I had lunch yesterday with 2 old friends, both former colleagues from the university. It was great to catch up, as we do every few months, though on reflection, from the time we decided to eat outside because of the noise level in the air-conditioned interior, I think the script was by Kingsley Amis, the production BBC, and I hope I was played by Judy Dench. My friends could easily double for Michael Caine (The Quiet American, rather than Alfie) and Ian McClellan (Gandalf, definitely).
We put the world to rights, in furious agreement about current government policy, but nostalgia intervened when we got to the debate over the closure of SPC Ardmona, Australia’s last fruit canning factory.
Ardmona is in the Goulburn valley in Victoria. It has been a fruit growing area since the 19th century, and there has been a factory there since 1917 when – irony of ironies – the local fruit growers asked the Victorian Minister of Agriculture to contribute £100,000 towards a canning factory. [Shepparton News, 28 May 1917, from Trove]
The factory is the largest employer in a declining region with little other work available, and it faces closure without government support. The Federal government refused to contribute; the State government has offered something to keep it going for now, so there will still be Goulburn Valley tinned peaches available for the foreseeable future.
We all remembered in our childhood that every night’s dinner ended with something sweet – as often as not tinned fruit. My preference was tinned peaches, though there was one vote for tinned pears. Two out of three had nutmeg on their baked custard, and only one mother made steamed puddings.
It says something that the name of this sweet ending to the meal is so culturally loaded: is it ‘pudding’ (Nancy-Mitford-style English), or ‘dessert’ (food-critic-type Australian) or a ‘sweet’ (the most sensible descriptor and therefore – almost inevitably – downmarket).
Tinned or canned fruit (we Australians seem to be shifting to the American style here) was once a common feature of the evening meal, preferably at the end, though in more dubious forms like sweet and sour, it could invade the main course. Now it has all but disappeared, at the same time that obesity is becoming a serious problem.
None of our mothers worked outside the home, but the home itself was a factory where mothers worked, producing biscuits, cakes, custard, stewed fruit. All were sugary treats, but the amount of sugar was at least a known quantity, bought by the bag. I remember helping my mother preserve fruit too, but generally, tinned fruit was the norm, a common if rather extravagant treat, especially on days when it was too hot to cook.
Nowadays the canned section of our supermarkets has shrunk. I buy sardines and coconut milk, both ingredients that are not available locally, and tuna and tomatoes, which are used in rather different ways from their fresh equivalents. That’s about it. I would never buy tinned fruit – and rarely eat any other sweet food, apart from a very unsweet dark chocolate.
My tastes have changed, and not just mine but the nation’s as a whole. As fashions in food tend to be global, no doubt it is true elsewhere too. In 1947, Queensland’s wedding gift to Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh was 500 tins of pineapple. (I wrote about it here) That was pretty weird at the time, but it is unthinkable now. Who would possibly work their way through all that tinned pineapple, when fresh pineapples are available?
I very much hope that SPC Ardmona can survive, but a radical restructure of the fruit preserving industry will need more than investment in new canning equipment. It needs to deal with changes in taste, and the changes in the shopping and cooking habits that come with changes in women’s work over the last 50 years.
Yesterday my friends and I met at a restaurant to socialise – as our parents seldom did 50 years ago. We ate curry and naan, and apart from my sweet lassi, the meal contained no sweet dishes at all.
And despite my allusion to Kingsley Amis, no alcohol was consumed, since all three of us are currently wrestling with the books we are writing. Academics don’t retire so that they can give up working, they retire so that they can find the time to work. I’m betting on Gandalf to finish first.