|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 23, 1997
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
You are interested, as well as in the presentation of food, and so on, you're interested in nutrition, aren't you, and at one stage you wrote a book about healthy eating, and you ran a health based ... Berida Manor was health based. What's your philosophy of the relationship between eating food to be good for your health, and eating food in the normal way that has been the tradition of cook books over the years?
Although I've been interested in good health, I firmly believe that food eaten in a joyous, a happy kind of atmosphere - that means with family or friends, and there's a nice relaxed feeling - this isn't a proven theory - but I just believe you are better for it. I sometimes think the Japanese have got it right. They say eat thirty-two different things a day. And that's easy, if you make a soup you've got a whole lot of things in it. And if you make a salad, you've got a whole lot of things. Don't worry too much about what you're eating. If there is a ... if you eat a variety of foods, and a varied diet, you're going to be all right. We need nutritionists, and it is very important that human research, or research into nutrition for human beings is ... is essential. And it's interesting to know that a lot more money gets spent on what our cattle eat, or what our pigs eat or what our hens eat. I mean, a lot of money goes into that. Very little goes into research on human nutrition. It is very, very important. But I think the simple things to learn, that a varied diet is the way to go. I think it's the simplest message to get through. Make sure children do know what a piece of fresh fruit is. Make sure that children know how to chew and use their teeth. It's like babies in my day used to be always given a little chop bone to eat. But they don't do that so much nowadays. Whereas that gnawing and pulling and tugging away at a ... when I say a chop bone, you know, if it's a very tiny baby you take the meat off the bone and just give it and it chews away but starting to enjoy the feeling ... to see a little baby with a chop bone is a good start to having a think, oh isn't that good. And learning to use your mouth, your teeth. It's very important, because it gets you eating a piece of steak or chewing at an apple, or ... If we're not careful, babies who started off on pap, you know, the little ... the things that mothers putting food through sieves, but nowadays they go out and buy a little jar of stuff. It's very easy and you can sort of suck it in, and it's lovely but if you stay like that, and some people do. Some people never learn to chew or bite or gnaw. All of those things are as important as the actual vitamins, the minerals, the nutrition. And one of the most cheering bits of news that has come through in recent years, is red wine has the most marvellous antioxidants. And you know, me and my eighty-five year old sister, we open a glass of ... a bottle of red wine, and we say, 'Well now, let's have our antioxidants', and we sort of enjoy the fact that we're doing something good for our bodies. And certainly good for our spirit.
There seems to have been a lot of prohibitions on food that have come through, though, haven't there? You know, give up fat, give up salt, give up those sorts of things. What's your attitude to that?
It's - this sounds a bit corny - everything in moderation. But for example, if you are eating, if you say I'll go the Japanese way and eat thirty-two different things a day, you're not going to each too much salt because you're eating other things. You're eating herbs, you're eating other flavours that are not going to make you want to have too much salt. If you're eating a lot of vegetables and again, a lot of fruit or fish, you're not going to be eating too much fat. It's when you make, as happened in probably in Australian past, where beef was wonderful and comparatively inexpensive, but you were eating half-pounders - you know, half pound steaks. Or even pounders, you know. That's terribly bad for you, because basically if you ate a half pounder or a 250 gram steak, you couldn't eat all of these other things. I think it's better to have a balanced diet, and really, as I say, we do need nutritionists to tell us. You know, you've got to know somewhere that it's not good to ... to eat a lot of animal fats, or a lot of salt. But if you eat ... if you're eating an interesting, varied diet, then it all falls into place anyway.
You taught households how to cook and how to cook nice, fresh, varied food at home. But now so many people are going to fast food outlets and eating food that isn't varied and so on. What's your feeling about the current situation with what people are eating in Australia?
I think ... I think it's very sad that people are buying ... are going to the fast food outlets. Because basically, there's nothing quicker or simpler than, say, an omelette. But we're being told don't eat more than, you know, two eggs a week, whereas an omelette would be a simple thing to do. But on the other hand, on the positive side, if I'm very tired, I will often put, say, a lovely potato into the microwave oven and prick it with a fork, cook it three minutes one side, three minutes the other side, and I've got a nice ... a nice food. There's a lot of nutrition in just one lovely big potato. There are a lot of ways that people don't have to go to this ... these fast food outlets, and bring the food home. I myself believe that we're getting so much done for ourselves: we don't knit garments so much more, very few people make their own clothes and people are even not mowing their own lawns and what are you going to do with your time? Certainly you can sit back and become a couch potato and watch television. Certainly you can read a book, which is enjoyable. But part of living is learning to look after yourself, learning to care and find that the things like cooking a meal is ... is enjoyment. It's a way to relax. It's a way to get the family around. You can get the kids, you know, peeling the ... shelling the peas. And you can say, 'Stop eating the peas, otherwise we won't have any'. But all of that's a nice thing in a family and I just hope we don't say goodbye to that aspect of living. Because I think it's terrible self-sourcing. You're sourcing back into yourself a joy of living, and what living is all about and that means doing things for yourself: the person and the people that mean most to you. I think it's such a pity to just pick up something from the fast food shop. It's been in a bain marie too long. It's ... it's a whole lot of things are not good about picking up food. But it's not only what you eat, it's your attitude to living. And at the same time I understand, if you're tired and you've had a big day at the office and things have gone wrong, it's so easy to think, oh I'll just pick up this and take it home but that's all right as an occasional meal. But think a little bit how easy it is to cook, and how ... how enjoyable it is. And it's doing more than just providing the family with a nutritious good meal. It's providing the family with a time to be together. Like if you say to one of the little girls, while she's shelling the peas, 'How was it at school?' and she's telling you. It's sort of the interconnection. It is a very, very good thing and I hope we don't give it up totally.
You've been a cultivated person all your life, in the sense that you've loved music and art and read a lot. Do you see cooking as an art?
Oh I don't really think I want to think of it as art. Beyond that I think that art is going to change. I think art has a place in our lives. It's not something we put on our walls, or something that we buy that somebody else has done. Art is living. And yes, cookery is an art if you call it living, because I don't think it's any more special than a painter, a musician, but without the Mozarts, without the Brahms, without them you know, Dalis and ... everything, every art form opens our lives up, our minds up, to something that we haven't seen before. When I've seen, say, exhibitions in the art gallery of say Constable, and then I've been to that country, and I think there it is. And I ... when you see a lot of art it surprises you that you didn't see it that way. So it's helping us to see life, through eyes that are just looking for that. My eyes are looking at food, and I'm hoping - I'd hate to say it's an art form - but it is marvellous to think that other people can see food the way I see it, and give them a bit of joy, just as the great artists, the great musicians, the great dancers, have taught me something about movement and to seeing an aspect of life that's different. Yes, it's an art form if you look at that way. I don't to ... but I think of all art as being, it's just as important as the milkman who brings you milk and you say hello, and the butcher who cuts your meat. And you have a nice ... it's all part of life.
You collect recipes. Do you create them?
I've never thought of myself as creating a recipe. I had a wonderful chef who taught me so much. And I remember saying to him, 'Oh Chef, one day I'm going to create a dish just for you', and he said to me, 'Don't bother. All of the great - great dishes have been created, just learn to make them properly. Just learn to do them'. And I've always thought, rather than think of myself, I suppose it's like a musician as against a composer: a composer composes music, they do that, a musician plays an instrument or produces music. And Chef taught me that I was being quite vain when I thought I would create dishes for him. What I love to do, is to get a recipe for say like quiche lorraine, and get it right. A recipe for veal cordon bleu, but get it right, so that other people can do it. I take pride in the fact that I have taken other people's recipes, you know, great dishes like the Caesar salad. It was a tremendous joy to go to Mexico City and being made this wonderful salad. And I said, 'What is it?' 'Oh, that's the Caesar salad', and I became so interested. And after he'd made this wonderful salad for me, and he appreciated the fact that I appreciated it, he said 'Would you like to meet the man who created the Caesar salad?' and I said, 'I certainly would', and he took me to meet his uncle, who had created the Caesar salad. And the Caesar salad has been bastardised all over the world. People make all kinds of things. If it's got a lettuce, and if it's got a bit of an egg and a bit of anchovy, and now they've got bacon in it, they call it Caesar salad. But to me, getting to know how the true Caesar salad was made, and it was made for ... for ... He was at the San Diego racetrack, and he was missing his brother who was in London, who was missing the lovely bread of Mexico and he went on and he created this very elegant, very wonderful salad. I love to bring that kind of information to people, who think Caesar salad can be a hobnob of anything. And to me that gives enormous pleasure: to get it straight from the horse's mouth, and absolutely as it should be.
Are your friends afraid to cook for you?
Oh, my friends - no, no, because you see, in my circle of friends, we all ... we all respect what the other person does. I've got a friend who's a filmmaker and I love to go to her place, because she'll be telling me what, you know, somebody said on the movie set, or what she was doing. I've got friends who are artists and they're saying, 'Oh, I'm working on this'. We all respect each other's what we do. And so they have ... it's very nice for them to respect me. I feel oh isn't that lovely. You know, they're enjoying my food. I can do something for them and they can do something for me, which ...
Have people ever been worried about whether you'll be sitting in judgement on their food?
Oh yes. People get the funniest notions. I remember a few years ago, I was at a wonderful thing for ... it was a ... I know what it was. It was a ... what do you call it before you get married? A kitchen tea. And at this kitchen tea we were busy, you know, showing our presents and doing what you do at kitchen teas. Every time I went out to get a sandwich or a little cake or something to eat, they would ... the plate would disappear right in front of me, and I'd think I can't get anything to eat. And every time ... every time I went, you know, went to eat something, it was snatched away. I went to the kitchen, and I said, 'Look, I've got to get something to eat. Every time I go to eat something, somebody finishes the food or takes the food', and they all burst out laughing, because everyone had brought a dish to the kitchen tea, and they thought they're not going to let Margaret Fulton taste my - whatever it was - cream puffs. That was a funny occasion, which finally, you know, did sort itself out. But we all laughed and thought how stupid.
Throughout your life so far, what is it that gives you the most reliable pleasure?
I think ... I think I love seeing my daughter, the way she copes with life because I feel that she's got something from me, just as I got something from my mother. I think seeing my grandchildren grow and develop is just an enormous sense of pleasure, to see what a new generation is ... is able to do. And I think when I go shopping and I'm looking over the apples, and somebody will say, 'Oh, what are you buying? What are you going to do with that?' Or if I go to the chicken shop and I buy something, and somebody says, 'What are you going to do about that', or the butcher's shop, you know, it's the lovely little things that happen to me day by day in my daily things, to know that people know me, and also think I'm going to be able to help them. And, you know, it's just that nice interrelation with people. I think that's a good thing too.
When you started in cookery, you were saying earlier, that it was considered to be absolutely one of the most ordinary things you could possibly do, and there was no status attached to it at all. And now, you're getting plaudits and prizes and so on, as this ... as this major talented cook. Do you ever sort of sometimes, when you're mixing with the rich and famous and being praised like this, get a little ... you seem as if you get a little bit surprised to discover where you are.
I think it's ... I think it's marvellous to think that yes, that I chose this career, which really was, as I say, people used to say, 'Oh you're the cook', with a sneer. And I was ... I was an oddity. And to realise that something that I believed in - and I'm not the first person, because there've been wonderful cooks right through history, who have believed in it - but it's marvellous to ... to realise that other people have recognised the importance of food and cooking in our ... in our lives. I was at a big awards last week, in you know, in Adelaide and there were famous people: Claudia Roden, who's brought Middle Eastern and Jewish food to us. There was Madhur Jaffrey, who's brought Indian food, and the exotic things to us. People from all over the world. And here I was being given an award in front of, I suppose, you'd call my peers. But ... and a standing ovation. I can't tell you how it meant more to me than anything, probably because I was there, and what they were saying, I had sort of helped start it. It's just a marvellous feeling to think that you can have faith in something that isn't very popular to begin with. But you have faith in it, and it's grown into such an important part of our lives. And I think, you know, I would say to people, young people, you know if you think something's great and you want to do it, you should do it, because you don't know if it's going to ... what it's going to grow into, and what ... what is going to happen. Just have faith in yourself, and it is important.
Talking and eating in Australia has changed absolutely dramatically in your lifetime and people say that you had a great deal to do with that. What do you think was your real contribution to that revolution in Australian eating habits?
I think my contribution has been that a nice ... you know, because when I was young I was a pretty young thing. Here was a pretty young thing being excited and being enthusiastic and loving and not minding doing something that had been previously considered a chore. I ... because cooking can be a chore, if you're tired, if you're ... if you haven't got much money, if you're worrying how to make ends meet, but when you can cook something differently, it's giving you a lift. I ... I've made people realise that it is fun. You don't have to be at the beach getting a gold suntan, as my contemporaries thought that was the thing to do. You can be in the kitchen making a chocolate cake or a roast dinner, or a something and it's as good. It's a good thing to do. I think I've just given people faith in that. And also, they always say my recipes work, because one of the things, when you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, you're going to give people things that do work, because you know. And that's the thing I have ... the serious thing I've been able to pass on. But I've also, I think, been able to pass on a little bit of like Alice In Wonderland, you know. It's out there and there's exciting things happening. Come with me and we'll go down and see what white rabbit's doing, and we'll see what the Mad Hatter's [doing] It's a little bit of craziness. But I've always felt it fun. And I think I've been able to pass on to women that this thing they had to do, like get a meal for the family at the end of the day, can be like Alice's adventures in Wonderland. It's a little bit of a Mad Hatter's Tea Party sometimes, and it's a little bit of a you know, Queen of Tarts another time. It's just ... I think that they've enjoyed the little journey they've taken with me.
Have you been surprised at the various stages that food's gone through since you began, or did you predict, you know, the Mediterranean revolution and the Asian revolution in cooking?
If I were to think about my book that I wrote in 1968, I did have Mediterranean cooking in that. I did have Chinese cooking, I did have Indian cooking. I knew ... I knew that it was coming, because I was fascinated by it and it was just a matter of telling ... telling people what was going on. Because in my first book, there's quite a big section, at the back of the book, on Scottish food, and, you know, French cooking, and Indian. So yes, I must have predicted it, to have thought of it, going almost thirty years ago.
Margaret, can you tell me when and where you were born?
I was born in Nairn, in the north of Scotland, very near Inverness: lovely highland country, and where some of the best whisky is produced. And it's a lovely ... Yes, it's a lovely lifestyle there.
And who were your parents?
My father was Alexander Fulton. My mother was Isabella Mackenzie Roberts. To ... my father was a very classy tailor. What you call a master tailor. And my mother had also worked as a tailoress. And when they ... they ... I'm told that when my father proposed marriage to my mother, 'Will we ... Will we get married now, or will be buy a business or start a business', mother said, 'Well, I think we should start our business, because our future is going to be that, and could be that and it would be better when we have a family'.
And what did a master tailor do?
Well, what a master tailor did, he made the beautiful riding habits of the hunting, shooting, fishing crowd. He made opera cloaks for the people who went to opera. He made judges robes for the people who were sitting seriously judging. He made those ... those very special garments for those very special activities. He made lovely, lovely, lovely clothes for me. Little ... beautiful little tailored coats with velvet collars. He made those lovely special clothes that the English and the Scots have been, you know, quite famous for.
And what was your mother's life like in Scotland?
Oh, my mother had a very happy life, you know, going to say Paisley, where we had a couple of maiden aunts who used to work at the viola factory and used to do the lovely Paisley things. And she would be going off to buy oddments to come back to make clothes for herself. Father was ... Father and mother were very friendly with the Lord Provost's secretary. That's sort of like the secretary to the Lord Mayor. And they ... But they would be invited because of him, they would be invited to all the grand balls and all the important things that ... that went on in Glasgow. And because they were also interested in ... it was their home and their friends had all grown up. One was the head of a big chocolate ... Cadbury's or Carson's chocolate factory. And they ... among their contemporaries they had a very interesting group of people. Dad was the champion swimmer of Scotland at one stage and they led a lovely life. Mother was going to balls and to the opera. Dad would take her down to London for ... to see the theatre and things like that. She had a lovely life: a lovely mixture of having sisters, family, and doing things for her family, and also having a sort of a ... my father was a good time Charlie, and my mother was a good time Charlie's wife. She ... she enjoyed the lovely things. But she also enjoyed the practical things, and making clothes for the children, and things like that.
How many children did they have?
My mother ... they had six children. Three boys and three girls. And ...
Where did you come in the family?
I was the ... I was the baby. And it was lovely because I ... everyone loved me and I was pampered and adored, and kissed and cuddled and taken for walks and talked to and sang to and ... Let me tell you, it's a lovely ... it's a lovely part to be in a loving family.
Were you indulged? Were you spoiled?
I was spoiled in as much as I was given more love than I knew what to do with or, you know, it was just continuous love. I wasn't spoiled in letting me yell and squawk and do all of the things that you think of in spoilt children. I think I was loved because I didn't yell and squawk but then I didn't have any reason to yell and squawk. So, I think early in life I learnt that when life's going well, you know, and when ... when you've got nice things and caring things around you, life continues to just ... it just grows and gets bigger.
And why did your father decide to come to Australia?
My father ... a business ... a friend of his had come back from Australia, and said, 'Oh, Alec, it's the golden land of opportunity. It's ...', you know. He'd started to ... he'd gone out as a tailor to this little country town, Glen Innes, in the New England district and he's started buying a few sheep. And then he ended up with a whole lot of sheep and he ended up making a lot of money in sheep. But he had this wee shop that he thought my father should come and bring his skills to Australia. So my dad wanted to come ... decided he wanted this adventure. My mother, of course, was saying, 'Oh Alec, please don't. I don't think it will be good for the children. All of our friends are here. All our contacts are here. All our everything is here for a future for our children. But we're going to a country, a land where we know no one', except Walter Riven, who was, you know, the person who had painted this golden picture. It was against mother's judgement to come but father couldn't help thinking of the, you know, terms like the land of opportunity, you know; home on the fleece ... the sheep's back and things like that. He was just ... he was just caught by that.
How old were you when you came out?
Well, I came ... when I came out I was three. So it was 19 ... about 1927.
Do you remember the voyage out?
No, I don't really. I ... I ... Because apparently I was kind of cute and ... well they thought it was cute because when the waiters used to come or the stewards used to come and say, 'What will you have?' And I would always pipe up, 'Fish, please'. So they always thought this was funny, this tiny wee thing wanting fish please. But it was my first ... I suppose it was my first experience with sort of food that was prepared and put in front of me by, you know, a thing like that, and I thought it was lovely to be able to ask for something.
[end of interview]