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Parrot pie and possum curry – how colonial Australians embraced native food

Tea and Damper by A . M. Ebsworth. From Digital Collection of the State Library of Victoria.

Parrot pie and possum curry – how colonial Australians embraced native food

The relationship between European settlers and native Australian foodstuffs during the 19th century was a complex one. While the taste for native ingredients waxed and waned for the first century of European settlement, there’s ample evidence to demonstrate that local ingredients were no strangers to colonials’ kitchens or pots.

British settlers needed to engage with the edible flora and fauna of the continent almost immediately upon arrival. The journals of First Fleet officers record not only their reliance on native food, but the relish with which they enjoyed it. For example, First Fleet surgeon George Worgan noted in his diary a feast held to celebrate the King’s birthday:

We sat down to a very good Entertainment, considering how far we are from Leaden-Hall Market, it consisted of Mutton, Pork, Ducks, Fowls, Fish, Kanguroo, Sallads, Pies & preserved Fruits.

S. T. Gill’s sketch of a ‘Butcher’s Shamble’ from 1869. State Library of Victoria

But despite the colonists’ reliance on native ingredients to supplement their diet, they were regarded with deep suspicion. Cooks – mainly women – relied on traditional British methods to transform these raw materials into something that they deemed culturally recognisable and appropriate.

Journals and other written accounts record these efforts. Kathleen Kirkland, a migrant who settled in Australia in the 19th century, wrote about the kangaroo soup, bush turkey and parrot pie she prepared for New Year’s Day 1841. She also praised the wild mushrooms from which she made a ketchup.

A contemporary of Kirkland, Louisa Meredith, describes eating kangaroo, wattle bird and echidna, although admitting that her tastes were not shared by all. But at least enough agreed with her that Phillis Clark, who was born in Tasmania in 1836, could compile a manuscript cookbook of recipes copied from other books and newspaper clippings. This personal collection contained a number of dishes featuring native ingredients like kangaroo, as well as detailed instructions for butchering the animal.

Kangaroo steamers

These examples notwithstanding, the settlers went to considerable trouble to maintain British food habits, in order to maintain a British identity.

Mrs Allan Macpherson, who settled in northern New South Wales in 1856, recounted that a dish of rock wallaby had a “very close resemblance to the hare” specially when cooked the same way and eaten with currant jelly. This application of European cooking techniques made it impossible to “distinguish them apart”.

Frontispiece of The English and Australian cookery book : cookery for the many, as well as for the upper ten thousand, by an Australian aristologist. National Library of Victoria

Suspicion extended to traditional Aboriginal food practices such as using cooking vessels made from from bark or tree gnarls and wrapping food in leaves. They were disdained entirely, even if the ingredients used by Indigenous Australians were not.

It is in this manner that native ingredients appear in Australia’s first cookbook, The English and Australian Cookery Book, written by Tasmanian politician Edward Abbott and published in 1864.

In a section dedicated to game meats, Abbott featured recipes for kangaroo, emu, wombat and other native fauna. There were a number of recipes for “kangaroo steamer”, a dish that had been popular for at least almost half a century across the colonies.

Kangaroo steamer was a colonial adaptation of the traditional British dish of jugged hare and involved slowly cooking kangaroo meat with bacon and other seasonings. The dish would be cooked in a glass jar or earthenware vessel and sealed so it could be stored for an extended period.

Engaging with Indigenous food methods

One of the few cookbook writers to fully engage with Aboriginal people and their food methods was Wilhelmina Rawson. Born in Sydney, Rawson spent long portions of her life in northern and central Queensland.

State Library of NSW

It was here that she began gathering the recipes that would appear in her first cookbook, Mrs Lance Rawson’s cookery book and household hints, first published in 1878.

This book holds the distinction of being the first cookbook written by a woman in Australia. From the outset, Rawson noted the abundance of edible native ingredients that her readers could rely on such as kangaroos, bush turkeys and bandicoots. She urged her readers not to think of these foods as ingredients of last resort but rather, to consider them as a “sumptuous repast” not far from their kitchen.

Rawson’s adventurous palate extended beyond fauna and included such things as wild mushrooms and the young shoots of the rough leaved, fig tree which had been pointed out to her by Aboriginal informants.

In her 1895 book The Antipodean Cookery Book, Rawson noted that “I am beholden to the blacks for nearly all my knowledge of the edible ground game” and that “whatever the blacks eat the whites may safely try”.

Rawson’s relationship with Aboriginal people was complex and nuanced. Demonstrating an understanding of the dispossession of land occurring in Queensland at the time, she wrote sympathetically of

The lessons white men should learn from the blacks before the work of extermination which is so rapidly going on has swept all the blacks who possess this wonderful bush lore off the face of the earth.

Here she was voicing common sentiments about the predicted demise of the Aboriginal race. Rawson’s long periods of living in remote rural locations throughout Queensland had most likely placed her in closer contact with Aboriginal people than cookbook writers who lived in towns or cities.

British settlers, especially those living away from metropolitan centres, consumed native ingredients both out of choice and out of necessity for most of the 19th century.

However, this consumption was mediated by deeply held cultural prejudices. The transformation of native ingredients into recognisable British dishes can be regarded as part of the broader colonising process taking place.

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