“Then, and only then, could we move on to something sweet.” Finding your place, knowing your place and keeping your place in familial and social realms, through food.

Jacqui Newling, Sydney Living Museums

Paper presented to SAG 22 November 2018

This paper was prepared on Gadigal and Wangal lands. The places in Sydney Living Museums’ care are on Aboriginal lands. Sydney Living Museums acknowledges the First Nations Peoples, the traditional custodians, and pays respects to the Elders, past and present, and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“The rules had been set long before I came to the district, but [it] was made sure that I understand them! …
“The tea parties commenced at 3.30 sharp; always on Wednesday afternoons

everyone would have to take their turn. The hostess’s husband would remain present until he had drunk one cup of tea and would then retire to leave the ladies discussing important matters … The ritual of the food served and the order in which it was served was important and is interesting.

“First of all there was plain bread and butter, thinly sliced, always white, and thinly spread. One could comment on the quality of the butter, it was all home-made, and also comment about the bread if that was also home-made.
“The bread and butter was followed by cucumber or tomato sandwiches in season. Next came sandwiches with a meat filling. If a sheep had been killed the previous day, as was often the case, brain sandwiches were preferred. They were a delicacy and had to be enjoyed. Some sort of dry biscuit, or small cakes with currants or raisins, such as a rock cake, were optional next.

“Then, and only then, could one move on to something sweet.

“Sandwiches, with a filling of perhaps raspberry, blackcurrant jelly, or even fig jam came next. Jams and preserves were made by everyone. Scones straight from the oven came next, with butter only! They were followed by a tart or slice with chocolate or sugar-icing. Only then could you have what you were waiting for – a slice of fruit cake, thinly cut.

“Finally came the pièce de résistance, the sponge cake. It would have been made by the maid or the cook. All the cousins were expected to ooh and aah over its quality and presentation, and they always did. It would be decorated with passion-fruit icing, with a circular slice cut in the middle, kept for the boss, and equal segments already cut, one for each guest.

“After tea, as guests were leaving, they would be shown around the garden, and would take, with permission, any cuttings that took their fancy, and collect any pot plants they might have arranged to exchange.

“The ritual [would] be repeated the following week, elsewhere …”

Barcoo Rot and other recollections of Jean Thomas (nee Bertram). 
Edited by Bertram Thomas from an oral history transcript 1982. B.M. Thomas. 2005.

Whether orchestrated as forms of social expression, expectation, aspiration, necessity or expediency, ritualised and performative culinary practices and routines demonstrate ways in which women expressed, organised and distinguished themselves domestically and socially, as cooks, hosts, guests, friends, family providers and community members. Some women adhered or conceded to social norms and expectations, while others openly defied them. This paper draws from family memoirs ─ such as the one above ─ and oral histories, supported by manuscript recipes and community cookbooks, to present four short comparative examples, where food and cooking are forms of self-expression and identity in the home and wider community. Representing women of different social standings and economic means in regional and urban Australian households in the first half of the 20th century, they demonstrate some of the ways in which women created and maintained their place in their homes, communities and broader society through the rituals of cooking, eating and sharing food in the domestic realm.

Jean Thomas, ‘North Down’, northern Tasmania, circa 1927

The extract that begins this paper is taken from a memoir by Queensland-born Jean Thomas (nee Bertram), who moved from “the mainland” to “North Down”, a rural property (now a suburb) in northern Tasmania, as a newlywed in the 1920s. She was in her late twenties, and the ‘rounds’ of afternoon teas no doubt helped her find her place in the community ─ or perhaps intimidated her into finding one. It is not evident from Jean’s memoir whether she reciprocated in her own home, and if she did, how she faired, but clearly she was expected to adhere to these strict and well-established rules of engagement if she was to be adopted into this social circle. Jean lived in the area until her death in 1989 and includes no note of rebellion in her memoir, so presumably she complied. But her account gives us a glimpse of what was important to women in this place in time, and interestingly and somewhat unusually, shows the place of men in the domestic social setting.

Jessie Catherine Thorburn with her four unmarried daughters at Meroogal, around 1915 / photographer unknown. Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection Call number 44951. © Sydney Living Museums


Meroogal, near Nowra on the New South Wales south coast, was built in 1885 for the four unmarried Thorburn sisters, Belle, Georgie, Kate and Tottie, and their widowed mother, Jessie. The house, complete with many of its contents passed down through generations, is now preserved as a museum under the auspices of Sydney Living Museums.

Genteel but not wealthy, the Thorburn women were active members of the local community. Many of their domestic and social rituals revolve around food and cooking, to which the family cookbooks – published and handwritten compilations that remain in the house – attest. The women kept chickens for eggs, enjoyed fruit from a small orchard on a neighbouring block, and vegetables from a kitchen garden tended by their Chinese gardener, George, who lodged in quarters at the rear of the house, and took care of heavier tasks such as chopping wood or lumping coal. The sisters would rise early to attend to their chores before breakfast – often baked apples in winter – so that their days could be spent in more leisurely and social activities.

Along with more general or spontaneous socialising, once a month on a Monday afternoon they hosted an ‘at home’ tea party. No invitations were sent out. Family and friends – the local church minister, doctor, solicitor and police magistrate and their wives – knew to come at the designated hour. The sisters rose early as usual, to complete their household chores and baking regime to be ready for their guests in the afternoon. A table was laid with an array of homemade specialties, and the best tea service and prettiest china were used.

Between them the sisters compiled an extensive collection of treasured recipes – some of them passed on by friends or family members – recorded in various hands on loose pieces of paper or jotted down in any blank space in published cookbooks.

“Signature” recipes were contributed to community and church fundraiser cookbooks, and a number of them were compiled in a series of repurposed ledger books by their niece Helen Macgregor, who moved in to Meroogal to care for her aunts as they aged. One of these ledgers is accessible online. The ledgers contain little pearls such as “always make [shortbread] on a cold day”, and that when castor sugar is needed one could “run [regular] sugar through [the] mangle between strong paper or cloth”. In the fruit cake recipe from Nurse Porteus the need for austerity is evident with the assurance added: “no one ever suspects the dripping” (I cannot concur; perhaps at the time, when people’s palates were more accustomed to dripping, but not when our museum volunteers tried to replicate it). Most recipes are attributed to their original sources – Aunt Kate’s shortbread, Tottie’s wedding cake, Mrs Nisbett’s ginger cake, Mrs Gaffney’s date and nut cake (Tamworth).

Recipes such as these are testament to food historian Colin Bannerman’s observation that:

            “[A good cook’s] reputation would really depend on her cakes, pies and biscuits ─ the      things she would present to callers at afternoon tea or bring to parish suppers; the    food of friendship and celebration. These were the recipes she would trade.”[i]

They may have been symbols of prowess and pride, but exchanging recipes was (and still is) also a way for women to build and maintain relationships and preserve memories. We’re not sure which Mrs Gaffney it was from Tamworth in northern NSW who provided the date and nut cake recipe, but local newspaper searches have told us that Mrs Nisbett moved to the equally distant Glen Innes when her husband was transferred there as police magistrate.

Meroogal sponge recipe, date unknown. Note there are making instructions. © Sydney Living Museums


Taking pride of place on the tea table was the ‘Meroogal sponge’, served perfectly plain, without filling or icing. There are several iterations of it in the family’s recipe collection, and you can see a video of family descendant June Wallace making it in the Meroogal kitchen here.

A sponge cake can these days be purchased for five dollars at a supermarket, and in our current times of friands, macarons and cream cannoli it is hard to imagine impressing one’s guests with a plain sponge. As historian Beverley Kingston reminds us, today a sponge is a “mere vehicle for elaborate fillings”, but traditionally “the real pleasure of the sponge [is] its crisp outside and light as a feather inside”.[ii] And if we take a moment to think about how the cake was made, we develop a different appreciation of such a simple item.

Tottie and Kate would make the cake together, Tot beating the egg yolks and sugar (with a fork probably, but later, according to an annotation in one recipe, a rotary beater is recommended), while Kate whisked the egg whites on a dinner plate with the blade of a large dinner knife. This required a minimum of twenty minutes, according to family reports. In the current age of Mixmasters and KitchenAids, this technique for whipping egg whites is a lost art, but it was employed by cooks well into the 20th century.

The way we value foods has altered with modern conveniences. We still commend the gesture of home-baked treats, but they take on even greater meaning when we consider the personal investments of time and effort that were once involved in making a plain sponge with eggs from home-raised chickens and cooked in a fuel stove. The Meroogal sponge was a symbol of care and generosity for those it was to be shared with.

Nina Terry (nee Rouse), Rouse Hill, NSW, 1890s – early 1900s

Rouse family and friends taking tea in the garden at Rouse Hill House – Bessie and Edwin Stephen Rouse, seated; Nina, standing left, Kathleen, centre. Photographer, Dudley Batty, 1894. Original image courtesy Caroline Rouse Thornton.

Nina Terry was born into the well-to-do Rouse family in 1875. She married Samuel Terry in 1895. Her family home is now a museum, known as Rouse Hill House & Farm, housing the possessions left in place by five generations of Rouses and Terrys.

Nina’s mother, Bessie Rouse (nee Buchanan), was an avid entertainer and enjoyed the benefits of a dedicated and accomplished cook, Kate Joyce, who “reigned supreme” in the kitchen, according to a family memoir. Kate had previously cooked for Bessie’s mother, preparing meals for the two families and their guests for almost 50 years.[iii]

When Nina married and moved into the Terry family home at nearby Box Hill, she, too, enjoyed the services of a live-in cook and other domestic servants. But financial difficulties in the early 1920s saw the Terry family move into Nina’s family home at Rouse Hill when her mother died in 1924. Kate Joyce had retired as Bessie’s cook the year before, and Nina took over the cooking, catering for her father and sister, and her husband and two adult sons, who ran a dairy on the property.[iv]

Nina had been interested in cooking from a young age and spent a lot of time in the kitchen with Kate, watching her work; in the early 1890s, perhaps when Nina was preparing to run her own household, Kate taught her to cook. But Nina’s decision to take on the role of cook met with her sister Kathleen’s disapproval. With the constant demands of the dairy business, Nina was always working, which upset the dignity and restfulness of the domestic sphere for Kathleen and her ageing father. And was it really appropriate for someone with the Rouses’ social standing to be taking on such duties? If the domestic help Mary “might be willing to take on some of the cooking and the bit of washing”, Kathleen implored in a letter, “Nina would get a rest from the eternal [coming and] going & there would not be meals at all hours in the kitchen”.[v]

Nina did not give in to Kathleen’s pleas, and in written memoirs and oral histories Nina’s granddaughters recall her relatively wholesome style of cooking, all prepared on the fuel stove. Caroline Rouse Thornton writes:

            “These days hostesses go to great lengths to make their dishes ‘look’ appetising and to create    exotic dishes. Granny did neither of these things. She used the materials which she had and       brought out their flavour in a most delicious way … they tasted wonderful.”[vi]

Nina’s cooking may have been plain, but her food was rich and high quality, made with homegrown or locally sourced produce – fresh eggs, milk, meat and vegetables. She made the “most delicious beef tea … ever tasted”, rich Yorkshire puddings “made in the proper Yorkshire manner with plenty of meat juices in the batter” and “the most flavoursome gravy”. Her sponges were “eggy, light and delicious”; she “missed her vocation:

should have been a chef …”[vii] For her granddaughters’ birthdays she would make delicate pink blancmange; the enamel mould remains in situ in the scullery which adjoins the kitchen. If there was no ice available, the pudding was set by dropping it down the well in a bucket, and suspending it just above water level where it was coldest.

By taking over the former servant’s role in the kitchen, Nina defied the “natural” order, and her birthright as a member of the leisure class, so important in her Victorian upbringing. Instead she claimed her place as a modern 20th-century woman, taking a practical, hands-on and productive role as food provider yet still managing to hold onto social and familial respect as genteel matriarch at Rouse Hill House.

Florence Gallagher and Dorothea Sarantides, ‘Susannah Place’, The Rocks, Sydney, 1930s and 40s

Susannah Place, 58-64 Gloucester Street, The Rocks. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

In 1944, Florence (Flo) Gallagher, with her husband and toddler, lodged with her grandparents-in-law, John and Adelaide (Ada) Gallagher, who were tenants of 58 Gloucester Street, one of four terrace houses that make up Susannah Place, in Sydney’s inner-urban The Rocks. At this time the terraces were 100 years old, and number 58 was (and still is) the only one of the four houses where the kitchen remained in its original location in the basement. The kitchens of the adjoining terraces had been relocated upstairs to street level, occupying one of the two ground floor rooms, or installed on an added rear balcony. Their moves up a level did not necessarily mean “upgrades”, and some of the kitchens, including number 58, have never had hot running water.[viii] A videoed recording shows Flo recalling how she and Ada (whom she refers to as ‘granny’) negotiated the small spaces, including at mealtimes. Ada was a dominant woman and Flo knew her place in the scheme of things.[ix] The women cooked meals separately, but the family ate together at the kitchen table. Flo said:

            “[Ada] cooked hers first, then I’d cook mine after … [I] let them go first, because they owned the place … We all sat at the table together, I set my end, which was down the door end of the kitchen, and they sat up at the top end where the stove was.”[x]

The basement kitchen at 58 Gloucester Street, The Rocks, in Susannah Place Museum, representing the Andersen family’s occupation in the 1950s © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Meanwhile, Dorothea Sarantides lived next door at 60 Gloucester Street between 1936 and 1946, with her two adult sons, Emmanuel and Arthur. Dorothea was a Greek immigrant who found refuge in Australia after the political expulsion of Greek citizens from Turkey in the 1920s. Dorothea spoke little English but found sharing food a useful way to get to know her neighbours, from time to time offering traditional homemade Greek-style biscuits over the back fence. Another former Susannah Place resident, Patricia Thomas, recalls that Dorothea made “lovely biscuits” that were apparently unusual to Australian ones, made with “what we didn’t know at the time were those sesame seeds”. They were cooked on the fuel stove in the back room, which no doubt made the small kitchen and bedroom above cosy in winter but very hot in summer. A single gas ring, “the only modern appliance in the house” was a concession for basic cooking purposes, the gas supplied through a penny-in-the-slot meter.[xi]

The kitchen at 60 Gloucester Street, The Rocks, in Susannah Place Museum, representing the Sarantides’ occupation in the 1930s and 40s © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

These kitchens can be visited today, as part of Susannah Place Museum. The Sarantides’ kitchen (seen videoed here) is furnished according to descriptions given by Dorothea’s grandson, George Adaley and granddaughter, Kay Kallas, who remembered cooking with their grandmother when they visited her on weekends. Kay has passed on two recipes that she remembers Dorothea making. [xii] The basement kitchen serviced several generations of the Gallagher family and their descendants between 1934 and 1974. It is furnished according to oral histories, along with a photograph of John and Ada’s daughter “Girlie” Andersen, taken in the kitchen in the 1950s.[xiii] 

Taking their place

These four examples illustrate the performances and ritualised practices with which these women constructed and reflected their social identities, and established, asserted or accepted their places in the familial and social ecosystems in their communities, through food. They demonstrate the importance of food in self-expression and identity in the home and wider community, and in shaping and maintaining structural and organisational codes within complex systems of social and familial connection within and radiating from the domestic sphere.

They also demonstrate the power of memory and legacy. Exchanging and retaining others’ recipes helped women establish and maintain contact and connections, and held the authors’ or recipients’ place in the lives of others, memorialising them even when they were no longer active members of the community. Signature dishes and culinary specialties became mementos of shared tastes and occasions, securing the original source’s place in collective community memory, long after the women themselves had moved on or passed away. There is a great deal of emotional investment in them. Memoirs, oral histories and, indeed, museums ensure that our culinary history and the emotional connections they preserve remain visible, and retain their place in our heritage.


[i] Colin Bannerman. A friend in the kitchen. Kangaroo Press, 1996. p. 73

[ii] Beverley Kingston. ‘From patty cake to cup cake: the treatment of little cakes in Australian cookbooks since the nineteenth century’, in Sofia Eriksson, Madeleine Hastie and Tom Roberts (eds), Eat History: Food and drink in Australia and beyond. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK, 2013. pp. 76-87. p. 77

[iii] Caroline Rouse Thornton. Rouse Hill and the Rouses. Caroline Thornton Publishing, Australia, 2015. pp. 170, 199

[iv] Thornton, p. 273

[v] Thornton, pp. 273–274

[vi] Thornton, p. 200

[vii] Thornton, pp. 199–200

[viii] The basement kitchen in number 58 Gloucester Street was in continuous use for 130 years.

[ix] Anna Cossu, curator, Susannah Place Museum

[x] Florence Gallagher, oral history https://vimeo.com/67779846, accessed 20 December 2018.

[xi] Anna Cossu. A place in The Rocks (Sydney Living Museums), and ‘A Greek family odyssey’ in The Cook & the Curator, 8 April 2013. http://blogs.sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/cook/a-greek-family-odyssey, accessed 20 December 2018.

[xii] The recipes for Susou-ka-kia meatballs, and Kou-ra-piedes shortbread biscuits Also in Eat your history: stories and recipes from Australian kitchens. Sydney Living Museums and NewSouth Publishing, 2015.

[xiii] The Gallagher/Andersen family’s tenure at Susannah Place was 40 years, Girlie’s son Ernie Andersen (John and Ada Gallagher’s grandson) residing there until 1974, cooking in the basement kitchen, using his mother’s 1947 Golden Wattle cookery book.


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