Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage
by Barbara Santich
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Country: AU
ISBN: 9781743050941, Year: 2012
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

In Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage, Professor Barbara Santich sets out to provide “justification and legitimacy” for those foods and ways of cooking and eating that are recognised as “distinctively Australian”. Santich draws on a wide range of sources including newspapers, diaries and memoirs, recipe books, and the work of other academics to present a thorough and approachable survey of Australia’s gastronomic heritage. Well-illustrated and with valuable and informative primary source material (newspaper articles, letters, advertising etc.) reproduced on almost every page, this book is a welcome reference for anyone interested in the historical background to the Australian diet.

About the author

Professor Barbara Santich is an internationally recognised food scholar who has published six previous books including The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today, What the Doctors Ordered: 150 years of dietary advice in Australia, In the Land of the Magic Pudding: A gastronomic miscellany, and Looking for Flavour. Her articles have been published in newspapers, journals and magazines both in Australia and overseas. Currently Santich oversees the Graduate Program in Food Studies and teaches in the Graduate Certificate in Food Writing at the University of Adelaide, South Australia.

Review

The first thing to note about Bold Palates is that for all the author’s academic qualifications, this is not a wordy, worthy academic treatise with an axe to grind. On the contrary, this is a highly approachable, easy-to-read and entertaining look at Australian food – the “what we eat, how we eat it and even where we eat” picture of Australia. As befits an experienced academic, this book is meticulously researched, calling on all manner of resources from newspapers and magazines, journals and memoirs, recipe books, the works of other academics and historians, to the works of Australian authors such as Patrick White, Ethel Turner and David Malouf. In some instances, Santich also includes anecdotes of her own family history which will have particular resonance for many Australian readers. All of these are used to good advantage to convincingly illustrate her contention that, national cuisine or no, Australians have developed “distinctively Australian ways of cooking and eating” which demonstrate “characteristic Australian responses to unique Australian situations”.

The book is divided into eight chapters, beginning with the thorny old issue of a national “Australian” dish, an issue which has been under discussion with varying degrees of vision and enthusiasm almost since the beginning of European settlement. As Santich quite rightly points out, Australia’s national dishes are what the Australian people like to eat, which are not necessarily the same as the contrived concoctions on restaurant menus such as Kangaroo Wellington or lemon myrtle panna cotta. In chapter two she discusses the on-again off-again relationship European Australians have with indigenous ingredients, especially “bush tucker”. Out of necessity, the early settlers were much more adventurous and imaginative, making the best of trying conditions and limited resources, experimenting with the likes of bandicoot, echidna and wombat. Even kangaroo has never become a true household standby and indigenous herbs (lemon myrtle for example) and fruits (like quandongs and Davidson’s plums) remain novelties.

This means that the rest of Santich’s book is devoted to those other foods and eating occasions which Australians do see as representative of their everyday food culture. Quoting a survey which puts roast lamb, meat pies and sausage sandwiches as the top three most popular Australian foods, it should be no surprise that subsequent chapters cover the evolution of the picnic, the specifics of Australian chop picnics, sausage sizzles and barbecues, the national devotion to meat (especially lamb), the meat pie, and our enthusiasm and inventiveness in the “land of cakes” (think lamingtons and Anzac biscuits), with many asides along the way. A final chapter concentrates on manufactured foodstuffs and those products and brands which have become household names, Vegemite, Tim Tams, Iced Vo Vos, Minties, Milo– all those things that Australians long for when they are away from home.

Each chapter provides interesting and relevant historical background accompanied by some wonderful photographs and a wealth of other supporting material– newspaper articles, old menus, advertisements, art works – which both illustrate the text and add an extra dimension for interpretation by the reader. The chapter on barbecues, for example, includes a series of photographs ranging from Queen Elizabeth II tentatively approaching a sizzling steak, to Japanese students in smart suits and ties posing with tongs around the grill, to a group of nuns cooking outdoors, which speak volumes for the Australian love of the “barbie”, how far you can stretch the notion of casual eating, and what this says about our sense of egalitarianism. Inviting someone home for a barbie is the ultimate expression of Australian hospitality and is still the way we greet all manner of foreign dignitaries from the President of the United States to British royalty.

Many of the arguments Santich puts forward will be familiar to readers of Looking for Flavour but here she is able to refine and expand on them. There is also some overlap with the only other comprehensive look at Australia’s gastronomic history that I am aware of, Michael Symons’ One Continuous Picnic. The two books certainly complement each other with Santich providing more minutiae in some areas than Symons’ broader chronological approach.

Given that very little has been published relating specifically to Australian food and Australian food ways, Santich’s book is a most valuable contribution. I think her work also clearly suggests there is scope for more detailed study of some of Australia’s distinctively Australian food practices. This leads me to my one complaint. As a researcher myself, I was a little disappointed that there were no footnotes. While I understand that many readers find footnotes intrusive, and I appreciate that there are production difficulties associated with footnoting, I would have liked more detail. I acknowledge that there is a good bibliography and that works relevant to each chapter are listed separately. For example, Santich tells us that the term “barbie” was coined in 1976 but not where or by whom, and that South Australia imported a staggering 100,000 pounds of coconut in 1909 but not how she came by that figure or where the survey mentioned earlier (of favourite foods) was published. However, this is by no means a fatal criticism of a book which anyone interested in Australian food, and indeed in Australian history, will find to be a most rewarding read.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 5. Highly recommended
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
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