Inside Story

A Margaret Fulton recipe always works

Published two years before The Female Eunuch, Margaret Fulton’s first cookbook had its own impact

Sian Supski 25 July 2019 2330 words

Of the moment: Margaret Fulton (centre) at the launch of The Margaret Fulton Cookbook in November 1968. Warren Croser/Fairfax Archives

Cookbooks matter. Inevitably, they capture something of their moment. This is certainly true of The Margaret Fulton Cookbook, Margaret Fulton’s first cookbook, published in 1968.

Just over thirty years later, Fulton published her autobiography I Sang for My Supper in the same year that Germaine Greer published The Whole Woman, the belated successor to The Female Eunuch (1970). Fulton loved the juxtaposition:

At the time of writing this, the publicity machinery promoting Germaine Greer’s latest book, the sequel to The Female Eunuch she said she would never write, is in action in Sydney. A half-page photograph in the Sydney Morning Herald shows her in her kitchen in England, in front of her slow-combustion stove, her cupboards laid bare for me to see the row of jars and bottles of what looks to be commercial sauces. Later that day she appears on television slicing raw meat and showing a practised hand at bread making. She appears truly comfortable in her kitchen role. Ironic, isn’t it? She has discovered what millions of Australian women have always known — that cooking is one of the most rewarding and lasting activities in life. Sure, sex is great, but if it’s not around, you can always fly to the kitchen.

The Margaret Fulton Cookbook was republished by Hardie Grant in 2004 to inspire another generation of Australian cooks. Over a fifty-year period Fulton was a household name, and through her writing Australian food culture was transformed.

Margaret Fulton was born on 10 October 1924 in Nairn, near Inverness, Scotland. She was the youngest of six children, and arrived in Australia as a three-year-old when her family immigrated to Glen Innes, New South Wales. Her parents, Alexander and Isabella Fulton, had led middle-class lives in Glasgow; her father was a master tailor and her mother a housewife. The family was artistic, creative and bohemian — all traits that would influence Fulton’s later working life in Sydney. She learned to cook from a young age at her mother’s side. One of her jobs, she has recalled, was to stir the custard.

Fulton can properly be regarded as the “mother” of modern cookery in postwar Australia. Her experience giving cooking classes at the Australian Gas Light Company, and her time (1955–60) working as an account executive in the Sydney office of the world’s largest advertising agent, J. Walter Thompson, were pivotal in forming her as a cookery writer.

Her writing career began in 1954 with Fairfax’s Woman magazine, one of Australia’s three leading women’s magazines of the time. At the interview for the job, Fulton was asked not whether she could write but whether she could make “brown luncheon rolls.” After her years working for the Australian Gas Light Company, brown bread rolls came easily. “So,” she writes, “on the strength of making brown bread luncheon rolls (and, I suspect, a glimmer of some kind of promise) I started my career writing about food in newspapers and women’s magazines and ultimately writing cookery books.” She initially wrote under the by-line of Ann Maxwell.

In 1960, following the collapse of Woman, Fulton became the cookery editor at Woman’s Day, where she remained for nineteen years before moving to the Murdoch-owned rival, New Idea. Under the editorship of Dulcie Boling New Idea increased its circulation steadily over the next decade, and Fulton’s cookery columns eventually reached a million readers a week. It was while Fulton was at Woman’s Day that she was approached by British publisher Paul Hamlyn to write her first cookbook.

Fulton was in the vanguard not only of Australian cookbook writing but also of styles of cooking that would eventually change Australian kitchens. Importantly, she understood the importance of fresh ingredients, shopping locally and getting to know producers and shopkeepers. These were all lessons she had learned from her mother. So, in cooking terms Fulton had a good story to tell, but in literary terms she also found the right means of telling it. Crucial to the success of The Margaret Fulton Cookbook is a narrative tone that is both autobiographical and instructional.

In fact, Fulton’s cookbook is reminiscent of scrapbooks of recipes collected by women and annotated with hints, points to remember and intricate details so that even beginners would not be deterred. At the time no other Australian cookbook so explicitly integrated personal notes that bordered on a form of memoir.

Cookbooks had previously incorporated autobiographical details in an implicit form only; they might include a much-loved recipe from an elderly aunt along the lines of “Aunty May’s melting moments.” (See any edition of the Country Women’s Association Cookery Book.) The significance of Fulton’s narrative is the deliberate inclusion of stories from her own life; an example can be found at the opening of the “Soups” chapter: “What wonderful memories I have of soup and my Scottish mother’s kitchen. We had soup every day and each one had its own character and charm. When I grew older and studied French cooking, I knew why Mother’s soups were so good.” Fulton continues with further details about her mother’s cooking and how she imbibed the subtleties of soup making.

Fulton also took great care to explain the details of each recipe carefully, knowing that not all readers would be as expert as she was. The book had a three-star system (which is retained in the 2008 edition): “1 star — A simple and quick recipe that a beginner could accomplish with ease; 2 star — Dishes for the average cook with a knowledge of basic techniques, but requiring a little more time; 3 star — A special dish, requiring more skill and probably taking some time to prepare.” Beginners are encouraged to try the three-star recipes, allowing for extra time and concentration.

In creating The Margaret Fulton Cookbook Fulton believed she was writing not only for her own family but also for all families. She has said of that first cookbook, it was “a book for everybody in my family and I think that my family would be typical… in different degrees, of a lot of families. And I think it appealed… as I say, to the many faceted sides of being a woman, or a person.”

The valuing of women’s work, particularly cooking, was very important to Fulton. As her observations about Greer show, she believed that cooking was important to women’s self-esteem. She also fully understood the drudgery associated with cooking and wanted to simultaneously value women’s work and acknowledge the daily effort that went into producing nutritious, interesting food.

The immediate postwar period had been a time of recovery, but by the 1960s the pace of change had accelerated, particularly for women. Fulton knew this intimately — she had grown up through the Depression, had worked in a munitions factory during the war, had married and divorced in the early 1950s and was now a single parent. As she has explained, cooking was a way for women to expand their own world, and that of their families:

If you’re doing the same thing, day in, day out, it becomes a chore. What makes cooking so exciting for a woman — in those days, a woman at home — is to enter into someone else’s world. And actually do it. Sometimes not very well, but that’s irrelevant… everyone gets better the second time they make it and the third time they make it. But they became familiar, and it was an excitement that was brought into women at home, who otherwise could have been quite bored with a lot of the… cooking that had gone on. There was something very good about the food that had gone on before. But doing it day in, day out, and just getting better at it, wasn’t all that much of a buzz for women. What was a real buzz, and a real interest, was to be able to say to the family, “Oh, look, we’re going to have a Spanish paella tonight”… It was a lovely time for both me and also my readers.

The reference here to the “Spanish paella” is telling, as Margaret Fulton brought global cuisine into the Australian kitchen and made the exotic commonplace. Her experience of growing up in a small country town whose residents included Chinese, Greek and Italian migrants made her acutely aware of other food cultures. She had attended TAFE courses to further develop her knowledge of French cooking, and with Woman’s Day she had adventured to India, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, North America and Spain. All this inspired her to show Australians how to cook new, international recipes at home, ensuring that they worked and finding ways for Australian women to make them their own. The classic French quiche lorraine was a perfect example — the exotic becoming prosaic in a uniquely Australian way:

The real quiche lorraine didn’t have the bacon and bits in it. But then I said… this is the one we like and [so] we did variations… for the first time people… were able to make a quiche that had just the right amount of pastry because I said, [at] the bottom of the recipe, this mightn’t seem like much pastry, but… it’s quite enough to give the quantity that you need… And that was, in a way, a breakthrough because it was a cookery person understanding that if a woman was at home and had a big lump of pastry, she thought it all had to go in and then it would be too thick. So I began to know how it was and then [write] the recipes accordingly. From this sort of thing, I got the reputation. People said, “Oh Margaret Fulton’s recipes work. They work every time.”

In introducing her Australian readers to new cuisine, Fulton became a significant player in a global shift in food culture among anglophone societies. In international terms she wrote in the immediate footsteps of a group of remarkable women, Americans M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, and Englishwoman Elizabeth David, who brought global cuisine (in particular derived from the Mediterranean) into kitchens that had hitherto been dominated by English traditions. Fulton shared with these other writers an openness to new culinary experience that was reflected in unconventional personal lives; and a gift for writing about cooking, food and gastronomy that emphasised the way in which food expresses something profound about ourselves, our lands and their people.

The Margaret Fulton Cookbook not only changed the lives of many Australian women; it changed Fulton’s life too. Notably, it gave her a degree of financial freedom she had not previously experienced. The initial print run for the book was 10,000, then orders kept coming in and it was increased to 20,000, then 30,000, then 40,000 — all unprecedented for a cookbook. The publisher stopped printing at 80,000, worried that they had never sold so many copies — it was, after all, only a cookbook and Fulton was a first-time author! A second edition was issued in 1969 and over the years The Margaret Fulton Cookbook was reprinted nineteen times.

Fulton was also at the forefront of Australian food culture in her championing of the use of organic, non–genetically modified food. She eased (only marginally) her dislike of the new fad of television chefs and cooking shows, appearing in episodes of MasterChef Australia, and became a food ambassador for the supermarket Woolworths, with her own “Honest to Goodness family meals” recipes. This understanding and knowledge of food has also been championed by Stephanie Alexander in her remarkably successful, encyclopedic The Cook’s Companion (1996), published almost thirty years after Fulton’s first cookbook. It is Alexander that Fulton believed had progressed Australian cooking and food writing, and importantly, had encouraged young people into the kitchen.

Fulton is also one of the major exemplars of popular and accessible cookery writing. She has brought this long-established form of writing into the public sphere, combining her recipes with life writing as well as political and social commentary. The acceptance of other cultures and the openness to new ideas that characterised her approach to food was also apparent in her personal life. One of Fulton’s good friends was Aboriginal activist Faith Bandler. They knew each other as young women and their friendship spanned some sixty years, with Fulton providing the wedding breakfast when Faith Mussing married Austrian concentration camp survivor Hans Bandler in 1952.

As a result of that friendship Fulton became keenly aware of the vast differences in life chances for Indigenous Australians. In her autobiography she outlined the impact of the work that Bandler and others undertook in the late 1960s and 1970s — the 1967 referendum, the return of land to the Gurindji people in 1975, and the Fraser government’s Aboriginal Land Rights Act. She was a sponsor of the inaugural national Sorry Day on 26 May 1998, when hundreds of thousands of Australians showed their remorse for government policies that had removed many Aboriginal children from their families. These were brave steps towards reconciliation, although it would be another ten years before Fulton would witness prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008. It was appropriate that in 1997 Fulton and Bandler were included together in the National Trust’s initial list of one hundred National Living Treasures.

Discussing Fulton’s autobiography I Sang for My Supper, Elspeth Probyn argues that her cookbooks (as well as her autobiography) are an avenue to bring political debates into popular discourse:

In her autobiography [she] decries John Howard’s stance on reconciliation… [and] there’s a good chance that some of the millions who buy her books are listening to her message. Where and how we live… what we have done to Aboriginal people, and an openness to the tastes of other people are important issues.

Fulton used her cookery writing to tell stories and change kitchens, if not lives. •

This is Sian Supski’s chapter from Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935–2012, edited by Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni (Monash University Publishing).