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Feeding the Nation

Feeding the Nation

Nation takes you on a culinary tour into the Australian diet to see what we ate in the past compared to what we eat now. It looks at the way Aboriginal bush tucker has come to be appreciated, and how some fashionable restaurants now boast dishes such as lilly pilly jam. Learn what troops on the Kokoda Trail survived on, what Vegemite is really made of, and how in 1941 Australia was feeding 13 million people as part of the war effort.

Work up an appetite over a vast array of cookbooks including a 1932 Country Women's Association Calender of Luncheon and Tea Dishes, and Mrs Beeton's 1891 recipes for roast wallaby and pickled kangaroo tail. Food rations for nineteenth-century rural workers, which consisted of meat, flour, sugar and tea (plus a little rum and salt if you were lucky), will make you appreciate how much things have changed.

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Bush banquet

Bush foods are the edible native plants and animals of Australia that have sustained Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for thousands of years. Aboriginal peoples use detailed knowledge to decide which foods may be eaten, how to process them, and where and when they can be found.

But European settlers did not eat much bush tucker. They either had little idea about what to eat and how to prepare it, or they regarded bush food as 'rubbish food'. More recently, Australians have shown a new interest in bush tucker. Fashionable restaurants boast dishes such as sautéed kangaroo fillet and lilly pilly jam. Some Australians see bush foods as the ingredients of the distinctive tastes and textures of a national cuisine.

Lieutenant EF Byrne of the 27th Australian Independent Company eats lunch from his field rations in the Ramu Valley, New Guinea, 20 October 1943
Lieutenant EF Byrne of the 27th Australian Independent Company eats lunch from his field rations in the Ramu Valley, New Guinea, 20 October 1943. Creator of work: Lance Sergeant NS Stuckey, Courtesy Australian War Memorial, 058079.

 

Feeding the troops

On 2 December 1941, war broke out in the Pacific Ocean region.

The Australian armed forces faced the challenge of keeping troops healthy and fit in difficult tropical conditions.

The Director of Army Catering, Brigadier Hicks, used the latest research to devise nutritionally complete rations. Hicks argued that the health, stamina and morale of the soldiers depended on what they ate.

War rations such as substitute butter and tinned cabbage may have been nutritious but they were never popular with the troops.

Pilchards and herrings in tomato sauce, nicknamed 'goldfish', were the most detested, described even in official reports as 'revolting'.

The food arsenal

During the Second World War, Australia was promoted as the food arsenal for the Allies. Australia fed not only its own people, but civilians and troops from other Allied nations.

This was a big ask. In 1938, Australia was feeding a population of about 7.5 million. By 1941, it had to feed 13 million people.

To meet this great demand for food, Australians were encouraged to conserve and produce more. Food became a weapon and food production became part of the official war effort.

Farms and factories went into overdrive. With men away at war, women supplemented the workforce and, in 1942, the Australian Women's Land Army was officially formed to keep the food arsenal stocked.

 

The birth of Vegemite

Fred Walker ran a Melbourne business producing processed cheese and preserved meats. In 1923, Walker passed a tin of British Marmite to his chemist, Cyril Callister, and asked him to produce a product similar to it. Callister took up the challenge and produced Vegemite, eventually using his research to earn one of the first Doctor of Science degrees from the University of Melbourne. The Sanitarium Health Food Company, which marketed Marmite in Australia, quickly started an expensive advertising campaign to combat Vegemite's competition. And until the Second World War, Marmite reigned supreme.

Vegemite is actually made out of products left over from making beer. Beer is made by adding yeast to a mixture of water, sugar, hops and malt. The yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol. Once all the sugar is gone, the yeast cells sink to the bottom of the vat. This 'cream' is removed, washed and then treated to allow the minerals, vitamins and proteins to escape into a surrounding liquid. The clear, light brown liquid is seasoned with vegetable extract and salt, and then concentrated to form a thick paste. That's Vegemite!