What about the Women?

Food, Migration and Mythology

How to Cite

Gallegos, D., & Newman, F. (1999). What about the Women? Food, Migration and Mythology. M/C Journal, 2(7). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1798
Vol. 2 No. 7 (1999): Food
Published 1999-10-01

Contemporary culinary discourse in Australia has been dominated by the notion that migration and the increased mobility of Australians is responsible for filling a culinary void, as though, because we have had no peasantry we have no affinity with either the land or its produce. This argument serves to alienate Australians of British descent and its validity is open to questioning. It's an argument in urgent need of debate because cuisine stands out as the signifier of a 'multicultural' nation. Despite all the political posturing, food has 'long been the acceptable face of multiculturalism' (Gunew 13). We argue that the rhetoric of multiculturalism serves to widen the chasm between Australians of British descent and other migrants by encouraging the 'us' and 'them' mentality.

We have examined the common links in the food stories of three women from disparate backgrounds. The sample is small in quantitative terms but we felt that if the culinary histories of just three women ran counter to the dominant discourse, then they would provide a new point of departure. In doing this we hope to question the precept driving culinary discourse which gives more weight to what men have said and done, than what women have cooked and how; and propagates mythologies about the eating habits of 'ethnic' migrants.


The terminology surrounding policies that seek to manage difference and diversity is culturally loaded and tends to perpetuate binaries. "Multiculturalism, circulates in Australia as a series of discursive formations serving a variety of institutional interests" (Gunew 256). In Australia multicultural policy seeks to "manage our cultural diversity so that the social cohesion of our nation is preserved" (Advisory Council on Multicultural Affairs 4). The result is to allow diversity that is sanctioned and is to some extent homogenised, while difference is not understood and is contained (see Newman). Multicultural? Who does it include and exclude? Gunew points out that official formulations of multiculturalism exclude people of 'Anglo-Celtic' origin, as though they had no 'ethnicity'.

Multiculturalism, while addressing some of the social problems of immigration, is propelled at government level by our need for national cultural policy (see Stratton and Ang). To have a national cultural policy you need, it would seem, a film industry, a music industry, and a cuisine.

In his history of Australian cuisine, Symons has only briefly alluded to women's role in the development of Australia's 'industrial cuisine'. One Continuous Picnic presents an essentially masculinist history, a pessimistic derogatory view giving little value to domestic traditions passed from mother to daughter. Women are mentioned only as authors of cookbooks produced throughout the 19th century and as the housewives whose role in the 1950s changed due to the introduction of labour-saving devices. Scant reference is made to the pre-eminent icon of Australian rural culinary history, the Country Women's Association1 and their recipe books. These books have gone through numerous editions from the 1920s, but Symons refers to them dismissively as a 'plain text' arising from the 'store-shelf of processed ingredients' (Symons 201).

What of the 'vegie' patch, the afternoon tea? These traditions are mentioned, but only in passing. The products of arduous and loving baking are belittled as 'pretty things'. Is this because they are too difficult to document or because they are women's business? Female writers Barbara Santich and Marion Halligan have both written on the importance of these traditions in the lives of Australian women. Symons's discourse concentrates on 'industrial cuisine', but who is to say that its imperatives were not transgressed. The available data derives from recipe books, sales figures and advertising, but we don't actually know how much food came from other sources. Did your grandmother keep chickens? Did your grandfather fish?

Terra Australis Culinae Nullius2

Michael Symons's precept is:

This is the only continent which has not supported an agrarian society ... . Our land missed that fertile period when agriculture and cooking were created. There has never been the creative interplay between society and the soil. Almost no food has ever been grown by the person who eats it, almost no food has been preserved in the home and indeed, very little preparation is now done by a family cook. This is the uncultivated continent. Our history is without peasants. (10, our emphasis)

This notion of terra Australis culinae nullius is problematic on two levels. The use of the word indigenous implies both Aboriginal and British settler culinary tradition. This statement consequently denies both traditional Aboriginal knowledge and the British traditions. The importance of Aboriginal foodways, their modern exploitation and their impact on the future of Australian cuisine needs recognition, but the complexity of the issue places it beyond the bounds of this paper.

Symons's view of peasantry is a romanticised one, and says less about food and more about nostalgia for a more permanent, less changing environment. Advertising of 'ethnic' food routinely exploits this nostalgia by appropriating the image of the cheerful peasant. These advertisements perpetuate the mythologies that link pastoral images with 'family values'. These myths, or what Barthes describes as 'cultural truths', hold that migrant families all have harmonious relationships, are benevolently patriarchal and they all sit down to eat together. 'Ethnic' families are at one with the land and use recipes made from fresher, more natural produce, that are handed down through the female line and have had the benefit of generations of culinary wisdom. (See Gallegos & Mansfield.)

So are the culinary traditions of Australians of British descent so different from those of migrant families? Joan, born near her home in Cunderdin in the Western Australian wheatbelt, grew up on a farm in reasonably prosperous circumstances with her six siblings. After marrying, she remained in the Cunderdin area to continue farming. Giovanna was born in 1915 on a farm four kilometres outside Vasto, in the Italian region of Abruzzi. One of seven children, her father died when she was young and at the age of twenty, she came to Australia to marry a Vastese man 12 years her senior. Maria was born in Madeira in 1946, in a coastal village near the capital Funchal. Like Giovanna she is the fifth of seven children and arrived in Australia at the age of twenty to marry.

We used the information elicited from these three women to scrutinise some of the mythology surrounding ethnic families.

Myth 1: 'Ethnic' families all eat together.

All three women said their families had eaten together in the past and it was Joan who commented that what was missing in Australia today was people sitting down together to share a meal. Joan's farming community all came in for an extended midday meal from necessity, as the horses needed to be rested. Both women described radio, television, increasing work hours and different shifts as responsible for the demise of the family meal. Commensality is one of the common boundary markers for all groups 'indicating a kind of equality, peership, and the promise of further kinship links stemming from the intimate acts of dining together' (Nash 11). It is not only migrant families who eat together, and the demise of the family meal is more widely felt.

Myth 2: Recipes in 'ethnic' families are passed down from generation to generation.

Handing recipes down from generation to generation is not limited to just 'ethnic' families. All three women describe learning to cook from their mothers. Giovanna and Maria had hands-on experiences at very young ages, cooking for the family out of necessity. Joan did not have to cook for her family but her mother still taught her basic cookery as well as the finer points. The fluidity of the mother-daughter identity is expressed and documented by the handing on of recipes.

Joan's community thought the recipes important enough to document in a written form, and so the West Australian version of the CWA cookbook became a reality. Joan, when asked about why the CWA developed a cookbook, replied that they wanted to record the recipes that were all well tried by women who spent the bulk of their days in the kitchen, cooking.

Being taught to cook, teaching your children to cook and passing on recipes crosses borders, and does not serve to create or maintain boundaries.

Myth 3: 'Ethnic' food is never prepared from processed products but always from homegrown produce.

During their childhoods the range of food items purchased by the families was remarkably similar for all three women. All described buying tinned fish, rice and sugar, while the range of items produced from what was grown reflected common practices for the use and preservation of fresh produce. The major difference was the items that were in abundance, so while Joan describes pickling meat in addition to preserving fruits, Maria talks about preserving fish and Giovanna vegetables. The traditions developed around what was available.

Joan and her family grew the food that they ate, preserved the food in their own home, and the family cook did all the preparation. To suggest they did not have a creative interplay with the soil is suggesting that they were unskilled in making a harsh landscape profitable. Joan's family could afford to buy more food items than the other families. Given the choice both Giovanna's and Maria's families would have only been too eager to make their lives easier. For example, on special occasions when the choice was available Giovanna's family chose store-bought pasta. The perception of the freshness and tastiness of peasant cuisine and affinity with the land obscures the issue, which for much of the world is still quantity, not quality.

It would seem that these women's stories have points of reference. All three women describe the sense of community food engendered. They all remember sharing and swapping recipes. This sense of community was expressed by the sharing of food -- regardless of how little there was or what it was. The legacy lives on, while no longer feeling obliged to provide an elaborate afternoon tea as she did in her married life, visitors to Joan's home arrive to the smell of freshly baked biscuits shared over a cup of tea or coffee. Giovanna is only too eager to share her Vastese cakes with a cup of espresso coffee, and as new acquaintances we are obliged to taste each of the five different varieties of cakes and take some home. Maria, on the other hand, offered instant coffee and store-bought biscuits; having worked outside the home all her life and being thirty years younger than the other women, is this perhaps the face of modernity?

The widespread anticipation of the divisions between these women has more to do with power relationships and the politics of east, west, north, south than with the realities of everyday life. The development of a style of eating will depend on your knowledge both as an individual and as a collective, the ingredients that are available at any one time, the conditions under which food has to be grown, and your own history. For the newly-arrived Southern Europeans meat was consumed in higher quantities because its availability was restricted in their countries of origin, to eat meat regularly was to increase your status in society.

Interest in 'ethnic' food and its hybridisation is a global phenomenon and the creolisation of eating has been described both in America (see Garbaccia) and in Britain (James 81). The current obsession with the 'ethnic' has more to do with nostalgia than tolerance. The interviews which were conducted highlight the similarities between three women from different backgrounds despite differences in age and socioeconomic status.

Our cuisine is in the process of hybridisation, but let us not forget who is manipulating this process and the agendas under which it is encouraged. To lay claim that one tradition is wonderful, while the other either does not exist or has nothing to offer, perpetuates divisive binaries. By focussing on what these women have in common rather than their differences we begin to critically interrogate the "culinary binary". It is our intention to stimulate debate that we hope will eventually lead to the encouragement of difference rather than the futile pursuit of authenticity.

Author Biographies

Danielle Gallegos


Felicity Newman