COVER STORY Margaret Fulton celebrates Mother’s Day with three generations of women.
How does Australia's first family of food spend Mother's Day? With lots of nourishment, of course. KATE GIBBS explains how cooking has defined three generations of the Gibbs-Fulton clan
Food has always played a pivotal role in my family. The apple, you might say, doesn’t fall far from the tree. And, in our case, we can all suggest endless ways to cook the proverbial apple, baking it in a crumble, roasting it with pork or fermenting it in a coleslaw.
My grandmother, Margaret Fulton, is a doyenne of cookery, a prolific author and an Australian living treasure for her pioneering accomplishments. My mother, Suzanne Gibbs, is a longtime cookbook author and was food editor at New Idea for two decades. My sister, Louise Keats, is a nutrition writer and cookbook author. And I, too, am a food writer, editor and author.
None of this was planned. I intended to be a photographer, then steered into teaching before studying journalism. My sister was a lawyer in another life. My mother only became a cook because she was desperate for an adventure at 19, and so my grandmother put her on a ship and enrolled her at London’s Le Cordon Bleu. But, ultimately, we would all make food our life work.
Growing up in rural Glen Innes in NSW, the youngest of six children, Margaret never set out to be a cook either. Her mother, Isabella, said it was “not the sort of thing a nice young woman does”. She wanted to be a concert pianist, or she might have “danced across the stage” in Paris had her legs been longer.
But in Sydney, Margaret found work initially as a home economist, then later as a food editor, publishing her first book in 1968. She followed with more than 20 volumes, and countless columns at Woman’s Day. By championing ethnic fare like curry, she dared us to go further than meat-and-three-veg and effectively changed the way we eat. And, remarkably, she forged this career alone: no other woman in Australian history had done anything like this before her.
Our food was global thanks to my mother’s and Margaret’s escapades. In our school lunch boxes, my sister and I had homemade dolmades, poached chicken sandwiches or banh mi stuffed with herbs. Other children would sneer, but they soon learned that we had it good.
Margaret often spoke about the importance of mealtimes as a child, joining her siblings and Scottish parents to debrief on the day. They didn’t have much, but there was always good food, and they had each other. Margaret’s mother was an alchemist in the kitchen, who could turn a humble shoulder of lamb or an unlovely strip of stomach into complex broths or stews.
Similarly, produce is precious in my household. Nothing is ever wasted. Growing up, we never ordered takeaway. Every meal was cooked at home, sometimes using leftovers from my mother’s recipe testing or from her photography shoots.
When it seemed as though there was nothing in the fridge, my mother would magically fashion egg foo yung with a few eggs, or stracciatella using chicken stock from the freezer and greens from the garden.
The vital role of ingredients inspired my mother and I to write The Thrifty Kitchen in 2009, and informed our various career choices. In 2015 year, I released Margaret and Me, an ode to my resourceful grandmother and the recipes that we both grew up with.
My sister and I agree that we became food writers because we love to eat. But, more than that, we cook because we adore the process, relishing the transformation of produce into sustaining meals. To me, cooking at home is a culinary carpe diem – a tantalising way to seize the day.
When four generations convene on Mother’s Day, we naturally come together over food. Like many families, we’ll divide up the various courses. I might prepare a crunchy, Asian-style salad. My mother will whip up six dishes nobody expected but which will become the main topic of conversation. My sister might bring a pavlova, gilded with whipped cream and fruit, or perhaps berries with cashew cream. And it’s not just the women who contribute. My husband will do his lobster rolls to start, and my father offers his gravlax specialty.
Margaret, now 92, will sit back to enjoy the spectacle, with her one-a-day glass of whisky. She has been cooking for Australia so long and now it’s our turn to cook for her.
My grandmother believes in sticking to the recipe, at least until you perfect it. Tastes change though, and I do tweak her recipes. I halve the sugar in her lemon delicious pudding, for one, since I don’t have a sweet tooth.
I made her some porridge once, and she scrunched up her face. “Kate, darling, there are three ingredients in porridge – oats, water, salt. Use them all.” I had tried to save her arteries, but I learned my lesson.
Food has the power to make us well, it gives us pleasure and connects us. The women in my family have shared our culinary repertoires in a bid to lead our best lives – healthily, happily, deliciously. As my nine-month-old son, Jack, now demands a second bowl of vichyssoise, I wonder whether he too will turn out this way.