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Food and space: the Australian nation in the British Empire

Adele Wessell, National Museum of Australia, 6 April 2009

JAMES WARDEN: I am James Warden and it’s my pleasure to be here on day three of the Heritage Festival. I want to say a little bit about the University of Canberra and then introduce Adele. This is a little bit of our graphic design from the university [image shown]. We have cooked up three things, so to speak, for the Heritage Festival this time around and look forward to an increasingly greater involvement with the heritage unit and the festival in the years to come. This year rather than three of the same themes we decided to pick different themes - food clearly; a longer-term project that we will have on convicts particularly later this year and next year concentrating on the convict layer of this region; and third Jeff Brownrigg, who many of you will know from the National Film and Sound Archive and now of the University of Canberra, will talk about film.

By way of further introduction, the Donald Horne Institute was something we concocted at the University of Canberra last year as a way of concentrating the cultural heritage program in terms of collections, the heritage estate and places on the one hand, and perhaps more significantly to revive the conservation of cultural materials degree which came to a bad end about five years ago. We have managed to re-establish that degree and had the first intake of 22 students this year. So we will be turning out graduates in materials conservation three years from now. Because of the increasingly serious crisis in that profession, our new vice-chancellor Stephen Parker, two years new, saw the logic of that argument and supported the establishment of the institute, named after Donald Horne who was the second chancellor of the university. It’s a way of organising our teaching, our research, our public partnerships and, very importantly, events like this to give a brand, a label or a vehicle to participate in these exercises.

It was Meredith Hinchliffe’s idea to invite Adele to come to talk about food and heritage. It dawned on me a little while later that Adele and I had known each other some 20 years ago at the University of New South Wales where she was in history and I was in political science. And just resuming that conversation 20 years on tonight we realised that Homer Hudson ice cream was a big event in her house to which I was an occasional visitor. I don’t know if Homer Hudson still is in the landscape.

ADELE WESSELL: It’s not the same. It’s been taken over.

JAMES WARDEN: It’s different. Adele has come to talk about food and space, and I think space is a really splendid theme for the whole festival because you can do a lot with it. Before I pass over the platform to Adele, I want to say a couple of things about food because, aside from a coincidence of the University of New South Wales and knowing quite a lot of people in common, Adele and I are both members of the Centre for Research in Food and Drink at the University of Adelaide. I have an abiding interest in food as heritage as well from a slightly different perspective, and indeed one of our research themes in the future might be to develop much more of an interest on food so we might be able to make you a visitor to the University of Canberra as well.

But by an amazing coincidence, tonight is the 2,500th year of the publication by a Sicilian Greek called Archestratus of a poem about food. Archestratus is credited as being the first food writer. He talked about things like the need for fresh flavours at the right time of year that shouldn’t be covered with other flavours. If you got a fresh fish from the sea you shouldn’t dump cheese on it, you should enjoy it in its prime. This is a very contemporary culinary idea that I am sure we would adopt now - we do. He also said, ‘Have nothing to do with the Syracusans because they drink like frogs and don’t eat anything.’

It is also the 509th anniversary of the first English cookbook called The Noble Book of Cookery published in 1500. Then in 1521 a book was published that was really the tradition of cookery books into the eighteenth and nineteenth century and is really a lifestyle book [image shown]. This is the 1988 publication of the Australian Heritage Cookbook [image shown] with a terrible cover, which was another lifestyle book projected as a gift that you could give to foreigners about Australia because it was about projecting the Australian lifestyle. It looks like it is just one of those non-books that is a few recipes and photographs, but that’s a long tradition in publishing cookbooks, which also depends on literacy. You have to be able to read them.

A professor at UC, the University of Cambridge, published a cookbook in 1736 called The Country Housewife, and Lady’s Director. That was the first English book directed specifically at women. Then following through to 1783 - maybe where Adele is going to pick up the story; I’m not sure - there was a book published called The London Art of Cookery by John Farley. Now I don’t know if that book was on the First Fleet. They brought many volumes with them - and I hope they did - because it has a kind of convict quality about it. It’s written of in the Encyclopaedia of Cookery as ‘the most extensive piece of plagiarism in the eighteenth century’. There was one recipe in a large book that has not been traced back to immediate predecessors of that book, and that was a recipe for beef tea. It is possible that book came to Australia early on.

Adele will pick up some of those themes, but I just want a say a few words to introduce her. She will wander on to the ground of cookbooks as well. That’s a page some of you may be familiar with from that National Treasures Book [image shown] about cookery books in national collections, because food is clearly one of Adele’s abiding interests.

Adele Wessell graduated at the University of New South Wales with both honours in history and a PhD and she has taught at Southern Cross University since 1996. One of her most recent jobs is to help choose the new vice-chancellor of that institution which is getting married up to Charles Sturt. She was a visiting fellow at the University of Adelaide in 2006-07 and a visiting fellow here at the Museum in 2008. She has a wonderful array of research interests that I really like. She has written on lighthouses, the Pacific war from veterans’ experiences, floods, the industrialisation of food and the art of eating, on homesickness. Then she has also written on - a splendid term - the taste-scape of historical identities, which I am sure will emerge tonight too, and a beautiful phrase which is connected to the slow food movement which she has called slow learning. It is with great pleasure that I introduce Adele to talk to you about perhaps slow cooking and slow learning.

(Waitress Song by Seth Sentry played)

ADELE WESSELL: That was the song you were listening to, and I will explain the reason for that in a minute. I wanted to start by respectfully acknowledging the past and traditional owners of this land, the Ngunnawal people. It’s a great privilege to be here, thanks to the Donald Horne Institute and to the Museum for inviting me.

I chose the Waitress Song because it reminded me that food is about a lot more than what actually ends up on our plates. It’s also about relationships. I am sure a lot of us eat things for a whole lot of different reasons, most of it cultural, some of it personal, and not always to do with the purity of taste or the availability of ingredients so I wanted to set the scene by playing that song to start with.

When we cook and we invite people over for dinner and so on, we often do a lot of things to set the scene. In fact cooking and eating with people is such a cultural thing that we make up all sorts of rules about eating: you can’t laugh at the table; you can’t talk at the table; we play music sometimes; we set the table in particular ways; we order ourselves around it; and so on. It is quite important to consider all of the things that go into the makeup of a meal.

I am going to concentrate on dinner tonight partly because we are so close to it. I really admire all of you for coming and also because I think we have given up breakfast in lots of ways to the corporations. We have given it over to cereal manufacturers and it doesn’t figure a great deal. And lunch too - how many people here had lunch today? At your desk? That’s a really interesting thing. In fact, it is such a crisis that Nutrition Australia have launched this thing called ‘Lunch week’ to try to popularise the idea of lunch. One in ten people say that they never eat lunch and most people regularly skip lunch at some stage.

It is also that lunch, dinner, supper and tea are all variously confused in a lot of the Australian literature. That suggests some of the difficulties that we have sometimes in talking historically about food. You wouldn’t necessarily know that though from looking at the volume of discussion on food. There are recipes and recipes everywhere. There are re-released versions of cookbooks like the Commonsense Cookery Book and Margaret Fulton, there are ABC websites that are dedicated to food, podcasts that Jamie Oliver is doing, and so on. All of that gives the impression that food is in fact something that is very easy to talk about. But as Farb and Armelagos remind us:

Food is often used to express things that are sometimes very difficult to articulate in ordinary language.

Inviting people over for dinner can be easier than saying, ‘I want to be your friend.’ Food is used in a whole range of ways to establish relationships between people, and what we eat also tells us a great deal about our history and a great deal about our personal life.

Donald Horne was aware of that. I have here a very long quote from Horne:

Quote from Donald Horne

Horne was interested in cultural sustainability as the fourth pillar of sustainability. He considered that how and what we eat was one of those things that is very important to cultural sustainability. It would be interesting to consider in terms of thinking about our own culinary heritage what aspects of the food we eat that we would consider to be related to something that we would promote as cultural sustainability and what we might actually give up.

The theme of the seminar today is food migration and identities and the use of food as a home building practice. I am going to look at that through two interrelated lenses: the first is the idea of home and the use of food as a way of making people feel at home. I am going to get you to do a bit of an exercise on your childhood memories. So that is what that sheet is there for. The second is how food was transformed through migration, how it acquired different meanings and so on through the processes of migration. I am going to use examples from the colonial period to look at the relationship between food and home, and then I am going to use some more contemporary cookbook magazines to talk about that transformation.

In Australia I think those two aspects of our culinary heritage are mutually dependent. It is quite difficult to talk about Australian food and home without thinking about the local and thinking about the global as well. Tonight I want to bridge a bit of the gap between the space of our own home kitchens and the wider national space and the broader world in which we have acquired a lot of our food. The theme of time and space is quite apt to be talking about food.

Joseph Banks described the homesickness of sailors on the Endeavour by saying that ‘they suffered from a roast beef mentality’. That food metaphor was well chosen and the condition was enduring. If we are what we eat, a lot of people would say that Australians until recently were thoroughly British. Roast beef itself was part of a construction of British national identity, and its popularity coincided with the colonisation of Australia. The roots of Australian cooking and food production then begin in the England of the 1700s. Robert May had a recipe for roast beef in The Accomplished Cook that was published in 1660 but he is already speaking with nostalgia of the lost days of nobleman’s feasts when he says:

Before good housekeeping had left England.

Recipe for Yorkshire Pudding by Hannah Glasse

Hannah Glasse on the other hand directed The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy to servants rather than the mistress, and the book was intended as a manual for what she called ‘the lower sort’. At this stage there was an increasing number of cookbooks that were published aimed at the increasing middle class to free up women from having to instruct their servants in how to cook meals. The Art of Cookery was published in 1747 and it was popular for at least 100 years. It was really popular in Australia. That is indicated by the relationship that some historians have seen - Barbara Santich and Colin Bannerman for instance -between jugged hare, which was a Glasse recipe, and the kangaroo steamer which has been described as ‘the finest dish of Australian colonial cookery’.

Kangaroo was the leading Indigenous food source in colonial Australia, and it was eaten in various ways. The kangaroo steamer has been called the most characteristic and enduring dish of this period. James Boyce’s explanation of its heritage relate it to the convict ration where people would often get fresh kangaroo meat and some salt pork. So they put it together in a pot and made what was called a kangaroo steamer. A new settler to Van Diemen’s Land described the first meal of the assigned convicts on his land in the following way:

The hindquarters of kangaroo cut into mince meat stewed in its own gravy with a few rashes of salt pork. This dish is commonly called a steamer.

They add to that a sufficient quantity of potatoes and large cake, which we could assume was a damper, cooked on the spot.

Recipe for Kangaroo Steamer by Edward Abbot

Native produce was by necessity an important part of colonial diets but few differences in food preparation show up in a lot of early cookbooks. Paul and Elizabeth Rozen have referred to this thing called the flavour principle. What they suggest is that the way that new foods get incorporated is by using flavours that are considered to be familiar to particular people. In Australia you get a lot of recipes for things like kangaroo tail soup, which is like oxtail soup, and kangaroo tail curry and so on which were using familiar flavours in a way of incorporating those sorts of things.

The first cookbooks incorporated new foods in English styles of cookery. In the first cookbook that was published in Australia by Edward Abbot, who was born in Australia, [English and Australian Cookery Book: Cookery for the Many as Well as for the ‘Upper Ten Thousand’ (1864)] evoked the roast beef of old England. The use of such a potent symbol of English identity in the nineteenth century may seem likely and colonists often relied on English cookbooks. New ingredients were adapted to fit in with familiar culinary expectations. Abbot drew on native and exotic ingredients to produce very familiar dishes using English methods and principles, such as kangaroo stuffed with beef suet, breadcrumbs, parsley, shallots, marjoram, thyme, nutmeg, pepper, salt, cayenne and egg.

In the 1890s a larger body of locally written books became available, but by this time the food supply was held to be abundant and secure, and the cultivation of exotic foods in Australia like wheat, sheep and cattle had established a long-term and familiar food supply. At the same time though, Australian foods were also being incorporated into English cookbooks. In the 1890s for instance you get Isabella Beeton using kangaroo in her recipe books as well. Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book and Household Guide gave a selection of Australian recipes to the English - kangaroo tail soup, roast wallaby, parrot pie, which was not unlike one made of pigeons, bandicoots and tomatoes, and so on.

A recipe for kangaroo tail curry brings together the British invention of curry powder from India with Australian ingredients. Far from being bound by geography and material resources, culinary cultures then inhabit multiple times and places that mutually constitute each other. The culinary products of the mother country had quite a different meaning in Australia. Despite being expensive, people in Sydney were often served salted cod and preserved fish rather than the local native fish which was abundant and would have tasted much better.

Recipe for Kangaroo Tail Curry by Isabella Beeton

Colonial taste-scapes then were constructed in England and Australia, and through the consumption of food they were both socially and personally subjective. Similarly, the taste for curry in India was in striking contrast to the attitudes of the British in India. While in India people were relying on eating English style foods. In India itself they were differentiating themselves by eating English foods, but in England at the same time curry was becoming more and more popular and being branded and named things like Madras curry, although it may not have actually come from there, and then being sold to Australia. So you get an interesting kind of triangular trade going on. A lot of what was happening in Australia was coming from elsewhere.

In that sense, it’s more than taste and tradition which is impacting on how people are actually cooking. If people just brought their taste preferences with them, you wouldn’t necessarily get any change in what people were cooking. They were also using food in some ways to differentiate themselves and they were using food to make themselves feel at home at a time when they didn’t really have any of those other kind of tangible or material relationships that could make things feel familiar.

The contemporary incarnation of curry as an ethnic food only makes sense in terms of the way that it gets differentiated culturally. Curry is considered ethnic, for example, and a cup of tea is considered English, although tea was never actually grown in England. In a cookbook that was published in the 1950s that brought together a lot of recipes from the Commonwealth [entitled Cooking from the Commonwealth], Robin Howe complained that the average Australian will do their best to insist that all the cooking that they do is laid down in a pattern that is familiar to them through their British forebears. True Australian food, he advised, will only be found in homes and outside the cities - Murray River cod, colonial goose, kangaroo tail soup and barramundi. Upward mobility required acquiring a taste for imported foods and distancing oneself from local produce and cooking. People in the country though may have been dependent on those sorts of native foods also by necessity.

Recipe for Kangaroo Tail Soup by Robin Howe

The question of how to market a country that doesn’t have a clear culinary heritage has faced lots of people and that includes food historians. Food traditions though are born from exchange. Food is one of the really early places where globalisation is manifested. In ancient Rome people were eating oysters from Colchester and so on. So there were already a lot of exchanges and things that were going on before Australia itself was actually colonised.

Food played a role though inenculturating people as well and passing on certain types of memories and histories. The discourse of home can be called upon to create and sustain empire and was quite important in that sense, but it is actually much more ambiguous when you restore the experience of what people were having in England and think about what was going on in other colonies as well.

Another example of that kind of exchange are things like turtle soup where Australia had cannery factories in some coastal regions set up to can turtle soup and send it back to England. But that desire for it actually came to Australia through the British experience in the Caribbean. Turtle soup was so popular in Victorian England that even mock turtle soup was considered to be preferable to not having turtle soup at all, which is hard to imagine now.

The incorporation of British foods was central to the colonial identity project in Australia, but the fact that British culinary culture was locally produced challenges the idea of an authentic British cuisine which the colonies tried to replicate. National cuisine is a construction that can hide the histories of colonialism and its legacies. By the time that Abbot was advocating rabbit curry in England, it wasn’t authentic Indian food that was being used but the British invention of curry powder incorporated into English culture.

Food then is entwined in lots of ways with all sorts of cultural boundaries. We know that food plays an important process in home building, particularly in the situation of migration. Like more recent migrants, the British who came to Australia preferred familiar food and, despite pressures to the contrary, would continue to try to reproduce the foods that they knew. They took their food preferences with them and they also took their food. Not knowing how to live off the land, parties of explorers and overlanders travelled with pack horses and bullocks pulling heavy wagons full of supplies. The first changes to the land were made by stray cattle escaping from travelling herds or pastoral holdings. Many of the foods that became established were brought on the First Fleet: wheat, barley, maize, various seeds and plants - things like grapes, oranges, cattle, sheep, sugar, peas, beans, turnips and potatoes.

The English had left behind a very different climate with changing seasons and it was a land of forests that supported permanent agriculture. It was relatively cool and damp. Few of them were farmers. At the time that Australia was being colonised the things that characterised English culture at that time were rural exodus coupled with incredible growth. Between 1800 and 1900, for instance, the European population doubled and the search for fertile lands in order to feed Europeans was really significant to Australian colonialism.

In Australia important developments in the food industry in preservation, in canning and in refrigeration decreased transit times that came through transport changes shaped the landscape and changed eating habits as well. Australia was a pioneer in food processing because food exports were always so important, and at the same time the colonies were dependent on European imports in order to make themselves feel at home and to differentiate themselves from what was going on locally.

The food consumed by colonists in Australia wasn’t simply the residue of old food habits or traces of colonial history but a device to re-affirm cultural and historical bonds and a shared sense of identity. Donna Garbaccia describes the link between food and identity in the function of nostalgia:

It’s easiest to see how food choices reflect the eaters’ identity. Humans cling tenaciously to familiar foods because they become associated with nearly every dimension of social and culture life. Food thus entwines intimately with that which makes a culture unique binding taste and satiaty to group loyalties. Eating habits both symbolise and mark the boundaries of culture.

Food preferences aren’t incidental to identity. They aren’t something that merely reflects it. They also help to constitute colonial identities and play a very significant role in everyday life and a central part of economic, social, political and cultural matters.

Eating is the primary way that we establish and maintain relationships. The relationship between food and home is an essential one. When most people are asked to describe what an important meal is for them, it’s generally one that invokes sharing it with family. In some ways food contributes to the construction of what family is as well as the idea of home.

The concept of home conjures up lots of meanings, and in Australia it refers not just to that place where people share relationships but also the specific dwelling, which is quite different to the English etymology of the word. Colonisers, of course, didn’t go home and they problematised in some ways and fractured the sorts of food memories and ideas, the relationship between home and colony. So in Australia you get things like Sunday roasts and people talk about hot English dinners and so on. People have used that to suggest that people wanted to be elsewhere, that they had a sense of nostalgia and they longed to be somewhere else. But in some ways you could also use it to explain the way that they were also trying to make themselves feel at home.

The thing about food is that it gives you an embodied sense of the past so sometimes in eating food memories are also evoked. It’s a way of bringing the past into the present. It resonates with something. Everybody has heard of Proust’s beautiful description of madeleines, for instance, that brought him back immediately to his home life in French villages. In this way food crosses boundaries between past and present and between producers and consumers and establishes different sort of relationships of meaning.

I wanted you to think about your own food memories. Because food is such an important medium for personal memories and for collective memories, I want you to think about some food memories that evoke important memories for you. It could be a particular type of dish; it might be something that you use as a comfort dish like mashed potato; or it could be a food event - a birthday party or a Christmas dinner that you shared with friends and so on. I have some sheets where I have asked you some questions about your childhood food memory. [insert sheet] I thought it might be time to start a bit of a dinner conversation about some of those things. I will give you five minutes to have a think about that and then I hope we might be able to share some of those ideas.

I can see lots of people still writing but I thought it might be time to hand the microphone over. You don’t have to share and bare all of these things. If food is a medium for personal and collective identities and if people brought with them those sorts of food preferences, it would be good to think about on a personal level what that might actually mean. I wanted to start with the food memory and associations that you have with it. Would somebody like to share theirs?

QUESTION: In our house we used to have spaghetti with a can of Kraft braised steak and onions. This is something that I am not necessarily proud of now and I only have it now when Nick is away because he doesn’t like it. But it has such a strong association with what I now look back on and see as a happy childhood. They changed the recipe for Kraft braised steak and onions several years ago. When I found out they were doing this, I went around Canberra and bought as many cans as I could find, which I am still eating so far without ill effect.

ADELE WESSELL: I think that is really interesting because it doesn’t matter about the quality of it at all.

QUESTION: I thought I may as well carry on because spaghetti is the theme. Until I was seven I lived in England and I came out on the ship. Whilst on the ship for the first time in my life I ate something exotic, which was in fact spaghetti. It may have been Kraft braised steak for all I know, but to me at that stage at seven years old it was very exotic. Because now I am an extremely eclectic eater and desperate for the new best thing and the new flavour, and I reckon the spaghetti that day being such a major change from overcooked vegetables and dried-out meet was the thing that actually changed my life food wise.

QUESTION: I went to Japan last year and went to a very small restaurant that seat about eight or ten people that was the favourite restaurant of a very good friend of my wife’s. It was an extraordinary meal of all those most impossibly crafted morsels that came in wave after wave. My reason for noting this amongst too many other thoughts was within that meal, which was truly extraordinarily good ,was the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten which was the entrails of sea anenome - sea urchin. Has anyone else eaten that? They warned me and I thought, being an eclectic eater I might as well have a go, and it was just powerfully appalling.

ADELE WESSELL: There is this formula that Kalcik has developed and it is ‘not so strange food equals not so strange people’. The idea is that some foods are considered to be edible or inedible depending on what your cultural associations with them are. In Australia insects are a fantastic source of protein and widely abundant but we tend to ignore them and have done with other sorts of foods as well because there are those cultural associations. It is what Michael Pollan calls the ‘omnivore’s dilemma’, the fact that we can eat anything but in fact only select certain things to eat - sometimes because of our taste but sometimes it’s the associations because you knew what it was. Any other food associations?

SPEAKER: Talk about a snack.

ADELE WESSELL: Snakes were widely shunned in Australia -

SPEAKER: No, not snakes, a snack. You suggested that we might talk about breakfast cereals or snacks. I too grew up in England and a lot of you will be familiar with the European beech tree. Every few years beech trees produce viable seeds that are called beech nuts. They are tiny little things and children eat them. They produce them in their millions on the good year, and only children would eat them. So I can remember walking home from school and going under a beech tree and getting these tiny little nuts, peeling the skin off and eating them. They taste like nothing else. It’s a unique taste. I don’t suppose I will ever taste it again because when I go to England it won’t be the right time and it won’t be the right season for the nuts.

ADELE WESSELL: And you won’t be a child.

SPEAKER: And I won’t be a child. So it’s a sort of memory.

ADELE WESSELL: Sometimes you can’t actually relive those either because it is about the context in which you eat them.

That takes us to the next part of the talk which is about food transformations, because some of those food memories are quite impossible to relive or if you taste a food it can transport you to a place but the associations are very different to the places where you are eating them now. I wanted to go on to talk about the way that, even though colonists longed for food from their own memories of what it was like, those foods were already shaped by migration and exchange. The quote that I wanted to use to illustrate that is from Stuart Hall who himself was a migrant from the Caribbean to England talking about the meanings of a cup of tea:

People like me who came to England in the 1950s have been there for centuries; symbolically, we have been there for centuries. I was coming home. I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth. There are thousands of others beside me that are, you know, the cup of tea itself. Because they don’t grow it in Lancashire, you know. Not a single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom. This is the symbolisation of English identity - I mean, what does anybody in the world know about an English person except that they can’t get through the day without a cup of tea?

And in the nineteenth century that was also true for Australia. Australia had an insatiable appetite for tea. It was something that commentators frequently observed about the amount of tea that was drunk. It had been a delicacy in the 1700s, but prices had dropped considerably in the nineteenth century. As commodity production increased so, too, did the importance of those colonies where the tea was produced. In that sense, products change their significance and meaning along the path that takes us from where things are produced to the table. In Australia, a cup of tea signified something about the mother country.

The environment and the social costs of that kind of production and transportation can get obscured in the process as well, so not really knowing where the foods came from was something that in a sense was already happening in the nineteenth century. In his classic work on sugar, Sidney Mintz suggests that there is an inside and an outside to looking at food history. The inside view suggests what a product actually means to the person who is consuming it, preparing it and how they view it. It is possible to look at things like cookbooks and meals to consider that - what are people are eating, how popular are those things and so on. Even though people may not actually use them to cook, we can suggest something about the symbolism of the food through that. The outside meaning involves a much greater distance. It is looking at the kind of social and political production of food as well. After making a few points about cooking in general, I wanted to think about that in terms of your own experience of what you ate last night for dinner from an inside and outside perspective.

The gastronomic landscape of Australia is a transnational one. It is created by tastes that are not internal necessarily to Australia but linked elsewhere through different cultures, histories, ideas and so on, which Doreen Massey argues constructs places. Like other traditions, food doesn’t have to be place bound. The identity of region to which its food contributes is not only dictated by the availability of ingredients, how these are used and consumed is mediated by culture and economy as much as geography and these have a reciprocal impact on each other. We are simultaneously local and global.

Carpet bag steak, which is a good way of illustrating this, doesn’t use any distinctive ingredients [image shown]. This is Burt Newton’s favourite dish from a 1960s magazine. Even the combination of steak and oysters had already happened in England in things like oysters and beef steak pie, and grilled steak that was served with oyster sauce. The carpet bag steak though has been described as an Australian recipe. Santich describes it as ‘one of Australia’s contributions to the world’s gastronomic treasure house’. Has anyone had one? It has virtually disappeared. Did you enjoy it? Absolutely. I would not have tried it except for this talk, and it is extraordinarily good.

Recipe for Carpet Bag Steak by Bert Newton

A lot of people talk about it because in nineteenth century recipes you see it quite often and it does re-appear in things like these sorts of collections - this one from the 1960s was celebrity stars’ favourite foods. It also appears in Robyn Howe’s Commonwealth cookery book, but it disappears from a lot of the classic Australian cookbooks at the time. Carpet bag steak suggests the coming together of a whole lot of different sorts of food traditions, the engagement across different boundaries that makes food visible. Farb and Armelagos compare a cuisine to a culture’s language, a system of communication that is reproduced at birth and hard to shake as an adult. Even after migration, people sustain the accent of their native cuisine. Some national cuisines speak louder than others. It’s a bit like language. People saying, ‘I don’t have an accent. Everybody else has one,’ and ‘I don’t have a cuisine. Everybody else has one.’ Carpet bag steak could be seen in that way as well.

With Farb and Armelagos is Elizabeth Rozen and Warren Belasco, all argue that a cuisine has four different types of elements. I want to use this to discuss Australian culinary heritage. First, each cuisine has a limited set of basic foods or primary edibles. What do you think they would be for Australia? Wheat would be a huge one, and all the bread and pasta and everything that comes from that. Beef - Australia is one of the world’s biggest beef exporters and that is interesting when you think about the importance of roast beef. Meat generally figures quite highly.

You get things like this Australian Women’s Weekly Cookery Book which under the general heading of ‘main courses’ was just called meats because that’s what people assumed were in a sense main courses.

Index from the Australian Women's Weekly Cookery Book (1948)

The second thing is that cuisines were usually distinguished by their favour principles, a way of combining foods: in China you have soy, ginger and garlic; in France cream and herbs; in Mexico it’s chilli, coriander and lime. Even though there might be different sorts of ingredients, those flavour principles underpin the food in some ways. Can you think of what flavour principles would underpin Australian food?

SPEAKER: Tomato sauce.

ADELE WESSELL: That’s kind of salt. It’s heavy salt. In a sense you could argue that generations of salted beef have had an impact. People were eating beef that was years old drenched in salt.

SPEAKER: What period are we talking about?

ADELE WESSELL: In the colonial period, and things that might have an impact now.

SPEAKER: [inaudible].

ADELE WESSELL: From the way they were. Some people have argued that transformation in a sense has intensified but that you had a much earlier period of food combining that was happening as well. The colonial period has often been described as being fairly bland, but I wonder whether that is also because of people’s experience with food because salt is not really bland at all but a real flavour enhancer, and would be one of those things.

The other thing is the manner of preparing food, whether it’s mincing, cooking, frying, roasting and that kind of thing is also considered to be one of the elements of cuisine. In some places that is dictated by the energy that might be available. In South-East Asia you have things that are cooked very fast that don’t use a lot of energy. Can you think of ways of preparing foods in Australia that are fairly common?

SPEAKER: A lot of smoked, casseroles and slow roasts, things that cook in the wood stove that keeps the house warm in winter.

ADELE WESSELL: Yes, and part of that relates to that British heritage too.

SPEAKER: It took advantage of both slow cooking in terms of soups - not just casseroles and stews. I grew up with a wooden stove and there was always something cooking on the stove.

ADELE WESSELL: To some extent it is about the availability of cooking utensils and things. Camp ovens would have been really important. Robin Howe lists lots of recipes that you could only cook in a camp oven, which by 1958 nobody had. It is those long cooked stews that become important.

The other element of cuisine is the way that something is eaten which prescribes who eats it, how they eat it, and what the manners and rules and so on of the table might be. To some extent this is necessary because otherwise the people who had the most money and the people who were the most powerful would eat everything and nobody else would get anything. It’s a sort of way of distributing food but it also changes in a sense over time as well. If I said to my children that they weren’t allowed to talk at the table I would never get anyone there. The way that I probably learnt to speak was at a table sharing food with other people. Those sorts of things can vary on a personal level. Are there things that you think Australians have in common about the way that the food is eaten and consumed?

SPEAKER: Outdoor food.

ADELE WESSELL: Even though it wasn’t really an Australian invention outdoor field is something that is quite important.

SPEAKER: Our use of cutlery. I am saying this because when I went to the States I was alienated by the fact that they would put the knife down and move the fork into the right hand. I was horrified after living there for a year to catch myself doing that. I occasionally, once a month or so, pick up the fork in my right hand and quickly follow it by slapping the other hand and putting it back in my left hand.

ADELE WESSELL: Some of that might be to do with when the US was colonised as well. Forks weren’t really that common, so you could use a knife for both. That’s an interesting carry over. It seems incredibly awkward but perhaps it helps them to digest their food better than us.

SPEAKER: [inaudible] using chopsticks or using the fork in your right hand. If you think about it there is a cultural difference in the way that German people use their knife in the right hand and fork in the left but they will hold the fork in a scoop motion, whereas the British pack it on the back of the fork, and the Yanks when I did that when I was over there looked at me and said, ‘Why are you making it more difficult for yourself?’

ADELE WESSELL: To those sorts of basic elements, the other thing to add would be the processes of getting food from the farm to the table. There are a lot of different things that are involved in that. If you think about your own meal, the roast that you had yesterday for instance, where did it come from? What was involved? It’s a whole range of people that complicate that food process and the food chain for us in a sense. There are researchers, marketers, retailers, even once you get it away from the food producers and the packagers and then the people who prepare it for us, which could be us, or the people who half prepare it for us if you buy bags of pre-prepared potatoes and so on. It is in a sense quite complicated.

If we were to apply those sorts of main principles to the foods that we had or to look at some of the cookbooks, you could argue that meat has been significant. This is from the Australian Women’s Weekly [image shown]. Cans have been very important to Australian history. This is Canned goods on display at New South Wales Exposition of 1892 in Chicago. Other processed foods have been important because of the distances that people had to travel. Not just Deb potatoes but things like suet mixes, seasoning mixes, instant coffee and that kind of thing.

Canned Goods on DisplayAdvertisement for Deb potatoes

Then there is this question about flavours. There has been a popularity of Italian and Chinese foods and so on after World War II. But some people have argued that while that has rested on this idea of authenticity, the more they could appeal to a wider audience by being more like the sorts of things that Australians wanted to eat, the more popular those were likely to become. This is a really early recipe for pizza [image shown] which was called mock pizza, but it was made from a basic scone recipe. That is how I learnt to make pizza using a scone recipe rather than yeast in my domestic science classes at school, because it was something that I would have been already familiar with in a sense. It wasn’t really so much like Italian pizza, it was much more like a savoury scone in a sense.

Mock pizza recipe

The notion of taste and sense of what makes a proper meal are naturalised at all sorts of all conscious and unconscious levels but it’s easier to see how these are manifested if we think about our own foods. The second exercise that I wanted you to do was to think about what you had for dinner last night. Don’t make up mashed potato with olive oil drizzled with truffle flakes or whatever, think about what you did actually have last night and see if you can apply some of those basic principles to it. What were the basic ingredients, who prepared it, how was it prepared, what were the flavours, and as much as you know of where it came from. We will do that just for a little bit another five minutes before we finish up.

Imperial Meats advertisement

There are a lot of labels in Australian cooking for Imperial meats and colonial teas and all of that kind of stuff. That is also really interesting. Some of those things were produced here but they resonated with a longer culinary history. Imperial meats also made fresh meat too, not just canned meat.

What did you have for dinner last night?

SPEAKER: I had a curry which was made by my housemate. I share a house with a guy. We are both students and we share cooking and purchasing of food fairly equally. It was a jar of curry which we made with cubed beef. We went beyond the instructions on the jar to add cubes of pumpkin and sweet potato to stretch the batch to make the meat go further, because this will feed us for the entire week of lunches and dinners.

ADELE WESSELL: What sort of curry, was it an Indian curry?

SPEAKER: It was an Indian curry I think it was a Madras or Rogan Josh, one of those two. Because I didn’t make it I can’t really say. That is our budgetary meal arrangements. We’ve had other things such as a Mexican slushy, which is basically just made up by what we have in our fridge. It started off with minced beef then we added two lots of capsicums to it. Then we tried to stretch the batch with as many different types of beans that we could find. It was basically let’s try to increase our vegie content because meat is expensive we will try to make it stretch for as long as we can. We can’t afford to buy lunch at uni or CIT, so that’s what we do.

ADELE WESSELL: Beans and capsicum and mince all seem fairly coherent. You didn’t add a tin a tomatoes.

SPEAKER: We are pretty vanilla with all of that. We go with the Mexican theme. The most we deviate is adding things like carrot and sweet potato to it, or with curry by adding pumpkin and sweet potato. There you go with student budget cooking.

ADELE WESSELL: That’s good - making do has driven a lot of culinary heritage.

SPEAKER: Making it last as well. Bulk it out and make it last.

ADELE WESSELL: What did anybody else have for dinner? Did anybody analyse it according to those four elements or do people not want to share what they ate?

SPEAKER: I don’t know whether it being a Sunday night might make it a bit different. We are more recent empty nesters so I am trying to get used to not doing a big shop, especially having a younger son who is a tradesman who eats and eats. Yesterday it was very quick because I had just done as part of the Heritage Festival a 15km walk in Namadgi National Park. It was coming home really tired. It was quite a convenient thing. It was actually a prepackaged pasta from Aldi and then the sauce, but you mix the sauce with other ingredients, and a tossed salad. It suppose it was Italian, eating in front of the television, The Einstein Factor was on and with the husband. It is just at that stage where I am at.

ADELE WESSELL: There’s a really big difference between what we assume people are eating at home and what people are actually eating. There’s a story about an English magazine in the 1930s that published a recipe that apparently was quite toxic, and they rang up hospitals and rang the police to warn them that people could be becoming really ill. They tried to broadcast messages saying don’t cook the food and nobody presented, which suggests that in fact people don’t necessarily eat or prepare the food that are cookbooks. You get something very different when you look at the kind of groceries that people are purchasing. That was why I was interested in microwaves as well, because maybe they give us a better sign than looking at cookbooks for what people are actually eating at any particular moment.

In the nineteenth century people didn’t have very many cookbooks. So you could assume they were often using the ones that they did have. They got them for very practical reasons. They didn’t have pictures or other things that would make them attractive in the ways that we use cookbooks now, which could be to give us inspiration for cooking or could be just as a form of what Barry Smart calls ‘gastronomic porn’ that we are just pouring over them.

SPEAKER: [inaudible]

ADELE WESSELL: The cookbook industry now has to differentiate itself so you get more and more specialised cookbooks - recipes for Sunday, gluten free, cookbooks for kids under five. They are quite differentiated compared to the more generic cookbooks we have had historically.

SPEAKER: I was going to make a comment about the fact that in our house we have more or less stopped buying cookbooks because we pick up recipes from magazines, newspapers and the Internet. If I have decided I want to do a banana cake, which is in fact one the things we had last night, I will go and search for it on the Internet and have a look at the different ways in which banana cake might be made. You get the English ones, the American ones and normally I end up with an Australian one.

We were very exotic last night. We had coq au vin for dinner because my partner decided - and he cooked it - that we should celebrate the beginning of winter with a casserole kind of a dish. I think it was a recipe he had found somewhere in a magazine and cut out. He has his own recipe book that he refers to every now and then. Then we had banana cake with custard that he made. It was a much more fulsome evening meal than we would normally have on a Sunday.

ADELE WESSELL: It is interesting the way that people acquire different sorts of information about cooking and how to cook as well and how we also continue to reproduce foods from either our own childhood or heritage or change them according to our own taste preferences. In a sense, that is what is also happening culturally in Australia to do with Australian cooking. Lots of people will say: is there such thing as Australian cuisine? Are there any unique distinctive flavours associated with it? Are there particular ways of cooking that differentiate it from other places? The same thing is often said about other places as well like the US where there is a similar kind of settler colonialism and people have brought different traditions together.

One of those things is that people talk about fusion foods. If you look at the history of food and how early it was globalised and all of those sorts of different trade relations and the way they became incorporated and in a sense appropriated by different countries, then in some ways the recent period has intensified that food exchange rather than inventing something that is completely new. Eighty per cent of Australians own a wok now, and that suggests that a lot of people are using them as well. But we probably are eating less kangaroo. If you wanted to find a good recipe for kangaroo, you would be better off turning to some of the nineteenth century cookbooks than some of the more recent ones we have. If you wanted to try something really distinctive like carpet bag steak, which is a great meal, some of those things are also found much earlier on.

So there were food adventurers and changers, but in a sense people were using food to make themselves to feel at home. It took some time for the differentiation that was necessary in that colonial period to ease where people could feel comfortable about trying other sorts of foods as well. Thanks for coming and sharing your cooking experiences. I hope you go and have something very tasty for dinner.

JAMES WARDEN: A few words to wrap up and to thank Adele. Frank Moorhouse has written a wonderful book called Martini: a memoir. It’s partly the story about himself, but he is obsessively interested in the ingredients of Martini and debates the Martini from every possible imaginable angle down to the shape of the toothpicks you might use. He goes through ingredients, preparation, flavours and the whole process of consumption. He quotes someone where he says, ‘The wonderful thing about the third Martini is that it opens the prospect of a fourth,’ and the whole thing of bartender to mouth that he just talks through in this wonderful detail.

But he told a wonderful Donald Horne story. Donald was a great luncher, famous Sydney luncher. He rang Donald one day and said, ‘Donald, we need you to come out to lunch.’ He said, ‘Frank, I can’t, I’m working.’ He said, ‘No, you must come,’ and Donald said, ‘There’s the good Donald and the bad Donald.’ And Frank said, ‘Listen to the bad Donald,’ and he said, ‘No, Frank, it’s the good Donald that wants to go to lunch, not the bad Donald.’

I propose tonight to seek out a nineteenth century kangaroo recipe which I was reminded of when Adele spoke about the Edward Abbot book which was called slippery joe - if I have it right -

SPEAKER: Slippery bob.

JAMES WARDEN: Which was flour, water, seasoning, emu fat and kangaroos brains.

ADELE WESSELL: It was much enjoyed.

JAMES WARDEN: I am sure it was - a nineteenth century recipe. Finally I want to thank you all for coming and for forsaking at least part of your meal time. I thank the heritage unit and the ACT government for putting together what looks like a splendid festival and more strength to them. I thank the Museum and the representatives of the Museum here. And mostly I would like to thank Adele for a wonderful talk about food heritage. We hope to have you back. Thanks Adele.

Date published: 4 May 2009