HISTORY TALKING | Food for thought on changes to dining and diet

COOKING UP CONVERSATION: Orange Oral History Group members Frank Higgins, Leslye Melville, Pauline Jenkins, Dorothea Higgins, Monica Knight and Bruce Martin at Orange Regional Museum. Photo: JUDE KEOGH
COOKING UP CONVERSATION: Orange Oral History Group members Frank Higgins, Leslye Melville, Pauline Jenkins, Dorothea Higgins, Monica Knight and Bruce Martin at Orange Regional Museum. Photo: JUDE KEOGH

“Food glorious food, hot chocolate and mustard. While we’re in the mood, cold jelly and custard” – Oliver!

Most of us would agree with the orphan boys in the stage musical Oliver! that food plays a very important part in our lives and that without it we would fairly quickly starve to death.

It is thought that cavemen ate only enough to survive and reproduce, and that their diet depended on where they lived and what was available.

The foods we eat and the ways we prepare and consume it have changed greatly since the middle ages, when historians claim breakfast was eaten only by the poor, sick and labouring classes and the main meals were at midday and in the evening.

There was little ceremony attached to the eating of food, the one essential being that you didn’t get too greasy while tearing meat apart with your teeth and fingers.

By the time Queen Victoria ascended the throne, table manners had become very strict and probably remained so until technology changed the whole idea of eating at the table with the family.

We were introduced to the TV dinner in the late fifties when people became so entranced by television that we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the set. From there we have made more technological advances that have left some of us unable to leave our phones long enough to properly enjoy food and conversation with an actual person.

In the developed world we have reached the stage where we have so much food available that we are constantly worrying how we can stop ourselves from eating too much of it.

With the advent of fast food and the constant bombardment of advertising, we have developed appetites for the sort of food that is contributing to the so-called obesity epidemic and health professionals warn against the perils of a diet with too much sugar and without sufficient vegetables and fruit.

Having lived long enough to have seen many of these changes, the Oral History Group felt it was in a position to share it’s experiences of food and eating in the past.

Leslye remembered the thick stews with dumplings and heavy puddings which her mother served in an effort to fill her hungry family. “They were delicious,” she told us, “but we were all still hungry, although I don’t remember anyone being fat”.

Many of the group came from large families where money was not plentiful and mothers were adept at producing hearty meals out of very little.

“I came from a family of seven children and my mother was widowed very early. Breakfast was always bread and milk and you ate it up quickly in case someone else took it,” said Tom.

“In the Depression we sometimes ate Weet-bix and water for every meal,” said Bill.

Vegetable gardens, chooks and possibly a cow made many people in the country self-sufficient, but children were expected to eat everything that was provided or remain at the table until every scrap was eaten up. It’s surprising how much fat we consumed, a fact that would horrify dietitians today.

We were all still hungry, although I don’t remember anyone being fat.

“We had eggs fried in fat for breakfast,” said Keith, “and when they were cooked we would soak up the leftover fat in the pan with bread and eat that too.”

Dessert was often bread and jam with cream either from the top of boiled milk or from the cow. There were also custard dishes and heavy steamed puddings to finish the meal. The meal itself was quite formal compared to those eaten by many families today. Families were generally large and mealtime was when they all came together.

“We were rostered as to who set the table,” said Pauline. “There were six kids in our family,” Keith told us, “and the two eldest sat either side of father, while the two youngest sat next to our mother. We were encouraged to talk about our day and what was happening in the world.”

In most cases table manners were very strict.

“Dinner was an occasion,” said Monica, “and mother always changed from her working clothes”.

Barb was the eldest of ten but remembers meal times as happy occasions where everything was homemade and mostly from what was grown in the garden.

“We always said grace before the meal,” said Pat, “and asked permission to leave the table at the end”.

Wartime brought rationing and mothers had to be particularly clever at managing a household where most foodstuffs were in short supply.

In fact looking after a family was a full-time job in those days before the labour-saving devices we have today.

Mostly, especially in the country, we cooked on fuel stoves and a pot sitting at the back of the stove took the place of the slow cooker. Meals were kept hot in the oven or on a plate on the top of the stove.

An ice chest or even a Coolgardie safe kept our food cool, although obviously it couldn’t be frozen for future use. The dishes which are expensive today, like lamb shanks and offal, were our daily fare, mainly because they were so cheap.

With the arrival of migrants from all over the world our tastes and ways of eating have changed enormously and we all appreciate the wide range of food we now enjoy.

Still as with many changes it is not always for the better, and new problems have emerged, like obesity and other eating disorders. We rarely heard of children suffering from allergies although we seem to have eaten anything we were offered.

When I was a child an old lady told me that when I grew up I wouldn’t have to cook any more as we would all be eating pills instead. I’m still waiting for that to happen.