The idea of a food column isn’t new. In 1874, author and journalist Marcus Clarke wrote a series of short articles for The Herald in Melbourne using the byline M. C. . His first food column lamented the over-reliance on red meat, while subsequent articles waxed eloquent on the subject of oysters, and explored, at length, the proper way to cook a chop. Clarke’s classical education is reflected in a later column reflecting on the gourmands (or gluttons) of history.
Growing up in England, Marcus Clarke had been introduced to a sophisticated lifestyle by his father, who entertained extravagantly. In Australia, he wrote for and edited a number of newspapers but is best remembered for his novel, For the Term of His Natural Life. He was renowned for his bohemian lifestyle and for his low opinion of Australian gastronomy.
Like his contemporary Dr Philip Muskett, Clarke criticised the amount of red meat Australians consumed. “It is curious how the English speaking folk cleave to their flesh meat,” he wrote. “The flesh pots of Egypt were never more dear to the wanderers in the desert of lentils than are rounds of beef and chunks of mutton to our expatriated Briton.”
The article reproduced below appeared in The Herald on Wednesday 11 February 1874. (Note that there are a number of typographical errors – these are faithful to the original.)
SOMETHING TO EAT
One of the reasons why we ought to respect the clergy is, because they not only teach us to die, but also to live. Gastronomy, which, as Careme says, “goes hand in hand with diplomacy,” has been fostered by Churchmen in all ages. The monks of old ate and drank the best, like sensible old fellows as they were. They did not waste good garden ground in tulips or ranunculi. They grew pot-herbs, the endive, hyssop, the parsley, the genial cabbage, and the lordly, luxurious bean. In their fish ponds were carp, tench and lampreys. They did not give their boars’ heads to the dogs, and leave their bullocks’ feet to rot in the stockyard, as we do. They did not give their peaches to the pigs, nor their apples to the insects. They did not eat their oysters rudely wrenched from the lower shell and smothered with red lead, fondly deemed to be red pepper. No. They gently removed the upper shell, squeezed a lime in the neighbourhood of the oyster, and swallowed the salt and creamy morsel just as it was palpitating out of existence.
Who now eats barbecued hog? Who dares to wash down the rosy glory with tankards of ale, “that good liquor of which our ancesters drank, and which enabled them to do such great deeds.” No one makes cider or perry, though Tasmanian orchards grow beneath the weight of fruit! How pure and perfect a drink is Hereford cider? How delightful in its velvety softness of the astounding Cocky Ghee let my Sommertshire friends declare? Which of you can make an olive pie? Which of ye knows the recipe for that magnificence created by Vrow Van Dunk out of herring roe and grew-peas? Who can cook a crab? Who can lard a black swan, and how? Who dare accept my challenge to cook a potato in three thousand different ways, and eggs in four thousand? Not one of ye, O degenerate feeders.
But my housewife stands aghast – sweet victim to roast and boiled. “How can I afford these dainties?” she cries. Peace, trembler. It is the cookery, not the food. Which costs – and the cost is Brains. Hang up in your colonial fireplace a pot au feu: a Firepot, wherein to fling all the bones, the carrots, pumpkins, and tomatoes daily wasted. Skim daily. Spare not to collect allspice, onion, mace. Do not drive away the kids which braise upon your mignonette, but entrap them, and entomb them in the cauldron. Be resolute, and fear not. The cost of the broth which shall make your husband worship you will be the price of the kettle.
In the hot weather, when the meat is bad, get you to your garden, which you irrigate with the water which comes from your bath, and which your neighbour wastes. In that garden properly manured grow, as a matter of course, gardencress, watercress, chervil, chives, onions, tarragon, pimpernel, parsley, hartshorn, purslain, basil, fennel and balsam. Think not lightly of these herbs – cress is an anti-scorbutic, chervie a purifier, chives a stimulant, tarragon a stomachic. When you make a salad for your dearest friend forget not a slice of beet root; and if you have any Provencal blood in you, use an olive, together with anchovy and an occasional prawn. Request a miser to put in the oil, a spendthrift to uncork the vinegar, and let a madman stir the bowl. Then you will be the hostess of a dish which is not only healthy and succulent but also cheap.
We will return to our dinner of herbs bye and bye. A dinner without a dessert is like a pretty woman without sense. But you must not expect to eat it with comfort if you have already overloaded your stomach. Sliced pineapple steeped in brandy is not to be despised. Green ginger fried in champagne was a dish of which Lord Wharton ate largely. Roasted chestnuts are for Spaniards only; we cannot cook them. One slice of anchovy toast is permissible, and if you have melons for Heaven’s sake have them served with pepper, and not with sugar as do the nobility of South Yarra.
But yet a few hints.
– Celery sauce is best with chickens, and chickens should be fattened in the dark.
– Choose short-legged chickens; Justice Shallow was a man of taste.
– The turkey bustard of Australia is never so good as five hours before it becomes necessary to throw him away
– Tough mutton will become tender if you pass through it an ordinary galvanic current.
– If you are rich, buy sparrows and feed them on mulberries. Ortolans are coarse compared with these delightful birds.
– Some donkeys will tell you that opossums are bitter unless you bury them in the earth “to take out the taste of the gum.” Do not believe these people, but when you kill your opossum do not break the gall-bladder in dressing him. A little pimento placed in his ribs will do no harm.
– The black swan requires a slice of the finest lard placed under the skin of the breast.
– Gold-fish served with egg sauce are remarkably good eating. But I recommend you to fish in your neighbor’s aquarium, for goldfish are expensive.
– The brains of a snipe roasted in the skull, by means of the flame of a wax candle, or better still, a gas jet, are highly succulent.
– Do not aim at extravagance in your dishes. If you possess half a guinea, I will show you how to give a dinner of green geese, haunch of kangaroo, rabbit pie, cold tongue, quail, crawfish, prawns, fish, curry and salad.
Go meditate on these broken sentences until we meet again. Go to your chop, and in my next I will show you how to cook that article of food. M.C.
Marcus Clarke also wrote a series of pieces under the title “Something to read” in which he commented on a wide range of topics including philosophy, religion, health and everyday life. Clarke’s addiction to good living eventually brought him undone. He died aged just 31, from liver failure.