An Australian food history fantasy

23 Nov

In 1770, Captain Cook claimed the east coast of Australia for England. In 1788, the First Fleet came with everything they planned to eat and grow. After an initial period of near starvation, where the white settlers ignored Aboriginal methods of gathering food, the colony eventually got off the ground. The diet of these people, for the next 170 years or so, was pretty much a meat-rich version of what they ate in England. One of the chief concerns of their diet was not taste but “softness or ease of chewing”. I guess that explains all those overcooked vegetables then.

Painting of Aborigines eating and cooking

Joseph Lycett’s 19th century painting Aborigines cooking and eating beached whales, Newcastle, New South Wales. National Library of Australia –

Now, imagine if, the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch, who are all thought to at least have sighted Australia in the 17th century, had decided to drop anchor and establish colonies. Say the Spanish had claimed the area near Adelaide, the Dutch taken far north Queensland and the Portuguese south-east Western Australia. Imagine too, that these European settlers hadn’t written off Aborigines as people who “barely existed”, and learnt a trick or two from their traditional foodways. While we’re imagining, let’s pretend the Aborigines had used their crops to trade with these new settlers for things like cooking implements, chocolate, vanilla and other spices.

Would all of this have resulted in the development of distinct regional cuisines, a mash-up of  colonial and indigenous ingredients and cooking methods? Would we now have a canon of dishes that included paella studded with kangaroo paws and witchetty grubs, poffertjes flavoured with lemon myrtle and quandong custard tarts? Would our national dish be wombat cooked in an underground oven, covered in a chocolate sauce?

In We are what we eat: ethnic food and the making of Americans, Donna Gabaccia explains that the arrival of various colonial powers settling in different areas of the States, combining  their own foodways with those of local indigenous populations, resulted in creole cuisines. Trade and curiosity, amongst other factors, helped these creole cuisines to form and, over time, they became distinct regional cuisines. It’s a fascinating read and prompts one to imagine how food in Australia could’ve been really quite different.

But the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese didn’t claim any part of Australia and  while the Aborigines did have an agricultural tradition, as Bruce Pascoe taught us, there was no significant trade. As a result, we don’t have any regional cuisines – with the possible exception of the German-influenced food of the Barossa Valley – which means, according to anthropologist Sidney Mintz, we don’t have a cuisine at all.

What we do have, however, is a way of eating that combines great product (tomatoes largely excepted), a food-interested population and the influences of cuisines and people from all over the world. It might’ve taken more than 170 years to get to that point, but thank god we did get there. Which is probably just as well, because chocolate-covered wombat doesn’t sound like anything I would want to eat…


  • Bacon, Jenny. “A brief history of immigration to Australia,” In Tucker in Australia, edited by Beverley Wood. Melbourne: Hill of Content, 1977, 98-102.
  • Cahn, Audrey. “Australians in the early Twentieth Century,” In Tucker in Australia, edited by Beverley Wood. Melbourne: Hill of Content, 1977, 53-63.
  • Davey, Lois . Margaret MacPherson and F. W. Clements, “The Hungry Years: 1788-1792,” In Tucker in Australia, edited by Beverley Wood. Melbourne: Hill of Content, 1977, 24-46.
  • Gabaccia, Donna R. We are what we eat: ethnic food and the making of Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Mintz, Sidney W. Tasting food, tasting freedom: excursions into eating, culture, and the past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
  • Shelley, Cheryl. “The original Australians – Aboriginals in the Northern Territory,” In Tucker in Australia, edited by Beverley Wood. Melbourne: Hill of Content, 1977, 19-23.

2 Responses to “An Australian food history fantasy”

  1. The Dutch Cheesegirl February 25, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    Ciao! Just wanted to let you know that I really like your blog! I found out about it a few days ago and what I’ve read so far is really good. Having lived in Italy many times in my life and now being new to Australia (while being Dutch myself) I love the stories of the past about Australia and this is a good little article expressing thoughts that have crossed my mind as well! Will keep on following you!

    • lamingtonsandlasagna February 26, 2012 at 9:23 am #

      Thanks Dutch Cheesegirl! How new are you to Australia? How are you finding the food?

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