A Busmans’ Holiday to 641

From Norm Laskay, a Boyd Library Volunteer

I was recently in Australia doing a bit of teaching and happened to be close to the State Library Victoria in the CBD of Melbourne. Since I work as a volunteer at the John & Bonnie Boyd Hospitality & Culinary Library, I wondered what a massive Australian state library would have in the culinary section.

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The State Library Victoria, along with many other grandiose buildings, was built in the 1850s in the boom times of the Victoria gold rush. Not only was it one of the first free libraries in the world, but it also housed the National Gallery of Victoria until 1968 and the Melbourne Museum until 2000. With its many separate floors and rooms it still has a feel of a gallery or museum.

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On the massive first floor a lady at an information desk directed me to my requested area, the Dewey Decimal Classification for Food & Drink, 641. This was located on Floor 2A in the Redmond Barry Reading Room, a mezzanine floor overlooking the main floor reading area. Interesting to note that the books on food and drink were located in the only library area not accessible by elevator, forcing a bit of a calorie burn.

Doing a quick scan of the relatively few 641 shelves I estimated that the collection was around 500 books. On the other side of this floor was a separate section of 641 “Folio” books which were supposed to be oversized books and did contain a number of coffee table type books with lavish illustrations. With a quick count I noted about 30 books that covered United States cooking, including several on Creole and Cajun cooking. Surprisingly, there were only about half that number on Australian cooking. And within those few Australian choices there were hardly any that one would consider for home use. They seem to mainly consist of historic cooking and menus prior to WWII, books by name Australian chefs containing long prep work and hard to find (for a normal family) ingredients, or books on bush tucker, bush food eaten by the aboriginal Australians.  

Most of the 500 book collection covered ingredients and production, such as books on fish and shellfish, specific vegetables, herbs and spices, books on breads and desserts, making salads and soups, and making beer and wine. Since Victoria State is a very large wine region, there were many books on wine.

As I was disappointed to not find any books on “normal” Australian cooking, the next day I went to City Basement Books, my favorite used book store in Melbourne. It is a cramped and cluttered dim bookstore on Flinders Street, a used bookstore out of central casting. Their cookbook section was very small and in some ways similar in type to the library’s collection, with a slightly larger selection of bush tucker books. I did find a very interesting book written by a New Zealand chef and food critic/writer on the cooking of the French colonies. While containing recipes, many with historic “old school” ingredients and process, he also ties the each recipe and its ingredients back to the original French recipes brought to Martinique, or Louisiana, or Tahiti or Algeria or Cameroon, in the days of the French colonial rule.

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But understanding modern Victoria can help one understand why there were so few books on Australian cooking. Melbourne has a population of over 4.5 million people. The second most used language after English is Chinese with its Chinatown established in 1851 (gold rush days) being the longest continuous Chinese settlement outside of Asia. It has the largest Greek speaking population outside of Europe. My hotel was in Chinatown and the street it was on, and those around it, looked like a street in Beijing or Tokyo except some of the many restaurants were not Chinese but Thai, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Indian, Pakistani, Cambodian, etc. A block away was Greektown and I had two great meals there.

For further explanation, a list of the ten top restaurants in Melbourne, in order, by type, is Spanish tapas, contemporary Indian, French bistro, Latin American/Mexican, Italian, Peruvian, Greek/modern Australian, Middle Eastern, Asian fusion, and Euro café.

While I understand that you can buy kangaroo in the grocery stores, I’ve never heard any of my Australian friends mention eating it. So there may not be much that can be called original Australian cooking. Except maybe a traditional breakfast, which is, as much as some Australians hate to admit, British.