What keeps you fresh and inspired on a creative level? First and foremost Sydney Living Museums’ historic properties and extensive collections, our diverse audiences and wonderfully passionate colleagues; a vibrant culinary history and heritage community; old cook books; seemingly ridiculous modern food trends; and my own rumbling tummy some days!
Can you pinpoint some of the turning points of your career? Absolutely – there have been many, of course, most significantly completing the Masters in gastronomy and taking a job as a guide at Vaucluse House, but working for Herbies Spices in the early 2000s, is where I realised there was much more to spices than making food taste interesting. To me, spices embody what ‘gastronomy’ is – products of nature that pervade history through human manipulation and cultural manifestation – agriculture, economies and trade, power and politics, possession and dispossession, bloody battles, spiritualism and mystique, taste, cuisine and cultural identity, in the ways different cultures have adopted and applied different spices in distinguishable ways.
Tell us about your workspace. I have the very good fortune to work between Sydney Living Museums’ twelve extraordinary places, which are as diverse as the World Heritage listed Hyde Park barracks, Australia’s oldest homestead, Elizabeth Farm, first built in 1793 and the very funky Rose Seidler House, designed by Harry Seidler in 1948. The very humble Susannah Place working class terraces in The Rocks are a perfect foil for the opulent colonial ‘gentlemen’s’ residences at Vaucluse and Elizabeth Bay houses. These places and the people that lived in them are the inspiration for my work.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job? If I come across a recipe or technique that I’m not familiar with I try and give it a go in my own kitchen to better understand the dish or the process. I’ve had more than my fair share of culinary disasters, but I always learn something from them. In many cases the process is the reward rather than the end product – but not necessarily how to perfect the dish! I take a forensic approach to history, and often the lesson learnt is not about the food itself at all. Food offers window into many aspects of nature and culture – from environment to economics and politics, personal taste and popular culture. The dissemination of what ingredients were being used and the processes involved in what may now seem to be a very easy thing to make gives a rich appreciation of the path we’ve followed to put what foods we do, or sometimes no longer, put on our tables. So I’m not sure whether it’s a reward or a monkey-on-my-back, but I rarely eat anything that doesn’t have me wondering about why it’s on the menu in this time and place. And if it intrigues me enough, I then have to go home and try and make it myself ….
Did you or do you have any mentors? Yes, I’ve been very fortunate to have many ‘guiding lights’ along the way. In particular, Ian and Liz Hemphill, who encouraged me to apply for the Masters in Gastronomy program; Professor Barbara Santich, then convenor of the Masters at University of Adelaide, was a constant support throughout the course (especially since I hadn’t written an essay in 25 years!); and Grace Karskens who recognised the validity of food as a means of historical inquiry, and encouraged me to pursue my academic research in Australian history.
Career highlight so far? Hearing the esteemed Philip Adams, ABC Radio National presenter say of my book: ‘A fine piece of work – and intellectually nourishing’ and being able to bring the advance copy of the book home to my family after their being ‘author’s orphans’ and ‘widower’ for the best part of a year.
What are you working on now? I’m working on new stories for our blog, The Cook & the Curator, and ‘a cook’s tour’ of each of our properties for our website. I’m also trying to find more time to experiment with manuscript recipes in our collection, which will be published on The Cook & the Curator.
What do you get excited about in terms of your work? It has been said that the past is a foreign place, but, probably because of my own fascination with history as a very human, lived place, I have a strong desire to make history and historical concepts familiar and tangible for others. So I get really excited when I see visitors in our museums find that ‘aha’ or ‘light bulb’ moment when they recognise something of themselves or their own lives in a historical story. Instead of being remote or detached from our forebears we can find a personal connection with them. Revisiting food from our history we can take this personal connection one step further and get a taste of their lives!
What was the best thing about writing this book? The opportunity to bring so many historical stories together in one volume, in a very palatable way. Each of our museums is very different in character and the stories they tell, but food transcends time and place, and social status – every resident, whether a convict in the barracks or a guest at the governor’s table, had to eat. The book allowed us to present research – and recipes – from the many colonial gastronomy programs we’ve hosted at our museums and the Eat your history: a shared table exhibition (Museums of Sydney 2013-2014). As one-off events they are fleeting and ephemeral, so the book is a way of presenting their content in a more lasting form.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? I have a Le Cordon Bleu Masters’ degree in Gastronomy through Adelaide University yet I as-good-as failed Home Economics in my HSC. You never know where life’s interests will take you.
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