Australian Biography

Margaret Fulton - full interview transcript

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What exactly did you do in your job at J. Walter Thompson?

When I started, I was copy writing and I was directing food accounts but at that period, television came, and I was there for the first day on ... on television. I think we were doing the Australian Women Weekly. We had that account and then Bruce Gyngell went on with a show called Name That Tune and I got involved with that. I had to go along for some reason. So ... but we did ... we did get into, then, television, which meant then we had to do the food for, you know, Kraft slices of cheese, and Kellogg's - throwing Kellogg's Cornflakes into bowls, and things like that and making sure that the television ... that the images that you saw, were lovely.

And what, for your longer term career, do you feel that you really got out of that period, working in advertising?

It ... it was a funny period, working at J. Walter Thompson's, because I was called a woman executive and it was in the days they didn't have women executives except I was one. And when they started bringing people in to do television, people like Paul Jacklyn, who had been very famous for doing radio, Lux radio something or other. And then we brought a German filmmaker in, Hans Von Adlerstein and he was very much the von and very much the German, and he resented very, very much that this woman was an executive, and he was, you know, doing the film. And I used to have to put rice ... corn flakes and rice bubbles into these bowls for the film we were doing and one time I got to ... to ... I was at the studio, and we had rice bubbles to put in the bowl. Now if it had been corn flakes, I would have understood that I had to be there because you had to find the biggest corn flakes to put in the bowl, but with rice bubbles - a rice bubble ... they're nearly all the same size. And I got a telephone call, and I was called away and they said - oh, it was a friend on the phone - 'Margaret, we ... we want you to ... to come to Woman's Day. We want you to ...'. I said, 'Look, I'm very happy in my job', and then I heard this German voice booming, 'Where's Margaret Fulton?' I had left a perfectly capable person, a home economist of great repute, to put these rice bubbles in the bowl and I thought she was quite capable of that, as would any ... anyone be. But he kept on bellowing for Margaret Fulton. And I [am saying], 'No, I'm really very happy where I am', and then this, a bellow would come: 'Come back, I need you to put these rice bubbles in the bowl', and I thought what is this ... this stupid man? And I said, 'Look, I'll come and see you next week'. But next week ... and they were very, very thrilled. And I thought I don't want anyone bellowing at me. He may be a German count and he may be a brilliant filmmaker, but I ... I didn't think it needed me to put rice bubbles in a bowl. So I said, 'Goodbye'.

And you went back to being?

I went back to women's magazines, which was the most exciting period. The editor of Woman's Day was very, very interested in food and I was able to do the most amazing ... They thought I was marvellous. They ... they told the world that they'd got Margaret Fulton and Margaret Fulton was going to do these marvellous things for them. And Margaret Fulton did a lot of lovely things for them. But I was only back there a couple of weeks. I'd met Elizabeth Riddell in the ... in the street, and she had said, 'Don't you go. You watch that somebody or other', because she had pinched her husband at one time and she said, 'Watch this woman', so I went in and watched this woman, and this woman was sort of gunning for me and I thought oh, I don't want any nonsense. So I went and said to the editor, 'I'm sorry, I've made a mistake. I can't ... I don't want to have troubles', and she said, 'Look Margaret, why don't you go away for a week and come back'. And I went up and I read Michener's Hawaii under a plum tree at that Hawkesbury River. And I came back refuelled and I realised this woman, who was twenty years older than me, wasn't going to pinch my husband. And I realise, thinking back in my life, how often, you know, this ... this sex thing, and pinching other people's husbands and boy friends, raises its head but it does, I dare say. So I went back to the job, and anything I wanted I had. And it was lovely because I could also ... they didn't think that every item, or every ingredient that I mentioned had to be at the local corner shop. It could be ... My editor believed that people could search around, and you know, take a bit of trouble to find something, as was true. Australian women just, you know, would go to any lengths to produce a great dish and get out of the boredom of cooking the same food day in, day out, year in, year out, you know. Women responded to that and, of course, it was lucky that I was given this wonderful job of telling them how to enrich and enliven and have fun and enjoy cooking.

Who was the editor of Woman's Day at that time?

The editor, at that time, was Joan Reeder who was just, I must say, a most marvellous editor. You know, I've worked with good editors and I've worked with bad editors and you ... you can only be as brilliant as your editor. If you've got a rotten editor, your pages are not going to be good. I mean, because even Elizabeth David gets ... used ... she wrote in her ... one of her books, how they used to edit her copy and change copy. And when you've got a good editor, it's just wonderful.

What are the ingredients of a good editor for you? I mean, what did she do for you that was particularly important for you at that time?

A good editor has faith in you. A good editor employs you because they think you're the best and a good editor knows that when it comes to what subjects you choose, and how you present it, that's what ... that's what they're paying you for. See, a lot of editors think they know better than you. I've had editors who have told me, you know, what to do to the most minute detail. I've had a recent thing of doing a Melbourne Cup that had to be a picnic and I said, 'We don't do picnics for Melbourne Cups', and they said, 'But we want a picnic'. But I said, 'They're only Melbourne people [who] take a picnic and then only a few'. You know, it was telling me. It's like telling your grandma how to suck eggs, you know. A good editor doesn't do that.

The women's magazines were extremely strong during this period in the fifties and sixties. Why do you think that ... what do you ... What need do you think that the women's magazines generally were meeting in the community at that time?

Women's magazines can be very good. Women's magazines can tell you ... for example, a woman's magazines told my sister how to finance her house. She had ... how to get a war service loan. It told you things like if you had something ... I have a friend whose daughter had ears that stuck out and I said to the editor ... the editor was saying you could have your ears pinned back. And so I said to this mother, 'You know, look, you can have your ears pinned back', and, you know, it was a pity Prince Charles mother hadn't sort of read this article. He could have had his ears pinned back. But a women's magazine can be ... can be informative about all kinds of things like that as well as letting you get into fantasy land. There's nothing lovelier than sitting back in bed reading the cookery pages and what ... you know, what you cooked for the Shah of Persia, or something. And I remember having this recipe for when Cleopatra was being made with Elizabeth Taylor and Burton and somebody said, 'We should do a Cleopatra cookbook'. So I thought, right, and I did this and created these marvellous dishes, from ... from proper sources. I was meeting people around Sydney who were saying, 'Oh, I made that marvellous Cleopatra's rice', and ... and I thought, oh my gosh, it wasn't really meant for cooking. It was meant for reading. But of course, they did cook it, and it did work, and it was marvellous. I think ... I think women ... women and people love magazines, because you're reading ... you know, it is a touch of fantasy. It can be reality. It's got ... but the information has got to be right, whether you're telling people how to pin their ears back, or how to make the Cleopatra's famous rice, you know. And that's what I think is lovely about women's magazines. I think today they've got far too much gossip of what's happening and a whole lot of silly things but a good magazine, women can learn a lot from.

And so you saw the practical side of the magazine, as really its ultimate and reliable selling point?

No, I saw the practical side of women ... there is a practical side of women's magazines, but there is side by side is fantasy. You know, lovely clothes and lovely perfumesand if you're seventy you can still see what the girls of twenty are doing. You know, it's just a ... [the] practical thing is one thing, but don't forget we all live in this wonderful world of swinging, you know, from fantasy to security to service. It's got to be ... you've got to enter into a woman's mind and a woman's mind is not just being practical. It's looking for that elusive quality of fun of fantasy, whatever it is.

Was this the secret of why you, as a cookery editor, became so much more prominent than all the others? What was the secret of what you did in those women's pages that made everybody know your name?

I think, I could ... when I answer the ... when I sort of think about what made people like what I did, when I was approached by Paul Hamlyn to do my first book, I said, you know, what ... because I was very sophisticated and I knew everything, and I'd written for markets. I knew about marketing. I said, 'What market will I write it to?' and this very nice book editor said to me, 'Margaret, if you write for yourself, if it's going to be a success, it'll be a great success. If you ... if you write for a market, you don't know'. So when I wrote my first book, I was writing it for my daughter, who was seventeen, going on eighteen. I was writing it for my Irish husband. I was writing it for my Scottish grandfather ... father, who was living with me. I was writing for - right across the barrier. Right across, yes, the barrier. I'm thinking of a starting barrier. I was writing for myself, if I were having a dinner party. I wanted to know what the kind of foods I would have for a dinner party. We were beginning to cook Chinese. I wanted to have a Chinese section. I also had been to Spain. I wanted to tell them how you made a Spanish paella, [how] you made gazpacho. So it was a book for everybody in my family and I think that my family would be typical in different ... in different degrees, with a lot of families. And I think it appealed, as I ... as I say, to the many faceted sides of being a woman, or a person.

And that what you did with the book was a continuation of some of the thoughts that you'd worked through when you were cookery editor?

Yes, well I was cookery editor of women's magazines. I always ... I was always entranced by that one minute you were quite happy to curl up with baked beans on toast, and another minute you were dreaming of caviar with a vodka chaser, you know. It's because I've been a kind of a dreamer, but a practical dreamer. I think ... I think what we've got inside us is a great ... it's a marvellous potpourri of ... well, not just the one person. We are a lot of people and it's all packed in this one little skin and it's ... it's going to emerge. It's like if you have a pimple on your face, something's erupting, or if you've got a toothache, or your body is, you know, doing different things. And I think you never know when a bit of it's going to pop out. I think it's because I didn't think that cooking was a straight laced affair. Where you got in and you did things. I know there are rules, and once you learn the basics of cookery, everything falls in place and it is much better to observe the rules. But I often break the rules with cookery. And I regret ... I live to regret it. You know, you think oh I won't bother doing this, I'll take a shortcut, and it doesn't work. But then if I weren't the kind of person that took a shortcut, I wouldn't get to the kind of ... you know, I wouldn't be the kind of person I am. I think we don't always stick to the rules. And the same thing goes with cookery. But writing the pages, I think I ... I have always recognised that I'm a very typical woman, with my feet on the ground - and like a lot of other women - and my head in the sky. And somewhere between there's a chord that you can strike. [INTERRUPTION]

How did you come to write your first cookery book?

My first book really was quite an exciting experience for me, because I had different ideas of what the first book should contain and I was told, you know, 'Margaret, if you write a book for yourself' - like the Victorian ladies used to do journals, you know, for their home - 'If you write it for yourself, if it's going to be a success, it will be a huge success. But it should be something you believe that you want', and of course that was easy. Paul Hamlyn had come out from England, and he was one of the most innovative publishers of all times. He'd had ... he'd had a lot of experience of publishing in Czechoslovakia, where they were doing colour printing and he had the idea that this book should be colour on every page, or almost every page. or photographs on every page. And Australians hadn't had that. So I was ... here I was just with an open book ... an open book to write, you know. And open, empty pages to fill. At first I didn't know where you started, and I said to the book editor, you know, 'Where do you start?' And she said, 'At the beginning'. Well the beginning for me was well, we'd begun to understand that you had little things to eat before dinner. So I wrote about hors d'oeuvre, and the ... the little canapés, and the little things that I'd seen around. But that hadn't been part of my life. When I got on to the next chapter, when I got on to soups, for example, it was just lovely, because I had my mother's soups to ... to remember. And Mother had very strict things about barley went into, you know, a lamb soup, because that was a Scotch sort of broth and rice went with chicken soup, and she was quite strict about her soups. And then I had been to the food school, where I was learning the more sophisticated soups. But it was a lovely chapter to get me going on because it was a subject I loved, and it was a subject I knew a lot about. And I had a lot of background in, so I went on. And then it ... when it came to a chapter say, on eggs and cheese, where I did sort of make a big breakthrough was ... we were making quiche, quiche lorraine was big in those days. But the recipe had always said for a quiche you had four ounces of butter and eight ounces of flour in the pastry. But we were getting ... we were beginning to get the little French flans. A lot of the importers were bringing in these nice little things. Before, people had made quiche in any old thing: a pie dish, or ... and the pasty was thick and the pastry was soggy. Whereas for my recipe for quiche, I got the quantity of pastry that had to go into it, and then the quantity of filling. And I did tell people that while quiche ... they thought ... everyone had the idea that quiche was ham or bacon, and cheese, and then a sort of a custard, I told them that the quiche ... the real quiche lorraine didn't have the bacon and bits in it. But then I said but this is the one we like and then we did variations. But for the first time people then were able to make a quiche that had just the right amount of pastry because I said, in the bottom of the recipe, this mightn't seem like much pastry, but it's ... it's quite enough to give the quantity that you need for this. And that was, in a way, a breakthrough because it was a cookery person understanding that if a woman was at home and had a big lump of pastry, she thought it all had to go in and then it would be too thick. So I began to know how it was and then bring the recipes accordingly. From this sort of thing, I got the reputation. People said, 'Oh Margaret Fulton's recipes work. They work every time'. And that was my ... that went on through the book. We went ... when it came to roast chicken, I wrote about how you roast a chicken. And then my sister, who had come back from living in France, they didn't always stuff a roast chicken and sometimes they did other things to it, and they cut it up, and sautéed it. Until that time, roast chicken in Australia was a plump, round bird with legs and everything. Not [the] head, because that was a Chinese thing. But it always was the same shape. But I sort of said, now cut the legs off a chicken and cut the breasts. And we ... we learnt to sauté chicken. And that was a big ... an enormous breakthrough, that a chicken wasn't just always this round thing.

Did that affect then what you could get in a butchers' shop, as a result of what you were writing you could do? I mean, could you buy breast fillets in butchers' shops in those days?

It's very hard for us nowadays to realise, you know. Lord Byron, for example one time, he doesn't like dining with women, because they eat the best ... they like the best bits of the chicken, too. He wanted the best of the chicken, which incidentally was the parson's nose. So every chicken that was served, you know, previously, had one parson's nose. What happened as a result of this - and not as a result of this, as a result of the whole poultry industry - but you can go out today and you can buy ... I mean Lord Byron would have been so happy. He could have bought 200, or 2,000 parson's noses and had them all to himself if he'd wanted it. But in those days it wasn't ... it did start the poulterers realising that people weren't very good at cutting up chickens. So yes, they started selling chicken breasts and chicken legs. And to a day now, if you want ... people are doing things like chicken wings, where, you know, at a barbecue you are always being passed around delicious little morsels, which are chicken wings. But in those days, when you bought a chicken, you had a chicken. So there were two wings and there were two ... two of everything and one of something else. But it was, it was a big breakthrough in Australia, to be telling people to cut up a chicken and have just breasts. Or do something quite different about it. And it was quite exciting in that way. The whole book went on in that vein. I told how to cook a big rump of beef because ... I told to people how to boil an egg. Basically, I was thinking if my daughter needs to know something, she can look in the book and it'll be there. If my husband, my Irish husband wants, you know, something Irish, it will be there. If ... there'll be some highland dish for casserole for my dad. And then, yes, for me there would be the nice things that I would be wanting for dinner parties. And ... and when I saw me, I realised that in writing the book for my family, it was writing the book for a lot of families because there was something ... there was something in it for everybody. I think ... I think the Australians responded to this enormous excitement that I was feeling about food and they were feeling it too.

So you were translating in fact what professional cooks were doing, and the way food was moving, into something that could be done in the family kitchen?

That's right. Yes ... in ... in my book ... in that first book, it was quite revolutionary because I was learning from my French friends, how the French did it. I was ... Then, at that point I was also learning Greek dishes. I was also travelling a lot. So I would go to a country and I would be introduced to the best cooks and the best dishes. So I would come back to Australia knowing that in Greece, for example, if it were ... a lot of ways with mince meat I was talking about - I knew how the Greeks would use a mince meat and I would, I would put it into ... I would do dolmades. I would do what you had at a nice little luncheon. You know, I would be rolling up little vine leaves, where were ... the Greeks ... the Greek community knew about them but the rest of Australia didn't know how to do these things. So I was really bringing the world to Australia: the professional cooks' world and also the domestic cooks' world. Because Australia had been starved. Of course, the whole world had been starved of the international feeling about food because of the war, because of the Depression, the world Depression and a world war. It had cut everybody off. They had other things on their mind. So when they ... when we began to get back to living, you know, fulfilled and normal lives, there was an enormous search and interest in the well being of the family, the home, the interest in cooking. And I was there at that right time, and I could bring a lot of lovely things, like cream caramel, and making a proper custard. And you know, I had learnt to make a proper custard from my mother, but I also learnt the little things. I was meeting a lot of interesting people, who were giving me a lot of interesting information.

Was your international travel to do with working as a cookery editor, or was it private?

My ... I was very fortunate. Just as the world was opening up on many things, airline companies were beginning to take flights ... new flights to new destinations, people were beginning to manufacture in Finland, in ... in Scandinavia, in Germany, in France, in Switzerland. They were beginning to make ... in Switzerland they were making lovely copper outside, and lovely stainless steel inside pans that were being used in the restaurants that were burgeoning right throughout the world. They wanted me to come and see their beautiful cookware. In Germany, they wanted me to see how marvellous their knives were. So I would be invited by these various people. It was always ... it was always really terribly exciting, because I was seeing what was happening in this wonderful excitement post-war [period], of people developing new things, and new designs. And I would be invited. I found that travel made me dizzy, so I used to say I only travel first class. And then I learnt to travel ... because I actually got ... I didn't like travelling at the back end of the plane. I learnt that very quickly. I think I've always been a fast learner. But it was lovely to go to these places and be celebrated. I was invited to Spain to ... by the Spanish ... Spanish olive oil industry and they gave me a gorgeous little spray brooch of olives and they'd given the first one to the Spanish dictator's wife. I thought it was a little sort of emblem thing, and when I used to leave the Spanish olive oil people, I'd take it off and stick it in my bag. And then somebody, when I got back to Australia, 'Your brooch Margaret, let me see it', and I delved in my bag, and they said, 'Margaret, that's three valuable emeralds in the shape of the olive branch. And platinum;. And it ... they had given me this brooch. I mean it was just so ... such an exciting period because I was one of the food writers to be feted in that way and the advantage was, of course, that I was learning straight from the horse's mouth: what was the best equipment, what were the best food, what were the food trends and also, what the good cooks of each country were doing. So immediately, of course, I was telling the women in Australia and they seemed to lap it up and love to know what ... what I was doing next.

So your period as a cookery journalist really provided you with wonderful research for this first book.

For the first book, and for forthcoming books, too. The first book, yes, I'd already been doing quite a bit of travel at that time. And the first book, too, it was ... it was at a very timely time, if such a thing can happen. But people were starved, as I say, after the Depression and the war. They were starved. And cooking, I know, if you're doing the same thing, day in, day out, it becomes a chore. What makes cooking so exciting for a woman - in those days, a woman at home - is to enter into someone else's world. And actually do it. Sometimes not very well, but that's irrelevant. They got ... everyone gets better the second time they make it and the third time they make it. But they became familiar, and it was an excitement that was brought into women at home, who otherwise could have been quite bored with a lot of the ... a lot of the cooking that had gone on. There was something very good about the food that had gone on before. But doing it day in, day out, and just getting better at it, wasn't all that much of a buzz for women. What was a real buzz, and a real interest, was to be able to say to the family, 'Oh, look, we're going to have a Spanish paella tonight', and, 'Look, and Margaret Fulton says...'. I mean I'm only quoting this because I've heard, 'Margaret Fulton says you do this', and you know, whatever Margaret Fulton said. It sort of ... it was a lovely. It was a lovely time for both me and also my readers.

In publishing terms, how successful was the book?

Oh, that book, it was ... it was amazing. My ... Paul Hamlyn ... I think the first print run was going to be something like 10,000, which was exceptional and then they kept on getting orders and it went to 20,000 and it went to 30,000 and then it went to 40,000.

This was before it was even out?

This was before ... this is while they're still printing. And then finally it got to about 80,000, and they said, 'We've got to stop here because we've never sold 80,000 books ... cookery books, you know, by a first time author'. And, however, they did. And I ... I remember, I'd go into a store like Myer's, which was Farmer's in those days and there was a queue of people from ... to get their books autographed, outside the ... outside the shop, and right down the street and turning around the corner. Everyone said, 'Margaret, there's people there queued up around for blocks'. Everyone just was so excited about it and it was just so amazing. The ... the kind of faces that would come. Some society queen would come up and then next door would be somebody from, you know, come in from little ... some suburb or some place. It was just a most amazing time for me, to think that ... because when I'd written the book, I thought, oh it'll be lovely. I'll write it and when I'm having a blue day, I can go in and I'll see it up there and I'll think to myself, well I wrote that book. You mightn't know it, but I wrote that book. So it was ... it was ... I couldn't believe what was happening.

Success really took you by surprise?

Oh, absolutely. I'd ... Because I'd always enjoyed doing things, and I knew that people were with me, because I knew that from the circulation of the magazines. They've always got survey people going on, and they can tell what works and what doesn't work and I was working. So I knew that I was working. But I didn't realise how hungry people were for this kind of excitement that they could cope with and that they could take into their own homes, and transfer to their own lives. Yes, I was totally ... I was totally taken by surprise. I was even more taken by surprise when the cheques started arriving. That was quite a ... I sort of hadn't realised that ... when I got my first cheque, I thought oh, what am I going to do with it? And my friend said, 'Oh Margaret, you could buy a refrigerator', because I'd had an icebox. You know, an icebox with a block of ice. The ice man used to come every morning and the ice kept all the food cold, and dripped down. And I used to take the thing out of the bottom. And everybody said, 'Well Margaret, you can an ice ... you can buy a refrigerator', and I thought, is that I'm working for?

What year was this?

Oh, '68.

In 1968 you still had an ice chest. That was unusual.

Well, I hadn't much money. And also I was ... you know with refrigeration, I ... I ... I was able to keep my food cool and just the temperature I liked it and I was able to keep my bottle of milk fresh and so I didn't really need a refrigerator. But the thought that all of this marvellous money that had come into my life was going to buy essentials, which I really didn't need I didn't think. There was a wonderful exhibition of Scandinavian art came to Australia. I had helped select it actually. I'd been to Finland. And this beautiful bird in the running position. And I ... I ... I'd visited his studio. It had come out to Australia.

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