- The Colonial Kitchen: Australia 1788–1901 by Charmaine O'Brien. Lanham
The Colonial Kitchen is a meticulously researched study on the food history of colonial Australia. Each page is a pleasure to read, rich in detail, and written in an engaging manner. The author analyses a trove of primary sources via colonial cookbooks, diaries, personal accounts, newspapers, magazines and journals. The Colonial Kitchen also draws on an impressive range of literature in food history/studies, colonial history, Australian history and cultural history. The gist of O'Brien's book is to challenge the generally accepted view that the British ate extremely bad food in the early years of settlement, sticking to mainly Anglo-Celtic insipid meals. For example, John Newton in The Oldest Foods on Earth: A history of Australian native foods states that European Australians have "hardly ever touched" the native flora and fauna of the Aboriginal peoples for over two hundred years of occupation.1
O'Brien, however, is not the first to debunk the myth that British settlers shunned local or native foods. Barbara Santich in Bold Palates: Australia's gastronomic heritage notes that from the early years, "Australian cooks improvised and substituted, invented and innovated. Sometimes from necessity, sometimes by serendipity and occasionally by using unorthodox methods, they adopted and domesticated indigenous ingredients."2 Santich's book covers the food history of Australia from the late eighteenth century to contemporary Australia, over 200 years. The Colonial Kitchen focuses on a century of British settlement in Australia through its kitchens, cooks, cookbooks, literature, gardens, producers and providers. Australia's first cookery book, The English and Australian Cookery Book: Cookery for the Many as Well as for the "Upper Ten Thousand,"3 had a section on cooking native game and several recipes for cooking kangaroo.
The opening chapter sets the scene at the southeastern edge of Australia in the late eighteenth century where the Aboriginal people, the Eora, ate kangaroo, emu, fish, prawns, eels, oysters, mussels, crabs and whale (2). Founders of the new colony first existed on rations from the ships and these were gradually supplemented with produce from the sea and land as well as cultivated fruit and vegetables. In the second chapter, O'Brien observes that early Australians did consume native foods, that they were "foraging for wild vegetables, catching kangaroos and green turtles, broiling fish, birds, and lizards and infusing the leaves of native similax to drink" (30). However, colonists were at pains to downplay the consumption of native foods as this was seen as primitive. Euphemisms were used to describe indigenous foods: "young beef" for emu, "flying sheep" for mutton birds, "spinage" for wild greens, "apples" for native fruit and "turbot, sole or skate" for local fish.
Still, O'Brien states that the settler's consumption of native foods could be seen as "eating around the edges". Any reluctance to testing the "new" flora and fauna was attributed to their potentially unpalatable and even toxic properties. Further, there was anxiety that foraging for foods further inland would subject the colonists to attack from Aboriginal people.
Another view that The Colonial Kitchen challenges is that colonial Australians were not growing and eating sufficient vegetables. The author points out that kitchen gardens at pastoral stations and farms supplied fresh vegetables. As well, fresh vegetables were purchased from market gardens established on the edges of towns. Among the growers were the Chinese who arrived in the years of the gold rushes from the mid-nineteenth century. Less was recorded of the types of vegetables eaten than the highly valued meats (more available and cheaper than in Britain). Colonial Australians were keen to be upwardly mobile and to be seen as civilized and genteel. A vegetable-based cuisine would have echoes of a peasant diet while the consumption of copious amounts of meat demonstrated affluence. Much more was written about meat in personal accounts and colonial cookbooks.
O'Brien also suggests that the popularly held notion of the bland and unappetizing colonial meals was due, in part, to the absence of literary and visual rhetoric in colonial...