Scottish immigrants Morris Drummond and wife Catherine 1882. Morris was struck by the availability and cheapness of food in Australia.This is the fifth in a series on domestic life and the rhythms of childhood
Two things impressed Scottish stonemason Morris Drummond on his arrival in
Melbourne in March 1879 on the way to his new home in . The first was the
stonework, the best he had ever seen. The second was the food. Sydney
“Meat is cheaper than at home”, he wrote in his diary. “we had a good Dinner for sixpence I will give you an idea of it had soup and Bread Mutton Potatoes & Cabbage and Plum pudding for a Desert” Tea was just as cheap: “we had our Tea for the same amount and as much as we could eat and fruit is cheap.”
This picture of the Australian colonies as places with plentiful cheap food is something repeated in many immigrant accounts. Australians had a particular love of meat, something that
doctor and nutritionists
Philip E Muskett complained about in 1893. Australians should, he suggested,
eat more vegetables for health reasons. Sydney
There were good reasons for this love of meat. 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.
By contrast, vegetable had to be carted at considerable expense or grown on home or station gardens. The expansion of the railways allowed fruit and vegetables to be brought to the cities more easily, but the love of meat remained.
"Now that meat was cheap and freely available, they consumed it with gusto."In the home countries, meat had been expensive, a luxury. Many families rarely tasted meat in their daily diet. Now that it was cheap and freely available, they consumed it with gusto. It was, suggests historian Geoffrey Blainey, more than a food, more than an incessant topic of conversation. It had become a way of life.
Outside sheep country, beef was more popular and freely available than mutton. Pork became readily available from the 1890s linked to the spread of dairying. From the 1870s rabbit meat was being sold, initially as an expensive luxury. By the 1890s, rabbit had become the cheapest meat. The humble chook was available but remained expensive.
In sheep country like the
England, mutton dominated. The weekly rations of a station worker
could include close to 6 kilos of mutton a week, more meat than some immigrant
workers had eaten in six months or longer at home.
There were some complaints, but most settled in happily eating three meals of meat each day and talking about their good fortune in letters home.
Although Australians remain great meat eaters, the earlier meat based diet with its English overtones now seems old fashioned, even unhealthy. The idea of meat and three veg, itself a later model, has been replaced by a melded perception of food attributed to the migrant intakes after the Second World War.
There is some truth in this stereotype, but like most stereotypes it is only partially true. The reality is far more complex.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 30 May 2018. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017, here 2018