1993 Gay Bilson’s tripe tablecloth

Gay Bilson made a tripe tablecloth for the Symposium dinner

The kitchen staff from Berowra Waters Inn restaurant, under the leadership of Gay Bilson, made a tablecloth of raw tripe for the seventh  Symposium of Gastronomy, which took place at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. The menu for the dinner read: Stomach, Egg, Flesh, Bone, Skin, Blood, Heart, Milk, Fruit, Virgins’ Breasts, Dead Men’s Bones. Bilson’s desire to serve a sausage made of her own blood was, perhaps fortunately for those who attended, rejected by the symposium’s organisers.

Gay Bilson trained as a librarian but became involved in the food business through her partner, chef Tony Bilson. From Carlton’s infamous Albion Hotel, the pair moved to Sydney where they opened Tony’s Bon Goût, a restaurant that became a Labor party hangout during the Whitlam years. This was followed in 1977 by Berowra Waters, a high-end out-of-town venue on the Hawkesbury River, where guests arrived by boat. The couple split and Bilson remained at Berowra Waters until it closed in 1994. Since 1999 she has lived in McLaren Vale, South Australia.

As a food luminary, Bilson has been involved in the Symposia since the first one in 1984. The Canberra Symposium took the theme of surrealism. The keynote banquet was held in the National Gallery of Australia and linked to an exhibition of surrealist art. The tablecloth shocked many of the diners, at least one of whom fled the room. Another reportedly said, “Oh my God, I feel sick”. Fortunately, the tripe tablecloth was removed before the dinner began.

One of the many courses was black pudding. Bilson had initially intended to make this from her own blood. The idea, however, got the thumbs down from her own chefs and the event’s organisers (and would no doubt have been rejected by health authorities). She defended her idea, saying:

“If I could make it happen, certainly warn people that they were going to eat it, it might be the most generous act a cook can make to give of herself. It’s mistakenly seen as cannibalism by a lot of people, but it’s not.”

Not everyone would agree.

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