‘The Art of Cookery is in a Most Barbarous State’*: Food on the Frontier

By Heather Burke

Jane Fyfe, who accompanied her husband Alexander to his large pastoral run on the Mackenzie River Central Qld in 1862, neatly summed up the state of food on the frontier when she complained in a letter to her aunt:

… We have plenty of fish and game and splendid mutton but nothing but damper to eat with it, so it is mutton, damper & tea and “vice versa” three times a day. This is Queensland. (Letter from Jane Fyfe to unknown 5 June 1862, Private collection)

A lack of fresh vegetables, a heavy reliance on salted meats, and few systems of resupply for essentials such as flour, tea, and condiments meant that standard frontier fare was simple and often nutritionally restricted. Over the long term such diets could lead to a host of health problems, particularly scurvy, which could easily prove to be fatal.

Traditional English forms of ‘plain’ cookery and the limitations of open fires further combined to restrict cooking options. Casseroles, stews, boiled or fried fare were standard, with the main ingredient always some form of meat. George Pearce Serocold, of Cockatoo station in central Qld, would have been a ready sympathiser with Jane Fyfe:

I must confess I am tired of mutton … Our breakfast consists of coffee, mutton chops and eggs. Our regular dinner is about one o’clock, but business often compels us to make dinner and supper in one. Our dinner is usually roast mutton, curried mutton, mutton pie—with now & then some Illawarra Bacon or a wild duck or a kangaroo tail stew. (GB 216 D/D T 2974/6 1857 Letter from George Pearce Serocold to Charles Serocold 25 December)

One’s perspective on mutton, however, depended almost entirely on one’s squatting interests. Charles Eden could thus complain:

Bush fare is always pretty much the same; beef, beef, eternal beef, which after a while you become rather tired of. Potted salmon and sardines eke out the menu, but nobody need be without a change who chooses to take out their gun; game can always be found, and generally within a short distance. (Eden 1872:119)

If you couldn’t catch it fresh, then tinned or otherwise preserved was the next best thing. If you were lucky (and sufficiently well-off) you could take advantage of family or other connections to supply you with some alternatives. This is precisely what George Serocold did when he asked his brother in England to send ‘a few dozens (quarts) of rich soups put in with the vegetables — say Mock Turtle, Giblet, Jugged Hare, Game, sweetbread &c — say about £20 worth which take from my account’ (GB 216 D/D T 2974/11 1858 Letter from George Pearce Serocold to Charles Serocold 31 October). Failing that, even the humdrum of mutton or beef could be dressed up with curry spices or bottled sauces and variety provided through anchovy or other meat pastes (Figure 1).

Cross and Blackwell's anchovy paste
Figure 1 (left) A Crosse and Blackwell ceramic bottle fragment from the Fort Cooper NMP camp in Central Qld; (right) an original bottle.

Regardless of whether you were oversupplied with beef or mutton, however, no-one was oversupplied with vegetables:

Vegetables we are very short of; ours consist of cabbage tops with the native herb “Fat hen”; later in the year — or rather in the autumn we shall have pumpkins — tomatoes also grow well. We are very fond too of my old acquaintance of the sea “Edwards Preserved Potatoe”. Occasionally we have plum pudding, rice or custard pudding or tarts made of American dried apples, bottled fruits or some of our wild berries from the scrub. (GB 216 D/D T 2974/6 1857 Letter from George Pearce Serocold to Charles Serocold 25 December)

Being an ex-navy man Serocold would have been familiar with forms of easily stored, non-perishable vegetables. Edwards Preserved Potatoes (essentially dried potato flakes) were, according to their own advertising, ‘proved to keep in all climates, and not occupying one-sixth the space of other potatoes’ (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Instructions for the use of Edwards’ Preserved Potatoes.

They were taken by, among others, John Rae on his 1854 expedition to the Canadian Arctic in search of Franklin (Galton 1855:77) and were advertised in Australia throughout the 19th century (if you want to read the testimonials, try this one: The Austral-Asiatic Review, Tasmanian and Australian Advertiser, 2 September 1842, p1).  The following year Serocold could write excitedly to his brother that he had found ‘a new kind of dried potatoe [sic] – cut in strips and dried. They are very good (they are Cholletts)’ (GB 216 D/D T 2974/11 1858 Letter from George Pearce Serocold to Charles Serocold 31 October). Chollett’s Preserved Potatoes came well recommended by Francis Galton in his 1855 guide to ‘roughing it’ aptly titled, The Art of Travel; or Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries.

Green vegetables were not so obliging. The ‘Fat hen’ that Serocold referred to was goosefoot, one of many invasive herbs (read ‘weeds’) that were incorporated into frontier diets. Portulaca, also known as purslane, was another:

One thing, however, grew despite our utmost endeavours to keep it down; this was ‘pigweed,’ and not being able to subdue it we turned it into salads, and most delicious they were; I know few things better than a salmon and pigweed salad, with plenty of cream and eggs … When boiled, however, it was not nearly so good. Another wild vegetable grew in the sandy beds of the rivers and creeks, called ‘fat hen.’ It was exactly like spinach, and is not only most agreeable but also an excellent anti-scorbutic, a useful property, for scurvy is not an unknown thing in the bush by any means. (Eden 1872:120)

Portulaca is highly nutritious, containing vitamins A and C and being especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Edward Palmer also extolled its virtues, while at the same time revealing much about the gastronomic ingenuity of frontier settlers:

Pig weed (portulacca), boiled or roasted on a shovel was one of the changes open to travellers; tea was made from the marjoram bush; and very fair coffee was made from the scrapings of the burnt edges of dampers, and was called Scotch coffee. (Palmer 1903:178)

While Scotch coffee might not be to everyone’s (or anyone’s) taste, not every frontier meal reflected austerity. When Lucy and Robert Gray called in to the Reedy Lake NMP camp in 1868 on their way from the Burdekin River to Hughenden, they were invited to tea by Sub-Inspector John Marlow. Sitting on the verandah of his house ‘festooned with pretty creepers framing a view of an immense sweep of the river below’, Robert and Lucy feasted on ‘delicious tea with cream & excellent cake’ (Gray 1965:16) — perhaps the least likely of NMP meals.

Christmas, too, was a time for indulgence, even though imagination often exceeded both ability and supplies. William Hill recalled an enthusiastic attempt at plum pudding by himself and Sub-Inspector Hervey Fitzgerald when stationed at the Yo Yo Creek NMP camp ‘in honor of a projected visit of inspection by the Commissioner’. Although it ‘should have been a wonderful production, seeing it contained about thirty eggs, plums and currants in galore, and heaps of all the other necessary ingredients’, only after having boiled it for three days did they discover the consequences of using rendered fat instead of suet: the pudding turned out as ‘hard and heavy as a cannon ball’ (Hill 1907:37), and was presumably inedible. An unnamed camp-keeper at the Diamantina NMP camp faced a different dilemma: having organised in advance for the mailman to bring the plums and a bottle of “Port Mackay”, he found that the bottle had broken before it reached camp (or so the mailman claimed) and that “Mr Dicky”, the camp’s pet emu, had eaten all the plums (Queenslander, 4 February 1882, p.141).

Merry Christmas from the Archaeology on the Frontier blog team.


Eden, C. 1872 My Wife and I in Queensland. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Galton, F. 1855 The Art of Travel; or Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries. London: John Murray.

Gray, L. 1965 Journey to Hughenden. Queensland Heritage 1(1):11–18.

Hill, W.R.O. 1907 Forty-five Years’ Experiences in North Queensland 1861–1905. Brisbane: H. Pole and Co.

Palmer, E. 1903 Early Days in North Queensland. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Experiment with your own Portulaca salad. For a whole host of other invasive herbs you can eat, see SBS’s weed calendar.

*Letter from George Pearce Serocold to Charles Serocold 31 October 1858, GB 216 D/DT2974/11, West Glamorgan Archives, UK.

3 thoughts on “‘The Art of Cookery is in a Most Barbarous State’*: Food on the Frontier

  1. Fascinating post. It is interesting how we keep to traditions of food as seen in the effort to make a pudding. I grew up in the 60s with fish pastes and there was a ham paste and they are now impossible to find. Was tinned food expensive to transport to the camps?

    1. Hi Susan, I don’t know the carriage rates, but it certainly would have been more expensive in some areas than others. Transportation by dray also wasn’t 100% reliable, especially in the north in the wet season. For the NMP fresh meat from the local pastoralist was always included as part of their rations, so they probably suffered some of the same disenchantment with mutton-only or beef-only diets as the pastoralists in the post. Troopers, of course, could and did hunt for themselves, so their diets would have been more varied – at least in terms of meat.

  2. That’s lovely. Merry Christmas to you too

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