Donna Lee Brien, Marion Halligan, Janet Jeffs and Dr Adele Wessell, 6 March 2011
ADELE WESSELL: My name is Adele Wessell. I am very happy to be chairing this event today. I am an associate fellow of the National Museum of Australia and I am also a senior lecturer at Southern Cross University where I lecture in history. I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders past and present.
I have been interested in food, like everybody else in the world, since I was born but I only developed a scholarly interest in it when I was doing my PhD on Columbus Day and realised that Columbus’s voyage was in fact motivated by pepper and not necessarily by gold and the other stories that we found out later. Since then I have been doing food history, much to the amusement of some of my colleagues.
This forum has been developed to celebrate Women’s History Month and its theme ‘Women in the business of food’, which brings focus to Australian women who made significant contributions to the history of food, whether that is through cooking, through food writing, through food production or science and education, which each of our speakers will be talking about today. In taking their skills into the public sphere, these women changed history by challenging perceptions about women’s unpaid domestic skills. This is a particularly important topic for the centenary of International Women’s Day this month. As Lenore Coltheart explains, it honours those cooks, writers, teachers and scientists who made good food their cause and changed opportunities and conditions for all of us.
Women in the business of food is a collaborative event with the Australian Women’s History Forum to mark Women’s History Month. This is held annually to raise public consciousness about women’s history. Those of us interested in food are aware of its importance beyond the way that it sustains us physically. But until women’s history both as a subject and a movement drew attention to everyday matters, the significance of that was largely neglected. As French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre put it at the turn of last century:
History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the ploughed fields whereby we thrive. It knows the name of the king’s bastards but cannot tell us the origins of wheat. That is the way of human folly.
The theme of today’s conversation is ‘stirring the pot’ and that could be taken both literally or metaphorically. Since cooking emerged, women have been stirring the pot and through that have defined identity, have created culture and have established and maintained relationships. But outside the kitchen, they have also been stirring the pot, and through that have made significant changes.
Each of our speakers will talk to the topic of stirring the pot today. I will introduce them briefly now: Donna Lee Brien is professor of creative industries at Central Queensland University; Marion Halligan, Canberra food writer and novelist; and Janet Jeffs, who is the chef of The Ginger Room and Kitchen Cabinet at Old Parliament House. Each of the speakers will talk for about ten minutes and then we will open up the conversation so that you will have the opportunity to ask questions and so on.
I am actually going to start with my paper which is on ‘Food activism: women at home and women on the farm’. Stirring the pot evoked some useful images for me in thinking about this particular topic. I wanted to make one important point through the paper: that food is the basis of enduring social organisation through the way that it is produced and the way that it is prepared and consumed. In saying that, I want to suggest that food is an agent of change and doesn’t just reflect change.
Related to that is the idea that food shapes identity. Gender roles, for example, largely derive from the way that we divide labour around the production and the consumption of food. The focus of my talk is on the Housewives Association in Australia and women on dairy farms and how they used and constructed food in order to organise themselves. What interested me in doing this research was that they were two groups of women who appeared to be quite different but in fact came together around an important Australian staple and our most popular processed food. But it also has particular currency in the light of the price milk wars that are going on at the moment, thinking about the relationship between people who produce and people who consume, and the kind of tensions that that price war has exposed between farming and selling and buying.
My research though is set in the 1950s, which gives an historical dimension to that current issue. This was a period of rapid change in the dairy industry in terms of regulation, mechanisation and the quantity of milk that was being produced. The economic boom that began in the 1950s wasn’t confined to Australia and ushered in a new kind of consumer society. In the dairy industry, more and more farms were moving into liquid production and there was a surplus not just in Australia but in the US as well, which meant there was a lowering of prices in the export market and domestic price fixing in order to try to protect the market internally. Some of you might remember this is also the period in which the free milk scheme was introduced into Australian schools, which gave us such a love of milk.
In the 1950s women spent an awful lot of time preparing meals, an average of four and a half hours per day. That was not just in actually cooking, it was also in buying food, in washing up and all of the things that were associated with food. Food was particularly important to many women at that time. In the same decade there was a transformation going on in Australian food culture. We can look at things like refrigeration, the use of cars, the introduction of television and some consumer fast foods that were coming in at that time all of which heralded a massive transformation. Women mostly did all the shopping. The universal work hours were between nine and five, which was when the shops were also open, so they were responsible for buying the food.
The development of consumer organisations and housewives associations specifically for women who were doing that provided a kind of a forum for activism just when women’s place in the home and that kind of domestic ideology was also being venerated. Lobbying for cheaper food, better quality food and a ministry of housekeeping showed how central food was to women’s politics in the 1950s. According to the official journal of the Housewives Association of New South Wales, the housewife was probably more interested in milk than any other food on her refrigerator shelves. Food was a major focus of the association’s activities. It took up a lot of women’s time but also a considerable portion of the household budget - around 21 per cent of people’s incomes was spent on food during this period.
The Housewives Association had a conception of the political that was about their everyday life. It aimed to educate women about the principles of nutrition and to campaign against rising food prices, but it broadened its political activities to take account of a whole lot of other issues that women and children were also involved in. As the official journal pronounced:
Your problem is ours. This is your journal.’ We want every woman to write to us on every problem she meets and can’t cope with alone. It doesn’t matter how simple your query is or which aspect of living it embraces, ours is a service magazine and we’re here to help.
I have often read that and wished I had one of those myself. In the post-war period Australian housewives associations engaged in consumer boycotts, factory inspections, letter writing campaigns, cooperative buying and lobbying for representation in parliament on boards and in committees of inquiry. Margaret Howe urged readers:
Let’s have a bushfire. There is a vital need for women in parliament. Some women are wasting their time in minor activities. They need to move up from parents and citizens associations to local councils. Attend your local councils, get to know your mayors and aldermen, take an interest in council affairs and make your presence felt. If your local member does not do what you require, vote him out at the next election until you get someone who does. Women of Australia: join and support your Housewives Association, Country Women’s Association and attend your local council meetings. This work is vitally important and for Australia. Your country needs you in peacetime even more than in wartime.
This is quite interesting because in that period of war the theme was largely around unity, so the development of some of these groups provided a kind of alternative to that in some ways. Women’s role as consumers though was both a source of activism and a constraint. Until recently historians have represented the 1950s as fairly conservative domestic ideology.
Taking an alternative perspective, Justine Lloyd and Lesley Johnson have argued that the figure of the housewife in some ways also enabled feminism because women began to identify with each other, they were organising around common kinds of interests and so on, and they were insisting on the right and the need to represent themselves. In lots of ways, too, they were also trying to cross those boundaries between public and private and make what was going on in a home very much a political issue. The Housewives Association encouraged women to identify with and to support each other through what they saw as common problems. Self-organisation supported their identity as women and at the same time expanded the possibilities for their participation in public debate. They also created networks of solidarity.
In a different way, dairy farmers in the 1950s also worked at relationships that attempted to provide an alternative to capitalist agribusiness. Dairy farming was a demanding means of making a living. You had to milk cows twice a day, 365 days in the year. When there were improvements in working conditions elsewhere, these weren’t necessarily passed on and hiring farm labour wasn’t really a very good option. Dairy farming then depended on family labour and cooperation in daily chores, especially around things like milking, which could blur the gender distinctions that had operated in other kinds of industries.
At the same time while women’s work might be taken for granted and people have talked about pastoralisation - that their input into the economic life and so on of the farm was just seen as part of the work that they did at home - they were able to integrate their work life with social life networks as well. Until the 1970s, the dominant organisation of dairying in Australia was through cooperatives and they provided different sorts of support. In 1950, the Commonwealth Dairy Products Equalisation Board had guaranteed an increased and stabilised return with the advice to turn towards modern, scientific farming methods. We can see in this decade there was the beginning of what Andrea Gaynor has called ‘the ideology of efficiency’ where personal knowledge wasn’t seen as privileged as the scientific development of new technologies and the application of those.
Gladys Hain, who was the President of the Victorian Housewives Association, also advocated up-to-date methods of cooking as well as higher and more efficient knowledge of housekeeping to reduce work for the housewife. The association promoted cooking and domestic science courses for all girls rather than knowledge that might just be passed on. On milk it was nutritional experts that the journal often turned to for advice. So they ran a big campaign, which I have hidden from my children, to try to get subsidies for ice cream, for example, because it had egg and milk. If my children saw that, they would be asking for it all the time.
The housewives’ activism was constantly directed towards the milk board. As always, Dora Lawson, the organising secretary of the Housewives Association of New South Wales, complained, ‘Housewives suffered directly from the arbitrary declarations of the men in control.’ They failed in their attempt to reduce the price of milk and to try to bring in seasonal prices for milk but they took credit in 1953, for instance, in keeping the price rises down and for a drop in consumption that was happening at the same time. They were campaigning for higher margarine quotas and for more money to go for dairies. There were lots of letters to the editor suggesting it was actually the factories making profits and the places that were selling the milk rather than the dairy farmers themselves.
Farm women’s lives were being transformed during the same period. The use of milking machines, for example, expanded during this decade and changed the role that women played on the farm and the kind of contact that they had with the herd. Farms got bigger, regulations got tighter. Between 1961 and 2000, the number of Australian farms almost halved but the size of the farms that remained grew considerably. The changes that the industry underwent had very real consequences for the way of life of farmers and their communities.
This project is part of a much broader research project that I am doing that is trying to bring together farm producers and the people who consume farm products who often live hundreds of miles away. The Housewives Association identified itself was political, although non-party, and their interests included every sphere of public life promoting the home, women and children as public policy concerns. The chains binding milk producers and consumers are much clearer when the historical narrative is re-oriented around gender, family and community - to put those things at the centre of the story. Such an approach provides a valuable lense for re-examining how food was used and constructed to organise people’s lives. Thanks [applause] It was a very brief overview but I am very happy to take questions on any of that a bit later on.
Next I would like to introduce Professor Donna Lee Brien. Donna is at Central Queensland University. She is widely published in the area of writing, creative non-fiction and collaborative practice. Donna has been writing about food writers and their influence in scholarly and popular publications for the last five years. Her main areas of recent interest are Margaret Fulton and other Australian women food writers, chefs such as Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer and Gay Bilson, and the massive contributions they have made to changing our lives which has only just started to be recognised because food and food magazines have seen it as women’s business. Donna is going to speak on Margaret Fulton, Gay Bilson, Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer and how those women have changed our lives. Thanks.
DONNA LEE BRIEN: My colleagues at the university are also quite bemused how you can have such an interesting and fun topic as food and food magazines. It will be a thrill to tell them that we had a full audience today. As Adele said, I am going to focus in this short talk on these writers and how they have actually changed our lives. I would say as a disclaimer that I have only gone back to the 1950s when Margaret Fulton started work in 1954, so the kinds of things I am saying might go further back, I just haven’t got there yet. Maybe if we have another one of these next year, we can do the 1940s.
It is a fact that this type of work of writing in magazines, and especially food magazines, has only just started to be recognised as socially, culturally and economically important now. It goes back to what Adele talked about in her talk, because food shopping, food preparation, magazines and writing about food were really just seen as quite mundane, practical and women’s domestic business.
A primary concern for all food writers and cookery writers has always been with food itself and how various dishes can be prepared and served. Yet it is sometimes hard to look behind such designs and advertising content of magazines such as The Australian Women’s Weekly - we had a beautiful picture of Susan Peacock on the previous one [image shown] - New Idea and Women’s Day from the 1960s and 1970s, and even today’s magazines, to see how revolutionary some of the messages in these magazines are and were.
Some of you, like me, will remember how common the weekday meat and three veg for dinner was every night and roast lamb for Sunday lunch. I can’t believe that when I was under ten I used to eat three chops with mashed vegetables every night for dinner Monday to Friday, and how common those meals were in the late 1950s and early 1960s at least for Anglo Australians. It was indeed only in the 1960s that these dishes most commonly eaten began to be to be replaced by waves of what were quite radical innovations for our restricted palates with new choices from pastas to fondue, salmon and chocolate mouses - hopefully not served together - and American, European and Asian inspired cuisines.
Where did most people then find out about these foods and ways of cooking them? For most of us or our mothers at that time it was the pages of women’s magazines and cookbooks. Here we have a very glamorous Margaret Fulton with her electric frypan [image shown]. There are other factors, of course, besides magazines and cookbooks. There is the post-war migration. We all know this: the stories are told here in the Museum. These factors included: post-war immigration to Australia; our growing affluence as a nation; our increasing levels of overseas travel where we were exposed to a lot of different foods; and changes in the food industry itself. But what I am looking at in my research is to say that these cookery writers, including writing by leading chefs like Stephanie Alexander, were instrumental in introducing and popularising these shifts to really broad audiences. Previously they have been seen as reporting on what was happening but not actually making these things happen.
Margaret Fulton went to work on the Australian weekly magazine Woman in 1954. It was, however, when she commenced her 20-year association with Women’s Day as its weekly cookery writer in 1960 that she established herself as one of the leading authorities on food in Australia. It’s hard for us to think now, but for women to be leading authorities on anything in Australia in the 1960s was quite rare. I have a little argument I can make here: we do remember Graham Kerr. What’s very interesting is that The Graham Kerr Cookbook and The Margaret Fulton Cookbook were published virtually at the same time. The one in the middle is the 1968 Margaret Fulton Cookbook [image shown]. What’s the big difference? She’s not there; he is. He was also from British background too so there was a bit of a cultural cringe going on.
The Margaret Fulton Cookbook was amazingly popular. I showed in that slide beforehand that they couldn’t keep the printing running off fast enough to supply people that wanted to buy it. The one on the far side is The Margaret Fulton Cookbook from 1977 [image shown], so nine years later we get that tiny little picture of Margaret up there. I have only just worked this out but I am going to make a paper around comparing these covers, these cookery writers and their authority. There is a lot of authority with Graham and he’s very confident in the kitchen. I have nothing against Graham Kerr but I think it’s very interesting how those book covers were presented. You might also be interested in this: this was a gourmet club of the 1960s, and really the image of the gourmet was very male as we can see from those chefs and gourmets [image shown].
What I particularly like about Margaret Fulton’s recipe and magazine writing about food is how it usually comprised a informative and, importantly, very well researched and factually correct introduction which set the context for her recipes. These introductions often included historical, agricultural, scientific or other information. Some of these pictures are not the best; they are my own archival ones sometimes taken on my phone but I thought you might be interested to see them. She continued also having information about ingredients in her cookery books, and I think this makes them very interesting. It also set up a very popular publishing format that has endured from the 1950s and 1960s right through to today.
We find it a little bit boring when it is just the recipe; we want to find out how long lemons have been grown in Australia, where asparagus featured in mythology or whatever. It seems obvious to us today but Margaret Fulton was very much at the forefront of this. It is very much like Elizabeth David, who was a very erudite UK writer. We can chart back through their writing and what they were presenting us wasn’t just well written, it was also factually correct - that is very important. Things have changed and knowledge has changed, a lot of what was published in other areas in the 1960s which is totally out of date now. A lot of the materials that was in these books, even though the designs are not the way we would produce things, are still usable today. That is quite interesting too.
Another thing I have been working on is to look at these kinds of recipe cookbooks and magazines and chart out how what these writers were talking about matches up with what we are concerned about today. And guess what? It actually matches quite well. When we look at Margaret Fulton’s early articles and cookbooks, we find that over 50 years ago Fulton was consistently promoting the use of good quality, fresh food, thrifty shopping and the creative use of leftovers. She was certainly urging the use of time-saving products such as cans, or tins as we called them, frozen foods, mixes et cetera. But she also encouraged us to resist the lure of the new supermarkets completely and to continue purchasing from our local shops, greengrocers and fishmongers. These are the concerns that many of us, if we are at all foodies, are interested in today. We just use very different words to describe them. Instead of ‘thrift’, we aim to reduce food waste. When we buy fresh food, we think in terms of seasonal or local produce. When we support our local food suppliers and growers, we talk of food security and ensuring sustainable food systems but we are actually doing the same things. Fulton wasn’t alone in this. It is truly fascinating that we have had a rhetoric for 50 years around the things kinds of things we think about food now.
As in some of these pictures here [images shown] we have Italian, Indian and French cuisine. Margaret Fulton was also important in introducing us to revolutionary new ingredients and food preparation techniques from an increasing range of international cookery. This provided a solid foundation for the development of the cosmopolitan food culture that we enjoy and very much take for granted today. I live in a tiny little town called Guyra which is an hour from Armidale, and you wouldn’t believe what we can get in our tiny little supermarket. I can make quite respectable Asian and other cuisines. To find that produce in a very country supermarket, even ten years ago, would have been astounding. A lot of our major growers grow Asian vegetable, and I found okra the other day. That is quite astounding.
So that had to come from somewhere. You can chart that development as very like the development which was going on in a lot of our arts such as visual arts, music and film. But, interestingly, many more people have been able to confidently embrace a wide variety of foods in their daily life, probably more than have taken to go to theatre, opera et cetera. This is a real whistle-stop tour through all these figures, but we all know Maggie Beer. And like Fulton, Maggie Beer describes herself as a cook, not a chef. But her food - although often very simple – is certainly what I would call gourmet. It’s a kind of unfussily delicious cooking, good food for every day. It comes with a message too. It is a very different message from that picture of all the chefs in their top hats and the men in the suits that I showed earlier.
Maggie Beer also promotes the use of local and seasonal produce, supporting local producers and embracing the pleasures of cooking and eating what our markets have in abundance. Beer has set up and run an internationally successful food business based on these ethical principles and has supported other women in getting started or continuing in successful businesses. I think Beer’s idea of eating as well as living well has been another theme running through Australian women’s food writing from the 1960s on.
So it hasn’t always just been getting the food on the table and trying to do it in less than those four and a half hours that Adele mentioned, it is this idea of a good life and a good life that includes food. That is where I think we can definitely count Stephanie Alexander as having changed our lives. As a leading Melbourne restaurateur Stephanie Alexander has had a profound and really lasting effect how many of the great chefs of today have gone through her kitchens and are now even training later chefs. She also led the use of identified regional and speciality foods in restaurant dishes. And now with her development of the school kitchen garden initiative we will only know her real legacy in generations to come. It’s another thread through all these people - and Margaret as well now in her 80s – is that they haven’t stopped. They haven’t said, ‘I was really great in the 1970s. I’m just going to rest on that.’ There has been a continual engagement, updating and keeping going, which I think is very exciting.
I would like to mention Gay Bilson very briefly here. Bilson had an esteemed career as a chef for more than decades at major Sydney restaurants before turning to writing two really beautiful books Plenty: Digressions on Food and On Digestion. They have won a number of major awards through partly the food information and partly how beautifully they are written. You can look at these two books and chart another theme that is through the work of Maggie and Margaret - we tend to call them by their first names - and Stephanie’s work. I have written in the past about Marion in relation to this, too. But there’s a strong thread that women want to be creative, have a right to be creative, and want to have fulfilled lives. You can look right back to Margaret Fulton’s work in the 1950s where, through trying to make cooking interesting and fun, there was the start of this idea that even if you were still working at home that could be creative and fulfilling.
All these women writers that I have mentioned and many others - as Adele said, I have been working on this for the last six years and everyone I find out about, I find a place for them in this pantheon - have had this theme running through their work. Margaret encouraged us to use time-saving products - many of us still have our crockpot at home - and appliances. But this wasn’t just selling out and trying to commercialise products to make us fill up our kitchens. It was believe an early recognition of women’s changing roles and our increasing desire to work outside the home. I think you could make a case, and I certainly do, that this is a parallel running to Germaine Greer’s heavily political work The Female Eunuch, which came out just a few months after The Margaret Fulton Cookbook. I could have put The Margaret Fulton Cookbook there [image shown] because that’s the one that was almost at the same time but there were many of these cookbooks - The Busy Woman’s Cookbook and The Working Woman’s Cookbook - which were really saying yes, you can cook but you want to be free as well.
This little talk was to try to suggest how these popular women writers have not only helped to make women’s work both in and out of the home more visible, they have also proved to us that alternative career paths were possible for women to aspire to, even if ironically at the time it meant less time in the kitchen. Thank you.
ADELE WESSELL: There’s a lot to think about there. I’m not ever quite sure whether it’s despair or joy when I hear about how long we have had these sort of food messages and how enduring some of those books actually are.
Our next speaker is Janet Jeffs. Janet is the chef at The Ginger Room and Kitchen Cabinet at Old Parliament House, and she’s been described as one of the ‘giants in the kitchen’ along with Gay Bilson, Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer and Barbara Santich, so it is fitting to follow Donna’s talk. Janet completed an apprenticeship at Neddy’s restaurant in Adelaide and was then chef at the Pheasant Farm in the Barossa Valley with Maggie Beer. In 1985 she opened her first restaurant Kilikanoon in the Clare Valley.
In 1995 she moved to Canberra and opened Juniperberry, a small, fine dining restaurant. Juniperberry moved to the National Gallery of Australia in 2000, and then in partnership Janet established Ginger Catering at Old Parliament House. The Ginger Room opened in March 2004 and has received many awards. Janet holds ‘Talk and taste’ events every month at the Kitchen Cabinet at Old Parliament House, and hopefully some of you may have also received the flier when you first came in. Thank you, Janet.
JANET JEFFS: One of my favourite things to do, of course, is to stir the pot. Thank you for inviting me for the Women’s History Month. I actually have a confession to make though: with all this great career stuff that I have done, I really want to be a farmer. What I am planning for the future is to raise pigs on the 20 acres we have at Braidwood. And these are no ordinary pigs, these are Wessex saddlebacks which are a rare breed pigs and they say they are actually rarer than pandas. They are extinct in their native Wessex and were introduced into Australia around about the time of the Second Fleet, I think, from the research we have done. They are very interesting pigs in that they are very good mothers, very good foragers and hopefully are very tasty. That’s where I am heading with that one.
The reason why I have come from this chef career into farming is the interest in food and what food tastes like, because with our work at the Kitchen Cabinet and over the years what has come to me and surprised me is that our nutritional value in the food that we are eating is declining - that to me is a shock. That’s because our soils are declining and our farmers are under great hardship. The dairy industry is an example of that. What has been happening with the dairy industry is terrible. And this is our food: the food we put on our plates and that we give our children. This is a great concern and should be of great concern to you too.
As a chef, I feel like I have a responsibility to look into these problems and to find solutions for them. One of the things we do for this is we try to introduce a different meaning for food through our regular ‘Talk and taste’ events we have in The Kitchen Cabinet. Yes, I did tout my wares when you come in this afternoon handing out that calendar of events. On there you will see some of the events that we have. For instance, on the 20th of this month we have Stephanie coming to have a talk and taste in The Kitchen Cabinet at Old Parliament House. The event there also combines with what is referred to as ‘growing the growers’. This is a special project of Joyce Wilkie and Michael Plane from Allsun farm, where they are encouraging people to actually get back onto the farm and start to grow good food. This ties in very nicely with Stephanie’s kitchen garden program, which you will all know of, that she has with the school children. It’s kind of like a double event combined together to try to promote people’s understanding of how to go about growing good food. These events are very important for us in terms of broadening out and really understanding some of the problems that people have about getting good food onto their plates.
My career has been very interesting. One of the very nice things when we opened The Kitchen Cabinet was to get Maggie to come and open that. That was a very exciting event for us. And also a few years before that Margaret Fulton came and opened The Ginger Room. It’s nice to have these women come and make a significant contribution and acknowledgment of the work that we do here, and also the work that we do in Canberra. It’s very important that Canberra is at the focus of this because it is a national program and a national idea that we are trying to put together where we are involving everyone throughout Australia. This is where our farmers can get together to lead us into the twenty-first century and help to find new solutions for the problems that are facing farming at the moment.
Sourcing good food is a very important thing for a chef and it is also very important, for some of the women that you have talked about, in terms of the nutritional value and their role as being dietitians for sourcing good food. Popular culture has brought food and cooking much more into our focus. Programs like Master Chef have made very interesting inroads into the way people are now treating food.
I remember when I first started at the Pheasant Farm back in 1983 and Maggie had not seen basil. I grew some basil in the garden that I had and I brought this enormous bunch of basil in that we then made pesto out of. She talks about this in her book Maggie’s Harvest about how that sort of food just wasn’t available whereas now we take pesto for granted. You can go to Coles and get your pesto off the shelf. The same with avocados, I remember when I first started at Neddy’s in 1978 - I am now really showing that my chef career has been about 35 years here – and we first got avocados, we didn’t treat them that well because we didn’t quite know when they were ripe. So there was a bit of an experimental thing with avocados, and I am sure you have had those sorts of experiences too. It just shows how food trends have changed and how our eating habits have changed as well. This will continue to change in the future.
In the business of being in food, it’s interesting that the women that go before us have had a very tough time also cracking the glass ceiling. I don’t know of very many women chefs who are executive chefs in big hotel chains. It is an area which has become appropriated by men. It’s taken out of the home, taken out of hearth, and become a business of food where being a chef has become very much a male dominated area. I think women like Stephanie and Maggie have a very different approach to it. This makes it very attractive to people watching Maggie’s program on TV to think ‘Yes, I can do that too,’ because I think it’s a much more approachable way of cooking. There is still style of cooking which I really don’t like; that is, I say to my chefs that I work with, ‘Don’t make it too chefy.’ They love to trick things up and have little garnishes here and there, but that really isn’t what real food is about. Real food is about looking at the produce and cooking like Maggie and Stephanie does from the heart.
Being in the business of food has been a very challenging to do but also very rewarding. I think in the same way that farming is very challenging and also very rewarding, but probably for all the wrong reasons, and one of them is you don’t make very much money. It gives you an awful lot of satisfaction though. We employ a lot of staff at Ginger Catering at Old Parliament House. We have a full-time staff of about 30 and then casual staff, depending on the times like close up to Christmas we have about 60 casual staff that we draw on, who are university students. I am sure a lot of you have worked your way through university by waiting tables or working in a bar, so that’s a way of introducing yourselves to food.
The business of food for the future is going to be very much a challenge because of the food securities that people are talking about at the moment and because of the need that we have to feed a greater population. One of the scariest things that is happening is that the cost of food is rising. It has risen by 40 per cent over the last five years. These are going to face challenges. Particularly what that means is that in developing countries it’s going to push more people into poverty. The idea of how Australia goes about it and the ideas that we could have for the future and the way that we treat food is very important. I would like to probably stop the talk there so that we have time for questions later on and that’s when I would really like to open up some dialogue with you. I will leave it now and ask Marion to come and have a chat. Thank you. [applause]
ADELE WESSELL: Thanks, Janet. There’s a lot there in terms of thinking about the challenges that we face in terms of our food supply and also the role that women have played in being able to meet some of those challenges.
Marion Halligan is a Canberra-based novelist and food writer. Food, its preparation and consumption, is central to Halligan’s vision of domestic life. It is the subject of two of her non-fiction works, Eat My Words published in 1990 and The Taste of Memory from 2004 and features prominently in her fiction. Her novel The Point, published in 2003, is set in a restaurant by Lake Burley Griffin and has a leading woman chef as its chief character. Marion has been described by Ramona Koval as ‘a great master of writing about food and gardens and the intricacies of the human heart’. At one point she admitted that she tried to omit all references to food from her fiction but she confessed, ‘I found I couldn’t do it. Quite impossible. The kind of novels I write need food.’ Marion is going to speak today on the topic of ‘Food and fiction: an inescapable combination’.
MARION HALLIGAN: It’s quite interesting that novel the point because my heroine Flora is a woman chef. A lot of people say, ‘She’s Gay Bilson, isn’t she?’ She is not actually Gay Bilson, although she does have some of Gay Bilson’s meals in there. She is actually a kind of amalgam of Donna’s women - not Margaret Fulton but Stephanie [Alexander], Gay and Maggie Beer. I was interested in these women because they all started off in a kind of amateur way from other careers as teachers, librarians, secretaries and that kind of thing, got interested in food and taught themselves. So I was interested in the self-taught chef who came to it perhaps from family background or perhaps from books learning about things as they went. My character Flora is that person but she’s not particularly Gay.
I had thought of that life for myself at one time that I might become such a person but I realised, probably luckily, that I was really too lazy and that I was happier sitting down in front of a page so I started writing about food. I did indeed decide at one point that I would put no more food in my novels - a novel totally without food - and that didn’t work so then I did The Point which was a novel totally with food. That was quite interesting because people would say, ‘Halligan does her usual wonderful food,’ which seemed to me to indicate that they hadn’t read the book very carefully, because a lot of the food in it comes out of the garbage bin, it’s thrown away by the restaurant and it’s recuperated by homeless people who are sleeping on the hot air vents beside the National Library. In a sense it’s very much a work of fiction because I don’t think anybody actually does that. I was walking past the Library and these gusts of warm air came out and I thought if this was Paris there would be people sleeping here. So I invented that too, as I invented the restaurant on an imaginary point poking out into the lake and I invented the chef.
But the food in it is quite ambiguous. At one point where the young woman - she’s been to the restaurant for reasons I won’t go into - she says to her friend, an older man, ‘The food here, eating it like this, tastes much better than it did in the restaurant.’ He argues with her and said, ‘No, it doesn’t. When it’s cooked fresh on the plate it tastes better.’ She insists, and he finally says, ‘You think it tastes better.’ And of course she does and she’s right, because she’s happier in the circumstances eating it beside the lake with this person. He quotes the biblical expression which he can’t quite remember that better a dinner of herbs where love is than - and I think it actually goes in the Bible - a stalled ox and hatred therewith. I think most of us as we get older and wiser realise that simple and good food with friends, with people we love, is often better than very elaborate banquets because we are happier in those circumstances.
I put food in my novels because it’s a way of telling stories. It’s a way of creating character. In Valley of Grace, which is my last novel, one of the things that I was really interested in was fertility, choices about babies being wanted or not wanted, being refused or abandoned. I have been very interested to see through my life what has happened with this business of having babies. When I was young they seemed to turn up with embarrassing regularity and there were a lot of very hasty marriages around. In fact, getting married without being pregnant was quite an achievement in my youth, and people would say, ‘We only did it once in the back of the Morris Minor,’ which of course is a clue; if you can do anything like that in the back of a Morris Minor you are very young and agile, and that’s a good time for having babies.
But in later days I am interested in seeing young women at the age of my children, which is quite old now, in terrible panics because they have left it too late and they can’t do it. There’s an article in today’s Canberra Times about fertility and how you can’t leave it too late. When we think of how important babies have been in history. Imagine if Henry VIII’s first wife had had a couple of sons the history of England would be quite different, you would have no Anglican church for one thing. Then you think of somebody like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, if she hadn’t had the baby when she did, there would have been no novel really - events would have been very different. I am interested in those things. I am interested in birth, death, love which might be marriage or might not, betrayal which is so often comes - they are the great themes of literature to me, and it seems they work best for me to write about them in terms of food.
In Valley of Grace I have a woman called Sabine who’s married to a man called Jean-Marie, who is a very famous Catholic intellectual. He’s a philosopher and people sit at his feet - and this is in Paris. We don’t quite understand this phenomenon in Australia. There aren’t any great intellectuals whose feet people quite literally sit at. You would have a room full of people and they would all be sitting around here on the floor in front of me because there wouldn’t be enough room for them. He married his wife and informed her that there were to be no children. He was to be the person looked after in this marriage. His progeny would be his intellectual products, his books, his words. He has his acolytes. He invites them for dinner. When they come for dinner they get wonderful peasant food - stuffed cabbage and peasanty stews and good but rough red wine because ‘this is the sort of soul of France,’ he says, and the acolytes all think this is wonderful. But when he goes out he expects to be given much classier food. He likes a good Burgundy or at least a Bordeaux. One of his other habits is having his female acolytes stay one at a time in a pavilion in the garden, and his wife brings them to him at night to sleep with him. Sometimes they get pregnant. What happens then is that his wife gives them a nice fat cheque, and they go off and have an abortion because there were to be no babies in this marriage. I thought I would read you a tiny bit about the way Sabine behaves, which I think you will agree reveals quite nicely the character of Jean-Marie, without my actually saying that I am making any judgments:
She often walked the short distance down hill to the station and caught the train into the city. It was 20 minutes to the great market at Denfert-Rochereau. The delicacies she bought just for him were part of the routine too: the lobsters from a certain fishmonger who kept excellent ones in the season and scallops in the shell and a particular kind of sausage fashioned from fine seafood. And sometimes she’d go right into Les Halles where there was still a little street of merchants selling fresh foie gras. These things were served at meals for just the two of them, cooked by Sabine. His long, pointed lips sucked the meat from lobster claws, his plump, white hands mopped with bread the juices of the foie gras pan fried with caramelised apples. At dinners with the guests those same pointed lips mouthed succulent little blooms of discourse but when they were alone he said things like, ‘These beans are very fine, Sabine, really they are excellently tiny. You have done well. And the dressing with walnut oil and sherry vinegar is quite a masterly touch,’ for he had a good palate long trained and noticed these things. At the finish of these meals he would smile lovingly at her and often embrace her at the end of the evening. Sometimes they’d light the fire in the drawing room and sit there reading. More often Jean-Marie would go into the library and work there.
He has this perfect situation with this wife who slaves away fulfilling his every whim. But then one of the girls who gets pregnant says she’s not going to have an abortion, she’s going to have the baby. After all, she’s a Catholic, there is no way she could abort a baby and she’s quite shocked that Jean-Marie should think of it. Of course he has nothing to do with this. It’s Sabine who organises it. So Sabine gives her the cheque anyway. Then she goes to visit her and she gradually gets to know this girl, who at first she doesn’t think very much of because she thinks she’s a wizened little thing and not very attractive, but she gets quite fond of her.
When the baby comes, she actually offers to be a kind of godmother to her, which is quite interesting because one of the girls remarked that sleeping with Jean-Marie was like - she overheard her say this - being possessed by the God. What happens is that Sabine becomes godmother to this child and looks after her quite a lot, because the mother is doing a PhD as well as doing tutoring work and is pretty busy. Sabine is very happy, and the household starts to go to pot of course. Her hair gets too long. Her husband looks at her at breakfast and thinks she looks like a girl with rosy cheeks and grey hair, she has such a glow and why is that. Then he decides she has a lover. Then he surprises her in the pavilion with the baby and says, ‘There’s a baby,’ and is quite shocked by it. He has come in the morning to say, ‘Where is my breakfast?’ And she says, ‘You know where breakfast is.’ This baby, which is the baby she was never allowed to have, liberates her from this husband and his activities.
So the food actually packs up and starts coming almost permanently from the charcuterie, and once he even thinks it’s a frozen meal, a gourmet frozen meal, but not what he’s used to. She invites a friend of hers to lunch, a friend that she did bookkeeping with in their youthful days. They are both bookkeepers. She often has lunch with her in those little cafés you get in Paris with spindly chairs and ethereal cakes and she invites her for lunch. She’s got the baby with her. She’s looking after the baby at this point. She opens a bottle of excellent Chablis and some foie gras from the village where her grandparents lived, and they have that. Then she has little tarts from the patisserie and she has a very beautiful cheese from the local region and fruit. It’s an absolutely fabulous meal, but of course it’s a meal that you have when you have plenty of money but you are not doing the work. When they finished it, she covers it over with a cloth and says, ‘Jean-Marie and I can have this for dinner, what’s left.’ He’s not going to be impressed with this, of course, because he likes everything done for him. But it’s interesting the baby sort of empowers her, and the way this is expressed is in terms of the food - what happens to it, how she forgets to pick the beans when they are tiny, the courgettes get too big and all that kind of thing happens.
There’s another tiny bit that I will read you from another character altogether who is called Cathérine. She is probably 70 by now. She grew up during the Second War. Her father was in the resistance and was shot almost at the end of the war. That gives us some interesting things to say. This is Cathérine; her daughter says:
‘What was the taste of your childhood?’ Her mother laughed. ‘Horrible stewed ratatouille. It sat on the stove and any vegetables you could find got added. Every time I see ratatouille in a shop I think what frightful raggy stuff it was and how I learned to hate it.’ ‘But it’s quite nice if it’s fresh,’ said Fanny, ‘and the right ingredients.’ ‘Yes,’ said Cathérine, ‘but that wasn’t – awful stuff stewing endlessly away. Still, we survived on it, I suppose. I should be grateful. Even if we were always hungry, there was never enough and bread was so short. I remember at one time when grandmother’s father lived with us. He was very old and he was always asking for more bread. My grandmother would say, “Papa, there is no bread. It’s rationed. We can’t get any more.” The old man would say in a piteous voice, “I never thought I would see the day when my own daughter would deny me bread.” Tears would run down his face. It’s funny. I had forgotten all about him until you made me remember the ratatouille.’
Of course, anybody who knows anything about French life will know the central role that bread plays in it. It’s inconceivable and the old man does not understand that bread could be rationed. When somebody told me that story about himself - it was probably his own mother’s grandfather that had done it - I thought yes, that sums up exactly the old person and the incomprehension that this has happened in the world.
So that is what I use food for. I don’t think it’s a frivolous thing. I think it’s an essential thing. It expresses the way we live our lives, how we feel about them, what matters to us and what doesn’t matter. I think that’s probably what all these papers have been about: the way in which food expresses what matters and what doesn’t. Thanks. [applause]
ADELE WESSELL: Thank you, Marion. We are going to open up the conversation now to include you. You might have a comment or a question of any one of the speakers. Would anybody like to start? Leanne has a microphone so that you can be heard. Thanks for starting us off. It is always hard to get started.
QUESTION: My question is, I think, to Janet. I have been sitting here listening to these wonderful addresses and thinking about how I learnt to cook and it was from my mum. As a baby boomer I was taught in the kitchen at home. She was not a chef; she was a cook. Today we are seeing young people learning master chef, not master cook. While I applaud that, I am wondering what you think about where our young people of today and tomorrow are going to learn how to cook generally nutritionally, particularly given the cost of living and the need for us to understand and use good nutrition in every household rather than breed a lot of chefs, with the greatest of respect to chefs. I am wondering what your comment would be about how we can ensure that that will happen into the future.
JANET JEFFS: That is a terrific question, Annette, and I guess a question which a lot of us think about when we watch Master Chef and you go, ‘Oh my goodness, these young kids making something incredibly flash. Do they have the palates to enjoy them?’ Anything that engages children in the kitchen is a start, but I think the next step is to engage them in the growing of food to make that cycle complete. That is something that Stephanie has gotten on to. People have seen the response that children have when they can see where the food has come from and then enjoy the idea of not only cooking it but serving it and eating it with some conviviality. That is the key to those kinds of questions.
DONNA LEE BRIEN: I would add that shows like Master Chef, which we have given panels on previously, have the Master Chef Magazine and cookbooks etc so hopefully the traditions that have happened over the past 50 years will continue. It is interesting that the kinds of things I was mentioning in my paper are now common parlance in contemporary magazines so hopefully that will help.
MARION HALLIGAN: I have only watched those children once and I was astounded and appalled. I thought: how did they learn to do all this, how did they know all this at this very young age? It implies that somebody somewhere is giving them extremely intensive training, because they could make mayonnaises, they could do this and that and all sorts of things. Whether they are going to cooking schools or what, I don’t know.
QUESTION: One of the comments I wanted to make is that I have always grown food with my children and certainly helped educate the local children in our street. But I feel quite appalled to take them out to dinner because most restaurants cater for children by offering them a plate of yellow food, and my children just look at it. I was wondering what’s being done within this industry to change the recognition that a lot of children do have good palates and they would prefer a beautiful, coloured feast rather than something yellow.
ADELE WESSELL: Is that a question for Janet?
QUESTION: Yes, I guess for Janet, but I am sure all of you have perhaps done some research.
JANET JEFFS: I would actually like Bettina Soddenborn to answer this question because her son comes into our restaurant and eats off the menu.
FEMALE SPEAKER: It is important to run the hurdle of taking your children out to restaurants as early as possible. That is always difficult because they can’t be guaranteed to behave and other diners don’t always like it. But you just have to train your children, encourage them to see restaurants as a positive place, complement that with what they eat at home, and then inspire their sense of adventure.
QUESTION: Just picking up on what has already been said, I was wondering how we reconcile the fact that there has been a resurgence in cooking programs and encouraging people to cook at home, but also the style of architecture has changed where now you have flats that don’t really have kitchens in them any more and you have less space to grow food at home - you don’t really have enough space for a back yard garden. Where do you think that is leading in terms of food security, our changing habits and nutrition at home?
JANET JEFFS: I think you have written about this: how people get a take-away meal, come home, switch on the TV and watch a program while they are eating the frozen dinner.
MARION HALLIGAN: I do think that happens a lot. I am very interested in the notion of food and how much it is vicarious in books and in all sorts of things. I thought Dickens had a lot of vicarious food. If you were a bit poor and didn’t have much to eat he did marvellous feasts. If you read A Christmas Carol in this light it is quite fascinating. because the food is absolutely structural; it is necessary to the narrative. The only vicarious book I know in existence is a cookbook called Mediterranean Food, because when Elizabeth David wrote it, it was totally for reading, there was no hope that anybody was going to cook from it because there was still post-war rationing with no decent vegetables, powdered eggs and stuff. I think though with these shows we have virtual food, and that’s what a lot of them are.
I was astounded when I think it was Delia Faulkner wrote and said that her favourite program was Master Chef, which I had never watched but she said, ‘It’s absolutely addictive. You can’t not watch it.’ So I had a look at it, and I must say I quite hate it. I hate the competitive spirit; I hate the hectoring they do; I hate the fact that it’s nearly all commercials. When they have a commercial, they go back a bit and hector some more and so on. I think all the people that are watching that are not watching it with the thought, ‘Hey I could be making something like this,’ although I do hear that children talking about plating food now who never would have done.
ADELE WESSELL: I have a six-year-old and a nine-year-old and they do plate up. I have to say that my daughter who is six, who I thought was a carbivore - she only wanted to eat bread, cheese, rice and pasta - is now eating a lot more vegetables partly inspired by those sorts of programs. While on the one hand my son who is nine felt a bit intimidated by children cooking pheasant and so on, they will go out and try things. It has had that sort of effect. I think what you are referring to is this sort of paradox we are in at the moment where there is a lot of emphasis on fresh and local food - $1 litres of milk have risen milk consumption. Are we being that discerning about what we are buying and what we are cooking? People aren’t necessarily growing things, but they can go now to a farmers’ market and buy it from growers. All of these things are happening simultaneously. It’s difficult to make a straight judgment on it because so many children are quite different, and part of it is about the parenting. In New South Wales now they don’t do home economics or domestic science in schools, so a lot of it is about what is being grown at home and the kinds of things that people are getting through popular culture as well; whereas I learnt to cook through The Commonsense Cookery Book because my mother hated cooking.
MARION HALLIGAN: But Adele, your children are your children -
ADELE WESSELL: Yes, that’s right, they are different.
MARION HALLIGAN: What about the children of people who really don’t cook much, who think a McDonald’s meal is a treat and so on? What is going to happen when they look at it? That’s what I wonder. Obviously people who are educated in food are educating their children in food anyway, which is a good thing.
ADELE WESSELL: And there is a class dimension to all of that definitely.
MARION HALLIGAN: There is, yes.
QUESTION: I wanted to touch on encouraging kids to cook and that sort of thing. I taught myself to cook. My Mum does a really good spag bol. But I have been a vegetarian through my teenage years and I really taught myself to cook good healthy vegetarian food. I think encouraging kids giving them some respect, some praise for what they are achieving and some responsibility to do it themselves is the way to go. My Mum said to me, ‘Okay, if you want to be a vegetarian then you are going to have to take responsibility for producing the food yourself.’ I think giving kids that responsibility and confidence in them to be able to get into the kitchen and produce something that is good quality and then praising them for it. I think shows like Master Chef do encourage children to do that. They are young children doing this but young children can do this. By giving kids that responsibility and by saying, ‘yes you can do it,’ instead of saying, ‘kids are lazy, kids don’t want to do it, they just want to eat Macka’s,’ I don’t think that is entirely true. People need to focus on the positive aspects of children in the kitchen as well.
ADELE WESSELL: Thanks.
QUESTION: I just wanted to correct you in saying that home economics isn’t taught in New South Wales; it is actually taught under the guise of food technology. Having taught home economics, food technology or whatever you want to call it - domestic science when I started too long ago to mention - the four of us are engaged in the process of educating the children every day in cooking. We love it. The kids love it. We have classes full of students who want to learn how to prepare good nutritious food and to keep upskilling our students so that they can make choices, and I think it’s about food choices.
What I would like the panel to address is looking at it at a national level. Our concern particularly is that, whilst we are addressing at the national curriculum important issues like being able to read and write, being able to feed oneself doesn’t seem to be important enough to rate a mention in the national curriculum at this stage. It may at some time be addressed - in 2013 if we are lucky. I think that should be of concern to each and every one of us, because there’s a chance that we may end up like Jamie Oliver’s children in the UK who can’t identify what a carrot is. The reality of that being part of what might happen in Australia is of extraordinary concern for those of us who want children to eat well and nutritiously.
JANET JEFFS: And possibly even scarier when are you dealing with potential food that might be unknown in the future when the crops fail and we need to maybe have rationing again or have techniques of eating nutritionally rather than eating the junk food that people eat.
MARION HALLIGAN: Also part of that is the general question of what’s happening to food producing areas. As a city like Sydney moves further and further out and takes over wonderful fertile land that should be growing food, if it keeps doing so, where are we going to be growing the food? A few people are shouting about this, which is how I know about it, but governments don’t seem to be taking any notice.
JANET JEFFS: That is on our doorstep, too, at Pialligo where we have prime -
MARION HALLIGAN: Exactly, that fabulous land, and they keep wanting to put railway stations, military things and God knows what on it.
DONNA LEE BRIEN: On the national curriculum question, I was actually involved with that but not on this side, on the creative art side. At every meeting you went to, when it was just your own discipline everybody was really excited but we came up where every kid was going to be doing four hours of creative arts every day. It is the problem with something like a national curriculum that there are many things we want to have included. But I don’t think that discussion has been deep enough to consider: we want to do all these things but how can we really do what’s really important and who is going to make that decision? It is something we need to keep lobbying for because so many of these things come down and it’s like that job is done; whereas we can all be activists in saying, ‘This is going to affect the future and we want this in it.’
ADELE WESSELL: The other thing that is really important is that it is not just cooking but people learn a whole range of things through cooking including the sorts of communication you were talking about. John Dewey in the 1920s had a laboratory school where they taught maths, science, chemistry, communication and art all through their kitchens and gardens. The kitchen garden movement is a fantastic example of the kind of extra curricula things that happen beyond the kitchen as well. I think you’re right though that we need to be raising these issues publicly all of the time so that they don’t get ignored. I know that in some instances people are talking about kitchen gardens as a response to questionings around obesity, but it is much broader than that too.
QUESTION: I was interested in Janet’s identification of issues relating to the sources of our food because, of course, one issue abroad in public debate is the fate of the animals from which we saw much of the food we eat. This is often an issue for young people, and I note that we had a vegetarian on the other side of the room speaking to us earlier. I would be very interested to know what you think is happening on that debate in the foodie community. What are the foodies saying about that and where is that going? What does it mean for the sources of food that we will be looking to in the future, including in relation to our animal protein and animal food?
JANET JEFFS: That is a very diverse question and very hard to answer. I know that feeding grain to cattle is very difficult to do because of the need for grain and the need for security in the cereal industry. The idea of free range for pigs is an area which is being worked on. We have had small victories like Coles saying ‘Yes, we won’t be buying from cage sows,’ and victories we have already such as free range chicken and eggs and ideas like that. But there is so much more that needs to be done in making sure that our food is nutritious and that we are farming in a way that is sustainable. They are very big questions and there are also big questions about our water security coming up that the government at the moment has probably turned their back on because of the lovely rain we are having - but these questions aren’t going to go away. They are bigger questions that people and the community need to get involved in answering.
ADELE WESSELL: Marion might be interested, in talking about different food movements, there is a freganism movement, which is about getting food out of garbage bins - but it started after the publication of your novel.
MARION HALLIGAN: I am quite interested in a lot of those things. I think that if you are educated, middle class and prosperous, it is relatively easy: you buy grass fed beef, you only buy pork from happy pigs that haven’t been shut in horrible things, you buy your free range stuff. But the education and the prosperity are very important things. I bought a leg of lamb the other day which, golly, cost so much money but it was absolutely fantastically beautiful. But if you are young and struggling with a family of children, you are not going to spend $50 on a leg of lamb, for goodness sake, you are going to have to buy perhaps inferior stuff however educated you are in things. These are problems we are going to have to deal with so that we don’t have two classes of people: the ones who are educated and rich enough to eat the real good food who know about it and know how to get it; and then the rest of people who think KFC is a good thing and so on.
DONNA LEE BRIEN: At my university where I am based up in Rockhampton, now that the water has subsided we are talking about putting a big community garden in the grounds because there are institutions which do have a lot of land - back to your question as we now all live in apartments and is related to that old idea of allotments they had in the UK. Again it is coming from a public demand for these things. We are talking about that at the university. Now it’s the whole world is occupational health and safety - what if someone cuts off their foot with a spade, but we deal with these things. We don’t necessarily all have big housing lots, but there is heaps of land out there. Even very popular shows like Better Homes and Garden always show how you can have parsley and vegies in your front flower garden. So it’s kind of rethinking, but we have to work out what we want first and then ways of getting there because if it’s just having money to spend more on things that are good, that’s not going to work. It is actually bringing some of that ingenuity and can-do spirit that we are meant to be so famous for and which is profiled in this Museum to something that many people still think is really mundane, which is food - but as we know it’s totally important.
QUESTION: There is so much fascinating thought here, I have so many questions. One thing that preoccupies me with a 12-year-old, an older son, an interest in food and having had a full-time career is: how you feed your children well when you are tired and your head is done in. Even when you love food and you love cooking and you love reading cookbooks you just don’t have the energy to lift a finger to feed your children properly. I think that through their writing people like Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer have really helped to inspire women - and men I am sure as well - who are trying to do the right thing by their families and feed them well and nutritiously. But there don’t seem to be coming in their footsteps so many writers that are down at that level. We are seeing a whole crop of – when we buy foodie magazines - bright, young people and a lot of them are chefs, and no disrespect to chefs, but there are very few ordinary people who are there just writing about cooking food on an ordinary level and celebrating eating at an ordinary level. I wonder what your views are on that subject.
DONNA LEE BRIEN: I think the online environment is very interesting. If you look at bloggs and what people are posting, there’s a whole world of communication out there - probably sadly for us - outside books that is out there and a lot of it is free. There are people that are starting to study this and trying to chart it. There are events like this where people just come together and talk. It’s always been a problem for historians like us who look at magazines and books and then try to say what are people doing, because books and magazines are published for people to buy and read, and what they do with them after that is something else. But the online environment, the web logs that are out there, the conversations that people are having, the followers that people have through these sites is pretty astounding. I think that’s one really interesting positive.
ADELE WESSELL: I agree. I think it’s difficult raising children in this environment where the choices are so abundant and there are so many other kinds of distractions. It is much harder to teach somebody to cook than it is just to do it yourself. Finding those sorts of minimalist ways of making good food is really valuable as well and involving them in the decisions. Because I live out of town, much like Donna, I have to plan what I am going to cook days in advance. I don’t have the luxury that people do often in town where they can make their mind up on the day and then go and source the ingredients. So I cut those steps out. That is helpful. Growing the food rather than just cooking it can often be helpful as well. But in terms of ordinariness, it’s the bloggs and it’s the fact that it’s so around in popular culture. You have people like Marieke Hardy - I don’t know if you have seen that program Laid. Because I am vegan as well, it’s one of the few programs I have seen that is on regularly where vegetarian and vegan food actually gets mentioned and discussed. I think we are broadening and diversifying those food interests as well.
MARION HALLIGAN: I still think that’s a very difficult problem. I love watching Maggie Beer, The Cook and the Chef and she’d say, ‘It’s so easy to do this instead of buying takeaway,’ and you know it wasn’t that easy. I thought if I am really tired and have had a busy day, there’s the forethought to have the stuff, which is often very difficult, so you have had to do the shopping. You don’t see her doing a lot of chopping and preparation. There are all these little dishes with nice little things in them and then there are the fairies who whisk away all the mess that you have made doing this and I thought, ‘I could ring up this very nice place where you can get really good pizza and send John up to get it and we’d have quite a good meal quite fast,’ and that pizza is good. It’s nice. It’s a cop-out but sometimes I think we all just have to cop out. So you have to find ways of copping out that aren’t too bad.
JANET JEFFS: That’s why restaurants exist.
MARION HALLIGAN: That’s true, but you can’t have as much wine as you want perhaps at a restaurant, and so on.
ADELE WESSELL: Getting the children to do the washing up is the other challenge because they never wash up on those programs either. They always think - I can cook but I don’t have to clean it up.
QUESTION: I have a little anecdote and a question. The little anecdote: a friend whose teenage son was home from school with his mate foraging through the kitchen cupboards - bottomless pits they are - and her friend’s son said to his mate, ‘At our house we don’t have food, we only have ingredients.’ I think that’s lovely. My question is to the historians: we are talking here about cooking greats who are living and breathing. This is 100 years of International Women’s Day and where are our cooking greats that are dead? I have only just found out about one reading the book ‘Sundays at Heidi with Sunday Reid’. Can the historians enlighten me: are there any others?
ADELE WESSELL: There are a lot actually. Alison Wishart, who is just at the back there, and I have been writing and talking about Flora Pell whose cookbook Our Cookery Book ran into loads of editions. It was published between 1916 and 1950. She had a radio program. She was featured in newspaper articles quite regularly and she was the first inspectress of domestic arts in Victoria. She opened the Domestic Arts College and was the headmistress there, which became the Collingwood College. This is the same site as the kitchen garden program that Stephanie Alexander had. Alison recently wrote an article for The Age calling on people to get in touch if they remembered Flora Pell and there was a flood of responses. Do you want to talk about those a little bit, the kinds of memories that people had of Flora Pell?
ALISON WISHART: We had people in their 40s saying, ‘My mothers and my grandmothers used Flora Pell’s cookbook and then I learnt to cook through that book as well, and I still make the Worcestershire sauce and those sorts of recipes from that book.’ They talked about Our Cookery Book as their bible. They talked about how the instructions in the book were so specific and general containing things like: go into the kitchen, turn on the stove, get out the pot - really basic - which is great if you have never watched somebody. It demystifies the whole cooking experience. The beautiful thing is that, as Adele said, Our Cookery Book was published up until the 1950s but people were still receiving it as a wedding gift in 1967. That’s the latest we have come across so far. It’s a book that has been handed down through generations and generations, sought after in secondhand bookshops and really valued by people as much as a contemporary food writer like Margaret Fulton’s Cookbook might have been today.
ADELE WESSELL: It’s interesting because she believed that you if you had a happy home and if you fed people well, then they could be active citizens too. She was trying to elevate the status of domestic work as playing a really big role in nation building. That’s quite relevant to the theme of International Women’s Day as well.
QUESTION: There is an excellent book with lots of pictures put out by the State Library of Queensland called A Good Plain Cook. It has many of these really enterprising, intrepid cooks, cookery writers and cookery teachers from Queensland colonial days where you were doing it as hard as anywhere but it was boiling as well. That’s an excellent resource.
ADELE WESSELL: I think part of the reason why some of these women aren’t visible goes to the heart of what Donna was saying with those pictures: if you look at some issues of older cookbooks it’s hard to find out who the author was, and the work that was compiled by the Country Women’s Association didn’t necessarily name people, the editors weren’t necessarily named. Graham Kerr may be able to splash himself all over the front cover, but women were often less visible in the work that they were doing, although there are quite a lot of them.
DONNA LEE BRIEN: There were a lot of women regularly contributing to newspapers quite often under pseudonyms. There was somebody called Rita in one of the papers who wrote a lot and gave a lot of advice. I am as vague as can be about this, but I remember one time I did a bit of research into it and came across a lot of women giving various bits of advice in various places but they didn’t become these iconic figures. Television has helped with that by giving them personalities. Of course, Stephanie had her restaurant which a lot of people went to and Stephanie is a person that we know, as Maggie is through the television. So apart from anything else, there is more of a cult of personalities than there was because there are so many media in which they can be promoted.
JANET JEFFS: Lenore, do you mind making some comments about Hetty Perkins and some of the Indigenous women?
LENORE COLTHEART: This was going through my mind too, because women in the business of food has a very big continuum. Maybe if you look at the Women’s History Month website which is http://womenshistory.com.au and go to the gallery for this year with the theme ‘Women in the business of food’, you will see the range of women involved.
Hetty Perkins was an Aboriginal woman in central Australia, who was the mother of Charles Perkins and the grandmother of Charles’s daughter Hetty Perkins, who is the curator of Aboriginal art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Charles was one of Hetty’s 14 children, and she raised her children by cooking. She started cooking when the goldfields at Arltunga gave out and her mother had no way of earning a living - she’d fossicked for gold there, as a lot of Aboriginal women did, and her father was dead. At the age of 14 Hetty went to the Arltunga Hotel to try to find work, and there was a Chinese woman in the kitchen who was cook who took her on. Hetty showed great flair and learnt to cook from this woman, as Hetty always said, and boy, could she cook. From there, from the age of 14, that’s how she earned her living, later cooking for Europeans, cooking in the ‘Half Caste’ Institution in Alice Springs. Hetty died in the 1960s. It’s an extraordinary career, an extraordinary opportunity that in a sense she created for herself. If we are looking at Australian history over the last 200-plus years since British occupation, we will find a lot of women like this. If we are talking about the business of food, I guess we are talking about employment and getting money for it, which of course if you are just cooking at home, you don’t. There are still plenty of women creating these kinds of opportunities across a vast range.
DONNA LEE BRIEN: Those kinds of stories is why it is very interesting for us that the study of food is now more respectable in our universities, because for students looking for a really good third year project or an honours project we can excavate these stories and get them out there.
QUESTION: A number of people have touched somewhat gently and in a lady-like way perhaps on issues to do with animal rights, and that topic has already been touched on very briefly. I am wondering whether the historians can say if there is any evidence that women play a role encouraging the consumption of food like free range eggs, poultry and now pigs. Is there a trend that is gendered in that way? The way you were saying that women lobbied for milk - issues to do with buying cheaper milk or whatever in the 1950s? Is there an organisation that looks at those sorts of things and can give us statistics about those trends? I went into Woolies at Dickson recently and asked for some free range ham. One of the people looked at the other one and said, ‘We don’t have any of that,’ and the other one said, ‘I think there’s some there somewhere, and it’s very expensive.’
JANET JEFFS: Not at the Kitchen Cabinet.
QUESTION: That touches on what Marion said about the cost of things, your education, class and where you hang out. Do you see what I am getting at? Are women taking a leadership role in this sort of way or not?
DONNA LEE BRIEN: I don’t know a lot but I do know that the RSPCA in Britain was started because of women’s concern about the treatment of chickens - and that came out doing work about Jamie and his chicken thing. When answering a question like that, you’d say you’d think so, but it would be really interesting if there was somewhere with statistics or studies.
ADELE WESSELL: I don’t know anything about statistics, but women as consumers have often used that power to be able to put pressure on organisations to change things and to raise issues like that. Because mostly women have been the ones who are doing purchasing for families they have been able to do that through those activities. The housewives association certainly was concerned about conditions on. The industrialisation of animals has a long history but it also has a fairly short history in terms of the kinds of issues we are talking about now where chickens are in barns with very little space, pigs are in sow stalls and so on. There are prominent women who have been involved in activism and promoting things like vegetarianism, starting restaurants like Possums and Squirrels and so on, which were some of the early vegetarian restaurants in Australia, and they have been able to use that role as chefs to be able to educate people or cooks as well. But it is certainly becoming more interesting.
I think that is the point I was making after Donna’s talk. When Margaret Fulton came here and she was talking about free range chickens and the issues around pigs, we have been talking about these subjects for at least the last 50 years. On the one hand, it’s good to be able to give it that historical dimension, but on the other hand I wonder why so little has happened and in fact in some cases has become worse. In Tasmania now they are banning sow stalls. I think you were referring to the issue with Coles; there is issue on the hormone in beef, so there is some interest around this. But it is also the visibility in that the way animals are treated is further away than it was before. In the case of dairying - I feel like I am on a soap box now - the first dairy feedlot is an organic one. People mostly think about organic milk being about out there in green pastures, fields and flowers and so on, when in fact the cows have their heads stuck in a grain bucket. That history of activism would be a really good one to pursue around animals. It’s a difficult one to end on though, isn’t it?
We are close now to 4 o’clock and thank you all for staying and for your patience with the technical problems at the beginning. All of the questions and all of the speakers have raised both some of the challenges that we face now in terms of food and an awareness that there have been things going on around this for quite some time and movements to make change in those sorts of areas. I thank Lenore and the Women’s History Forum for organising this even. I think women will continue to be active in this area hopefully to bring about some of the changes to the issues that you have raised today as well. Thank you to all of the speakers and to the Museum for having us. [applause]
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Date published: 01 January 2018