Margaret Fulton taught us how to cook

Don Woolford
(Australian Associated Press)


Margaret Fulton, it’s been said, taught Australia how to cook.

An exaggeration, perhaps. But certainly Fulton, more than anyone else, introduced Australians to the culinary delights of the world and weaned them off the traditional meat and three veg.

She was Australia’s first celebrity chef, long before the species became a television staple.

Margaret Isobel Fulton, who died on Wednesday aged 94, was born in Nairn in the Scottish Highlands on October 10, 1924. She was the youngest of six children.

The family moved to Australia when she was three, settling in Glen Innes in northern NSW.

Her first cooking lessons, she’s recalled, were under her mother’s eye. She’d have to stir the custard and make sure it didn’t curdle: “I was taught to care and watch.”

Similarly with the shopping: “If I brought back a squashy tomato, I had to take it back.”

Unusually for a country girl at the time, Fulton completed her Leaving Certificate – the equivalent of today’s HSC – and won a scholarship to Sydney University.

She didn’t take it up. At that stage she wanted to be a dress designer, having accepted that her skinny legs and five-foot frame ruled out being a showgirl and cancan dancer.

But the war was on and she found herself in Sydney working first in a parachute factory and then in a laboratory testing plane components.

Fulton was already thinking ahead and decided that, post-war, food was something women would want.

She got out of her job, in a protected industry, by pretending she was pregnant and joined a gas company where, to promote gas cooking she baked cakes and pastry. It was a start.

After the war she moved to a corporation headed by industrialist Sir John Storey where, as NSW sales manager, she helped introduce the pressure cooker to Australia. That taught her how to deal with important people.

In 1954 she joined Woman’s Day magazine, becoming its food editor.

“They used to say ‘join Woman’s Day and see the world’,” Fulton said.

“It was that era of expansion, so countries and airlines were inviting you around the world.

“I had five or six two-month visits to places in some amazing locations.

“It was a tremendous learning curve. When I had to do `365 Ways with Mincemeat’ I could remember what they were doing in Mexico and how the Lebanese woman handled it.”

Fulton was making a name for herself, and changing cooking habits, through her columns in Woman’s Day and, later, Rupert Murdoch’s New Idea.

While there, Murdoch recruited her to give Ansett Airlines food a makeover.

But it was her 1968 book, the Margaret Fulton Cookbook, that cemented her position and brought comparative wealth. Over numerous reprints it’s sold more than 1.5 million copies.

About 20 more books followed. They ranged from Chinese and Italian cooking through vegetarian and casserole recipes to microwave cooking. There was also the monumental Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopaedia of Food and Cookery.

She kept travelling and teaching, even teaching the Chinese how to make sandwiches.

In the 1970s she ran a luxury resort, Berida Manor, at Bowral in the NSW Southern Highlands.

That led to probably the most stressful time of her life when Berida was chosen as the retreat for the 1978 regional CHOGM.

But just before the leaders of 13 Commonwealth nations descended, the Hilton bombing occurred.

“In the kitchen it was a nightmare because different prime ministers, they would have tasters, or somebody making sure the food wasn’t poisoned,” she said.

The dinner she prepared that night included scallops with mushrooms and turkey breast with chestnut and cognac stuffing.

More formal recognition followed. She was awarded an OAM, named an Australian National Treasure and nominated among Bulletin magazine’s 100 most influential Australians.

She was bright, feisty, determined and always had a keen eye for her market.

Yet her personal life was messy, with two failed marriages. She brought up her daughter Suzanne, who was born after the collapse of the first and became a notable cook in her own right, largely as a single mother.

“I can’t understand in life how I was so sensible about a lot of things and I was so stupid about men,” she said.

However, she finally found the “love of my life”, English actor/director Michael McKeag. They had eight years together before he died in 1988.

Fulton has happily recalled the irony of her seducing women into the kitchen with new and exotic flavours while the likes of Germaine Greer were sending them rather different messages.

She found the husbands were tougher.

“When I first discovered and wrote recipes for spaghetti, men would tell their wives `That was very nice dear, but what’s for dinner?’”, she said.

“Men were very reluctant to cross that border. Of course, once they did, they crossed like a horde of marauding monkeys. They even got into the kitchen once they discovered how good it can be.”

Fulton had strong hates, especially fast foods and genetically modified food.

She used television sparingly and dismissed TV chefs: “It is entertainment, but they all get so terribly serious about it. It’s all malarky.”

She didn’t like elaborate presentation being elevated over flavour or dishes with “little squirts of this and overly complex flavours”.

One of her keys to good cooking was fresh, quality meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. Another was watching details like time and temperature.

Fulton never retired, even after a quadruple bypass in 2005. In her 90s she was launching a range of cookware and, despite her disdain for TV chefs, featured as an honoured guest on reality cooking show Masterchef.

Her legacy? “I hope I have shown that cooking is fun and that it’s a good thing to do. It’s the real melding together of family relationships.”


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