of the innards would come these claws which slowly opened and she hated those things in the frozen chickens.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: The feet back inside the chook. When they defrost you had to pull them out and they would slowly open.
QUESTION: It also had the giblets in there. I can’t imagine us going back to that because the accent now is on pleasure, on time limitations etc. So the change has been very dramatic. Would your research compare those two things as to how far we have come down hill, if you can call it that?
ALISON WISHART: I think that’s a really interesting question and maybe one that we should pursue. We are starting to see a little bit of a flip the other way because I think it’s Maggie Beer whose recipe for spaghetti bolognaise includes chicken livers. Some cooks are starting to advocate that we use more parts of the animal. You make pate from chicken livers and things like that. People are starting to go back to basics and make their own stock where you would use the other bit - the feet, neck and other things like that. There is a little bit of a swing of the pendulum back the other way but there is not the education to know what to do in the kitchen, to know how to use those cuts of meat. It’s an interesting area and one that we should pursue. Thank you.
QUESTION: I went to a home science school, which is what they were called in New South Wales in the latter part of the 1940s. I was wondering whether the cookery book - I actually did donate it to the collection here - I wonder who wrote the cookery books at the time.
ALISON WISHART: The Commonsense Cookery?
QUESTION: No, not Commonsense, it was an Education Department cookery book. It’s in the collection, a little fawn covered thing.
ALISON WISHART: The ones I have seen just say ‘written by New South Wales home ec teachers’, a collective of teachers. I would have to go and have a look at that particular book to answer that question.
QUESTION: It was during the war, of course, and everything was very scarce.
ALISON WISHART: World War II, yes. I should also mention - I don’t know if you know the Eternity Gallery in the National Museum - that Flora Pell’s story will be in the Eternity Gallery from October this year in a much more condensed form because we only get five images, five quotes and a little video and an object. Her cookbook will be on display in that gallery. So after October you can go and have a look.
QUESTION: Did you do any research on the follow-on after she gave up teaching - I didn’t take note of her death date - in regard to the Emily McPherson school because that was definitely in Victoria more well known than the Collingwood one, in our era anyway.
ALISON WISHART: The Emily McPherson school starts during Flora Pell’s teaching career. I haven’t got the date with me, but it’s definitely happening in the 1920s. It is privately funded so private fees. It’s one of those parallel things happening at the same time as Flora Pell’s work.
That’s right, it’s coming back to me now. One of the things that the Education Department does when they are tossing up what to do about Flora Pell’s cookbook, her textbook, is they commission an independent cookery teacher, who happens to be the headmistress of the Emily McPherson college, to give them an independent assessment of her cookery book. This letter is in the Education Department files. This incredibly catty woman says, ‘Well, actually, it’s a very good cookbook and if I had had the time, I would have written something like this myself.’ The Education Department is getting independent advice saying, ‘It’s a great book and we use it at our schools.’ It’s getting petitions from their teachers saying, ‘We don’t want to go back to the recipe cards. It’s a retrograde step. Our students love this book.’ They think about commissioning their own textbook and put together the team to start writing it, and then they discover these 1900 sets of recipe cards wasting away in the back shelves. Today, when I think about the amount of paper we recycle at the National Museum, it would just get popped in the recycling bin. It is unbelievable that this happens in a way. It’s a battle between David and Goliath in a sense between Flora Pell and this all powerful department.
QUESTION: Did that book eventually come out?
ALISON WISHART: Not that I am aware of.
QUESTION: So the cards continued?
ALISON WISHART: The cards continued until the Education Department in Victoria then gets its own version of The Commonsense Cookery Book which they probably borrow from New South Wales. We could do more research about that. Flora Pell is really interesting because of her writings about the importance of food and the importance of the home and women’s role. You don’t get those political statements in later cookbooks which more focus on the recipes, food and nutrition.
QUESTION: What did she do after I think was the question?
ALISON WISHART: 1929 is when she retires due to ill health. She marries in 1935. During that time there are some records to say she was the judge of the best cake at the Melbourne Exhibition, like the local shows - she was asked to come and judge cooking competitions. I haven’t found any other sources because after that she disappears from the public record, and we only have private material to go by.
The other interesting thing I guess is that, when we did a little bit of genealogical research, we discovered that her siblings and her mother all die before she’s 18 years old. So it’s just her and her father who are still alive. Her father then remarries quite quickly, and his new wife has four or five children. Then the father dies. We’re not sure if Flora Pell, in a sense, becomes the breadwinner earning money to support her stepbrothers and sisters from this later marriage.
She certainly then goes on to support her husband who is older than her and pre-deceases her. They lived in Kew. I think the children of her husband are not very happy when he remarries quite quickly after the death of his wife. There is some interesting stuff there that could be teased out. But we don’t always have the public records available to do that.
QUESTION: I wonder what her religion was and if she might have been related to the present Pell in Sydney.
ALISON WISHART: We are pretty certain that she is not related to Bishop Pell. But, like most people in that day, she did go to church from what I can gather but I don’t think she was Catholic so she would have been Protestant.
QUESTION: Just on that score of the modern focus on perhaps better cooking, the reality series Master Chef and especially Junior Master Chef, I know that’s probably not included in your research but it seems to me a fascinating thing to introduce people at a very impressionable age into the wonders of cooking. I was never such and I am still not in a particular category. I have such a better cook here that I would never attempt, but it’s terrific. A lot of people knock reality shows but that little show, especially Junior Master Chef was just fantastic.
ALISON WISHART: Actually Adele Wessell has done some research on that and her paper is published in an online journal. I can flick Sharon [Casey] the link if you are interested. Adele has two children aged nine and seven herself, and they were avid fans of Junior Master Chef. One of her criticisms of it is that on that show they are often cooking things like prawn soufflé, these outlandish recipes that I could hardly ever get the ingredients for let alone bother to cook for an evening meal, and also the sense of competition that it brings rather than creating an environment where cooking should be a relaxing and enjoyable experience. Adele has done a bit of a critique of that and looked at its impact on the way we think about food today. I am happy to send the link to you. Adele and I have also written an article for reCollections which is the National Museum of Australia’s journal which is available online as well if you want to have a look.
SHARON CASEY: That is probably all we have time for because Alison has to get back to her other work. Thank you so much, Alison. It’s been a delight this morning. Our next Friends event is Friday for women’s voices at 10 a.m when we have Kate Carnell speaking. That’s our program for this month. Thanks. [applause]
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Date published: 6 May 2011