For most, it’s her go-to cookbook of kitchen classics. For others, she was a conduit for international flavours arriving on Australia shores. Here, in conversation with the mother of Australian cooking, Margaret Fulton and her daughter Suzanne, we explore her introduction of the “exotic” to Australian food culture.
By
Sophie Knox

3 May 2016 - 10:20 AM  UPDATED 24 Jul 2019 - 5:45 PM

Much-loved Australian cooking great and incredible writer, journalist and author, Margaret Fulton died this morning at the age of 94. A statement on behalf of her family was released today saying she "had died peacefully this morning with her family close by." Margaret penned more than 20 titles, including the popular Margaret Fulton Cookbook and with so many recipes worth noting, it was the simplicity of her turkey gravy that sprung to mind (among so many more) here at SBS Food HQ.

We pay tribute with this piece from 2016 and we thank you, Margaret, for your cooking prowess and for helping shape Australia's food landscape. Our deepest sympathies go out to your family and loved ones and to the community who came to cook with and adore you.


 

“Suzanne, darling, would you open the blind so we can enjoy the view?” The outlook is painterly – Sydney Harbour shimmers bright while the bridge confidently unites the north and the south. What’s more compelling is the dynamic in the room. The banter between mother and daughter is the script of a comedy sitcom. Mother clings on to independence while daughter cares lovingly, respecting what’s gone before.

The mother is Margaret Fulton OAM, Australia’s queen of cooking. At 91, she’s lost none of her sass. Her daughter is Suzanne Gibbs, respected writer and cook in her own right. Together, and independently, they have contributed to the way Australians approach food and cooking.

Margaret has reigned supreme for more than 60 years, encouraging Australian cooks to churn out more than just sausages, mash and over-cooked beans for dinner every night. Yes, she taught us how to nail the perfect scone, but the influence for which Margaret Fulton is rarely celebrated is her introduction of the “exotic” into our very conventional, very English diet.

In mid-1960s colonial Australia, Margaret Fulton was already a name as food editor of Woman’s Day and had been a regular on the cooking demonstration circuit for years. Her daughter Suzanne Gibbs had just returned from the Cordon Bleu School of Cookery in London and worked at the famous restaurant of that name. Together they hatched a bold plan, and it foreshadowed what was to come with the beginning of the end of the White Australia Policy in 1966 under the Holt administration.

It was time to introduce Australian women to “the other” cuisines of the world. And that came in the form of fish teriyaki, Indian ghee rice and Austrian coffee cake. “Australian women were bored to tears of cooking meat and three veg – they loved embracing my mad journey. I was a little bit like Toad of Toad Hall, leading them down the wrong garden path,” chuckles Margaret.

And so it was that The Margaret Fulton Cookery Course series was born. “We produced this 39-part series in mum’s kitchen while working with Woman’s Day. Our photographer was the famous Lewis Morley, among others, Babette Hayes did the styling and it was an idyllic way to work. We would make ourselves lunch then say ‘let’s photograph it!’,” remembers Suzanne.

The Margaret Fulton Cookery Course series is an encyclopedia of international cuisine. A recipe for Eggplant Caviar sits comfortably alongside Malaysian Beef Satays. Slimmers’ Stroganoff neighbours Dolmades, which are described as “a boon to housewives on a budget”. These magazine-style cookbooks were the first iteration of published foodie magazines, which inspired the likes of Donna Hay and Gourmet Traveller decades later. The front cover decrees that owning one of these cookery courses is “Like having Margaret beside you in your own kitchen”. Step-by-step imagery teaches readers how to make the perfect terrine. ID shots of shallots and curly endive illustrate the “Know your Greens” Lesson No 2. It was practical cooking with an international flavour.

International vision

So from where did the inspiration for the exotic originate? Margaret explains: “My contract with the magazine [Woman’s Day] included a large travel allowance, so I took full advantage. It allowed me to discover the cuisines of the world.”

Her itinerary was a colourful medley of international destinations, from Japan and China through to Spain, Italy and India. From these trips, Margaret imported the dishes, ingredients and techniques that became the foundation of the Australian table.

“I went to Spain, and brought back the idea of using olive oil in our cooking. Up until then we’d only used butter, or if you used olive oil it was Faulding’s oil from the chemist,” explains Margaret. “I was one of the first groups to go to China after Chairman Mao died. They taught me how to make Chinese tea eggs and all they wanted to know was how to make a sandwich! I also went to Japan, where I stayed with Benedictine monks, who believed that olive oil should only be used once, so after a single use, they left it outside for the poor to pick up,” she remembers.

These educational sojourns certainly motivated Margaret and Suzanne to create their international-flavoured Cookery Courses, but a robust global appetite was kindled throughout Suzanne’s childhood. “From the age of five or six, Mum used to take me to Paddy’s Market in Chinatown. This was our Saturday morning ritual. We’d get up early, take a couple of bags and buy live chickens, garlic, Chinese greens and smoked meats,” explains Suzanne.

"...once you talk to women in other countries about their food, it’s easier to talk to them about your food – it’s a common language [and] a dialogue begins. It’s something that inspires you both.”

“I suppose I’ve always taken an international approach to food because I’ve travelled so much,” muses Margaret. “And once you talk to women in other countries about their food, it’s easier to talk to them about your food – it’s a common language [and] a dialogue begins. It’s something that inspires you both.”

An immigrant herself, Margaret was born in Scotland in 1924. In 1927, at the age of three, she moved to NSW’s Celtic town of Glen Innes with her parents and five siblings. Even throughout the Great Depression, the family had food to eat, thanks to the wage of Margaret’s father, who was a deft hand as a professional tailor - and the Fulton matriarch was a dynamo in the kitchen. “Mother’s idea of mince was not the dreary meal one might imagine. First and foremost it depended on good-quality steak, gristle free and not too fatty. The butcher would mince it while mother looked on.”

From fashionista to foodie

Despite entertaining the idea of becoming a fashion designer, Margaret’s career took an accidental turn into the world of cooking, where she accepted a job at Australian Gas Light Company performing cookery demonstrations. Margaret then completed a cooking course at East Sydney Technical College and the rest is written in the history books. “It was a gradual thing. As women became more interested in food, the need for someone like me grew. I was fortunate in all of those ways. The right opportunities came along,” says Margaret modestly.

Australians’ propensity to “have a go” was a crucial part of Margaret’s popularity.  “The difference between the Australians and the English in the 1960s was that the English clung to their old fashions. They weren’t as open-minded or experimental. In Australia, they’d have a go at new ideas, including serving a Persian chicken with saffron rice in a silver Scottish fruit stand,” remembers Margaret. “The epic film Cleopatra, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was playing at the time and that inspired me. Persian Rice Chicken became something of a dinner party craze.”

Modern tableware

It wasn’t just food that was given the exotic treatment. The styling and the tableware were pushed outside traditional boundaries with the help of interior designer Babette Hayes, OAM. Suzanne says, “The styling of these cookery books was a break away from that tizzy flowery china, that pastel pink English style. Mum was the first to introduce Arabia [a Finnish ceramics brand] to the Australian visual landscape. She helped introduce people to a new aesthetic for the time.”

In each issue of the cookery series, Babette featured a collection of tableware that challenged old-school aesthetics. On one of the “Buying with Babette” pages, Babette pronounces, “Cotton bedspreads, like the Indian one I have used in the photograph, suddenly become colourful tablecloths!” Bedspreads as tablecloths? From India? Absolutely.

Margaret’s Sydney home was a graphic anthology of her extraordinary life. Intricate sculptures by Finnish artist Kaipiainen dress the walls. Japanese lacquered bowls, some of which appeared in the original cookery series of the 60s, sit on shelves surveyed by important paintings by Jan Balet. A full set of Arabia’s vibrant blue and yellow tableware, Paratiisi, is displayed in a rustic wooden cabinet beside the kitchen that was used to cook and shoot so many of Margaret and Suzanne’s creative adventures.

“I bought my first Arabia set from Finland because it appeared in Margaret Fulton’s cookery series,” notes Christine Manfield, one of Australia’s most peripatetic chefs and writers. “And my very first cookbook was The Margaret Fulton Cookbook.” Christine also owns the complete 39-part set of The Margaret Fulton Course series.

“Margaret championed what was then called ‘international food’, those traditional dishes like coq au vin and beef stroganoff, which were quite fancy given the time and the place. As ingredients became more available through immigration, we were able to access those foods. Between the mid-60s and 1980, Margaret was one of the leading voices in how people approached cooking at home," she says.

In the cookery series, recipe names and cooking terms were written in their native language, potatoes en papillote and steak au poivre, “because people wanted to replicate restaurant menus and they also wanted to know what this dish was all about," says Suzanne. "We felt it was important to be true to the original dish and country of origin."

Fulton was one of five legends of Australian cooking immortalised on postage stamps in 2014.

Chefs in the kitchen

Margaret’s multicultural influence made a profound difference in the Australian home, but her impact also rippled through to Australia’s upcoming chefs. Born in Greece, Janni Kyritsis arrived in Australia in 1970 at the age of 24. “I couldn’t speak English very well and I couldn’t read,” reminisces Janni. “When I met my partner a year later, he suggested I learn English through an interest of mine, and that was cooking. So he went out and bought me a Margaret Fulton cookbook. I learned English by reading it and learned to cook by cooking from it. That’s how my relationship with Margaret began.”

Janni’s ensuing trajectory saw him work for Stephanie Alexander at her Melbourne restaurant Stephanie’s, Gay Bilson’s Berowra Waters Inn, then Sydney’s Bennelong Restaurant. He’s known as the godfather of the Australian restaurant scene after his own MG Garage in Surry Hills went on to become one of Sydney’s most successful fine diners. “Today, now I’m retired, if I want something quick and easy to cook, I’ll open The Margaret Fulton Cookbook,” reveals Janni. “I am very fond of Margaret, like a child remembering his mother teaching him all those years ago… she’s always been in my mind, and we have become very good friends.”

Getting it right

Cooking from Margaret Fulton’s cookbooks, magazines and inserts informed the technical efficiency of so many Australian cooks. Suzanne believes their insistence on publishing “recipes that work” is one of the reasons their careers were so successful. “The Indian Ghee Rice recipe in number 1 of the cookery series works like a dream. For a person who’s never cooked before, that’s what they need. Dependability. It’s a stunning meal.”

“Tomorrow’s Meal” was the topic at the recent MadSyd symposium at Sydney’s Opera House. Progressive chefs such as René Redzepi and Kylie Kwong pondered the idea of Australian food and what tomorrow’s meal would look like. Margaret Fulton didn’t make it on the day, but she would have been interested to hear American chef David Chang, of the Momofuku restaurant empire, divulge, “People’s food ethnicity will become irrelevant.” Perhaps he’s right. Janni Kyritsis echoes this idea that differing food cultures now work so beautifully side by side: “If the home cook decides to cook a steak on the barbecue and add stir-fried vegetables, that is Australian cooking.” 

“It’s about interpretation,” explains Suzanne, “that’s what mum did. Made these new foods and dishes accessible. It doesn’t have to be totally traditionally correct but it has to taste good and be good for you.”

Suzanne has retired from working after a long career of magazine food editorships. She is the mother of two daughters, Kate and Louise, who have both forged a path in food media. What’s clear is that Suzanne has lost none of her passion. “I just love cooking. I love trying everything. Everything! I love Southeast Asian food. It’s now so very accessible to Australians. And we love Indian food – I’m currently going through Charmaine Soloman’s Indian Cooking for Pleasure. I love going to places like the Turkish restaurant in Sydney, Stanbuli. It’s total theatre and very beautiful. That’s what we’re about now. We embrace it all. And thank goodness for that.” 

Cooking with Margaret
Pumpkin soup

Pumpkin soup may be varied by use of different pumpkin varieties. Golden nugget, jap and butternut each has its own taste.

Baked Guinness ham

Come Christmas or New Year, there is usually a baked glazed ham on our buffet table. Most often the ham is baked with the flavours of stout, sugar and spice, as in this recipe, with the edges caramelised, so that each slice, with a lot of lean and a little fat, is a perfect mix of flavour.

Turkey gravy

Make a gorgeous gravy to serve with your Christmas turkey with this easy recipe from Margaret Fulton.