The Art of Living in Australia, by Philip E. Muskett

Chapter IX.

Australian Food Habits and Their Faults. — A Plea for Their Improvement.

It is somewhat curious that, among the many questions which pertain to the national life of Australia, little, if any, attention has been directed to the influences which the daily food and habitual dietary exercise upon the present, and in what way they will affect the future population. And yet it must be apparent that the life of a nation is moulded in no small degree by its daily fare, by its general food habits, and still more by the fact of its living in conformity with, or in direct opposition to, its climatic requirements. It is evident that the natural dietary of the earth’s inhabitants is controlled largely by the particular region in which they dwell. Thus the Hindoos, and contiguous Eastern nations, subsist mainly upon the cereals, in which rice plays so prominent a part. The Greenlander’s fare, on the contrary, consists almost entirely of oils and fats; indeed, on this point Sir Anthony Carlisle relates the following anecdote:—“The most Northern races of mankind,” says he, “were found to be unacquainted with the taste of sweets, and their infants made wry faces and sputtered out sugar with disgust, but the little urchins grinned with ecstasy at the sight of a bit of whale’s blubber.” In the same way the Arab is a date-eater and the Kaffir is a milk consumer. These facts being borne in mind, it will be desirable to ascertain whether the usual food habits obtaining in Australia are those which the nature of the climate renders advisable. If, as a result of such an inquiry, it be demonstrated that the dietary customs followed here are not in harmony with the climatic conditions, it would, perhaps, be well to suggest in what direction amendment should take place.

A reference to the isothermal lines in any physical atlas will be of considerable value in assisting us to the elucidation of the subject under consideration. These are certain lines drawn over a chart of the earth’s surface, on which are located those cities and regions where the mean annual temperature is the same. Thus the mean annual temperature of Sydney is 62.9 degrees; the corresponding line in the northern world runs through Naples and Lisbon in Europe, and a little below the central portion of the United States and California in America. At Melbourne the average yearly temperature is 57.6 degrees, corresponding in the old world to a temperature met with at Marseilles, Bordeaux, the south of France and Northern Italy, while across the Atlantic a somewhat similar climate obtains about the middle of the United States. The mean annual temperature at Brisbane is 67.74 degrees; this is the same as that of Algiers and the southern shores of the Mediterranean generally, and coincides with that met with in New Orleans and the southern states of North America. At Adelaide the average yearly temperature is 63.1 degrees, and the climate is considered to greatly resemble that of Sicily. Now, no other mode that I am aware of, such as this juxtaposition of localities where the mean annual temperature is the same, will afford such a convenient way of contrasting the mode of living which is practised in Australia with that which is followed by the inhabitants of the regions referred to in Europe. The cardinal difference, and one which stands out in bold relief, is that the Australian food habits are characterised by a preponderancy of meat diet and a corresponding neglect of vegetable products. On the other hand, the dietary of Southern Europe is in rational harmony with its climate, and there is not that insensate insistence of a highly nitrogenous animal fare to the exclusion of all else. The striking features, then, in connection with the Australian dietary are this extraordinary consumption of meat and the faith which is presumably attached to its food value. It is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of our people believe implicitly in the necessity for meat at their three daily mealy, and not only is this the case in the cooler parts of the year, but it is practised universally during the height of the summer, without being modified in the slightest degree. Thus the student of ethnography is presented with the somewhat curious anomaly of a people living in a summer temperature of 70 degrees or 80 degrees in the shade, eating more meat than do the bulk of the inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland (with their ice and snow) during their winter months. It is one of the characteristics of the Anglo–Saxon race, however, this inability to appreciate the necessity of conforming to new climatic conditions in which their lot may be cast. It will be the same, too, when the British restaurant-keeper begins business in Equatorial Africa. For an absolute certainty his bill-of-fare for the delectation of the unfortunate colonist will consist of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, plum pudding, and the old familiar throng. Whether mine host has to consult the taste of his client, or whether the latter has simply to accept what is proffered, is not absolutely decided; probably they are both imbued with a belief in the necessity of solid fare, regarding it as a solemn truth beyond all possibility of cavil.

This abuse of flesh food in a climate like Australia would be serious enough under any circumstances, but it is intensified and aggravated by the direct unoriginality in dealing with meat. Is it not a fact that there is no attempt whatever made to break through the conventional chain of joints, roasted or boiled, and the inevitable grill or fry? In how many houses does the breakfast ever consist of anything but the ubiquitous chops, steaks, or sausages? indeed, one might almost term them “the faith, hope, and charity” of domestic life. I remember reading some little time ago that if a map of the world were made in which lands of utter darkness were coloured black like the coalfields in an atlas of physical geography, certain races would be signalised by their opaqueness. If such a map were ever compiled, Australia would of necessity be characterised by blackness; such a blackness, indeed, that jet itself would be as snowy white beside it. But why should this lamentable state of things be said of Australians, who claim to be progressive in their ideas and advanced in their views, usages, and customs?

In conjunction with this dietetic view of the matter, one of the objects I have in writing is to direct attention to the great neglect there is of vegetables, especially those of the more unknown varieties, as an agreeable, desirable, palatable, and salutary element in the Australian food life. One need not be a vegetarian to properly appreciate the valuable properties of vegetables, and most people will fare better and feel the benefit of a modification of their customary dietary if they decrease the amount of meat they indulge in and proportionately increase their vegetable allowance. Now, there are many vegetables besides those ordinarily in use which might be easily cultivated, and serve to form a pleasing variety at table. Once the demand arises for kinds other than those usually grown, the inducement for market-gardeners to supply them would be no longer wanting. A reference to the catalogues furnished by the seedsmen and plant-merchants of the different Australian metropolitan cities will show that special attention is called to many of these vegetables, and yet I am informed that, although they are continually inserted in the new issues as they appear from time to time, no notice seems to be taken of them whatever. I propose, therefore, briefly to describe some of these comparatively unknown vegetables, and to point out their merits and their claims for recognition.

The globe artichoke might be more frequently grown, as it is really a good vegetable and easily cooked. It constitutes the flower head of the CYNARA SCOLYMUS (one of the thistle family), and is gathered before the flowers expand. The ends of the flower scales attached to the disc, and the central disc itself, are the parts that are eaten, and they constitute a delicately flavoured vegetable. It is extensively cultivated in California, and is there to be met with in nearly all hotels and restaurants. Another thing in its favour is that it is peculiarly one of the vegetables which diabetics may indulge in without fear. It does well in the cooler parts of Australia, and should certainly be more generally grown.

The Jerusalem artichoke is not to be confused with the preceding, as it belongs to a different vegetable genus altogether. It is a species of sunflower, as its name denotes, the prefix Jerusalem being in reality a corruption of the Italian word GIRASOLE, a sunflower. It resembles the potato in that it is a tuberous-rooted vegetable, and grows readily enough — in fact, perhaps it grows too readily, for once it takes possession of the soil it is difficult to eradicate it. The Jerusalem artichoke, however, is comparatively common here, and when cooked properly it is a most delightful vegetable, although it may not be sufficiently appreciated at first. It often happens that these artichokes are of a bad colour, and too crisp when brought to table. This is easily prevented, however, by washing and paring them like potatoes and then placing them in a bowl of clear water, to which a few drops of fresh lemon juice have been added. When boiled with sufficient water to just cover them, and a liberal allowance of salt, for 20 min. to 40 min., they come out a snowy white and quite tender. They are especially delicious when served up with melted butter and egg sauce.

Asparagus. — Although this delicate and luscious vegetable is of the easiest culture, and grows readily along the coast, yet to our shame be it said that it is usually too much of a luxury for ordinary mortal, to afford. Now, it is for the most part such a general favourite that one may well ask why it is not more cultivated. The demand for it in America is so great, and it yields such a good return, that some growers, make 100 percent; and upwards yearly profit for each acre. Is it not a severe reflection upon our market gardeners, to find that the imported preserved varieties of asparagus are so esculent that the very stalks, are as, luscious as the heads of the vegetable? In its fresh state it should be eaten as soon after cutting as possible, and, like the globe artichoke, is readily allowable to diabetics. It is somewhat curious, too, that the asparagus, and the globe artichoke are the only vegetables which the British race eat as, a single dish.

Brussels sprouts are the most delicate of all the borecoles, and it is a thousand pities that this delightful vegetable is not more often to be met with. These miniature, cabbages, however, require some little care in their rearing, and hence amateurs often fail to reach perfection in their cultivation. They may be boiled like cabbage, in abundance of water and a little salt for 15 minutes, then drained, dried, and finally tossed in butter with a little pepper and nutmeg. They do well enough, as does the borecole or kale itself, in all the cooler parts of Australia.

The cardoon, like the globe artichoke, belongs to the thistle family, yet it is, more hardy and robust than the latter. It is readily grown, particularly in the cooler districts, and, like many other of the more unknown vegetables, is too much neglected. Its leaf-stalks should be at least an inch and a half thick before they are ready for cutting. They are then blanched, and when cooked recall somewhat the flavour of the globe artichoke. These tender leaf-stalks are used in soups and salads, and it may be boiled also in a similar manner to sea-kale, in which latter form it is especially palatable.

The celeriac or turnip-rooted celery is a very choice vegetable, and is much cultivated on the Continent. Its nutty root is not at all unlike the solid root portion of common celery in taste, which by many is considered superior in flavour to the other parts of the latter plant. The celeriac is greatly esteemed, and is known as the CELERI-RAVE BY the French, and as the knoll-selerie by the Germans. The latter, indeed, are so fond of it that they call barely talk of it without moist eyes and watery mouths. It is hardier than celery, and possesses an advantage in that it can be taken up and stored similarly to carrots and beets. The celerific may be boiled as a table vegetable or used for flavouring soups, or it may be sliced for salads. It does well in all the cooler parts, and might be cultivated with benefit, mingled with gratitude.

The egg plant, or aubergine, does so exceedingly well, and can be so highly recommended, that one may well wonder why it is never seen. It is a native of Africa and tropical America, and is very popular both in the East and West Indies. It is cultivated also a great deal in the United States, where it is greatly appreciated for culinary use. In AUBERGINES FARCIES, a favourite dish, they are cut in hakes, the centres chopped and put back into the skins with oil, &c. They are then sprinkled with breadcrumbs, and browned. It is easily grown, and it seems unaccountable why it should be passed over.

The kohl rabi, or turnip-rooted cabbage, is another nutritious vegetable which has inexplicably never been received into public favour. Its delicate flavour should ensure for it a well-established position with those who are fond of good vegetables, as it is more tender and more savoury than either turnip or cabbage, and is not at all unlike cauliflower in taste. For table purposes it should be only about two-thirds grown, for if allowed to go to full size the outside skin becomes tough and hard. It is another of those vegetables which are so highly prized on the Continent, and it is already an acknowledged favourite in America. It does well in all the cooler localities, and gives a larger yield than turnips.

The salsify, or “vegetable oyster,” is a typical example of a most unaccountably slighted vegetable with us, and yet it is highly appreciated on the continent and in the United States. The root is long and tapering, becoming fleshy and tender by cultivation, and with a whitish, milky-like juice. It has a rich flavour, not at all unlike that of cooked oysters, whence it derives its value. In preparing salsify for table the darkish outside skin requires to be lightly scraped off, and then it should be steeped for a while in cold water so as to remove any slight bitterness it may possess. Like parsnips, when cooked it requires to be boiled slowly, in the smallest possible quantity of water, until it is almost ready to melt. If boiled fast, in abundance of water, the savour of both parsnips and salsify is to a great extent dispersed and lost beyond recall. One of the most approved methods of cooking salsify roots is to slowly boil them to tenderness in the smallest possible quantity of milk, and then to mash and fry them in butter, with salt and pepper. Cold boiled salsify, with the addition of some chopped herbs, tarragon vinegar, and salad oil, makes an exceedingly good salad. The salsify does well in all the cooler regions, and, moreover, it is easily grown.

Scorzonera. — This Spanish plant is very similar to salsify, and requires the same kind of treatment; but, being a stronger grower, requires more room in its culture. It may be served in soups or treated like salsify. The outside leaves should be removed before the vegetable is cooked. The blanched leaves also are highly esteemed on the Continent, and are used for salad purposes. It grows well in all the cooler parts of Australia, and might certainly be introduced for the public benefit.

Sea kale is one of those vegetables which are brought to perfection in England, so much so that Careme, that mighty CHEF, when he came across them in London went into ecstasies. He described them as resembling branches of celery, which should be served like asparagus, with butter sauce, after 20 minutes’ boiling. In some respects this is verily the most delicious of all vegetables, and as it grows well here it should be largely cultivated, yet it is almost unknown. It is fit to rank with, if not precede, asparagus, and as a matter of fact it is far more profitable than the latter, so that market gardeners would have something to gain by its introduction. Like the cabbage, it was originally a maritime plant, and has been brought to its present state of perfection by cultivation. It requires to be thoroughly blanched by exclusion from light, similarly to celery, for when coloured at all it possesses an acrid taste. Of the many ways of sending it to table, one of the best is to boil it and serve it on toast with a little melted butter. It should be largely cultivated, as it does well all along the coastal parts, being, as already mentioned, a maritime plant.

Sweet corn is deservedly a great favourite with those who know of its succulent flavour and nourishing properties. Unfortunately, however, it is with us only in the imported tins from America, and therefore we can only conjecture how delicious it must be when fresh. It is so commonly met with in the fresh form in America that it is found at nearly every dinner table. Large areas where land is not expensive are devoted to its growth, and hundreds of acres are required annually for the New York markets alone. It does splendidly in all parts of Australia, and for growing children it constitutes one of the most nutritious vegetables that can be well imagined. On this latter account alone, therefore, it is really a matter for national regret that it is so improperly passed over. One thing requires to be borne in mind, and it is that the cobs of ordinary Indian corn which are seen in so many country districts must not be confused with this sweet corn, as the latter is entirely different.

These nutritious, although somewhat unknown vegetables, therefore, evidently deserve to be brought into prominent notice, and once public interest is aroused, their cultivation and ready sale will speedily follow. At the same time it must not be forgotten that the tomato itself had a desperate struggle for reception into public favour when first introduced to us. It actually trembled in the balance for no inconsiderable time, and it was some years before its good qualities were universally recognised. To-day, however, it occupies a very different position, and takes rank as a luscious vegetable, appreciated by thousands of people; and besides, it is of undoubted value in many disorders of the liver. But now that the Agricultural Colleges are in full swing in the different colonies, notably in New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, it is certain that the greatest possible good to the whole community will result. Their effect, too, in indirectly populating the agricultural areas of Australia will materially aid the great work of decentralisation.

But apart altogether from this matter of the introduction of vegetables which have hitherto been overlooked is another which is hardly less important. I refer to the crude cookery which is bestowed on the ordinary vegetables at present in daily use. That there is sny monotony in an endless recurrence of boiled potatoes, boiled cabbage, boiled this and boiled that, never seems to occur to the vast majority of people in this country, who seem incapable of understanding that these different vegetables are worthy of being served in an infinite number of ways. It will doubtless shock those who cling to this beliefs but the following remarks by Dr. Mitchell, an English physician practising in Paris, directed against his own countrymen be it understood, are forcible enough:—“The plain boiled potato,” says he, “whatever else it may be, is clearly a cattle food; so for the matter of that are cabbages, carrots, turnips, beans, peas, and almost every other vegetable when plain boiled. None of them in that condition would be “refused by a cow in fair appetite.” Now, there are so many appetising ways of preparing vegetables for table, and at no additional expense, that it is lamentable to find people offering no protest against this feeble exhibition of culinary skill. Why, if there be nothing in the preparation of vegetables for the table beyond plain boiling, it must be acknowledged that Cookery has made mighty little progress since the time it first came into existence.

Having seen, then, what faults exist and what improvements might be made, it may well be asked how these latter are to be brought about, or, rather, how can Australians be induced to life in accordance with climatic requirements? The answer Is by no means easy. It may be said, in truth, that till the great mass of the people recognise their food faults, reform will not be of a national character. As I have already said, the acceptation of that valuable and nutritious vegetable fruit, the tomato, took years to accomplish. In the same way, I fear, a universal recognition that excessive meat indulgence is a climatic error will take many decades before it is an article of national belief. In the schools, Cookery must form an all-important part of a girl’s education — not a superficial knowledge of the science, but practical instruction, thorough, complete, real. The dietetic properties of meat, vegetables, of salad vegetables, and of fruit, from an Australian standpoint, should be so thoroughly inculcated that a proper conception of their respective food values should remain for a lifetime. The prizes for proficiency and excellence in culinary matters, too, should be such as to render them worth the winning, and serve as a stimulus for future exertions.

Is it not strange that so far ingenuity, universal approval, or general consensus of opinions call it what you will, has not up till the present given us an Australian national dish? Although tea and damper instinctively arise in the mind when the matter is referred to, yet I take it that we would all repel such an accusation if levelled against us. Does the Australian, moreover, away from his native land perpetuate his patriotism by oft partaking of this pastoral fare? Certainly not. Well, when this national dish is composed and formally approved of by the nation, let us devoutly trust that it will be a MACEDOINE of vegetables, or a vegetable curry, or some well-concocted salad. It is true that in one of the cookery books I have seen a dish of peaches, dubbed PECHES A L’AUSTRALIENNE. It is a sort of compote of peaches, but to the best of my belief it is simply entitled Australian for the sake of giving it a name, and for no other reason.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09