The Great Australian Cookbook reveals the importance of family at mealtimes

Margaret Fulton (front) with family and friends, including Carol and Sharon Salloum, Darren Robertson, Magdelena Roze, ...
Margaret Fulton (front) with family and friends, including Carol and Sharon Salloum, Darren Robertson, Magdelena Roze, and Kate, Louise and Suzanne Gibbs, and great-grandchildren Harry, 5, and five-month-old Charlotte. Photo: Edwina Pickles

The Great Australian Cookbook is a snapshot of Australia at home, the food we love to eat and how we love to eat it. 

After travelling several thousand kilometres, visiting 100 contributors and 81 locations, the importance of family in how we eat as a nation radiates from the recipes, stories and photos in this book. 

Around the table: Dan Hong, with his mother, Angie, on his left.
Around the table: Dan Hong, with his mother, Angie, on his left. Photo: Lottie Hedley

The Great Australian Cookbook lifts the lid on our love affair with lamb and betrays our sweet tooth for baked goods. It reveals how seafood has become an everyday meal and how we're still loyal to stews and roasts. It documents our fascination with fire – anything barbecued, grilled or charred is fine by us. 

The book is also a showcase for Australians' worldly taste for laksa, pizza, spring rolls, tortillas, schnitzels, mezze, cous cous and quandongs in Christmas cake. Country cooking is in the book, too, with stockman's roast lamb fritters, char-grilled kangaroo fillet, bush tomato damper, roast leg of lamb and prize-winning sponges.

Of course, asking chefs, cooks, bakers and food heroes, as we did, to give us recipes they love to cook for the people they love is bound to involve friends and relations. We expected that. What is unexpected is how deeply committed our contributors are to family ties.

Backyard barbecue: Sharon Salloum, of Almond Bar,  with family.
Backyard barbecue: Sharon Salloum, of Almond Bar, with family. Photo: Lottie Hedley

Neil Perry says, "I love eating with the kids and Sam, my wife ... It's a completely informal experience ... it's not about restaurants or the formality of cooking for others. It's about cooking for people you love and with whom you feel completely relaxed with and people with whom you share a lot more than just food."

Andrew McConnell, the multi-restaurant-owning Melbourne chef, enjoys ditching the formalities. "At home, I never make a meal where I plate five separate dishes. Whether it's a roast chicken or a steak, it's always carved and put in the middle of the table to eat. It's always a shared table."

The shared table is where we learn the rules of conversation, the role of relationships, the codes of behaviour and cultural constructs as children – and all through our lives. The table comes first, says Adam Gopnik​ in his book of the same name, The Table Comes First, because real life happens around the table.

Next generation: Gilbert Lau gets a helping hand from grandson Teddy.
Next generation: Gilbert Lau gets a helping hand from grandson Teddy. Photo: Lottie Hedley

"The family meal has a cultural, social and emotional power few other everyday rituals possess," says Rebecca Huntley in her neat little book, Does Cooking Matter?

Margaret Fulton has always advocated cooking and eating as a family. "All of us Fulton women have fond memories of being happy in the kitchen and I think mothers should have their children in the kitchen from a young age," she says.

"Even the smallest member of the family can have a job, even if it's just shelling peas at first, then stirring something and so on. Children who grow up in the kitchen and slowly learn how to cook, grow up also learning the joys of doing something and somebody saying, 'Ooh, this is lovely'," Fulton says.

Margaret Fulton with great-grandchildren Harry and Charlotte.
Margaret Fulton with great-grandchildren Harry and Charlotte. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Another Australian culinary legend, Adelaide's Cheong Liew, says, "As a young kid, I had to be part of the kitchen team to wash the rice, build the fire, wash the vegetables, even just to be the stirrer when mum said, "Don't let it stick!"

Darren Robertson, of Sydney's Three Blue Ducks, remembers his mum's Sunday roast as the meal when everyone had time to talk. "Mum was doing double shifts, being a single parent, but she would always make the Sunday roast happen. We would jump in and help, peeling spuds and putting the crosses [incisions] on the [brussels] sprouts. Then it was weapons down, tools down, sit and eat and talk."

Like cooking, eating is not just about food. Eating is about learning. We learn about ourselves and where we fit into the world.  Habits, customs and traditions form around a table – or a barbecue or a picnic rug or a kitchen counter.  In her book The Rituals of Dinner Margaret Visser says, "Children learn when eating with their elders all the status and kinship patterns of their family as they watch how adults treat each other and discover their own 'place'."

All the ingredients: Colin Fassnidge and his daughters.
All the ingredients: Colin Fassnidge and his daughters. Photo: Lottie Hedley

Rayleen Brown, the co-founder and owner of the Alice Springs catering company Kungkas Can Cook, says, "When kids start to see things when they're really young, it becomes instilled in them. And so, that's where our sense of connection with the earth comes from when you're Indigenous. You really feel that connection right down. My nana always says it's like a circle," says Brown.

Customs and connections are complex things, as we all know when we spend time with family. Sharon Salloum, the co-owner with her sister, Carol, of Sydney's Almond Bar, says her Syrian family gatherings are complicated. "It's a week-long process of sourcing produce, picking herbs from the garden, raiding relatives' gardens for vegetables, marinating meats, getting the house ready. These get-togethers are always loud, last late into the night and they're something we all agree we never do enough, but when we do, we absolutely love it."

At Salloum's family gatherings, culture and customs are passed on. Sometimes these traditions remain intact; sometimes these traditions change. In Arabic families, Salloum says, the men traditionally take on barbecue duties. "But I was insistent from a young age that I would be the one to wield the tongs. My father taught me that as people start to stream through the house and into the backyard, it's important to welcome everyone into your home and pay attention to what you're cooking at the same time."

<i>The Great Australian Cookbook</i>.
The Great Australian Cookbook

Eating with a multitude of people is an experience with which Anna Polyviou, the spiky queen of the dessert kitchen at the Shangri-La Hotel in Sydney, can identify. "Monday to Friday, it was my immediate family around the table, but on weekends, it was shared with the entire neighbourhood:  uncles, aunties, friends, neighbours, everyone would come over and we'd cook, eat and laugh together," she says. 

"For me, it was about the food, but more so, it was about the people who sat around our table then and now that's important to me," Polyviou says.

When people come together to eat, they aren't always an extended clan. Modern families come in different shapes and sizes, from same-sex parents to single parents and blended families.  As Visser writes in The Rituals of Dinner, "One definition of a family – a definition with different degrees of significance in different cultures – is 'those who eat together'." 

Restaurant chefs, cooks, waiters and dishwashers are an example of Visser's definition. They eat together and bond like family. Jock Zonfrillo​ regards staff dinners at his Orana restaurant in Adelaide as a chance for differences to be settled and conversation to happen just as a family would talk around the dinner table. 

"I'm from an Italian Scottish family. Our Italian family dinners were typically hands everywhere, yelling and shouting and sauce up the walls – and our staff dinners are no different," Zonfrillo says.  We're at work 18 hours a day and a staff meal is a great opportunity once a day for everyone to chew the fat."

The reality is that it's a struggle for families to find an opportunity once a day to chew the fat – or chew over anything. All the chefs, cooks, bakers and local food heroes who contributed to The Great Australian Cookbook know that making a family meal is an effort; that cooking and eating should be simple and flexible; that food should be fit into everyday life, not the other way around.

Our secret ambition is to get Australian families fired up about flexing their food muscles. We want them to fire up a barbecue and grill a charcoal chicken, roll their own spring rolls with whatever filling they can find, stew up a simple beef casserole and make pasta with whatever's in the fridge. The Great Australian Cookbook is an affectionate guide to cooking and eating because, as Adriano Zumbo​ says, "Whether it's a customer, a friend, or family, it's priceless, the feel-good factor you get from making someone happy through food."

Published by PQ Blackwell, the creators of the hugely successful The Great New Zealand Cookbook, and distributed by The Five Mile Press, The Great Australian Cookbook will be available from September 21, 2015, wherever books are sold. RRP$49.95.

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