John Newton, The Getting of Garlic: Australian Food from Bland to Brilliant

NewSouth Books, 352 pp., ISBN: 9781742235790, p/bk, AUS$32.99

John Newtown’s new book The Getting of Garlic: Australian Food from Bland to Brilliant  is an impressive follow up to his 2016 work The Oldest Foods on Earth: A History of Australian Native Foods.

Newton explains in his ‘Introduction, an aromatic absence: or, why I wrote this book’, how, having completed The Oldest Foods on Earth, he “began to wonder about Australia’s non-Indigenous food history”.

Curiously, garlic is not noted in Barbara Cameron-Smith’s list of food stuffs brought to Australia with the First Fleet, but garlic seeds are on a list of First Fleet provisions put together by Alan Frost. Certainly garlic “was conspicuous by its absence” in the early modern-Australian diet and recipes. Newton argues, convincingly, that “garlic’s passage from neglect to enthusiastic acceptance tells the story of the changing Australian food culture in a way that no other ingredient does”.

With “recipes old and new” this volume, like its predecessor, features numerous meat-based dishes with classics such as Angela Heuzenroeder’s ‘Paster Juers’ ‘Roast kangaroo with bacon and garlic’ and Margaret Fulton’s ‘Shoulder of lamb with two beads of garlic’ while ‘Garlic prawns’ make an obligatory appearance. Quite a few seafood dishes are presented (just in time for the summer months and the usually-hot festive season) and a few of the options offered could be easily adapted into vegetarian fare.  Garlic doesn’t feature in every recipe, and there are also several sweet recipes within the book’s pages, with lamingtons and scones making the cut.

Newton explores wide-ranging issues around Australian food culture. The book is not just about a single plant – Newton’s ambition is much grander than that, as he seeks to challenge common conceptions of food and Australian identity. “By the time to you get to the end of this book,” he asserts that you will ask yourself if “there is any point in continuing to slash through the thicket of difference and diversity in search of a single unifying idea that means Australia or Australian.”

The Getting of Garlic is a terrific overview of what, for many of us, is now a kitchen staple that is often taken for granted (though, as Newton notes, this species of onion is still routinely avoided by those who find it a little too pungent). Newton’s work, rigorously researched and told with passion, is a history of creativity and of how garlic has gone from an invisible ingredient to being enthusiastically embraced. It is also a story of the joy of “chaotic diversity” and a call to divest of any commitment to seeking a single Australian cuisine.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, September 2018

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