History has not been kind to Australian food. Of course I am talking about the days before our chefs became the darlings of the ‘foodie’ world. Today, as the New York Times’ eminent journalist R. W. Apple wrote recently, Sydney’s chefs have ‘elevated their city into the ranks of the world’s great eating towns, right up there with New York and Paris’.
But it was not always so. The Reverend Richard Johnson, arriving with Captain Cook in 1788 declared ‘scarcely anything is to be seen but rocks, and eaten but rats’. In 1883, in his book Town Life in Australia, Richard Twopenny wrote, ’… the French eat, the English only feed, we may fairly add that the Australians grub’. And as late as 1947, a Professor D W Brogan from Cambridge wrote ‘… Even dealing with a potato is beyond the culinary resources of an Australian hotel’.
The conventional view of the development — or stultification — of Australian gastronomy was best expressed by Michael Symons in his 1982 book One Continuous Picnic. It is Symons’s contention that the history of Australian cooking — and eating — was largely shaped by the occupation of Australia by white settlers at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
And so, from the outset, European Australian food was grown by large, industrial farmers for export markets rather than small-scale individual landholders for local consumption. ‘There has never been the creative interplay between society and the soil… This is the uncultivated continent. Our history is without peasants.’
And then, after World War Two, we were invaded by migrants from Southern Europe, bringing with them, as I wrote in my 1996 book Wogfood: an oral history with recipes, ‘their rolling pins, their mortars and pestles and pasta bowls … with absolutely no intention of falling into whatever the natives of the new land ate’.
Lately, I have begun to doubt the neat simplicity of this progression. There must have been good cooks in this wide brown land. Not chefs, no haute cuisine, but fine home cooks. And the evidence of the truth of this heretical view can be found in the archives of the Royal Agricultural Society (RAS), the body that holds the Royal Easter Show every year and which has, since 1869, in conjunction with ‘The Show’ as it is called in Sydney, hosted, judged and awarded prizes to thousands of those (mostly) women who had never heard that Australia was a land of hideous food: they were too busy cooking.
In these archives are the leather bound catalogues of RAS competitions recording the entries and judging of everything from wood-chopping contests to prize cattle and sheep, dogs and cats, lucerne, sorghum, cucurbits (squashes) — if it’s agricultural, there’s a competition for it. And these dusty old catalogues record every name and, in spidery brown ink additions, the winners of first, second and third prizes — if indeed a prize was awarded. Hopes and heartache are here engraved.
But it wasn’t until 1888 that any form of food was included in competition, and then only preserved food — one category being ‘preserved fish of all kind, another ‘preserved vegetables’. Only fourteen entries were recorded, but no winners.
The competition called to this day ‘Perishable Foods’ didn’t appear in the catalogues until 1910, in the ‘Agriculture’ section. In that year, added to the candied and dried fruit, pickles and calf’s foot jelly was a section for pastry. Sadly there was only one entry, a Mrs George Bagnell. Even more sadly, she did not win the prize of £3/3shillings donated by Dr Waugh’s Baking Powder for her ‘collection of pastry (14lbs – pounds) and biscuits (28lbs). All that work, and Mrs Bagnell didn’t take home the cash because her entry was ‘not according to schedule’.
Such strict rules apply to this day. The schedule for chutney in 2005 stipulated that it must be delivered ‘in matching 500g jars, round or square with straight sides. No brand names on the lids’.
In 1910 there were three entries in ‘Tomato Sauce’, but no prize awarded; and eight entries in ‘Any Food Not Specified’ which was won by a company, Henderson Cousins, for their patent dry and liquid yeast, with second prize going to Alfred Hughes for his mustard pickles.
The next year, food had moved into Women’s Industries and male and corporate entries, if not yet formally proscribed, were not evident in the list of entrants. In that year, Mrs Henry Lord won for her Six Small Cakes, and Mrs E M Palmer, who failed to take a prize in that category won first prize for her Iced Cake.
By 1920, the category, now called ‘Cookery’, had moved back into ‘Agriculture’, and men were banished: ‘Only female exhibitors are allowed to compete in this class’ is the stern admonition on the title page. Why did the women feel they had to put their stockinged feet down firmly against male cooks? We have no background to this decision.
Nor do we know why there was no food competition between 1928 and 1938. We can only speculate. These dates coincided with the depression years in Australia, which hit farmers heavily. All we know is that on November 11 1938, an item in the Sydney Morning Herald announced the ‘Reintroduction of women’s industries including cooking in next year’s Show’. Then there was another gap, between 1940 and 1945, when little thought was given to the icing, let alone the cake.
But that 1939 competition was packed with entries in 42 classes, and we must record in this brief period of respite between depression and war that the Rainbow Cake with White Icing was won by Miss E M Leech of Randwick. That we know Miss Leech is from Randwick is due to the fact that, for the first time, the addresses of the ladies who entered cooking were recorded.
And still they cook. Every year, hundreds of women from Sydney and rural New South Wales arrive at the Showground with their pickles and jams, their iced cakes and scones, their lamingtons and rich fruit cakes.
Mrs Glad Schute is from Earlwood in Sydney and has been a competitor for 26 years. ‘In 1975, I won first prize for my first entry of patty cakes. Flushed with success, I went back the next year. There was only one year I didn’t win anything.’
In 1998, the year that The Show moved to its current site at Homebush (near the site of the 2001 Olympics), Glad Schute also became a judge. ‘Judging is very stressful,’ she said, ‘all the contestants are sitting there watching – and although you don’t know who owns any cake, you’ve got to be careful.’
And standards are high. ‘Take the ‘Orange Cake’ section. It must be baked in a loaf tin. The cake has to have a nice crust around the edges and have a nice bottom. When you cut the cake in half, it’ll be in the centre where it’s under- or over-cooked. There must be no holes, nice texture which cuts well without crumbs everywhere. And it must smell and taste like an orange cake. It must be nicely presented, not with icing dribbling down the sides. Some you can see at a glance, but when it gets down the to the last four, it gets hard.’
Glad Schute is from a large family, and learnt to cook from her mother. ‘I started to make cakes on a fuel stove. I’ve made every wedding cake in the family for years — that’s four sons and now five grandchildren married.’ Food played a big part in the Schute family. As she put it, ‘With my kids, if I stood in the same place too long, they’d eat me’.
And we must record that today, men are again welcome. This year, Neil Willis of Normanhurst beat a strong field to take first prize for his American Fruit Cake. Willis, an engineer for a construction company has been entering for over thirty years. ‘Beating the women is a joy,’ he says, ‘because they bake on a daily basis and I don’t – it upsets them greatly when I walk in and win.’
There is a rich vein of home food to mine for the researcher keen to do so. Not just cakes and jams and jellies and pickles and preserves, but the roast joints, the pies, the recipes of the pioneer women who did use the native produce, who made kangaroo tail soup, harvested bush plums, made rosella jam, and learnt from the indigenous Australians how to roast Cycad seeds to make flour.
Australian food awful? Well, yes, maybe in the restaurants and hotels of the cities, where poorly trained chefs battled to find the kinds of ingredients being eaten in Paris and London. But in the kitchens of the suburbs and the farms, as attested to by the honour rolls in the RAS catalogues, thousands of anonymous but talented (mostly) women baked and preserved their way to glory.
John Newton is a food journalist and writer, he contributes regularly to the Sydney Morning Herald and is the author of a number of books, including Wogfood: an oral history with recipes.