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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

History revisited - settlers' craved Australia's cheaper meats

In 1893, Sydney Doctor Philip E Muskett attacked Australian’s love of meat, tea and tobacco. Dr Muskett was one of the first if not the first Australian nutritionists, much concerned with children’s diseases and especially rickets.

Australians would be healthier, he suggested, if they ate more salads, drank more wine, substituted a small cup of coffee for tea and walked ten or more kilometres a day. This advice was largely ignored.

Australians had become the world’s largest per capita consumer of tea and meat. This love emerged in the early period of European settlement and for practical reasons.

Tea was a low bulk, high value product that could be carried easily to NSW from China and then distributed reasonably cheaply. It disguised the taste of often muddy water and replenished fluids lost in heavy work in high temperatures.

Vegetable had to be carted at considerable expense or grown on home or station gardens. By contrast, livestock was readily available and could be driven to market over considerable distances. New England beef helped feed the diggers on the Victorian gold fields.

The European settlers were attracted to meat for another reason as well. In the home countries, meat was expensive, a relative luxury. Many families rarely tasted meat in their daily diet. Now it was cheap and freely available.

In his book on the history of daily life in Australia up to the First World Way, historian Geoffrey Blainey suggests that meat was more than a food, more than an incessant topic of conversation; it had become a way of life.

In the absence of refrigeration, meat spoiled quickly. For that reason, it was desirable that meat be slaughtered close to the customer, often in the cool of the evening. One result was a proliferation of butcher’s shops. The name of the best butcher, the best place to buy your meat, was a common topic of conversation.

You can see the remnants of this pattern today in the number of former butcher shops in the older parts of Armidale. Often located next to a general store, the butchers were both a sources of meat and of information. This photo is actually from Quirindi. 

People had their favourites. When I was growing up, my mother always went to a butcher in West Armidale because, to her mind, he had the best meat.

Across Australia, beef was the most popular meat because it was cheaper. This was not true in Armidale, for here sheep meats were freely available and cheaper. The more expensive beef cuts were less popular. Steak was a special treat.

Growing up in Armidale, I now struggle with the price of lamb. It just doesn’t seem right!

In my next and final column in this food series, I will look at other aspects of Armidale’s changing diet.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 4 February 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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