Barbara Santich has assembled a wonderful collection of poetry and prose from books, letters and journals along with magazine and newspaper articles on the history of Australian food, cooking, dining and etiquette. Professor Santich teaches in the gastronomy program at the University of Adelaide.
In the Introduction the author argues that we don’t need to precisely define an Australian cuisine to recognise the quintessential ‘Australianness’ of our cooking and eating behaviours, made up as they are from influences from around the world.
Fittingly, the anthology opens with a snippet from perhaps Australia’s favourite children’s story The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay about the …cut-an’-come-again Puddin’ which never runs out (page 2). We are treated to more than 80 vignettes which include: Joseph Banks writing about the paucity of native vegetables in 1770s Australia; Marcus Clarke’s disgust at a Chinese restaurant kitchen in 1868; the dangers of eating too much meat from Dr Muskett’s 1898 The Book of Diet; right through to an extract from the 1999 Love and Vertigo by Hsu-Ming Teo which highlights how different a picnic can be for Asian migrants to Australia.
The eating habits of different groups in Australia are also highlighted in a piece from F E Baume’s 1934 novel Burnt Sugar where the camaraderie between the Irish and Italian sugar port workers in north Queensland is in stark contrast to their food choices where “[o]nly had they been forced to eat together would there have been Notes, Ultimatums and War” (page 115).
I especially like the pieces on etiquette such as “A hostess should not express pride regarding what is on her table [but]…allow guests to eulogise her dinner or not” (page 53); or Rita Vaile on when to eat cake, “never …served in good houses before lunch…It is all very vulgar” (page 95). But my very favourite comes from the pen of Lennie Lower who wrote for popular magazines in the 1930s and 40s.
Lower pokes fun at all the pretentious rules around eating and food by suggesting new ones. For example, it is bad form to push the lid of the golden syrup tin down hard as other guests “may have to struggle with it later”. Or his advice that make sure you don’t run out of mashed potato before your peas are finished as you need the potato to stick them to the fork; and I heartily endorse his suggestion when faced with a multiplicity of wine glasses, “select the biggest and stick to it” (pages 122-23).
The book concludes with Indigenous Deli, written by Alan Benjamin and Cyril Pearl, which humorously acknowledges the renewed interest in native Australian foods (page 231):
A shearer’s cook opened at Shelley,
An oddly indigenous deli
With the wombat ragout,
The boiled jabiru,
And, for pudding, the sugar-ant jelly.
If you enjoy food and eating, you’ll enjoy this treasure.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8
Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: July 2018