A few months before my partner’s mum Joan turned seventy, she’d been asking questions about the internet. “So, you can really talk to your relatives overseas instantly for nothing?” Or, “You can really see pictures of how fat your school friends got?” Yes, we said, and we pooled our money and gifted her a MacBook Air. Thereafter followed weeks of mild cursing and great frustration, but in time she acquired the habit of rising with the sun and falling deep into the great new trough of information.
She spent hours with her mouth hanging open at prices for a ’70s Sunbeam electric fry-pan, of which she kept a burnt-orange specimen. Joan is of a generation still in shock that they could ever afford such a magical thing. And now she was in future-shock that her old square fryer could fetch more from an online auction house than she’d initially paid at Myer.
Explaining the idea of ‘retro’ to someone who lived and cooked through the era this ‘retro’ describes is tricky. In the ’70s, no one but Joan was particularly interested in her Sunbeam, now so fetishised online. Sure, the roasts and crepes and fritters it produced were well received. But the kitchen, then contained by doors and a strict division of gender, was a fairly private space. That so many were now sufficiently interested to pay for the relics of a secret, female ’70s was curious.
I said it was easy to understand how my generation, raised on food served in novelty Tupperware, loved this stuff. The look of wood veneer and the sticky smell of sweet’n’sour pork brought us back to our untroubled memories, and in surrounding ourselves with the flavours of our childhood, we could celebrate our innocence. Well, Joan said, unsatisfied with the explanation, I can tell you that the ’70s weren’t that innocent. Hadn’t I heard of Vietnam and wife-swapping parties? And, hadn’t I noticed that people younger than me were also interested in the recipes and paraphernalia of the ’70s kitchen? Why on earth were Millennials putting raisins on cream cheese, hanging geometric-patterned curtains and installing bright yellow splashbacks?
I could have told her to Google it, but I found myself too fascinated by the contents of her cupboards and the question itself to dismiss the matter of this particular nostalgia. I wanted to dissuade her eBay sale of the ‘Spice of Life’ Corning Ware cruet with its little bunch of marigolds painted on the base. But, mostly, I wanted to understand the things essential to that decade that have fascinated so many of us with a memory of its kitchen.
The Australian Women’s Weekly test kitchen has been making memories from Sydney’s Park Street for more than sixty years. It was in 1969, the year the Commonwealth made an equal pay determination for women, that this kitchen welcomed its principal memory-maker. Pamela Clark, the same vintage as Joan, was a young pastry buff when she became the Weekly‘s Chief Home Economist. I ask her what the kitchen looked like then and she says: “Brown. BROWN is the word for it!” Along with the late Ellen Sinclair, a spirited writer discovered through a competition on the back of a Keen’s Mustard tin, Pamela set to work on what is arguably the most influential national cookbook of the decade, and perhaps all time: the Australian Women’s Weekly Cookbook.
My mum had a copy. Joan still has a copy. Nearly every woman bought a copy of the 1970 volume with its cover casserole filling a bright orange dish. Pamela thinks “about four million” sold, but notes that no one has a memory of exactly how many reprints there were or, of course, how many Australians sat at Laminex tables to eat its strawberry hazelnut gateau or Hawaiian ham.
What Pamela does know is that its “continental”—’70s code for posh and European—emphasis, largely absent in the competing Margaret Fulton cookbook, was popular with women who now had an eye on the world beyond the kitchen window.
Pamela, who remains at the Weekly as its chief of cookbooks—now published at the rate of fifty a year—does not romanticise the past. She rifles through her million-sellers and holds the 1976 Best Ever Recipes from the Weekly. “It’s got a picture of roast turkey with piped mash potato on the cover,” she says. “I think that says it all.”
As unpalatably ‘retro’ as even the cook who tested this pineapple-heavy cuisine can find it, Pamela can look back and see the ’70s kitchen as a site of great and positive change. “The chops, mash and peas were disappearing, replaced by the boeuf bourguignon and the stroganoff.”
In the ’70s, food began to acquire a function beyond sustenance. It had become, even for working-class women, a statement of ‘lifestyle’— so Pamela and Ellen consciously wrote to a particular woman: she was increasingly poor in time but rich in curiosity for a world that, thanks to television, jet travel and economic growth, was making itself known to her.
We’d caught the bug of aspiration in our kitchens and expected something even more refined than charred pineapple chunks when we dared to dine outside the home. Back then, there was no dining establishment more desirable than Sydney’s Berowra Waters, established by Tony Bilson smack-dab in the middle of the decade.
Pre-Berowra, we looked to Mother England for what and how we ate. In 1975, Bilson looked directly to the new, flour-free innovations of France and to the Australian landscape itself for inspiration. Now, beurre blanc sauce eaten in rustic surrounds is common. Then, the new, lighter flavours and design were considered outrageous. Bilson, a bohemian character at whom conservatives liked to shake a deep-fried chop, says, “People still make jokes about nouvelle cuisine.” But the guy who has trained culinary stars—from Tetsuya Wakuda to Manu Feildel—gave us an unashamed version of Australian dining and produce from which, mercifully, we are yet to recover.
I ask Bilson if he has any idea of the influence his kitchen exerted on home cooks. “Honestly, I was in my own kitchen cooking all day, six days a week, so I never knew what was going on in Australian homes. I can say that our legacy is in the hands of the people who trained with us. And I will say that I hope that our cooking back then inspired some home cooks to experiment with their Sunbeam fryers.”
Those fryers, says Bilson, were impressive. They could braise like a slow cooker and fry like a wok. Ross Floate, Melbourne design professional and child of the ’70s, agrees.
“My mother would cook a roast and even a sponge cake in that thing. It was the Thermomix of the ’70s. And, it wasn’t just tremendously practical, it was also striking. The lines on it were amazing. The metal elements of it are formpressed, but the range of colours made it distinctive.” Mrs Floate chose the same burnt orange as Joan.
The avocado, orange, yellow and brown colours of ’70s kitchens were, says Floate, borrowed from the palette of mid-century modernism. The tension between domestic and industrial elements of design as seen in the bold shapes of Joan’s eBay bounty all come to us from the decade before. “They’re taken from the ’50s and ’60s era of modernism,” says Floate.
He sees the mass production of these things for the Australian kitchen as fulfilling a desire “to attain the signs of wealth, albeit of a previous age”. I ask him about a ’70s recipe card box of Joan’s, geometric and green but with an intricately traced design on the sides. “This is part of the Australian design vernacular—we love decoration. You’ll find fussy filigree stamped on the simplest objects. We have a tendency towards featurism and, I think, the habit of mimicking wealth.”
There’s no better place to see this tendency than in the Tupperware parfait glasses so popular in ’70s homes. “You have this very contemporary fantastic-plastic moulded into a thing that is intended to contain a rich person’s dessert from a barely remembered past. I’d call it a joyful imitation of a more affluent life.”
Affluence, or its imitators, fell into our kitchens, and Joan has a cupboard full of single-use extravagance that only became available for the first time in that decade—but currently selling on eBay. Bright green lettuce-keepers. Fondue sets. ‘Steam boats’ inspired in large part by Pamela Clark’s groundbreaking Chinese Cooking Class Cookbook from 1978, which turned soy sauce into a pantry staple.
The items and the recipes of the ’70s kitchen point to a time of hope. We remember the prelude to great possibilities for women and those who ate their food. Travel, economic independence and luxury were all on the cards, and in Joan’s cupboard we can still see the hint that anything could happen.
To look to the ’70s kitchen is not just to look to the past. It is to remember we can always think about utopia. So, if you have to pay Joan’s ‘Buy It Now’ price on eBay for a Sunbeam fryer to remind you that the world inside and outside the kitchen can change, that’s one hundred dollars well spent. //