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The big business of food’s past


Jane Munro
2 March 2011
Food and food preparation is undoubtedly big business in Australia today and according to senior lecturer in history at Southern Cross University and Associate Fellow at the National Museum of Australia, Dr Adele Wessell, that current fascination is creating a surge in interest in our culinary heritage.

“I'm a historian with a background in cultural history who is interested in food in terms of how it communicates and produces change. I actually think that you can use food to provide a means of understanding key historical transitions that define modern society, such as food production, religion, the body, science, power, the nation state, colonialism, gender, consumption, migration and memory. All of these elements can be examined through a history of food," Dr Wessell said.

“Much of this history had been neglected for several reasons: it's ordinary and everyday; we've focused on visual texts to the exclusion of other senses like taste and smell; and it's often women's business and so until the development of feminist history and accompanying social change it was largely outside the scope of the history discipline.

“The current interest in food and cooking, reflected in popular culture and television programs, has fed an interest in food heritage. A number of classic cookbooks have been reprinted in recent times such as the CWA Cookbook (republished 2009) and the Commonsense Cookery Book (republished 2008). I use cookbooks as a historical source and they seem to capture lots of people's imaginations.

“Food literature is important because through the story of our food we can explore Indigenous cultures, colonialism, migration, war and so on. Some of those stories challenge our assumptions. Many people will be surprised for example, that many food identities turned to the US for models on eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, right up to the middle of the 20th century.

“The Margaret Fulton Cookbook has achieved sales of more than 1.5 million copies up to today, contributing to the four million copies of Fulton’s 24 cookbooks that have been sold. At the time that her first cookbook was published in 1968 there were only 36 cookbooks deposited in the National Library of Australia. By comparison, the library holds some 779 cookbooks just from the four-year period from 1996 to 1999. This gives you an indication of the growth in food writing in that 30-year period as well as the importance of Margaret Fulton’s Cookbook.

“Australia's cooking identities are not always judged by the sales of their books, but also how enduring their influence may be, or by what they suggest about changes in Australian society. Flora Pell was the author of ‘Our Cookery Book’ that ran into more than 30 editions from 1916. She was considered an authority on cooking and is a fascinating Australian historical figure. Ask people if they, or their mother, or their grandmother, had one of her recipe books in their family collection and see what people say.

“Some authors have proclaimed that we are currently in the midst of a food revolution now. Lots of separate movements are converging on a common goal to create a food system that promotes the health of people as well as the environment, such as the slow food movement; the rise of the organic food industry; the locally grown food movements; and activism against marketing foods to kids.

“The importance of food in political and civic movements has never been clearer and it is well documented that these movements are directly related to our culinary heritage. It is that history that I enjoy finding out more about. Food shapes how we use the world not just as producers but consumers as well.”

March is women’s history month and Dr Wessell will be bringing the history of Australian women and the business of food to life at three prestigious events being held in Canberra and Melbourne.

Dr Adele Wessell will speak on 'Food Activism: Women at home, women in dairying' at the National Museum of Australia in association with Women’s History Month, officially themed, ‘women in the business of food’ on Sunday, March 6 at 2pm (bookings essential). Dr Wessell will discuss the history of Flora Pell, the author of ‘Our Cookery Book’, along with Alison Wishart from the National Museum of Australia, at the State Library of Victoria on Thursday, March 10 at 5:30pm. She will also feature in the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival ‘symposium and conversation dinner’ which will examine ‘Food Traditions and Culinary Cultures’ on Saturday, March 12.

Photo: The cover of 'Our Cookery Book' by Flora Pell. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.