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What I Ate Last Night – A short history of s...

What I Ate Last Night – A short history of stuff

We tend to think of the word ‘‘foodie’’ as a recent term… it sits comfortably alongside trending phrases such as ‘‘tumeric latte’’, ‘‘fake news’’ and ‘‘pardon me sir, but your selfie stick is obscuring my view of Nana’s casket’’. You may be surprised then to learn that ‘foodie’ first appeared in print in an issue of the obscure New York magazine as long ago as June 2, 1980. A lot has happened since then, so let’s bust out the French onion dip and a packet of Jatz, and have a look at some of the iconic moments in food, history and culture that have occurred in the 37 years and one day since.

The 1980s
I have on my screen a scanned copy of Women’s Weekly Magazine from January 1982. Sharing a spread with a half-page advert for a long-forgotten brand of cigarettes (‘…there’s nothing milder than a Ransom’) is a Home Hints section where readers write in with helpful domestic suggestions, such as “plastic shopping bags given out by various shops serve many useful purposes; they are good for carrying all those odd bits and pieces”. An M. Stewart from Brighton, VIC, won a whole $2 for that nugget of advice, which says as much about the effect of 30 years of inflation as it does about the quality of ‘life hacks’ in the 1980s.
The rest of the spread is taken up by recipes that celebrate the dubious culinary imagination of the time, including Raisin Bars with Prunes and Dates, Chicken Crockpot Surprise and Fruity Ham Hock Pudding. Each one contains either tinned apricots, curry powder, Aeroplane Jelly crystals or a combination of all three. The sentimentally revered Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book (published in full colour two years prior during the International Year of the Dessicated Coconut) looked like a positively sophisticated spinoff. And I suppose it was, as it still enjoys levels of popularity today that plastic shopping bags can only dream of.
In Darwin, Dick Ward Drive opened in July 1980, commemorating Justice Richard Ward, first interim Aboriginal Land Commissioner and also a Justice of the Supreme Court of the NT. An alternative to Bagot Road, it seems most popular when gracing mildly lewd stubby coolers directing backpackers to take Dick Ward through Coconut Grove and on to Fannie Bay. Meanwhile, 19km east of Darwin CBD someone dug a hole and called it Palmerston*.
Around Australia the rest of the country clued on to a fact Territorians had been aware of for decades, namely that Asian cuisine is as awesome as it is cheap. Down south Sunday family brunch was abruptly abandoned in favour of weekly yum cha, mainly because avocado hadn’t been invented yet and smashed feta was something the Greeks did with plates at weddings. Up north we were ahead of the game; Happy Garden opened in Parap in 1981 (where it still resides) with Parap Markets established a year later and maintaining a vice-like grip on the laksa trade ever since.
For those not so keen on ‘foreign’ food, Coronation chicken was considered a classy and devilishly exotic dish (depending on how many teaspoons of Keen’s Curry Powder you added to the mayonnaise), and anything that could be rolled, cubed or speared with a toothpick was the very height of dinner party sophistication.
In 1983 Prime Minister Bob Hawke pissed off small business owners everywhere by instigating the Biggest Sickie Ever Chucked, and a year later a jar of Vegemite became the first product in Australia to be electronically scanned at the supermarket checkout.
The Mutijulu people of Central Australia were finally granted freehold title to Ayers Rock and the surrounding Uluru National Park in 1985, the same year the first flat white was served and the whole nation sighed as one when Scott and Charlene said ‘I do’.
The Bush Tucker Man debuted in 1988, the first episode profiling the local Indigenous people of Ngukurr. Back in town the Darwin Cup became the first $100,000 race staged in the Northern Territory, where guests were presumably served smoked salmon and devilled eggs with mini Melba toasts.
The decade was rounded out with the 1989 launch of the original Taste Festival at Hobart’s Waterfront, which just goes to show that the NT is at least 28 years behind Tasmania when it comes to good ideas, but probably still well ahead of Adelaide.

The 1990s
The term molecular gastronomy was coined in 1992 (the same year the Torres Strait Islander Flag was designed) and for the next 17 years or so the producers at Network 10 wandered the desert in search of water and/or Matt Preston. Scrunchies were all the rage, RAGE was all the rage and my mum bought me social death in the guise of a pair of Aerosport sneakers; all the other kids were in Reebok Pumps and my status never quite recovered.
1993 was a big year for NT tourism, launching the megabucks See the Never Never Now campaign starring Daryl Somers. It became instantly memorable for being slightly less irritating than Paul Hogan’s Throw Another Shrimp on the Barbie ads, but not much. The upside was that national interest in the Territory as a tourist destination boomed, and the campaign didn’t have Ozzie the Ostrich or Red Symonds in it.
Cathy Freeman ignited a political shitstorm in 1994 by innocently carrying the flag of her people on a lap of honour at the Commonwealth Games, apparently breaking several protocols and getting a lot of people from the halls of power in a huff. That same year the Federal Government successfully passed legislation to regulate the ingredients and naming rights of Anzac biscuits, which suggests that in 1994 they should have been focusing on other things, such as governing.
Stephanie Alexander’s The Cooks Companion was launched in 1996 and quickly became the Christmas present of choice for anyone who owned a Magimix and could afford the $130 price tag. (Personal note. It was worth every penny. EVERY. PENNY.)
Andrew Fielke opened the Alice Springs branch of his restaurant Red Ochre in 1997 with a focus on traditional local ingredients such as lemon myrtle, pepperberries and emu, bringing a new level of culinary sophistication to the Red Centre that the rest of the country finally began to notice.
During the late 90s Jamie Oliver was absolutely everywhere, kind of like a pukka Eddie McGuire in jeans, while the original Kath ‘n’ Kim extolled the virtues of Tiny Teddies, Dippity Bix and a noice glass of Kardonnay (the haych is soylent) out on the patio.
Cyclone Les gave the Top End a fright in early 1998, then, after everyone’s buttocks had unclenched, devastated Katherine with the most catastrophic floods in its history. This in turn spurred Libra to launch perhaps the most ill-advised campaign for ultra-absorbent sanitary napkins ever committed to print, leading to a grovelling apology from the company less than a week later.
Red Bull gave us wings in 1999, followed by a million or so instantly regretted Jagerbombs, and Y2K struck fear into the hearts of anyone about to board a plane or hoping they had enough ice in the Esky to watch the fireworks / withstand the apocalypse.

2000s – Today
Relieved that the Millennium Bug had failed to end civilization as we know it (but still a little ticked off we had to put up with more A Country Practice reruns), we embraced the present with a gastronomic gusto not seen since the Thursday before.
In 2000, Starbucks made a slightly misguided entry into Australian coffee culture only to fizzle out a decade or so later when it occurred to them that Italians have lived here for 70 years and we actually know what real coffee tastes like.
At the time the Spice Girls were teaching a generation about ‘‘equalisation of the sexes’’, Moorish opened its doors in 2002, and soon after the Darwin Waterfront and Stokes Hill Wharf began their massive overhaul into the foodie precincts we know and love today.
BassInTheGrass kicked off at the Darwin Amphitheatre in 2003 and has been keeping The Hilltop Hoods and Thundamentals in steady employment ever since.
In 2007, Kevin Rudd finally ended 11 years of John Howard with a cup of tea, an Iced VoVo and a self-satisfied smirk, and less than 12 months later said sorry to the Stolen Generations. About the same time Aboriginal Bush Traders was established, selling art, craft and bush tucker for the direct benefit of the community.
The iconic Pollywaffle chocolate bar was discontinued in 2009 amid howls of protest, and iSnack 2.0 was launched to shreiks of hysterical laughter before Kraft had a bit of a think and quietly rereleased it as the much more edible-sounding Cheesybite.
Cyclone Yasi destroyed 75% of the country’s banana crop (and a fair bit of Queensland as well) in 2011, leading to price spikes of over $15 a kilo… for a couple of months a King William Chocolate from Boost Juice enjoyed luxury item status.
The CLP danced into government in 2012, only to be spectacularly turfed out at the next election by a general voting public who had been staring at them in wonder for four years, shaking their heads in disbelief and muttering ‘What are you lot doing?’.
In 2015 Gurrumul received national acclaim by winning two ARIAs and three Deadlys for his self-titled album, while helping give Indigenous music a bit of the mainstream spotlight.
Finally, Stone House opened its heritage-listed doors in 2016 with claims to being the first specialty wine bar in Darwin, thus cementing the NT’s reputation as a sophisticated foodie destination.
Which brings us right up to last Sunday and how this month’s theme came about. I invited a dear mate around to share a hot dinner (because it was finally cool enough to not eat off a floating noodle in the swimming pool) of corned beef, creamy mash and buttered cabbage with white sauce. She regarded me a moment, then shrieked ‘OMG what decade are you from, the eighties?’ and for the next 10 minutes rolled around on the floor of the supermarket aisle we’d happened to meet in, clutching her sides as tears of mirth flowed freely down her cheeks.
‘Well yes, 1981 if you wish to be precise’ I huffed and mentally scratched her from any future invitiations to dine.
Eat well NT, there’s heaps to be had.

– SKJ

*This is actually true. Palmerston was only gazetted in 1980; actual construction didn’t begin for another year, with the first residents, Lewis Potterton and family, moving into Driver in 1982. The inaugural Palmerston council elections were held in 1984.

(With thanks to Australian Food History Timeline and various NT government and council archives for some of the aforementioned tasty facts and historic titbits.)


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