The first edition of One Continuous Picnic: A History of Australian Eating propounded the idea that Australian cuisine developed from the need for portable food during early colonial days. Symons was among the first to bring an academic approach to the subject of food in Australia. An updated edition was published in 2007.
Michael Symons began his career as an environmental journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald (1967-1973). He later partnered with other expatriates to open a restaurant in Tuscany, returning to become a partner in the Uraidla Aristologist restaurant in the Adelaide Hills from 1981. He was the force behind the first Symposium of Australian Gastronomy in 1984.
Symons began writing One Continuous Picnic during his sojourn in Italy. The book took five years to research and write and was the first to bring together the story of Australia’s agriculture, food business, cooking and restaurants. It was published by Duck Press – a company put together by Symons and his associates when established publishers were not interested.
“This is the only land that has never enjoyed an agrarian society,” Symons writes in his Introduction. “Our history is without peasants. We’ve had hunter-gatherers and then industrial civilisation.” Today, many would take issue with the definition of Indigenous food culture, which is now seen as much more complex. And one wonders whether the early settlers, who hacked out a life on the land, would agree that we never had an agrarian society. However, Symons’s characterisation of Australian cuisine as industrial, where the factory took over first the garden, then the pantry or cellar, and then the kitchen, is compelling.
The second edition of One Continuous Picnic was largely unchanged but had an additional chapter addressing developments in Australian food between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s. Symons found much had improved, including an increased focus on fresh ingredients and a more multi-cultural approach to food. It wasn’t all good news though. “While much has improved,” he wrote, “and this book might itself be evidence of gastronomic progress, any rejoicing must be cut short, however, for much other Australian eating got worse.” He cited flavourless tomatoes, Starbucks, the power of supermarkets and foreign ownership among the many ills still affecting our food culture.
The book continues to be among the most quoted and cited texts on Australian food history. Subsequent books by Symons have included The Shared Table (1993) and A History of Cooks and Cooking(originally 1998).