“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”
The famous quote from French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin provides the guiding principle for the State Library of Victoria’s major new exhibition, Gusto! A Culinary History of Victoria.
Gusto! charts Victorian cuisine from first contact and early colonial years, through two World Wars and numerous immigration waves, to the foodie fixated present. It explores who Victorians were, and who we thought we were, by examining what and how we ate.
It’s perfect timing for an exhibition about our culinary past. As curator Tracey Judd Iva points out, “There are huge volumes of recipe books being released and sold,” and despite other economic uncertainty, “Victorians are spending more on eating and drinking out than ever before, more than 40 percent of our weekly wages go on restaurants, takeaway food and bars.” Not to mention the myriad food-themed TV shows on every channel, every night.
Judd Iva moved from country NSW to Melbourne to study and like many she remembers having exciting new food experiences in multicultural Carlton, at the Queen Victoria Markets and later in Melbourne epicurean establishments like Stephanie’s, Mietta’s and Maxim’s – all of which feature in the exhibition.
One of Judd Iva’s personal favourites from the show is a collection of rare menus from these and many other Melbourne restaurants, recently donated to the State Library by Rita Erlich – food critic and inaugural editor of The Age Good Food Guide. Did they bring back any memories? “Yes, definitely,” says Judd Iva, “they’re so wonderfully eighties, so excessive, soexpensive.”
But Victorians weren’t always such foodies. Other highlights from the show include hand-written cookbooks, which list recipes for scones alongside cures for snake bites, The Romance of Cheese and other recipe books of dubious quality, a huge range of original Vegemite jars dating from 1923, and an actual army biscuit from WWI. It’s not entirely clear whether the biscuit’s astonishing longevity is the work of the library’s skilful conservation team or its teeth-shattering ingredients.
As part of Gusto! the State Library will also be hosting several tasty tours and talks.
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