From mutton to MasterChef – the evolution of Australian food »

Follow the journey in Jan O'Connell's book The Timeline of Australian Food

By Paula Wriedt
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<i>A Timeline of Australian Food</i> by Jan O'Connell

A Timeline of Australian Food by Jan O'Connell [©NewSouth Publishing ]


Jan O’Connell is a baby boomer and grand-daughter of a grocer. Over many years she became intrigued by what we eat in Australia, and how it has evolved. She is by her own confession, not a foodie and declares she is definitely not known as 'a legend for my own dinner parties'.

But Jan is passionate about the origins of what we eat and her book, whilst peppered with a few basic recipes, is a treasure trove of fun facts and nostalgia.

A few of the images on the book’s cover – the Arnott’s biscuits' logo, a pile of cut open lamingtons and a lemon/lime Splice ice-cream – were enough to conjure up many memories of growing up in Australia for me, so I was naturally intrigued and dived into the history pages.

As you’d expect from a book with 'timeline' in its title it is organised by dates, with the first entries going as far back as the 1860s. At first, wondering what I might find in food production and dining in this era, I was interested to learn that thanks to some grapevines imported from France, winemaking began in the Goulburn Valley in 1860. Some of these historical vines still exist and produce wine today at Tahbilk.

Moving through the 1860s, my home town of Hobart was the first to pack jam into cans in 1861 thanks to the genius of George Peacock who established a factory on Hobart’s wharf. Its location was chosen so that the fruit delivered by boat from the Huon Valley had only a short distance to travel once it arrived at the dock. The site of the factory is now a luxury hotel and attracts guests from around the world.

What’s lovely about this book is that it serves not just as a timeline of the foods that were eaten and produced at certain periods in Australian history, but it also documents the opening of significant food-related events and sites such as the Adelaide Central Market (1869), Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market (1878) and Sydney’s Royal Easter Show (1882).

I had often wondered why so many hotels in Australia included 'Royal' in their title? Thankfully A Timeline of Australian Food was finally able to answer this question for me. The story goes that when Prince Albert toured Australia in 1867 many hotels where he stayed “felt called upon to change its (sic) name to the Royal Hotel”. Obviously the publicans were keen to impress their Royal visitor, but over time the names have remained and the Royal Hotel remains the most common hotel name in Australia.

This is an easy book to browse through thanks to the many images. These include historical photos, in addition to olden-day food labels and branding, some of which are still recognisable in these products today.

In a clear and clever way to find a particular era, the top of each double page has a timeline from 1860 through to 2010 and small green dots indicate which decade you are reading from on whichever page you choose.

This book will keep you entertained for hours and if you can memorise some of the facts they would be fun to relay at your next family dinner. For example, I am looking forward to telling my children that when Milo was first produced in the 1930s it was marketed as Nestle’s Tonic Food! Or that the first product made by Heinz in Australia was not its famed tomato sauce or baked beans, but bottled horseradish. I didn’t see that one coming!

Probably the chapters that held the most appeal for me were the ones during my childhood – particularly the 1970’s and 80’s. I am sure readers will have the same nostalgic feeling I did at seeing pictures of staples from my years. The warm feeling of being back in the family kitchen with Mum and my German Grandmother returned instantly. This was especially true when I stumbled upon a photo on page 176 of a cookbook that Mum had owned and that I inherited on her passing.

Don Dunstan, then South Australian Premier, launched his own cookbook in 1976 and it held pride of place in our kitchen. He was probably one of the only politicians then (and even now) to produce such a book – and it was an eclectic mix of recipes from a broad multicultural background that he believed reflected the Australian population at that time. A Timeline of Australian Food has inspired me to dust off the cobwebs of this historic book and give some of the recipes a go!

Whenever you were born, or regardless of how long you have lived in Australia, this book is worth a read to understand the evolution of our food. It certainly fulfilled its objective of making me nostalgic... although probably not enough though to revisit the included recipe from 1988 of Deep Fried Camembert served with raspberry jam, served as a savoury entrée no less! [Ed: bake it with rosemary instead!]

This book would be a great gift for history buffs, overseas visitors, foodies, anyone who loves trivia, and those who simply enjoy a good read. Do yourself a favour, sit back with your favourite snack and drink, and indulge yourself in decades past with this gem.

Read more in the press release here »


A Timeline of Australian Food: from Mutton to Masterchef by Jan O'Connell is published by New South Books (Sydney, NSW; Dec 2017; Pb; 256pp, RRP A$34.99). It can be found at good bookshops or purchased directly from the publisher here »

It can also be purchased online via here »


About the reviewer: Paula Wriedt is a self-confessed foodie. Whilst she loves her job running the small charity Cystic Fibrosis Tasmania, her real passion is food. She lives in Kingston with her two teenage children who have inherited her love of cooking so her house is always filled with the welcoming smells of delicious food.

As a former State Minister for Tourism Paula is passionate about Tasmanian produce and our beautiful island state. Travelling is high on her agenda but she enjoys returning to Tasmania and sharing with friends and family the many recipes she discovers on her travels.

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August 12th, 2018
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