Food History: “… eat the way your great-great-great- grandparents ate, and you’ll live a long life” …

Convicts in New Holland. Source: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales (1)
Convicts in New Holland. Source: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales1

This is an updated version of a post originally published 08 January 2019.

Scattered throughout the food and diet literature is the suggestion that to ensure optimal health we should return to the eating patterns before the 1960s. This concept was popularised by Michael Pollan. In his book In Defence of Food2 one of his food rules is ‘don’t eat anything your great-grandmother would not recognise as food‘. His implied take-away message is we should ‘eat real, proper, simple food’ – not the kind from a packet. I have seen others even suggest 3 going back two generations further ‘eat the way your great-great-great-grandparents ate, and you’ll live a long life’. 17

This triggered a thought process. To begin with, my great-great-great-grandparents number 32. To find if that statement is true, I would have to trace my family history to those 32 ancestors, understand their backgrounds, deduce what they probably ate, then contemplate if foods they were eating in the manner they were eating them could improve my longevity.

This was an intriguing concept and I decided to investigate.

Luckily for me, I come from a line of family-history lovers. My sister, mother and other relatives traced my family tree to before the 18th century and have written books on it4,5,6. Understanding from where I originated wasn’t difficult. My fifth generation ancestors from 200 to 250 years ago were mainly British from diverse backgrounds of convicts, working class, tenant-farmers, middle-merchants, professionals, and one line possibly landed gentry. With that variance, pin-pointing any single traditional food pattern would be challenging.

Gastronomic, other historians, and nutritionists have researched food history in Australia and that of Britain7,8,9,10,11,12,13. As I explored this literature genre – from a time that was supposedly before processed and definitely before fast food – I was to discover that this was not the case. Two hundred or more years ago people were not always eating “real” food. In fact in the days before refrigeration, the probable dietary patterns of my own ancestors would have included substantial quantities of preserved food (by salting, smoking, drying, pickling, candying), biscuits, bread, cheese, tea, sugar, spices, flour, and later canned foods – all of which are processed foods and arguably many could also be deemed ‘fast-food’.

Depending on which ancestor and time period I looked at, there were periods my ancestors would have experienced borderline or even critical undernourishment. For other ancestors, who were or became financially secure, patterns of plentiful food and perhaps eating to excess were apparent. However, regardless of the background, there did appear to be a greater focus on either obtaining or producing food, and a deeper connection with where food came from than many of us have today.

Furthermore, as I delved further into its history, I gained a greater understanding that food was behind many social and political reforms10, and a contributing factor if not the whole drive and power behind the makings of the British Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries.14

Our current food environments and its nutritional consequences is a growing concern.15 The shaping of those food environments through history is a subject I feel deserves closer attention and a series of blog-posts. I shall begin by going back to the land of my ‘mother country’.16

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This post was originally published in January 2019 and was updated on 23 October 2020.

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This is an introductory post for my theme: Food History in Australia.
Tracing the diets of my ancestors, prequels to the food history I have lived through.

Food History Introduction: “eat what your great-great-great-grandparents ate …”

Living through Food History: 1950s to 1970s
Living through Food History: 1980s to 2000s

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Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or on this website should be taken as medical or dietary advice. Anyone reading any information provided within should seek advice from their own medical practitioner for any issue, disease, illness or health-related problem they may have. Always seek your own advice from a medical practitioner or dietitian before changing your own diet.

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Acknowledgements:

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which I have lived and worked. I pay respect to their Elders, past and present.

I thank my sister Margaret Francis, family historian; and my brother-in-law Dr Rodney Francis PhD (agriculture) for reviewing my initial draft and discussions.

I thank Melanie Voevodin @wedietitians for much thoughtful twitter discussions on how our food environments have become what they are and for references 8 & 9 below.

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References and Notes:

1. Ravenet, Juan. Convicts in New Holland. Lithograph 01 January 1793.
Felipe Bauza, cartographer – drawings made on the Spanish Scientific Expedition to Australia and the Pacific in the ships Descubierta and Atrevida under the command of Alessandro Malaspina, 1789-94. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Public Domain. Out of copyright: Artist died before 1955.

2. Pollan, Michael. In Defence of Food. 2008. Penguin Press. London.

3. Williams, Zoe. Why it’s never too late to start lifting weight? The Guardian. Australian Edition. 05 December, 2018.

4. Francis, Margaret; Vernon, Stella; Wilkinson, Colin; editors. The Buddong Flows On: Volume 1 – ‘The Old Hands’. 2003. The Buddong Society. Wagga Wagga.

5. Francis, Margaret; Vernon, Stella; Wilkinson, Colin; editors. The Buddong Flows On: Volume 2 – ‘Genuine People’. 1993. The Buddong Society. Wagga Wagga.

6. Wilkinson, Colin; Francis, Margaret; editors. The Buddong Flows On: Volume 3 – ‘Those Precious Ones’. 2017. The Buddong Society. Wagga Wagga.

7. Santich, Barbara, What the Doctors Ordered: 150 Years of Dietary Advice in Australia. 1995. Hyland House Publishing. South Melbourne.

8. Clements, Frederick W. A History of Human Nutrition in Australia. 1986. Longman Cheshire. Melbourne.

9. Wood, Beverley, Editor. Tucker in Australia. 1977. Hill of Content. Melbourne.

10. Symons, Michael. One Continuous Picnic. 2nd edition. 2007. Melbourne University Press. Melbourne.

11. Chant, Susan. A History of Local Food In Australia 1788-2015. PhD Thesis. 2015. University of Adelaide. Adelaide.

12. Newling, Jacqueline. Foodways Unfettered: Eighteenth-Century Food in the Sydney Settlement. Thesis for Masters of Arts. 2007. University of Adelaide. Adelaide.

13. Bannerman, Colin. Print Media and the Development of an Australian Culture of Food and Eating c.1850 to c.1920. PhD Thesis. 2001. University of Canberra. Canberra.

14. Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power- The Place of Sugar in Modern History. 1986. Penguin Books. New York.

15. Elizabeth, L; Machadol, P; Zinocker, M; Baker, P; Lawrence, M. Ultra-processed foods and health outcomes: A narrative review. Nutrients June 30 2020; 12(7): 1955 doi: 10.3390/nu12071955.

16. Definition: Mother Country: “The original country of colonists or settlers.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th edition 2014.

17. Longo, Valter. The Longevity Diet. Penguin Random House. 2018

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