Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2009

Flavours of Melbourne (2008), by Charmaine O’Brien

This ‘culinary biography’ was one of the books selected for the State Library of Victoria’s Summer Read, and a friend gave it to The Spouse for his birthday last summer.  I whisked it away as soon as I could and have been reading a chapter on and off at weekends…

Even if you’re not from Melbourne, it makes very interesting reading.  It begins with a chapter about the ‘Indigenous Pantry’ extolling the merits of the pre-European diet, and goes on to explore the development of Australian cuisine from the early days of the colony to the present day.   Significant events such as the 1851 Goldrush, the Depressions of 1893 and the 1930s, and the wars were quite remarkable for the impact that they had on foods that were available, cooking methods and eating out; and it’s interesting to see laid to rest the claim that Australia was a culinary desert until post-war immigration.

I was intrigued to learn, however, that it was the Americans  we have to thank for post-war development of the food manufacturing industry.  The GIs apparently turned up their noses at what was locally available, and an entire wartime industry developed to provide them with hamburgers, ice-cream and so on.  They brought in ‘experts on agriculture, canning, food technology and sanitation from the United States’ (p199) to achieve a massive increase in production, which meant that after the war, Australia ‘found itself with a first-class food-processing industry’.  When the GIs went home, the locals were persuaded to take up American ‘cultural products’  by a willing media  who promoted the new food styles with recipes in magazines and newspapers.  (p199) According to O’Brien, that’s who we have to thank for instant coffee!

(Interestingly, Melburnians have steadfastly refused all recent attempts to introduce American style coffee.  A large multi-national chain of coffee shops sloped off home last year, because Melbourne will only drink the real thing. We can thank the Italians for that!)

Another snippet of interest was the skulduggery that went on to ensure the selection of Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics.  Not only did they substitute photos of the Great Ocean Road for Port Phillip Bay, they also concealed the dreariness of 6 o’clock closing.  Melbourne has always had its share of wowsers and the Temperance Societies were very influential in restraining the consumption of alcohol through very restrictive regulation.  Still, as we all know, the Games were a great success and dubbed ‘The Friendly Games’.  Research was done to ascertain the athletes’ tastes, an international cohort of chefs was hired, and ‘a major  global shopping expedition was undertaken to acquire items that could not be sourced locally‘ (p235).  No doubt this must have helped to secure Melbourne’s reputation for hospitality.

The recipes, alas, are mostly of historical interest, unless the reader is searching for traditional fare!

Author: Charmaine O’Brien
Title: Flavours of Melbourne, A Culinary Biography
Publisher: Wakefield Press
ISBN: 9781862547629
Source: Personal library (gift)

Fishpond: Flavours of Melbourne: A Culinary Biography


  1. […] reviewed Charmaine O’Brien’s terrific book called Flavours of Melbourne, A Culinary Biography , a while ago, but this one is different.  That was more of a social history of food and cooking, […]


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