The food we eat plays a crucial role in defining our heritage, according to Southern Cross University (SCU)
historian Dr Adele Wessell.
Dr Wessell, who lectures in culture and history in SCU’s School of Arts, is researching the links between food and Australia’s historical identity and will present a paper at the British World Conference in Melbourne from July 2 to 4, titled, ‘There’s no taste like home: the food of the empire’.
“If we are what we eat, Australians, at least until very recently, were thoroughly British,” Dr Wessell said.
Up until the 1950s Australians were still eating British food, consisting of meat and three vegetables. Now in Australia the most popular dish is spaghetti bolognaise, while in Britain the most commonly eaten meal is now curry.
“Where we have come from has changed. The heritage has diversified and people’s links to Britain have been diluted. It is a sign of maturity.
“People often look at changes in government or the flag as being symbols of who we are. But there are cultural ties that persist and food is one of those.”
Dr Wessell said food provided an ideal vehicle for looking at history and culture, family background and social class.
“Food preferences are not incidental to the formation of identity, merely reflecting culture; food is a crucial element in defining historical identity.”
She said in the Australian colonies familiar food was one of the few home comforts people could look forward to, and even when they used native food, they prepared it using English methods. For example, kangaroo tail soup was similar to ox tail soup and parrot pie was described as ‘not unlike one made of pigeons’.
“In the Australian colonies, the food consumed was a device to reaffirm cultural and historical bonds and sustain a shared sense of British identity.
“Even under pressure to conform people try and maintain their culinary heritage.”
She said cookbooks also provided a great source of information about changing trends, both in food and society as a whole. “Never before have we had so many cookbooks and cooked so little.”
Dr Wessell said while indigenous food had largely been ignored, this was beginning to change in Australia.
“People are accepting indigenous foods now. We know that kangaroo meat is healthy and sustainable. In terms of where we are going it will probably be more of a regional based food culture.”
Dr Wessell will be presenting her paper at the British World Conference, to be held in Melbourne from July 2 to 4. Hosted by the Australian Centre and the University of Melbourne, the British World Conference focuses on the British imperial world and the concept of British identity. The first two conferences were held in Cape Town in 2002 and Calgary in 2003.