John Newton, The Oldest Foods on Earth: A History of Australian Native Foods

NewSouth, 304 pp., ISBN: 9781742234373, p/bk, AUS$29.99

The Oldest Foods on Earth: A History of Australian Native Foods (2016), from NewSouth Books, is John Newton’s vehicle for a 50,000-year journey. Indeed, Newton’s work is a masterclass in how, over more than 200 years of occupation “European Australians have turned their backs on the vast majority of foods” of the Indigenous peoples. Instead, colonists “overlaid an alien system of agriculture which began the process of ecological imbalance the continent now finds itself in” (p. ix).

The book’s cover claims ‘with recipes’ and it certainly delivers: a fabulous range of recipes have been provided by names that are well-known to many foodies across Australia and around the world. Maggie Beer, Tony Bilson, Matt Stone, Jacqui Newling and Kylie Kwong are just a few of the great chefs to grace the table of contents. The menu is laden with meat. ‘Kangaroo carpaccio with persimmon, lime, mountain pepper and extra virgin olive oil’, ‘Kangaroo loin with Australian native fruits, herbs and spices’, ‘Sea urchin with macadamia nuts and pandanus palm’ and ‘Braised wallaby shanks with olives and bush tomato’ are just a few of the suggestions put forward to tempt carnivores. Yet, herbivores are also catered for with meat-free dishes including ‘Stir-fried native greens’ and ‘Finger lime, wild lime, lemon and quandong tart’. There are also healthy serves of multiculturalism with a pavlova, a jelly and a couple of pastas disrupting traditional ideas of what native foods are and what they can be.

I don’t think that ‘Crispy crickets, mill worms, Aussie 7 spice’ will become an overnight, family favourite. I do think that all the other recipes presented would sit easily on the menu of a fine restaurant or could come out of any Australian kitchen for either a special occasion or as standard Saturday-night fare.

As well as offering context and history for these foods — and plenty of ideas of how to work with these ingredients — Newton makes available really practical information such as a wonderful list of Australian edible plants, animals and grains (you can’t just throw anything into a frying pan and expect it to work out well). There is also a valuable list of useful contacts.

Newton quotes chef Jean-Paul Bruneteau’s critical message of “food racism” (p. x) and notes the conclusion of a recent international study on food and how, when “two or more ethnic groups share foodways, they become closer” (p. xi). Newton’s argument is clear, logical and powerful: “culinary reconciliation” (p. xii). This vegetarian is never going to sit down to a ‘Macadamia and mustard wallaby stack’ but if you add Warrigal greens to your pasta or roll something in wattle seeds, I’ll turn up. We all can. There is no excuse to not participate in a movement that contributes to the care of the land we live on in addition to helping us care for the culture and knowledge of Australia’s First Peoples.

The Oldest Foods on Earth is an epic effort. Newton’s book is cookery, history and reconciliation. If you’re a celebrity-chef-in-the-making or if your preference is to eat out of take-away containers while sitting on the lounge-room floor, this is an important book to own.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, October 2017

Available at all good bookstores and the publisher’s website here

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