The lost art of cooking

This story was originally broadcast on the ABC Radio National program Life Matters a decade ago. What’s changed?

Fancy some fricassee sheep’s head? Thrift is the main ingredient in a cookbook from the 1920s.

In the future, archeologists and historians won’t have to dig up our backyards to find out what our society was like. All they’ll have to do is dig up a few old cookbooks.

Take a recent recipe for “Steamed Scallops, Ponzu Sauce and Pickled Daikon Salad” in the Age Good Weekend magazine.

Among its 18 mostly exotic ingredients are 24 scallops, daikon (which, by the way, is Japanese radish), dried shitake mushrooms, rice wine vinegar, fish sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, lemon juice, the zest of an orange, water, rock sugar, julienned ginger, red chillies, Sichuan pepper, roasted and ground, kecap manis which is an Indonesian sweet soy sauce and mirin – whatever that is.

From this, historians in the future may conclude that we were an affluent lot – or at least that our cook books were aimed at the affluent.

Contrast this with most of the recipes in Australian Home Cookery, published in the 1920s, where the average number of ingredients is six  – and three of these usually include salt, pepper and water.

My husband’s grandmother, Linda Biesse, died of appendicitis when her daughter was only six years old, so not much is known about her.

But this cookbook, published by the Ideal Home Library and printed in “Great Britain”, is among the few possessions she left.

While the book doesn’t tell me much about Linda Biesse – there is no well-thumbed page or special notes that indicate her favorite recipe, for instance – it does say a lot about the society she lived in. Thrift, it seems, was vital ingredient in Australian home cookery in those days.

About the only ingredients Linda Biesse would have recognised from the recipe in Good Weekend, are the lemon juice, orange juice, ginger and water. Even then, the ginger would have been powdered, not fresh.

And even if the ingredients had been available, the expense would not have justified it.

The introduction to the book, signed by the appropriately named “Prudence”, says, “Extravagance is not compatible with good cooking, therefore the majority of the recipes are for dishes which may be prepared at moderate cost. The thrifty woman will appreciate the practical guidance in the preparation of attractive dishes from leftover foodstuffs.” 

Australia was a meat and potatoes place in those days, and by the time Linda Biesse was using the book, the Great Depression had put many out of work. By 1931, 38 per cent of Australia’s workers were unemployed. Lack of ingredients meant that even plain dishes were sometimes difficult to make.

My own mother says that the notion of buying a kilogram or a pound of fruit at a green grocer was unheard of. You bought two or three for a penny.

But it was not just limited rations that made Australians prefer plain cooking. The White Australia policy, which was introduced in 1901 and lasted until the late 1960s, guaranteed a homogeneous society that produced a largely homogenous culinary style, too.

White sauce features largely in Australian Home Cookery as something to both bind and mask, just as white Australia policy did to society at the time.

In those days a Californian roll was something you did with an energetic Californian.

In hindsight, it’s easy to scoff at this plain food and its WASPish flavor. But a thorough reading of Australian Home Cookery reveals a disquieting fact. Women who cooked using these books may not have known a daikon from a turnip, but they knew their craft. They knew how to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, or in this case, a sheep’s head into a delicious fricassee.

No joke. Among the meat dishes is a recipe for “Sheep’s Head Fricassee”, which is not for the fainthearted.  “Clean a sheep’s head, split it and soak it in cold salted water,” the recipe instructs.

Such expertise is lost today. If a cook doesn’t know how to cook a sheep’s head, then why would she buy one?  (In fact, even if she did know, why would she buy one?).

These days, buying one might be more difficult than cooking one. Offal, or “variety meats”, as they are more politely known now, must be ordered from the butcher or bought at a special stall at the Queen Victoria Market.

My husband recently experienced this himself when he went in search of tripe and found none available. When he grew up in country, variety meats were served regularly. But now they have been relegated to a guilty treat that he only gets at a pub in North Melbourne that serves traditional Italian fare.

Despite my own Italian background I’ve never eaten or cooked any kind of offal. My Australian-born mother regarded people who ate offal as in the same vein as people who said things like  “I done it”, rather than “I did it,” – an unfortunate consequence of poverty and ignorance, not to be encouraged.

But it’s not just affluence and ignorance that has led to a decline in demand for this type of food. We simply don’t have that other vital ingredient – time.

The recipe for Tripe in Batter, for example, advises you to “cook gently for three to four hours.” Today, most people prefer to stir-fry for three minutes. Those who want cheap slow-cooked food like lamb shanks and mashed potato drive to a fancy restaurant and pay fancy prices.

But the push for fast food has meant that even the most basic skills are being lost, as a friend’s mother attests. Once, she was so horrified when she saw a young woman buying a packet mix for macaroni cheese, she insisted on writing out the recipe for her on the spot.

When I attended Mentone Girls’ Secondary College in the mid-1970s, home economics was a staple of the curriculum. There, wearing the aprons we had made in our sewing classes, we learned about everything from cooking to budgeting.

“Home Ec” these days has been scorned and marginalised. You only learn it if you are going to make a career of it. But a friend who taught “consumer science” at RMIT says that one of the best reasons for learning how to cook is to know what you’re eating.

Not only has the ingredients changed, so have our attitudes. In Linda Biesse’s day, cooking was a task focused on thrift and nutrition. Today, cooking and eating is recreation as well as a multi-billion dollar industry.

What would Linda or Prudence have made of today’s proliferation of cooking shows, many of which now feature men telling us all how to do it properly?