Monash University

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Backward, British and bland? a cultural history of food in mid-twentieth century Australia

posted on 2017-02-21, 05:00 authored by Junor, Andrew John
The food Australians ate immediately prior to the 1950s has been popularly remembered in stark contrast to post-Second World War gastronomic upheaval: as a plain, stodgy, monocultural prelude to the increasing diversity and sophistication of food in the second half of the twentieth century. What cultural values did Australians of the 1930s and 1940s attach to food, however? How were the meanings of food understood and contested within the contemporary context of class relations, economic austerity, ethnic identity, regional variation, and gendered social and family roles? And how was the predominant British-derived ‘meat and three veg’ diet implicated in broader notions of Australia’s cultural development and national progress? This study examines these questions in relation to the food culture of 1930s and 1940s Australia and its disputed remembrance in the post-Second World War decades. There have been many excellent academic and non-scholarly empirical studies of twentieth century Australian eating habits and culinary trends. The intended contribution of this study is to step back from questions of food consumption patterns to explore how mid-twentieth century eating habits interacted with broader cultural meanings and social identities. These questions are important, as they address the wider post-war management of White Australia’s cultural memory and the reassuring role food came to have in national storytelling. Although the multicultural culinary revolution deserves its historical prominence, pre-1950s eating habits are better understood as the product of economic austerity, British cultural dominance and the restriction of women’s labour to the home. When these three factors were eroded in postwar life, the old food culture began its popular association with the perceived sins and simplicity of a fading White Australia. This thesis adopts a cultural history approach, constituting a set of linked, illuminating case studies. The research methodology embraces sources that offer evidence of meaning-making in relation to food: diaries, letters, memoirs, oral histories, contemporary print media and government reports. These sources demonstrate that 1930s and 1940s Australians understood food in complex and contested ways. As much of this source material has yet to be examined by historians of food, it is hoped this study will open new avenues of inquiry in the burgeoning field of Australian food history. This primary research is contextualised within secondary scholarship from the fields of food history, food studies, feminist history, gender studies, migrant history, urban history, oral history, media history, as well as broader works of Australian social and cultural history. This engagement with historiographical questions and traditions beyond the food history field is intended to emphasise the non-culinary significance of food and the broader historical contexts within which issues of food history can be analysed.


Principal supervisor

Alistair Thomson

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts