It was all that fat…

Since the inception of the “Fat for Britain” Appeal, a total of over 300,000 Ibs. of fat has been shipped to our kinsfolk in Great Britain, and has proved of inestimable value as is evidenced by the thousands of letters we are continually receiving from grateful recipients’.  REV. H. Hunt to the editor of the Benalla Ensign 5th January 1950.

Three years after World War II ended Australian housewives began scraping the fat extruded from Sunday roasts and lamb chop dinners off baking dishes and grill plates into cans. They deposited these lard filled cans at nominated ‘fat depots’ —usually a suburban home—to be collected, consolidated and shipped off to London for distribution across the British Isles, where the contents were reportedly used by ‘grateful’ Britons to make pastry, mince pies and fry fish. Donors of fat were exhorted not to ‘mix good fat with bad’ but in the absence of any definition of what might constitute one or the other type it was up to individuals to make that discrimination: a process that would have resulted in drippings of variable quality being amassed, and some of it would have turned rancid by the time it arrived into British kitchens.

I often muse as to whether these 300,000 pounds of recycled fat might not have contributed towards Anglo-Australians largely disowning their British food heritage in the decades after the war. They must have felt some revulsion at the knowledge that their ‘kinsfolk’ were eating food prepared with stale, possibly decomposed, grease—even though this has been forced upon them by post-war food shortages in Britain —and therefore thought it prudent to cease to regard them as culinary role models. If this fat did have an affect on white Australians forsaking their ancestral food roots, it would have been trifling, but like the slight eccentricity of a lover that has begun to disproportionately irritate, it was a sign that the relationship was struggling: and an alluring new lover named ‘global ethnic international cuisine’ was beckoning.

Field studies would show that the daily meals of many modern Anglo-Australians still bear vestiges of British influence, but few would own that to camera. When I tell a compatriot that I have a scholarly and practical interest in our Anglo-Celtic culinary legacy they inevitably screw up their face and look at me as if l have confessed some heinous food crime. Australians have become very fond of crowing about ‘our wonderful’ food culture: probe this pride and the probed will unfailing say that it is our ‘multi-cultural’ cuisine that they are so proud of. Our Anglo-Celtic food heritage is rarely mentioned amongst the multitude of cuisines they unfailingly describe as constituting ‘Australian food’, but it is in part our British ancestors that we have to thank for our modern food culture.

The natural climate of the British Isles is not conducive to growing food all year round, and 1000 years ago the species of plant foods that could be cultivated were seasonally curtailed. Britons were forced to spend the cold months of the year eating the limited range of foods that could be stored, and the winter diet of most people would been pretty monotonous. In 1096 English knights and peasants joined the religious wars, the Crusades, being fought in places such as Anatolia and Jerusalem. Along with their tales of heroic holy daring-do the Crusaders brought many new foods such as cinnamon, ginger, mace, dates, raisins, sugar and citrus fruit home with them. These exotic foods were a panacea to taste monotony and were enthusiastically absorbed into British cookery resulting in the creation of dishes such as plum pudding. Many Australians eat this pudding, made with spices, raisins (plums) and candied lemon and orange peel, each year at Christmas. It’s often endured from a begrudging sense of tradition, a reminder of a culinary past we want to forget, but it if was described as a ‘global marriage of British classicism with Middle Eastern flavours’ I wonder it we might not demonstrate more enthusiasm for it.

In 1612 the British began sailing to India to gain direct access to the spices they had developed a particular passion for. By 1858 they had complete control of the Indian spice trade, and of the subcontinent itself, and had developed a ‘fusion cuisine’ of British and Indian cookery that resulted in dishes such as curry (that’s right, it is not an Indian dish), mulligatawny and kedgeree. By the end of the nineteenth century the use of spices —and other former exotics such as dried fruit, sugar and citrus —in British cuisine, and by association the type of food eaten in Australia, had been so well assimilated that these had become commonplace.

While it is in inarguable that the food modern Australians eat is an amalgamation of food styles and flavours from across the globe, this short essay demonstrates that it was from our British ancestors that we inherited the sense of culinary adventurism and the ardent palates that have made us so receptive to, and accepting of new foods. This understanding might serve to help us shake off the culinary amnesia that prevents us from celebrating them for it.