Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Australian food through the years

Thank you, very much, for your comments on my last post. I have been amazed on so many occasions at the support out there in the blogging world - this time is no exception.

With this week being a slightly odd one, it seemed appropriate to do a different sort of post. And with my thoughts being somewhat retrospective, my mind turned to how food and cooking in Australia have changed over the last century or so.

Johanna at Green Gourmet Giraffe has touched on these issues eloquently before, particularly in this post, and I'm sure others have too. Three generations of Australian meals were also summarised beautifully on cityhippyfarmgirl. Thus, I hope I'm not repeating things too much here. As several full books have been written on the topic I thought I would take a gamble that my precise focus will differ sufficiently to the thoughts put down elsewhere!

Feel free to pick your era of interest, because this is rather long in its entirety...

The early 1900s and pre-World War II

·        Meat, potatoes, flour (bread), milk and tea were household staples.

·        Vegemite was developed in 1922 and first released in 1923, as a competitor to Marmite (available in England and New Zealand).  However, it didn’t sell well until the 1940s, at which time the yeast, salt, celery and onion extract combination became a household staple.

·        With the Great Depression hitting in 1929, many Australian cane growers were forced to leave their land. Italian immigrants were able to take advantage of this to buy plots with their savings, allowing them to start the gradual introduction of Italian foods and food styles to Australia. Vegetables such as zucchini, broccoli, eggplant, capsicum, and chillies were not traditionally known in Australia.

·        The depression also allowed rabbit to become a staple meat, cheaper than traditional alternatives.

·        Despite this, Australians still ate about three times more meat, including beef and lamb, in the 1930s than their American counterparts.

From Santich's (1955) "What the doctors ordered: 150 years of dietary advice in Australia"

·        The scientific study of food and nutrition became a political issue, and in 1936, the federal government established the Advisory Council on Nutrition.

·        This Council went on to publish a report stating that many Australians were at risk of malnutrition due to inadequate intake of dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables.

·        Aeroplane jelly was developed in Melbourne in 1928 and became well known in 1939, when the ‘Aeroplane jelly’ song was released to radio.

World War II era (1940s)

·        With World War II came rationing, albeit at much lower levels than in Europe. Tea was rationed from June 1942, sugar from August 1942, and butter from June 1943.  

·        Advice was issued to suggest that all households should have one “meatless day per week”. This was reportedly not a recommendation that was popular at the time!

·        After the war, Australians became more American in their eating patterns. US troops had consolidated the role of existing US brands, and introduced new ones.

·        Kellogg’s and Kraft were two of the earliest names and soft drinks were a particularly novel introduction when they arrived. Coca cola became a popular and in demand drink.

·        The political focus on food and nutrition remained, and for a time, prunes (!) were only available for those who were unwell and for children. Vitamins became better understood and fruits and vegetables were promoted in addition to meat and milk.

·        Despite the shifts towards more American eating patterns, foods generally remained plain, including stews, roast meat with vegetables, bread, and scones.

  From Santich's (1955) "What the doctors ordered: 150 years of dietary advice in Australia"

1950s to 1960s

·        The Milk for School ChildrenAct was passed in 1950, giving all children under thirteen a free daily ration of milk.

·        Food was plentiful, especially when compared to war time rationing, but also when compared to other Western countries.

·        Households became better equipped for cooking and storing food, and between 75% and 90% (depending on the source) of homes had a refrigerator by 1960. Microwave ovens also became more common.

·        This was also the start of the supermarket era, shifting the previous pattern of shopping daily or near daily, and buying different foods from different stores. More convenience and packaged foods became available, including frozen foods and frozen vegetables.

·        Italian foods continued to grow in terms of recognition and availability. Cheeses like parmesan and ricotta, different pastas, olive oil, and tinned tomatoes all became more established. Coffee also grew in popularity, even to the point of overtaking tea.

·        In addition to standard meat dishes from previous decades (e.g., stews and roasts), newer styles like hamburgers, meatloaf, and crumbed cutlets became more common.

From Santich's (1955) "What the doctors ordered: 150 years of dietary advice in Australia"

1970s and 1980s

·        Immigration continued to impact on eating patterns, with diversification to include more European (Italian, Greek) and Asian (Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese) foods and dishes.

·        Electronic scanning arrived in Australian supermarkets in 1984. A jar of vegemite was reportedly the first product to be electronically scanned.

·        The low fat era hit, with more low fat recipes and low fat products being marketed, as society became more weight and health conscious.

·        Organisations like The HeartFoundation started to promote public health, and the Heart Foundation Tick was born.

From Santich's (1955) "What the doctors ordered: 150 years of dietary advice in Australia"


·        Rabbit started to make it back on to restaurant menus, overcoming the depression era reputation as a “poor” meat option.

·        There was a shift towards greater acceptance of vegetarianism, and of cultural differences around food (e.g., Halal, Kosher)

·        In line with this, even meat-based dishes started to include more vegetables, such as in lasagna or pasta dishes.

From Santich's (1955) "What the doctors ordered: 150 years of dietary advice in Australia"

·        In 1995, the Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted a national nutrition survey across all States and Territories. Bread and potatoes remained significant contributors to adult diets. About 80% of Australians ate red meat and/or poultry, and 90% consumed dairy products, the day before the survey.


·        The five food groups of cereals and grains, fruits and vegetables, meat, fish and alternatives, milk and dairy products, and fatty and sugary foods became increasingly promoted in public health campaigns.

·        Convenience and fast foods continued to grow and have an impact on supermarket purchasing, meal preparation at home, and restaurant / take away choices.

·        “Free” products became more and more common - fat free, sugar free, dairy free, gluten free, nut free…

And there we are! A snapshot summary of Australian food over the last 100 years or so - although quite literally only a snippet of the information out there.

What are your food memories? What has changed in your lifetime?

References used for the above:

  • Bosworth, M. (2003). Families and food: wartime tucker. Online.
  • Dyson, L. E. (2002). How to cook a galah. Thomas C Lothian Pty, South Melbourne.
  • Hayes, B. (1970). The Captain Cook book: Two hundred years of Australian cooking. Thomas Nelson, Sydney.
  • Santich, B. (1995). What the doctors ordered: 150 years of dietary advice in Australia. Hyland House Publishing, Melbourne, Australia.
  • Symons, M. (1982). One continuous picnic: A history of eating in Australia. Penguin Books, Melbourne, Australia.


  1. This is SO interesting - I've never known anything about Australian food, so thank goodness you're here to enlighten me!

  2. This is such a cool post! I've actually ALWAYS wondered about Vegemite haha. This is so informative!

  3. WordsfallfrommyeyesOctober 19, 2011 at 8:21 PM

    This was fantastic. I live in Melbourne & don't know as much. I absolutely loved this post - and the pictures of course. Oh, seeing that mother standing at the oven smiling. I DON'T KNOW HOW women did it in those days, it would drive me mental to be that simple day in day out. Loved it though.

  4. what an interesting step back in time!!! Altyhough I pity the children that were served steamed brains for dinner lol

  5. great post - definitely this is where my childhood food originated - lots of meat and bread and not nearly as much veg as I love today! I was surprised to read that microwaves became popular in the 60s because I remember discovering them later than that and being just amazed at what they could do. I am also very grateful I was too young to have to drink milk every day - sounds disgusting because it seems that it was left in the sun and getting really hot before kids drank it. And thanks for the link!

  6. I would be a sad little Vegemite without...err vegemite. Love the stuff. Mr Chocolate doesn't and refuses to even use the same knife as me if I have 'tainted' it.
    I love looking at food through the ages and how it has all changed. I did a post awhile back on how it had changed through just my family.
    *Note to self* must remember to don dainty apron on and smile more near the oven as per Ms 1950's.

  7. I can't believe I forgot about your post - it was one of the ones I loved going back to when you did your 7 links. I have added it above :)

    Regarding vegemite, you could let Mr Chocolate know that Mr Bite mixes vegemite and honey on the same piece of bread!!

  8. Glad I could assist! It is funny how many variations there are across different countries, even Western ones.

  9. I hope you can try vegemite one day - although I suspect it may be an acquired taste :P I'm glad you liked the topic!

  10. Thank you, and thanks for stopping by :) I don't know how women did it back then either, especially given how much effort was required for that simple food!

  11. I am with you on the milk issue...especially as in WA, it was apparently still a TB risk at that time. Quite a horrible thought really.

    And you're welcome :)

  12. Okay, so I'm totally in love with this post. Brilliant, Kari! Though I'm a bit taken aback to know that Marmite came first. Hmm. Okay, in my mind, we simply took a bad product and made it better. Yep. I feel right with the world again now ;)

  13. Great post Kari. My family has European origins, so we have always eaten quite a diverse european range of food, plus both my parents loved asian food so we had that a lot too as kids. I would say the change has been the ease of getting ingredients like different types of potatoes and asian vegies, plus trying more middle eastern foods. The other trend I'm noticing now is the ability to move away from the supermarket to growers and farmers market, buying direct from source. I love doing that, however it does conflict with my weekend sleep in if I want to get the best stuff.

  14. I love that re-phrase :D Brilliant - and of course, so true!

  15. That is very true, and I hadn't thought about that almost 'full circle' notion - it would be lovely to think that we might one day make it back to buying fresh ingredients from individual stores / the actual source. I do agree that the timing of farmers markets can sometimes be a challenge though!

  16. I'm now on a nostalgia kick for the Australian food of my childhood, so when I received the 1960 " Australian Women's Weekly Cookery in Colour " recently, I was in heaven! So much simpler, with very imaginative ways of recycling staple items- and best of all, I'm losing weight. As I recall, we ate 3 times a day with NO snacking. The only take away- and that wasn't every week - was the local Chinese ( you took your own saucepans for them to fill up) or the fish and chips, and NOBODY ate breakfast away from home! Eating Old Oz style is cheaper and easier to accomplish, good for you, and you don't seem to get any urges to snack between meals. I made chocolate semolina pudding today- amazing how 1 egg, 500 ml milk, 50g chocolate and 2 Tbs semolina can feed 6 people!


I genuinely appreciate all comments and the time taken to post them. Occasionally, I may need to restrict commenting to registered users in order to halt large volumes of spam. If that happens, I will lift the restriction within a week.

Want other ways to interact? Bite-sized thoughts is on Facebook ( and Twitter (