The Country Women’s Association of Australia (CWA) have been going strong for almost 100 years. Their role has expanded in more recent years but they have always been the heart and soul of rural communities everywhere, providing support to each other and to their local communities, especially in times of need. They are totally self supporting through fundraising and one of the ways they do that is through their cookbooks. Associations publish their own versions from time to time as a collection of recipes contributed by its local members.
I found my first CWA cookbook at a fete in Queensland in the early 1990’s. It was an early publication by the Esk Valley Tasmanian Association and I still use it regularly. (You can’t beat them for baking recipes.)
It’s not just about the recipes though, I think they are social history gold. The old books are a peek through the keyhole into the daily life of women in the not too distant past and offer unique insight into life on the land in every corner of the country. They are perfectly of their time and place.
No-one on earth is more resourceful than a woman on the land. I love that the recipes were published verbatim. You can just picture Mrs John E. Smith sitting at her kitchen table, writing out a recipe for the first time that she has been cooking for her family for forty years. Maybe it was handed down to her from her own mother and adapted a little each time, depending on what’s available. Little comments and tips give the contributors a distinctive voice, as if she’s speaking directly at you.
The information left out of the recipes is also telling. There’s always an implied skill base, now long lost, that reminds you that these recipes are just suggestions for the experienced cook, the writers assume that you already know how to make a pie shell/ sponge cake/ bone a chicken/ roast a joint etc., so they’re invariably short on detail and vague about times and temperatures and such.
The creativity and resourcefulness by women who cooked three meals a day, not just for their family but for crews of working men as well, never fails to impress. You get a real sense of place from the ingredients utilised too. Limited stocks of basic supplies were supplemented by whatever was close at hand. Every region in the country can be identified by its early CWA cookbooks and their starring ingredients.
So imagine my joy at finding an orginal 1954 edition of the Flinders Island CWA cookbook on the shelves here at Mountain Seas last night!
There are recipes for mutton bird, kangaroo, crayfish and abalone as well as ‘points to remember’ like the importance of making a dish look attractive and how to make your own stove polish for a wood burning stove.
Before ‘Lonely Planet’ guides and the ‘Good food guide’ we had CWA cookbooks to tell us all about regional food. Someone was telling me the other day about a recent 1.3 million dollar hospitality event in Sydney involving the best chefs in the country. The hot new theme was ‘ingredients sourced within 50 kilometers’. They used hessian sacks as tablecloths and served teeny tiny little two hundred dollar meals, some of which didn’t even include meat (sit down Mavis). I wonder what the CWA ladies of Flinders Island in 1954 would have made of that.