Australian food: what has happened over seventy years

From time to time I read advice about how to set up one’s own kitchen garden, even for people who live in apartments. If we do we will live so much better, the story goes. In fact the two of us maintain a herb garden, run an annual battle with the possum about how many tomatoes we will each enjoy, and harvest lemons, limes, apples and pears — again, after we have paid the possum tax.

When I lived in Canberra as a boy, during and after the second world war, we did indeed run a large kitchen garden in our house in Reid, for which my father paid a weekly rent of 37/6. My mother, who was a fine cook, bottled and preserved every summer and autumn, and we boys had weeding to do. Our backyard, apart from two small patches of lawn, was given over to fruit and vegetable cultivation, and we fought snails, slugs, codling moth, birds and other competitors for our produce.

I remember one usefully moist spring followed by an especially hot and dry summer, when the fruit was in enormous abundance. The days of sugar rationing were over, and Dad bought a sack of sugar and a new galvanised garbage tin in which to store it. It didn’t take the black ants long to find it, and we commenced a new battle with ants, until we tracked down where they lived, and destroyed their nest.  Potatoes and onions we didn’t grow, and I don’t remember harvesting cabbages or broccoli. But the rest we grew, and we did eat well.

In 1950 we moved to Armidale in New South Wales, and my parents bought an old house which needed a lot of renovation, and that took precedence over establishing a kitchen garden, though we did plant a small orchard. I gained my first paid job over the school holidays in a grocery store, a retail form that has completely disappeared. My job was to open large containers of processed food and put the contents into the appropriate bins. We sold ‘broken biscuits’ for people who couldn’t afford whole ones, and everything went into brown paper bags. Customers came to the counter with a list, and we filled the list. We sold basic vegetables, like onions and potatoes, and apples when they were in season, but not much more than that. There were greengrocers to do that, and they still exist.

Over the decade of the 1950s wartime shortages disappeared, but our diet hardly changed. A roast on Sunday produced a curry on Monday, or some other variation on what was left of the roast, a braise on Tuesday, sausages on Wednesday, chops or steak on Thursday, smoked cod on Friday, a scratch meal on Saturday (tomatoes and cheese on toast) because my parents both played golf, and then a new roast on Sunday.

But the 1950s produced three important changes. I did national service in the Army in 1955, and was trained as a cook, one of the better things that happened in my life. I became interested in food, how to grow it and how to produce it. The increasing numbers of immigrants from other lands than the United Kingdom began to have an effect on our cuisine. On leave in Sydney in 1955 I found an Italian restaurant in Phillip Street that served real spaghetti bolognaise, which was a real taste discovery. Until then, spaghetti had come in tins and was used as a sandwich filler, though not by my mother, who detested it. In 1957 my parents went overseas, and came back with a much enhanced sense of what good food was. Garlic, herbs of all kids, wine and olives became part of my mother’s repertoire.

As the 1950s became the 1960s Australia grew larger and wealthier. Restaurants began to appear, and you might go to one on a special occasion. I don’t think my parents ever ate out in my years with them, and we never ate out as a family. But it became the thing to do, and Chinese restaurants multiplied, but were matched by Italian and Greek and, if you were in a big city and new where to find them, Russian, French, Austrian and, later, Vietnamese. Better communications meant more food from elsewhere in Australia — regular supplies of tropical fruit, fresh vegetables from Tasmania and, increasingly food from overseas.

As that happened the supermarkets began to move into food, and then to emphasise it, until foods of all kinds  were what they were about. As that occurred the grocers sold up, or became delicatessens, the bakers became coffee shops as well, and our society became more and more about reducing the time and effort involved in cooking, especially because most adult women were now in the workforce, or studying so that they would have a good job later on.

Then we moved into the world of take-away, snack foods, McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and the rest. Our weight went up. Gyms appeared to help us get it down again. We became a land of wine-lovers rather than a country of beer-drinkers, and making beer became an art form, with micro-breweries appearing everywhere. The CSIRO produced a book telling us what we should eat. Obesity became noticeable, and then a health concern. The NH&MRC produced dietary guidelines, and very recently a new and improved version.

And what does it say? That we should concentrate on fresh fruit and vegetables, avoid processed foods, keep down our sugar and salt intakes, and eat fish as well as red meats, chicken and pork. That’s what we did in the 1940s — not because we were health conscious, but because that’s what was available.

If you want to see the difference in the two Australis, compare Stella Bowen’s painting of the doomed Lancaster crew in the War Memorial with any street scene today. The aircrew are lean in face, and slight in body. They, and other paintings of servicemen, remind me of the way we were.

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  • Phillip W says:

    This brings back memories for me – I worked in my father’s grocery store during the school holidays in the 50s and early 60s and it was exactly as you describe it. My father saw the writing on the wall and built a supermarket. Many of his old customers came there and they still wanted to bring in a list and have it filled.

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