“… 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

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. Others have suggested going back two generations further ‘eat the way your great-great-great-grandparents ate, and you’ll live a long life’ 3, or even to ‘eat at the table of your ancestors’.4

I wondered whether this could be true and whether I could prove it. To begin with, my great-great-great-grandparents number 32. To find if that statement was 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 was still available to me and could improve my own 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 it5,6,7. 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 Britain8,9,10,11,12,13,14. 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, proper, simple’ 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. Moreover, the food environment gradually changed from local production, to national production and trading of food commodities, then finally the globalization of food systems and the rise of multi-national food corporations and the production of branded ultra-processed foods.15  

Furthermore, as I delved further into its history, I gained a greater understanding that food was behind many social and political reforms11, and a contributing factor if not the whole drive and power behind the makings of the British Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries.16

Our current food environments and its nutritional consequences is a growing concern.17 The shaping of those food environments through history is a subject I feel deserves closer attention. I shall begin my exploration by going back to the ‘Mother Country‘ – that of England, which my own grand-father referred to as ‘Blighty‘, and my grand-mother as the ‘Old Country‘ or more simply ‘Home‘. 18, 19


This post was published on  08 January 2019 and is updated with minor modifications. 


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.

# 1: Australian Food History: “eat what your great-great-great-grandparents ate …”
# 2: Australian Food History: The middle ages in England – the mother country. 
# 3: Australian Food History: Food and the rise of the British Empire.
# 4: Australian Food History: The Hungry Years. 1777 – 1800.
# 5: Australian Food History: Greener Pastures. 1800 to 1850.
# 6: Australian Food History: The Gold Rush Years. 1850 to 1900.
# 7: Australian Food History: Federation and WW1. 1900 to 1920.
# 8: Australian Food History: Nutritionism begins. 1920 to 1950
# 9: Living through Food History: 1950s to 1970s
# 10: Living through Food History: 1980s to 2000s

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. _______________________________________________________________________________


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 Margaret Francis, Barbara Crighton and Maree Myhill for discussions and assistance with the search for diet and food entries from family documents. I thank Melanie Voevodin for providing me with references 9 and 10.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. 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.

15. Carlos A Monteiro, Geoffrey Cannon, Renata B Levy, Jean-Claude Moubarac, Maria Lc Louzada et. al.; Ultra-processed foods. What they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutr 2019 Apr;22(5):936-941. doi: 10.1017/S1368980018003762.

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

17. Elizabeth, L; Machado, 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.

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

19. In letters home to my grand-mother in Australia during World War 1, my grand-father (who was born in England) referred to England as ‘Blighty’, an affectionate term for Britain during the trench war-times, whereas my grand-mother would refer to England as the ‘Old Country’ or more simply ‘Home’ (with a capital ‘H’) as opposed to ‘home’ when she meant her house of living. 


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