The case against Mrs Maclurcan

6 Feb

Mrs Hannah Maclurcan might’ve been one of Australia’s first celebrity food writers, but she was also an ungrateful, money-hungry, lying, possibly plagiarising woman who didn’t mind pulling the wool over the eyes of her fellow countrymen.

How do I know all this? I gleaned it from the second edition of Mrs. Maclurcan’s Cookery Book: A Collection of Practical Recipes Specially Suitable for Australia, written around 1898 and published in the present day gastronomic mecca of North Queensland, Townsville. Speaking of that retina-burning  place, I think I am still digesting a “Chinese” meal I ate there four months ago…

But I digress. Below are the charges I have made against Mrs Mac, with evidence gathered from her own hand to support my claims.

Ungrateful and ungracious

In the preface to her second edition, Mrs Maclurcan writes:

“It seems only the other day that I wrote the preface to my first edition, and it is hard to say anything original in a preface. I hope it will be some time before a third is wanted.”

So your first edition sold out in a matter of weeks, you have the privilege of publishing a second edition and you’re whining about the fact that you might have to do a third? Boo freaking hoo. Pass me the tissues while I contemplate the fact that I have published no books, let alone editions of them. I’m glad you ended up having to write another 18 prefaces Hannah Maclurcan. It serves you right that your book was updated and published a staggering 20 times. You didn’t really succeed in saying anything original in any of them either – the 18th edition, which was published in Sydney and Brisbane in 1922,  is almost the same as the 2nd, although you at least sound a little more gracious. Meaning it took you 24 years to learn some manners. Well done you!

Probably a plagiarist

She might’ve learnt some manners, but it doesn’t look like she learnt how to not copy other people’s work. Again in that preface which Hannah hated writing, she says:

“I would like to say, however, so as to clear up any doubt there might be on the subject, that the great majority of the recipes in the book are my own invention, a few were bought by me, and are, consequently, my own property, and a few have been given me by friends.”

In the preface of the 18th edition, she is still addressing the same problem, unsurprisingly, in almost the same words she used 24 years ago.

 Is it a case of the lady doth protest too much? Certainly Beverley Kingston, who authored Maclurcan’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography,  suspects it might be. She writes Maclurcan  “was perhaps the first Australian celebrity cook writer (and perhaps also the earliest to be accused of passing off others’ recipes as her own)”.  Just accused? Actually did it? The truth is I don’t really know, because, let’s face it, I’m lazy and I haven’t done enough research, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past her. And neither will you once you read the next entry on what a liar she turned out to be.

Lying and deceiving

When is a hare not a hare? When Mrs Maclurcan cooks it. Here, she reveals a sordid little secret in her recipe for Roast Wallaby:

“Most people, even Australians, are prejudiced against the wallaby, after all they are one of Australia’s natural foods, and feed just the same as a hare, in fact I have often served it for hare and no one has been the wiser.”

This means if you had the pleasure of being a guest at Mrs Maclurcan’s table, it’s likely you ate wallaby when you thought you were eating hare. Seeing as Mrs Maclurcan was a hotelier as well as a food writer, she probably served up this neat little trick during her time at the Queen’s Hotel in Townsville and, later on, at the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney. Nice.

But the deceiving doesn’t stop there. The 1922 edition of the book is said to be “New and enlarged”. Strange because the 1898 edition has 891 recipes, whereas in 1922 there are only 552. I’m no Stephen Hawking but that’s a funny way to make a book “enlarged”.

Loves that advertising dollar

I could cut Mrs Mac a little slack here. Yes, it’s true her books are packed with advertisements for everything from local grocers to Lipton’s Tea but, according to Richard Beckett in Convicted Tastes, “almost all early cookery books were packed fore and after with advertisements”.

Perhaps Hannah was just doing what all the other cool food writing kids were doing back then. Still, for my naive editorial-should-be-separate-from-advertorial tastes, she’s gone a step too far in the case of Elliott’s Queensland Baking Powder.

In the front of her 1898 edition, there is as ad which tells us that Queensland Baking Powder is “absolutely pure” and “Food raised by Queensland Baking Powder may be eaten hot with impunity”. This begs the question of what happens when you eat it cold, but let’s leave that alone for now.

An ad is an ad is an ad and having worked in the media I understand it’s not the cover price that pays your wage. In the book itself, however, a large selection of recipes for cakes and biscuits including Orange Rock Cakes and Dundee Cake all call for teaspoonfuls of “Elliott’s Queensland Baking Powder”.

“So what?,” you’re probably asking. That’s ok. Many modern food magazines include editorial mentions in recipes all the time, especially when the company in question has bought an ad in the front of the book.

What’s curious, however, is that in the 1922 edition the recipes for the Orange Rock Cakes and the Dundee Cake are identical in every way except for one. Not only is Queensland Baking Powder no longer included, there is no mention of  baking powder at all. It has been replaced with self-raising flour. I wonder what happened here. I like to imagine that Hannah flew into such a rage when she learnt that Elliott’s had pulled their products from her book that she decided she would never ever even mention baking powder again. Or maybe she re-tested the recipes and found they worked better with self-raising flour. Clearly, I prefer the former scenario.

Summing up

Perhaps I’ve been brutally unfair to Mrs Mac. Certainly there’s more research to be done, another 18 editions of her book to look at, more literature to review. For all I know Mrs Maclurcan could have been a grand, generous dame who fed the homeless and saved stray dogs from becoming meat pie filling. But my gut feeling is that Mrs Maclurcan was a nasty passive aggressive piece of work.  And my gut is always right…usually.


11 Responses to “The case against Mrs Maclurcan”

  1. Ex February 19, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    On Mrs Mac’s defence of plagiarism, interesting to see that the passing off of family & friends recipes as one’s own work (and claiming ownership and content rights payments under the threat of legal proceedings) continues to this day!

  2. charmaine obrien February 26, 2011 at 11:22 pm #

    your post made me laugh. I am researching mrs mac for a book I am writing on Australian cookbooks and I have also found her guilty of the same crimes you charge her with…and I know there are more!

    • lamingtonsandlasagna February 27, 2011 at 8:01 am #

      Ohhh, I’d love to read that book! I want to know what else the evil woman has done!

  3. Kate Atkinson February 19, 2012 at 10:09 am #

    I read the for and against Mrs Maclurcan yesterday, upon sleeping on it I am firstly bemused to see she has stirred such bitter anger from the “against”. I am also curious to know how she would be viewed had she been a man? I have no doubt that she would have been a ruthless dame (business woman) however, given the time of her success (very much a mans world) and given the cook book being the first book of its time it should be said Hats off to her! Evil woman…..where does that place Donna Hay, another ruthless foodie?

    • lamingtonsandlasagna February 20, 2012 at 10:46 am #

      You do def have a point Kate – I was very hard on Mrs Mac. Another thing I have since learned re: plagiarism is that everyone used to do it, so Mrs Mac was simply of her time!

  4. John Maclurcan August 1, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

    Well thank goodness you backed down somewhat and thanks. I am Hannah’s great grandson and have produced a lengthy (almost 500 pages) document for the family on her life using family archives, trove etc etc. Kate has a very good point. Hannah was in fact a role model for many women in her time, a benchmark for good taste and propriety. The loyalty of her staff alone preserves a different memory than the one your evoked. She achieved so much by sheer hard work, let alone ambition and ability, the latter traits being often rubbished in successful women even now in 2013. Many of her descendants have inherited her drive but less have her level of ambition!

    • kate maclurcan August 1, 2013 at 4:16 pm #


      Sent from my iPad

  5. H Stone January 22, 2014 at 8:40 pm #

    Having considered the points raised by various contributors I think lost on all are several important points:
    1) The cook books are/were repositories of cuisine at that time, her books offer a snapshot of a transition that was taking place in the Australian cooking landscape.
    2) Had her work been rubbish it would not have sold out nor continued to so many editions, such was the regard and also the need at that time
    3) With respect to the flour/ baking powder these differences are very interesting. Wholewheat flour cooks much differently to the over processed white stodge served up today and more baking powder would have been then required to raise the heavier mixture. After the discovery that by removing the wheat germ flour would keep almost indefinitely when stored in a cool dry place far less baking powder was required to achieve an acceptable finished product as the white flour was easier to mix and lighter in texture. Some roller milling companies also added baking powder to the flour hence the self raising flours post 1910. Baking powder would have adversely reacted with the wheat germ oil before it was cooked, in processed white flour that problem didnt transpire. Later with bleaching the glutens were also conditioned somewhat and the lightness of the baked flour product significantly improved.
    4) The McLurcan cookery books as with the NZ Edmonds Cookery books are important sociological documents, they uniquely offer glimpses into how people selected prepared and how they ate their food at that time. A time of change, the post colonial transition where cooks of those times were able to share local Australian and NZ recipes, introduce different then new products and mirror what people used daily, or what they were forced to do when conditions were adverse, and the more exotic nuances that could be added to give a dish class when needed.
    The post colonial transition begun circa 1900 and continued spasmodically through to the second World war to recommence earnestly mid sixties till now.
    5) Despite gasping over plagiarism local content was being incorporated within a framework that was/is uniquely Australian although not as removed then as we are now from British culinary habits. She knew what the punters wanted and she provided admirably.

    • John Maclurcan January 23, 2014 at 6:34 am #

      Maclurcan not McLurcan. Well done

  6. lola canworth April 17, 2014 at 6:20 am #

    i highly doubt that people like donna hay have leagues of people ‘just thinking up’ these recipes from the top of their heads. they are all inspired by other recipes. it’s a shame that they don’t give proper credit

    • H Stone September 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

      Credit for citing written work is mandatory in academia but this did not outwardly extend to most of the Victorian times cooking practice. Your en-culturation fails to step back to those times as they then really were. Various recording companies fought long battles with the counterfeiters who merely put their insignia upon the pirated disc they issued and sold many more disks than the Gramophone company did, be it in New York Eastern Europe and or elsewhere.
      Cookery books were not exempt look at the NZ Edmonds cook book various recipes filched from whereever, ditto other tomes from Europe. People had to set to and make money there was no welfare state either you were successful or you went down. You of recent times would not have viewed the grinding poverty, wretchedness where the family ate the same meal week in week out Cabbage mashed potatoes and a cheap cut of meat if they were lucky or as Household Works 1839 put it, the family feasted on a mess of boiled potatoes perhaps with some dripping.
      Proper credit as you list it was really the written printed recipe recorded for others to adapt/manufacture/pass on. Many yiddische recipes were handed down mother to daughter the origins lost in the mists of time or were shared through the community when someone made a decent tasty item the others envious soon got hold of Mrs Schenks honey cake or whatever, but owned it as theirs.
      To conclude Mrs Maclurcan has captured many recipes now otherwise lost were it not for her interesting editions, her contribution is a valid historical snapshot on culinary dealings circa 1900.
      If you want recipe contributors look no further than Aunt Daisy Cookery books where you will read at the base of some of the recipes: Mrs Duncan Blockhouse Bay, or Miss Styles Seatoun, or Mrs Hall-Jones but no location and having looked at the names I am no wiser until a Mrs Nathan is mentioned or Pearl Baker then I know which Jewish community that came from, but credit is a community input a social nicety and a copyright battle ground Mrs Maclurcan et al were quite above that.

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