Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

History revisited - changing roles of food

THINGS OF THE PAST: kitchen gardens were once a common sight in Australian back yards, but Jim Belshaw explains they are becoming rarer as the years pass.
A week back, I was wandering around a Sydney suburb looking at the architecture and the pattern of life. The thing I most noticed was the absence of kitchen gardens.

Growing up in Armidale, the garden was part of our life. It had apple, apricot and plum trees. There were raspberries, gooseberries, red and black currents. And there were lots of vegetables.

In the mornings sometimes I would go outside and pick raspberries to bring back and crush with cream and sugar. Alternatively, I would pick a jar of preserves of the shelf made with the Fowlers Vacola outfit. This was stored in the garage for use during the flush times for various local fruits.

Suffering from an acute feeling of nostalgia, I thought that over the next few columns I might share with you a little on our changing habits in food. To understand this, there are just a few facts that you need to fix in your minds.

The first is the decline in the calories required to support daily activities. At the end of the nineteenth century, men humped weights as a matter of course that would now be illegal outside gyms. On the female side, too, the eighty per cent of women without servants engaged in the sheer physical drudgery of maintaining households without those labour saving devices we now take for granted. Both men and women walked long distances as a matter of course.

As life became more sedentary, the required daily calorie intake dropped. My best guess, and it is only a guess, is that it may well have halved over the twentieth century. This led to changes in food tastes.

At the start of the twentieth century, cook books were full of cake and biscuit recipes. They ran for pages. There were hundreds of local variations. Cakes were eaten at meals, served to visitors, taken in packed lunches.

By the end of the twentieth century, the cake was largely vanquished. This was partly due to greater choice in sweet things including ice cream, more to the decline in calorie requirements.

The second important fact to remember is the continuous improvements in the production, preservation, transportation and distribution of food stuffs. We know this, of course, but do we always understand just how it has affected the look, feel and taste of the food we eat?

Take a simple thing like bread. Today we think of bread largely in terms of bread types. Given the type, we expect taste to be common, although we do consider that some bread makers are better than others. It is hard for us to recognise that bread in one locality might have tasted different from the same loaf in another place depending on the wheat, wood and method of cooking.

Finally, we need to recognise the importance of changing fads and fancies, including the deeply held and strongly argued views of members of the medical profession.

In my next column, I will look at the changing roles of bread and meat.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 21 January 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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