Margaret Fulton Brought the World to the Australian Table

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This week’s issue is written by Tacey Rychter, an audience editor and writer based in Sydney.

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When news broke Wednesday that Margaret Fulton, the best-selling Australian cookbook author, died at 94, many people posted photos of their copies of her books in tribute, the pages crusted and spattered with generations of food debris. Is there a greater compliment?

An Australian Julia Child of sorts and a brilliant communicator, she propelled nearly an entire generation, mainly of Anglo women, toward a more adventurous and open-minded family table.

“There’s no doubt that she’s a pivotal and very important figure in our culinary and cookbook history,” said Tim White, the co-owner of the Melbourne bookstore, Books for Cooks.

Her record for the number of cookbooks sold in Australia “will probably never be beaten again.”

A Fulton in nearly every home

It’s hard to overstate her commercial and cultural power. Her first book, “The Margaret Fulton Cookbook,” published in 1968, had a first print run of 100,000 copies — an extraordinary achievement at the time — and went on to sell more than 1.5 million copies.

By some estimates, there was a time when one in five Australian homes, if not more, had a Margaret Fulton book.

For those who didn’t grow up with Margaret Fulton, it might be hard to see why she was as impactful on Australia’s cooking culture as she was. The retro, moody food photography is kitsch now, and the illustrated, step-by-step guide to eating spaghetti might seem a little silly to a modern audience.

But her starter guides to international cuisines like Chinese and Italian, which patiently explained new ingredients like soy sauce, were a first touch point for many seeking bolder flavors.

When torturing vegetables was a national pastime

“There really was quite a poor food culture before Margaret Fulton,” said Richard Glover, the ABC radio presenter and author of “The Land Before Avocado,” which tours the weirdness 1960s and ‘70s Australian culture.

Chops and potatoes were standard, he said. Vegetables were routinely cooked into a “state of disintegration.”

[What do you remember of home cooking in the ’60s and ’70s? Tell us at [email protected].]

It’s important to acknowledge that while Fulton has often been documented as the woman who “taught Australia how to cook,” using such an all-encompassing phrase overlooks the thousands of non-Anglo Australians who were already cooking vindaloos, borscht, dolmades or stir fries every night.

Besha Rodell, our Australian food columnist, agrees that home cooking pre-Fulton, particularly by those of British descent, was pretty grim.

“As much as any cookbook author, we can thank Greek, Italian and, later, Vietnamese neighbors for passing olives, garlic, lemons and chilies over the back fence,” she said.

A lot changed in 50 years (we can all eat spaghetti now, and more!)

Fulton wasn’t the first to encourage a more international palate, but she hit on a potent cultural moment in Australia — a confluence of new wealth, postwar immigration, the first supermarkets and the accessibility of international air travel.

Australia, an island nation not yet free of the White Australia Policy, was opening up to the world, and one way it happened was in our kitchens.

“We started with such a basic food culture, yet when shown the opportunity we have embraced it incredibly quickly,” said Richard Glover, the radio presenter.

A meat pie hasn’t been a typical Australian meal for a long time, he said. A more common family meal, he guessed, is probably a noodle dish cooked in a wok, with bok choy and coriander.

“The wonderful thing about the Australian story is the way we’ve gone from such a frightened, inward-looking monoculture to such a global-embracing, cosmopolitan place in such a short period of time. Fulton is part of that escalator.”

We’d love to hear from you. Share your memories of home cooking in the ’60s and ’70s, or your favorite Margaret Fulton recipes at [email protected]. You can also join us in the NYT Australia Facebook group.

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