For over 45 years Margaret Fulton has been inspiring
Australians in the kitchen and her unfailing passion continues.
Published Selector Summer 2012
“I don’t like it!”
Margaret Fulton has just had her photo taken and she’s not impressed. It’s no criticism of the photographer’s skills, but more a response to her own appearance.
But Margaret is being hard on herself. Everyone else in the room sees a woman of 88 whose face is full of character. And hers is a character that’s sharp, forthright and punctuated by an offbeat sense of humour.
Of Selector she comments, “I’m told that it’s the new glamour magazine, that it’s beautiful. I haven’t seen it yet.”
Unfortunately I don’t have a copy to give her.
“I thought it might be a pornographic book and you weren’t showing me because of that.”
One of the reasons she hasn’t seen Selector is Margaret Fulton doesn’t read food magazines. They’ve changed significantly since her time at Woman’s Day in the 60s and 70s and it’s an evolution that’s failed to impress.
“Occasionally you might find something interesting, but I think people are trying to be a little bit too over the top and you almost have to be over the top to get noticed.”
For the doyen of Australian cooking, the key is to learn how to do simple things well. This idea was instilled in her by her teacher at the East Sydney Technical College Hotel and Restaurant cookery course, chef Jules Weinberg.
“I remember saying to him: ‘Jules, one day I’ll create a lovely dish and I’ll name it after you and I’ll make it just for you’. And he said, ‘Don’t bother. Just learn to make the things that I’m showing you very, very well.’ And funnily enough, that’s always stuck in my mind.”
It’s a philosophy that’s been incredibly successful. To date, Margaret Fulton has written 28 books and the original, The Margaret Fulton Cookbook, first published in 1968, is a seminal part of the Australian food landscape and a constant in kitchens across the country, providing the first food inspiration for a generation of chefs.
With such an illustrious publishing career, it may surprise to find that Margaret also believes, “It’s very often you can’t improve on a good recipe.” As a result, she claims, “I don’t think I’ve ever created a dish in my life.”
Instead, over the course of her career with Woman’s Day when she was travelling two months of almost every year, Margaret collected recipes from women throughout the world.
She describes, “I’m bringing fresh recipes to people, but I’m not trying to trick up and think that I can do better. But that’s why people have said they like my recipes because they always work. Because they’ve been made by generations of women all around the world and I feel quite proud of that.”
Margaret Fulton has a lot to be proud of. She was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 1983, was nominated as one of the Bulletin’s 100 most influential Australians in 2006 and has been named an Australian Living National Treasure.
Secrets to longevity
While Margaret arrived in Australia as a child and has travelled extensively since, her heart still lies with her birthplace, Scotland and she still feels an unmatched affinity with the Scottish.
“I find, even to my own daughter, I can’t talk as freely as I do to my relatives in Scotland or even to someone on the street. They might say things that sound quite a bit rude or curt, but I think the humour is something that holds the people together.”
And it’s the Scottish staples that have kept her going. “I like porridge for breakfast and I like whisky at the end of the day. Whisky’s important; it opens up the peripheral veins at the end of your toes and your fingers, for your circulation. So remember that – if you take to whisky it’s good, it’s medicinal.”
While the porridge and whisky may well have contributed to Margaret’s longevity, you can’t ignore the part her love of writing has played. She’s currently working on the new edition of her encyclopaedia, due out next Mother’s Day, and the work is welcome stimulation.
“I’ve still got page proofs that deep,” she describes, indicating a large pile. “But I love the whole thing of it, I love the feel, I love stacking the papers. I think that’s what makes you keep on going, you’re never bored.”
On the small screen
The choice to stick with writing rather than branch into her own television show has been a deliberate one that she made back in her time as a copywriter with J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, pre-Woman’s Day.
“J. Walter Thompson said ‘Margaret, a lot of people make the mistake of doing other things, you decide on what you like best.’ And I thought, the written word is what I like. I’ve been offered shows but I thought, I could be doing books when I’m 88, whereas I couldn’t be doing television when I’m 88.”
Margaret is regularly invited to appear on television and one of her most recent forays onto the small screen was Masterchef. However, like modern magazines, today’s cooking shows don’t rate highly with her.
“I think we’ve gone overboard in television shows, it’s just ridiculous, it’s just madness.”
While she found some of the accomplishments of the Masterchef contestants “amazing”, her problem was with their lack of technique (not to mention their attitude).
“There was one fellow who was quite bossy, he made a lemon tart and the pastry was absolutely awful and the lemon filling was runny. And I said this to him and he took umbrage, I could tell he wasn’t used to being told by anybody that what he did wasn’t right.”
But there were some who endeared themselves to the queen of cooking. “There was a very nice young fellow, he made a crème caramel and I wanted to buy him a little copper saucepan and teach him how to make proper caramel. He was so good.”
Some of the problem, she feels, is the desire to have all the gadgets without the basic knowledge to back them up.
“You can have everything that opens and shuts or you can do it the simple way. The skill of using the simple equipment is just a joy to watch, it’s like watching any sort of fine artist.”
In the family
One of Margaret’s favourites to watch is her daughter, Suzanne, who, she says, is “a beautiful cook”. While Suzanne is Le Cordon Bleu trained, her mother taught her the basics.
As Suzanne wrote in the 2007 tribute to her mother, Margaret Fulton: a celebration, “My mother taught me at an early age to select and appreciate good ingredients, and the perfect way to cook simple things. Grill a succulent lamb chop, cook beans so they still had colour and flavour, make a tomato salad with basil and olive oil… and to steam pearly new potatoes with mint. What better skills can a person have to lead a good life?”
These are things Margaret learnt in her own childhood and she wrote of in the introduction to her 1968 classic. “The most vivid memories of my youth are linked with my mother’s kitchen – coming home to the warmth of a log fire and good food, lovingly prepared; the fragrance of freshly-baked shortbread or Dundee cake and, in winter, the pot of welcoming soup… In my own home I find that a meal, cooked well and with love, works the same magic as it did a generation ago.”
Suzanne is still an enthusiastic fan of her mother’s cooking and her description of a recent lunch is full of admiration.
“She made a nicoise salad and she did it so beautifully, I was so inspired. The simplicity, the beautifully cooked eggs, the beautifully picked over cos leaves, the green beans cooked just right and the dressing perfect. And the way she sort of methodically did everything was just lovely to see, her gentle way of approaching food.”
While Margaret is comfortable with her daughter’s praise, fame is not something she’s sought or even taken pleasure in.
“It doesn’t feel as though it’s fame. It’s very hard when you’re cooking and washing up and taking out the garbage bin and putting your feet in Epsom baths because they’re so hard.”
It’s time again for Margaret to get in front of the lens and Paul the make-up artist interrupts us to touch-up her make-up. As Margaret heaves herself up from the lounge she quips, “Now, this is in answer to your question – fame, we can do without it.”
And off walks the matriarch of the Australian food scene, ready again to endure the spotlight in the name of cuisine.