Fifty years ago, Shirley Cameron and three fellow home economics teachers sat down with a mighty task at hand. Their mission: to write a one-stop reference book on Australian cooking. The result, Cookery the Australian Way, became a publishing triumph. Eight fully revised editions later it remains in print, a vital reference tool for home cooks around the country – perhaps nestled on the bookshelf against Stephanie Alexander's Cook's Companion – and it continues to instruct high school students in the art of the perfect béchamel sauce, the wonders of the chocolate self-saucing pudding and the mysteries of yeast.
"Well, there was nothing like it, that was why we had to write it," says Cameron, now 80, at the suggestion it was the Antipodean version of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. "At first it was a very small book that we produced, called Approach to Cookery, which was done in Department of Education time. But we realised it only used a third of the information we were gathering, so then it was decided we would meet in our own time and do another. We worked every Saturday. I was wondering recently why do I not have a very good golf handicap and it was because I didn't play golf for about seven years. The book became all consuming."
Their modus operandi was ruthlessly focused: "For a long time we just ate whatever chapter we were up to in the book. When (fellow author) Suzanne Russell's little boy went to his friend's for tea he reported back that it was very boring, because they didn't talk about what they were eating and didn't discuss exhibit A, B and C."
Australians will always have a taste for golden syrup dumplings ("the recipe was accidentally left out of one edition and boy did we hear about it!") but plenty of things have changed since 1966. CTAW no longer contains a chapter on invalid food, its contribution to "international food" goes beyond spaghetti Bolognese, pizza pie and egg foo yung, and the recipe for Bloater Scones, made with fish paste and cayenne ("disgusting!" remarks Cameron now) has thankfully been banished.
The book has also captured broader social change. The first two editions were in black and white, and the 1972 edition was adapted for the metric system, with the authors campaigning for standard cup measures because they believed most people didn't own scales. ``The number of times I stood at a bench measuring a cup of flour – did you thwack the cup down, did you level it off, did you dip the cup into the jar? You don't think of these things they're so normal and mundane but when you're writing a cookbook they become very important."
The only surviving author, the former deputy principal of Werribee High School says her days of revising the book are over. "When we finished an edition we wouldn't see each other for 12 months, then new ingredients could come on line and we would think, oh dear, we'd better get back to it. But no, it's over for me now." These days she's happy growing her own food in her Werribee garden and cooking for herself – her current preoccupation being how to make the perfect poached egg in a microwave oven.
"I don't think we had any expectations at all," she says of Cookery the Australian Way's half-century. "When it became popular we were all amazed. What I love is when I walk down the street and I see a former student who says, Miss, I still use your book."
Chocolate sauce pudding
Number of serves: 6
Cooking time: 1.5 hours
Cooking utensils: steamer or large saucepan, greased pudding mound
1 tbspn shortening
1/2 cup castor sugar
1 cup self-raising flour
1/4 tspn salt
1 dessertspoon coconut
1/2 cup milk
3 drops vanilla
1 dessertspoon cocoa
1/2 cup white sugar
1 1/2 cups hot water
Collect ingredients. Put a saucepan of water on to boil.
2. Sift flour and salt; beat egg.
3. Cream shortening and castor sugar.
4. Add egg gradually and mix well. Add vanilla.
5. Fold in coconut and sifted flour alternately with the milk.
6. Place in mould.
7. Mix sugar with the cocoa, sprinkle on the mixture in the mould and pour hot water over.
8. Cover and steam.
9. Turn on to a warm dish and serve.
Source: Cookery the Australian Way