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Is Don. Is Good.

February 21, 2010

Cast your mind back to 2009. The Masterchef zeitgeist had Australia whipped into a culinary frenzy. Cashing in on the success of the original series, producers announced Celebrity Masterchef and unveiled a motley stable of ‘celebrities’ including Anna Bligh, Queensland’s first female premier. Columnists around the country whipped themselves into a nay-saying frenzy, claiming variously that ‘demonstrating conventional womanly domesticity’ on national television was a dubious PR tactic, and that she would be better off staying put and running the state. Following her defeat by Eamon Sullivan, Bligh herself expressed relief, conceding that, after taking two days of annual leave to participate in the competition, it was ‘time to go home and run the state.’

Conservative pundits, I’ve got news for you. It’s been done.

Back in the olden days, when shorts were short and beer was Resch’s Dinner Ale, Australia had the Don. Premier of South Australia from 1967-8 and then the ‘Dunstan Decade’ of 1970-9, Dunstan was a harbinger of profound change not only in South Australia, but the nation. Well traveled and educated, he was an Australian renaissance man with a gift for connecting with his constituents. Among the reforms which took place under his leadership were the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the recognition of Aboriginal Land Rights, the liberalisation of censorship and drinking laws, the lowering of the voting age to 18 and the granting of universal suffrage, as well as a contribution to the dismantling of the White Australia Policy. The arts in South Australia flourished under his leadership, with the establishment of the Adelaide Festival Centre and increased support for theatre, film and music.

Sometimes overlooked, perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of Don Dunstan’s time in public life however, is culinary. As Premier, Dunstan embraced multiculturalism, legalised and encouraged European-style al-fresco dining and liberalised drinking laws, extending opening hours in an attempt to shift the prevailing practice of aiming to sell the most possible alcohol in the shortest possible time. And, in a move almost unimaginable to us, he published a cookbook in the middle of his tenure as Premier.

This was no Jasper + Abby and the Great Australia Day Kerfuffle (kerfluffle more like it). Don Dunstan’s Cookbook, published in 1976, sold over 40,000 copies in a matter of months and aimed to change the way Australians ate. The first sentence, ‘This is not meant to be the kitchen equivalent of The Joy of Sex, deservedly a best seller’, introduces the conversational and engaging tone of the book which reveals Dunstan’s passion for international cuisine and fresh produce. Recipes range from ichiban dashi soup to gado-gado, rendang daging and vitello tonnato. His chapter ‘Towards an Australian Cooking Style’ argues for ‘a second considerable awakening of food consciousness’ celebrating Australian produce, borrowing from Asian neighbours and embracing migrant influences.

If there was a house fire and I could save only one cookbook, it would be this one.

Wok on with the Don

For those of you who don’t know, I should disclose that this book was published nearly a decade before I was born. Why then do I continue to look to it for inspiration? A generation of cooks, among them my parents, was influenced by Don Dunstan and his culinary peers, and this generation has in turn influenced mine. I can remember my first taste of Greece when, many years ago, Mama Explody made a moussaka based on Dunstan’s recipe, sending moussaka into my top five favourite foods, where it has remained ever since.

Now that I am pondering Australia’s culinary history, Don Dunstan’s Cookbook has been a touchstone for me and an entertaining insight into the cultural landscape of the 1970s. So, with the garden continuing to overflow with eggplants, I sought to re-create the moussaka of my youth, not quite authentic and not the best recipe I’ve used, but delicious and loaded with fond memories and lofty ideals.



This is a great dish and unhappily Greek restaurants in Australia rarely do it well.

2 eggplants
750g minced lamb
2 onions
1 carrot
2 rashers bacon
bay leaf
glass red wine
315 ml beef stock
315 ml cream
tomato puree

Mise en place

Slice the eggplant with the skin on lengthways, sprinkle the slices with salt and sit for half an hour. Rinse, dry and lightly brown in olive oil. If they are not salted and dried, they will absorb too much oil during the frying. While the eggplant is draining, finely chop the onions, carrot and bacon, and fry in olive oil. Add the mince and brown it. Add the spices and herbs. Pour in red wine, stock and stir in two tablespoons of tomato puree. Simmer for about half an hour, until the liquid is reduced and the lamb is tender. Put eggplant and mince in alternate layers to fill a pie dish. Now stir beaten yolk into the cream with a pinch of salt and pour over the moussaka to form a custard layer. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and a pinch of nutmeg. Put in oven preheated to 200 degrees, cook for 20-30 minutes and serve.

Don's table

11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2010 13:55

    SNAP! I’m a definitely an eggplant girl, and I’m a moussaka girl too. Yeuppers gotta agree that Don Dunstan deserves some attention, and certainly helped move us Aussies towards a celebration of Australian produce. Lovely post from the historian in you. @frombecca xx

  2. David permalink
    February 21, 2010 14:32

    Was Don Dunstan the Australian Elizabeth David? (Hope that link works…) His nickname was ‘Don Baby’.

    There were female premiers before Anna Bligh: Joan Kirner in Victoria and Carmen Lawrence in WA. Both of them became leaders at a time when their predecessors had stuffed things up so totally that their chances of winning the next election were well-nigh non-existent. That could never happen in NSW – could it?

    Katie and Rosie were glued to Masterchef. Odd coincidence – Matt Preston and I were born on the same day. And Morris Iemma was born the day after…

  3. Patricia Knowles permalink
    February 21, 2010 15:07

    Great work felix……I really enjoy reading your preludes to a good meal. Especially this one. Keep it up and i look forward to many more.

  4. February 21, 2010 22:52

    Mmm Eggplant deliciousness…send some down my way! I could have a baba ghanouj fest!

    I love our renaissance Don….And would love to check out the recipes! Bring it back next time you visit!

  5. February 22, 2010 14:33

    Enjoyed your sure to enjoy the moussaka too. Don was in my studio in the Clare Valley 3 weeks before he died, his body wasted, but his mind as sharp as ever. I attended his memorial service which co-incided with my birthday, 12th February, 1999. What he stood for and achieved in South Australia was the main reason for my moving here from Joh Bjelke’s Queensland in 1986. Immediately after the service, I painted some works in tribute to this great Statesman. My favourite is in the Previous Works section of my website; it’s title is A Distant Light, a reference to a man of principle who was prepared to stand by them, no matter what. He was and still is a guiding light for me; a Statesman the likes of whom this nation has rarely seen.

  6. felixexplody permalink*
    February 22, 2010 20:34

    @frombecca: Thanks for your comment lovely, I’m so pleased to be able to marry my loves of food and history! Don Dunstan is one of my all-time Australian heroes.

    David: I don’t think Don Baby was as prolific and influential in the culinary field as Elizabeth David, but his grasp of foreign dishes and ingredients was before its time! Thanks for the correction there, how naughty of me! I have amended the text.

    Patricia: Thanks, I’m so glad you’re enjoying my posts, I’m certainly enjoying writing them! Great to hear from you 🙂

    Reemski: I’ll be sure to bring the book down. I just acquired my grandparents’ fondue set, I should have a themed dinner later this year 😉

    Murray: Many thanks for sharing your experiences of Don and how he has touched your life. His kind is an extinct breed I fear. I have spent quite a bit of time in South Australia as my Aunt and Uncle work in the arts down there, and his cultural influence is still so visible, it’s a vibrant place. A Distant Light is a beautiful painting!

  7. Emma permalink
    February 24, 2010 14:42

    Nice one, felix. But what is this ‘absorb too much oil’ of which you speak? Absorbing olive oil is what eggplant was created for, surely?

  8. niki permalink
    March 30, 2010 14:24

    A dish that greek restaurants so rarely do well?
    I am Greek, and I assure you, there is NO Moussaka made in the old country has ever had a trace of bacon in it. Or pork for that matter.
    I find it a bit of an insult to be honest that you feel you can make a dish better than those who hail from the land it was created in.
    This is one of the most westernized versions of a dish i have grown up on. Why is it in this country adding bacon to everything and anything is considered to make it better?
    so before you start going on about how no restaurants do it well, how bout you have the real thing before tainting a perfectly good dish with bacon.

    • felixexplody permalink*
      March 30, 2010 14:54

      Firstly, that was a quote from the book. I wasn’t born in the 1970s but I bet Greek Restaurants weren’t as culinarily advanced as they are now. Secondly, the whole point is that I don’t claim this to be an authentic recipe. It’s a reminder of my first introduction to Greek food and my mum’s cooking. Thirdly, everything tastes better with bacon. Thanks for reading though 🙂


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