Australian Biography

Margaret Fulton - full interview transcript

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You're now into your seventies. Are you still working?

Yes, I'm still ... I work on ... I do the pages for New Idea, which is, you know, quite a job. We have ... we have ... we have four photographs to do a week and four dishes to do a week. My daughter also, Suzanne, works on New Idea with me. And then I ... I do another thing. I've got some saucepans, which are lovely, beautiful saucepans and I'm involved with the ... every now and then I have to go and tell women how to use them. It's rather nice, because a lot of the people who buy these saucepans, are I should say, ethnic. They're the people that seem to be prepared to pay quite a lot of money for nice equipment. But what is lovely is to get into their world, and I get to know that in certain areas there are a lot of Muslims and other areas there are Greeks and Lebanese and Turkish, so I get a real feeling of what is happening around Australia through this. And they're ... they're so nice. They're so happy to have someone also, an Australian, to relate to and to talk about ... I like to talk to them about being a modern woman, and about nutrition. I find that these people are tremendously interested in everything that I'm interested in and they're interested in things for the welfare of their families. So it's ... it's nice to be still working at seventy.

Another element of your career over the years has been doing commercial endorsements on television and so on, for various products. How did you ... how do you go about doing that, and how do you decide what to do and what not to do?

I don't do very much involvement with commercial products. I think one of the big companies was Leggo, who were bringing out a tomato paste. And this was something, when I was doing it, that wasn't used a lot in Australian food. We used tomatoes in salads and things like that and we made the odd sauce that a tomato went into. But we were beginning to become interested in Italian food and I ... I thought this was a very good product. And it did a good thing for me, because it also brought ... Italian women began to relate to me. Well, I wrote an Italian cookbook. Some Italians said it was the best Italian cookbook out, you know. But ... and ... and so it's been a two way deal with ... especially with a product like that. And then the came company brought out whole peeled tomatoes, which of course everybody uses today. But they were fairly ... fairly sort of new to Australia when I started sort of talking about these canned, peeled tomatoes. But another product that I went commercial about was the crockpot and the crockpot sales apparently soared more in Australia than in any other country. But again women ... I could see that this crockpot, which was an electric pot that did the same thing as the French daube has done, you know, on the side of the stove, cooking long, slow meals. And at the time that the crockpot came into our lives, it was a time when women were going back to work, and were busy, and they could put a chicken on in the morning, and it would be cooked when they came at night. And they liked that. And the crockpot was really quite a successful period. Apart from that, I really haven't done much commercial. One time, somebody said, 'What about ... what do you feed your dog?' and I did a Pal dog food commercial, but really, that was quite silly, because really I don't think people believed that Margaret Fulton, you know, gave her dog Pal. A lot of people didn't think that I ... see me in relationship to dogs and yet I've always loved dogs and I've had them around in my life. They've played a big part in my life. But it wasn't how I was seen, so that was the least successful thing I've done [compared to] the crockpot and the tomatoe Leggo pastes and things.

And whatever happened to Pure 'n Simple?

Oh yes, I did that once. But there again, it sort of ... yes, it worked. But it ... yes, it didn't go on for long with Pure 'n Simple. That was one ... that I'd forgotten about that.

Did you make much money from the commercials? You know, when you see somebody like yourself doing a commercial, often the thought is, well this must be a good money-spinner for them, so they can get on with other things.

Oh yes. Yes, you can make more in a day doing a commercial. You know, you make a lot of money, yes, that's sure. You know, it gave me money to buy the latest fashions if I wanted them. Or ... you know, something. Yes, you do make a lot of money out of commercials. But on the other hand, I didn't want ... it goes hand in hand with what you're doing. If you're being good at what you really do, and you're known, like a footballer or a tennis player or whatever it is, you've got to be good. You've got to be at the top and you've got to be believable. And you've got to ... so that you can't be making a lot of money out of a commercial product, and not be at the top of what you are doing. And then there has to be a limit too. Or there was in my mind - there had to be a limit to what I would do. I had been asked to do a lot of things, that I would have made a lot of money out of, which I felt wasn't good for my image, as they call it, you know. But I've always been quite ... I've always wanted to balance it out. Yes, I've liked the money but not at the expense of what I considered was going to be a career. You see, I've been able to think. Unlike a tennis player or unlike a swimming star or whatever it is, [where] you know, you've got a time when you're going to be at the top, in my work, the older you get, the better you get.

Now you've also been in food long enough to see lots of trends happening. For example, you were talking about pressure cookers and crockpots and so on. Why do you think there is fashions in food? Where does that come from?

Fashions in food is interesting in that it does change a little bit with the times. Sometimes ... crockpot came in when women were going back to work and could put a meal on, go out to work and come home and get it done. What has taken the place of that long, slow cooking for a crockpot, is people discovering, say, the wok. Now the wok you can cook a meal in something like three or four minutes. But also, for people like the meat people, the Meat & Allied Trades people, or ... they started preparing their meat cuts in ways that could be stir fried very quickly. So women then got to a point where, instead of putting dinner on in the morning, they would drop off at the butcher, and pick up meats that could be stir fried quickly. Pick up vegetables. They were all driving around in cars, and they can pick up the evening meal very, very quickly from the grocer with the butcher next door and come home, and very, very quickly do this stir fry. The other that has happened say with stir frying, men also found they could do it. It was quick and it was easy, and because there were no terms of reference, as you would, say, like a grilled chop, lamb chop, had to be a certain thing. Potatoes that are going to be boiled or done something with, have to be a certain thing. You had a term of reference of how your mother did it. But with stir fries you didn't have - you very seldom had a Chinese mother or a Thai mother or a Vietnamese mother that was going to tell you how it should be. So you started with a fresh idea, and it didn't matter that it wasn't the way it should be because it was ... it ended up being the way you liked it. So men, all kinds of unusual people, started doing the cooking and doing it very quickly and doing it very successfully. It was the food they liked, and the people were telling them, you know the nutritionists are telling you, don't overcook your vegetables, have them crispy and have them this. And we were adding flavours like soy sauce and oyster sauce, and various things that we were a bit unfamiliar with. But we took, we liked the taste of and it gives the food a good ... a good taste. So what has been happening in the community, food changes with the needs and people are beginning to go to a Thai restaurant or a Vietnamese restaurant and they've becoming familiar with a totally different kind of food. And because there is no terms of reference as to how it should be ... there would be if you were a Vietnamese or a Thai, but when you're sort of Australian and have an Anglo-Saxon background, or a Spanish background, or something else, you're just enjoying this beaut food and you're not restricted by traditions, your traditions.

Why do you think it was, that starting out in food, in that period just post-war, that although there were quite a lot of other people who had been home economists - the gas company, had that kind of same start as you did, went into cooking - you were the one that emerged as being able to ride that wave to success?

When I started in cookery, my contemporaries, their proud boast was that they couldn't boil an egg. They ... it was also a time when the Yanks were in town, you know, the GIs, with all their money, and girls were painting their nails, and lovely, red long lacquered nails. And rolling up their hair, and they were going out with Americans. They were getting lovely silk stockings and, oh, it was ... that is what any bright young person was doing when I started. What I was doing was going off to a cooking school. My terms of references, the only silk that came into my life, was I learnt that a sauce had to be smooth as silk, a sauce had to be as light as chiffon. A sauce had to be as rich as velvet. So while these ... while my contemporaries were having a great time with these beaut guys from overseas and getting silk stockings to slip on their lovely legs, I was doing this crazy thing of cooking. But what emerged was, of course, I was left with knowing how to make a ... a ... a sauce. They were left either going back to America, or you know, the Yanks had said, 'Great, good time, goodbye'. So I was left with something more concrete. A lot of the bright people, of my contemporaries, were doing other things. And let's face it, there's many a time Margaret Fulton thought, what are you doing, Margaret? But I sort of got fascinated with food. Nobody else was really getting fascinated with food. They looked ... they thought, Poor Margaret, you know, you're the cook, aren't you? And they'd sort of stiff and sneer a wee bit. I was an oddity. I was an oddity to my friends, to my family because they thought I was quite crazy. When I could have ... when I could have gone off to university, when I could have gone off to America with a Yank or something but I just ... I just did what I wanted to do. But it meant that I was ahead of the other people who didn't think that ... weren't as sold on the fact that they loved food and they wanted ... I didn't know I was making a career of it. I was just happy doing what I was doing.

But there were other cooks, there were other people who were working in cooking. Were they competition? I mean, what kind of people went into cooking in those days, apart from yourself?

When I decided I wanted to cook, or I liked cooking, it wasn't an attractive ... it wasn't an attractive proposition to people. Like, for example, if you were to become a home economist, you were considered that you weren't the brightest. The brightest girls were doing other things. Let's face it, the brightest girls were - apart from painting their nails and catching a Yank's eye - were actually going ... it was the start of going to university, doing courses. We were beginning to get engineers. And the people with real brains were doing the things that ... you know, people with real brains did. The people who were doing what I were doing, were the also rans. You weren't as ... you weren't considered as bright. And very often you weren't. I think that it's just marvellous that it was that way, because it left the ... it left the coast clear for me to sort of rip ahead, because I was sort of half bright, and knew what I wanted to do.

And now of course, the idea of a celebrity cook is not nearly as amazing as it was when you emerged as our first celebrity cook.

Today of course, I've seen the complete turnaround. The ... the chefs for some years, have been the prima donna ... prima donnas of the world. You know, they've lauded it over people. People ... there's chefs in England that are really making a name for themselves, by being rude to their clients. There's chefs that are opening up the most enormous restaurants. The chefs are the most ... among the most lauded people in our society, you know. They're up there and they're making big money. In my days it wasn't that way. A chef still had a sort of a prestige, but only to be used by, you know, the Rothschilds, who ... they ... the Rothschilds employed Michel and Albert Roux, who are very famous in London. But ... and they were respected within people who knew. But a lot of girls who did food, if you said ... somebody might want a dinner party cooked. Well, they would make you go to the back door. You weren't considered a professional person. You were considered back door material. And you were made to be forced into that way. There was no glamour attached to it. Even girls who went to the Cordon Bleu, and in England would be ... to have a Cordon Bleu come and cook your dinner, you ... you realised that they didn't have to wash up, for example. You know, you would have to have someone in for wash-up. In Australia, if you wanted someone to come ... come and do a dinner party, they had to do the washing up, come in the back door and leave quietly. Apart from a few, there were a few women who ... Sue Duvall is a person who came from a very sort of upmarket family in ... in Newcastle and she used to cook for people. And they loved to show that Sue was cooking for them. But there's always been a bit of, in people's minds, until now, 'Oh yes, you're the cook. So you know, keep out of ... just do it and keep out of the way'. Nowadays it's a different story. Even to give my daughter a career in food, sending her to London for two years, sending her to the Cordon Bleu, it was quite an expense. It's quite changed today, and today's ... today's up market chefs, you know, they're lauding ... they really, they walk into a room as though they're cock of the walk, which is a Scottish expression. But they are cock of the walk. They're great. They're doing marvellous things. People have always ... good cooks have always done marvellous things, but they haven't been cock of the walk.

Could you just describe for us what you've seen change in your chosen profession, since you first entered it during the war, or just immediately post-war, was your first job in cooking, wasn't it? Or was it during the war?

During the war.

Yes. Since you entered cooking, during the war, what changes have you seen? Could you characterise in a sort of broad brush way, what you've lived through in terms of the food revolution that's occurred.

Since I've ... in my career, I've seen a cookery person being ... from being someone who went in the back door, really being received on a red carpet at the front door. I've seen the role of the cook grown from something that certainly would be called a trade, to something that is almost now a profession. I've seen the cook, who was disciplined to produce food to a pattern, a dish had to be exactly ... and it was a very, very exacting, an exacting trade. For example, if you were to go to say a restaurant like the Connaught Hotel in London, they make a fruit salad, and it's layers of these beautiful fruits and in the crystal bowl it looks so beautiful. But it ... there's a great deal of skill in doing this. And then for the maître d' or the waiter to serve this ... a serving of this, so that it doesn't become ... you know, all of the pieces of fruit can fall down if it's not done properly. But to see this, the waiter serve that dish, a serving of the fruit salad, and the fruit arranged in the bowl, is still as perfect as when it came out. A lot of the skills, those kind of skills, are being lost. Today's cooks plate food. They put lovely little things on a plate. You might have a pile. They're making towers of things, you know, and it is a skill in doing that. And they put, say, three asparagus spears around. But basically some of the skills are being lost. These ... today's young people are putting exciting new flavours together but sometimes you don't want an exciting new flavour, you want something that has stood the test of time, that has just ... people for generations and generations have loved. And it has stood the test of time because it's jolly good. I've seen the change in ... in ... Some of it's good, some of it's not so good.

In relation to the general eating patterns of the populace, was there good food around, in Australia, before the arrival of post-war migrants?

Oh, of course there was. Because you see a lot of ... a lot of the people who came to our early restaurants - I'm thinking of Prince's and Romano's in Sydney - they were ... they had been top people who had actually come from Europe to get away from a worsening war situation. We had a very, very good backup of ... of ... of these top people, who could really show us the best way of doing things. And then we had other restaurants. We had places like Victor's, where you got the best fish. You know, to go in and get a snapper tail, with an oyster sauce, where the fish was cooked to perfection. We've always had that. We've always had places where top market food ... because there were a lot of wealthy people in Sydney and Melbourne, who wanted, and demanded the best. It was there. It just wasn't in every little street or every little milk bar, that was running a restaurant. But it was there, and it was there to a very, very high refined degree. You know, we had French wool buyers. Australia was leading the world with lovely fine merino wool. And French wool buyers were out here. They were bringing the sophistication of Paris to here. They were often stationed here and they were demanding this lovely food. So yes, it was here.

And when did things start changing in what was happening in household cooking?

Well, say if you talk about ... when I one time drove down, going to Wollongong, and it's ... it's sort of down in the valley and then down ... The wave of, what do you call it? A roast lamb dinner, it just hit me. Probably every household was making a roast lamb dinner on a Sunday. Dad would be out washing the car, because they would have been going for a drive afterwards. The kids would have been playing with a hose but everyone was having a roast lamb dinner at one o'clock on ... on a Sunday. That doesn't happen any more. If you go to, say, things like the fish markets, people ... some people were buying things like squid. You could buy squid for practically nothing. The Italians were buying the squid, because Australians, frankly, didn't want to know anything about it. We knew that a lovely snapper was the thing we wanted. Now, of course, we know that squid's good. And we know that it's cheap. And it's getting less ... getting less cheap as ... but we had sort of ... Australians were beginning to be introduced to other ... other foods from the ... from our early people who were coming here. When I say [early], not all that early, but the Italians ... and they knew that the squid was jolly good. They knew that ... I think there's a funny story about someone seeing horse meat in a ... in a pet shop window, and they bought this horse meat, and they couldn't believe the luxury of having horse meat, and doing a carpaccio, which is very thin slices of this lovely meat, which Australians ... Australians now won't eat horse, but gradually we were introduced to different foods and different ... but what we had was very good. We overcooked our lamb, because we had to. We didn't have refrigeration and if you, if you cook a lamb sort of pink, it goes off the next day unless it's kept in refrigeration. Lamb has to be well cooked. Some of the things we did, you know, weren't done so well. And yet now, we know that long, slow cooking of a lamb is a ... a leg of lamb is a lovely way to go and we're actually going back to long slow cooking, as a wonderful way of enjoying food, rather than the pink lamb that we ... that we could do with the very young lamb. But you can't do it with our older lamb, which isn't so nice. We're learning an awful lot in Australia, from our French chefs, from our ... from our tourists. No. What I'm talking about? I'm getting tired now.

Yes, I think we'll stop.

[end of tape]

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