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BOOK REVIEW: A Timeline of Australian Food – From Mutton to MasterChef by Jan O’Connell

| 26 December 2017 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: A Timeline of Australian Food – From Mutton to MasterChef by Jan O’Connell

NewSouth Publishing
December 2017
Paperback, $34.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / History / Regional & National History / Australasian & Pacific History


Australians all let us rejoice for we live in a foodie paradise. On any given day you can order a kebab or kimchi; a pizza or a pho; some fish and chips, a pad Thai, or your stock-standard meat and three veg, and that’s just for starters. A Timeline of Australian Food – From Mutton to MasterChef is a guide that looks at our country’s rich culinary history by tracking our nation’s diets from the early settlers and indigenous people to today, including how things have evolved and changed over time. Jan O’Connell takes us there one dish at a time and the result is nothing short of a food mecca.

I started to write about Australia’s food revolution on a website called the Australian Food History Timeline and as time went on I delved further back into our culinary past. The timeline, by its nature, shows how the story of our food has unfolded. This book takes 150 years of that timeline – from 1860 through to 2010 – and looks at how our eating (and drinking) habits, the way we shop, and our food production methods, have evolved.

O’Connell is a former creative director, writer and advertising consultant who specialised in food. She has previously published a memoir, about her life and the changes she witnessed with respect to food in her lifetime, called Me & My Big Mouth. In A Timeline of Australian Food, she expands on this idea by covering the years from 1860 where mutton was practically a staple through to 2010 with the rise in popularity of MasterChef in a country where a large proportion of the population reportedly struggle to boil an egg.

[MasterChef] was an instant success. Nearly one and a half million people watched the opening episode and more than four million tuned in for the first season’s finale. Meanwhile, supermarkets saw surges in demand for previously unknown or unfashionable ingredients including rabbit, pink ling fish and even lamb brains. Kitchenware shops reported unusually highs sales of exotica like: blowtorches, croquembouche cones and potato ricers. The Thermomix, formerly confined to professional kitchens began to appear in foodie homes.

This book is split up into separate decades. At the start of each O’Connell gives us some context about the history at the time. In some periods it could be that Australia was affected by war or depression while in other eras there were many firsts like the introduction of gas stoves, electric appliances and credit cards. The pages are accompanied by beautiful colour photographs, which offer some great additional supporting materials. It is fascinating to read O’Connell’s prose as it straddles the lines between formal history lessons and an informal chat with a woman who is passionate about the subject matter and often keen to express her opinions about a variety of topics.

The inventor of Aeroplane Jelly was a tram driver. Bert Appleroth first made jelly crystals at home in his (hopefully clean) bathtub and began distributing them along his Sydney tram route. He subsequently formed a company called Traders Ltd with a partner Albert Francis Lenertz, and the brand was launched in 1927.
Lenertz wrote the famous Aeroplane Jelly song. It first went to air on Sydney radio station 2KY in 1930. The commercials were broadcast live, so the singer, three-year-old Jennifer Paykel, had to be taken to the studio two or three times a week to perform. However, the most popular version of the song was recorded in 1938 by a five-year-old girl, Joy King, who won a state-wide competition in New South Wales.

Readers will find a veritable treasure trove of information here. We often take for granted the things that are commonplace so it’s great to take a trip down memory lane and learn about the times when pizza was considered exotic and the fact that the first Australian olive oil was made by prisoners in Adelaide. Cookbooks have evolved a lot through time and they are like social records and time capsules of bygone eras and O’Connell covers some of these. This can be very nostalgic and fun, even if the following from the 1950s may make you cringe and think that some things are best left in the past:

Novelty food was big – especially if it featured fruit. Possibly the most alarming dish of the decade was the infamous Liver Sausage Pineapple. This was a construction of liverwurst sausage gelatine and mayonnaise, moulded into a pineapple shape and covered in pineapple icing. Then there were the moulded jelly salads. Picture chopped celery, grated cheese and chopped stuffed olives encased in wobbly jellified tomato juice. Yes, cookbooks of the 1950s had a lot to answer for.

This volume is a well-researched and East Coast centric look at how food production, retail and advertising has evolved, as well as our tastes. It is not a comprehensive book but it does touch on a lot of different trends as well as the development of our culture and how it was influenced by different sets of immigrants over time. O’Connell also publishes a website that features a timeline of Australian food and this has been updated to incorporate newer items and trends (i.e. things post 2010), which this book does not address.

O’Connell ultimately serves short and tight digestible chunks throughout this volume. But there are some moments where you might feel like these morsels could have been expanded on to offer greater depth and detail. In many instances, O’Connell describes the introduction of a product but the story doesn’t always end there, it tends to evolve and change over time, just like in the following piece about rum where she gets the balance of context and history right.

Rum arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. The colony was founded by navy men, so it’s not surprising that the new settlement was awash with the traditional navy drink. In a society where barter was the common form of trade, rum was the favoured currency…
The Bundaberg Distilling Company was formed in 1888 to make use of the molasses that was being pumped by one of the sugar refineries into the Burnett River. The first Bundaberg Rum was distilled in 1889 and the following year it was being sold interstate…
Bundy’s popular polar bear made his first appearance in 1962 and went on to feature in advertising for the brand. In 2000, like other iconic Australian brands, Bundaberg passed into foreign hands when the company and distillery were sold to British company Diageo.

As a reference title and entertaining gift, A Timeline of Australian Food is an intriguing introduction to an area that is not often discussed but one that proves fascinating nonetheless. This book will appeal to those curious souls who are interested in not only their paddock to plate but how the process has evolved over time. This timeline and title documents a rich piece of history and gives a whole new meaning to food for thought.

Some other interesting highlights from the book include:

1927 First record of dim sims: The Melbourne Argus proclaimed that, ‘No Chinese meal is complete without some succulent dim sims (pork minced with water chestnuts and enclosed in paste), and such sweets as honeyed lychee nuts and honeyed ginger.’ But they probably weren’t the chunky dim sims we know today, which were factory-produced by William Wing Young starting in 1945.
1964 Tim Tams launched: Arnott’s launched Tim Tams, a new chocolate-covered biscuit based on a British product called Penguin. They were named after a horse that won the Kentucky Derby in 1958, by Ross Arnott, who had attended the race and fancied the name.
1991 Bilbies not bunnies: The Foundation for Rabbit Free Australia (RFA) developed and registered the Easter Bilby campaign to raise awareness of the damage rabbits do to native wildlife. Money raised from royalties on Easter Bilbies funds research programs. In 1993, Haigh’s Chocolates in Adelaide made the first Easter Bilby, donating part of the proceeds to RFA.
1993 Melbourne has world’s first McCafé®: In an acknowledgment of Melbourne’s status as the coffee capital of Australia McDonalds® chose the southern city for the chain’s very first McCafé®, serving proper espresso to go. The concept was introduced in 16 other countries before the first US McCafé® opened in Chicago in 2001.

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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