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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.

The macaroni cure

18 Jul
Uncooked penne

Good news for the wine and pasta set... if your definition of "news" doesn't mean it has to be new...

As a pasta addict from way back, I hate people who say it’s bad for you. All those Dukan, Atkins and anti-carb crusaders who maintain it’s too processed and too white to be beneficial. Oh, they say, you can have a little bit, but not after 5pm, and make sure you have it with loads of vegetables, and while you’re at it, wholemeal has more fibre so use brown instead of white. And skip the cheese. And add tofu. And really, you shouldn’t eat it at all, so, while you’re at it, just leave out the pasta altogether. You won’t miss it. Trust me. And you’ll feel so much better!

Hmpf. Makes me want to hotfoot it to my nonna’s house who understands there is only one real serving size when it comes to pasta – huge – and only one way to eat it – with plenty of rich ragu and a hilltop of freshly grated parmesan.

So I was happy to read that Charles Napier doesn’t agree with the pasta puritans.

The English scientist maintains that macaroni is actually an excellent cure for alcoholism. He says that macaroni, and other products made from flour,  as well as dried peas and lentils, work by rendering the “carbon in an alcoholic drink both unnecessary and repulsive”.

He cites the case of one 60-year-old man who “was seriously impaired by his frequent excesses”. After an “almost fatal attack of delirium”, the man adopted a diet heavy on the macaroni and beans, and, somewhat miraculously, “a complete cure was effected in seven months”.

Sure, he said this in 1878, but good science is forever right?

Maybe not, but at least the Pastafarians will be pleased …


  • “Alcoholism and Farinaceous Food.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July, 1878, 7.

Oh to be a fatso!

4 Mar
Strawberry tarts

Yes, I can eat those! These tarts would be approved on Brillat-Savarin's diet plan.

Every thin woman wants to grow plump: That is an avowal which has been made to us a thousand times.

Maybe in 1825 when you wrote that lovely line Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, but not anymore. And I am one of them. I want to be thin too. Or at least thinner. And so, in the name of thinness, over the last three weeks, I have denied myself all the things that make life good – cheese, bread, pasta, deep fried bounty bars…

But Brillat-Savarin, the much acknowledged granddaddy of gastronomy, would’ve thought me a twit of the highest order. Here’s the diet he prescribed for all those thin ladies who wished to “fill out their curves”:

GENERAL RULE. Much fresh bread will be eaten during the day, and particular care will be taken not to throw away the crumbs. Before eight in the morning, soup au pain or aux pates will be taken, and afterwards a cup of good chocolate.

At eleven o’clock, breakfast on fresh broiled eggs, petit pates, cotelettes, and what you please; have eggs, coffee will do no harm.

Dinner hour should be so arranged that one should have thoroughly digested before the time comes to sit down at the table. The eating of one meal before another is digested, is an abuse.

After dinner there should be some exercise; men as much as they can; women should go into the Tuilleries, or as they say in America, go shopping. We are satisfied that the little gossip and conversation they maintain is very healthful.

At times, all should take as much soup, potage, fish, etc., and also meat cooked with rice and macaronies, pastry, creams, etc.

At dessert such persons should eat Savoy biscuits, and other things made up of eggs, fecula, and sugar.

And then this, my favourite line:

This regimen, though apparently circumscribed, is yet susceptible of great variety.

I think I could manage a diet where the variety involved eating lots of fresh bread, noodle soup, hot chocolate, eggs, chops, meat with rice, macaroni, pastry and cakes made with eggs, flour and sugar, not to mention a punishing exercise schedule of shopping and gossiping. It sure beats no carbs, that’s for sure.

Sicilian canoli

No need to say to canoli on the Brillat-Savarin diet.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme.  The physiology of taste, or, transcendental gastronomy [electronic resource] translated from the last Paris edition by Fayette Robinson,