Fishy stories from the Queensland Museum Archives

By Dr Brit Asmussen, Senior Curator, Archaeology, Queensland Museum

It’s funny the weird and wonderful things you come across in the correspondence, held in the Queensland Museum Library and Archives!

Searching through the archives

Part of the work of a curator is to research the histories of objects in the State Collection and how we come to care for them. Part of this work often involves looking into the correspondence associated with an object, which is held in the Queensland Museum Research Library and Archives. While searching through the hundreds of letters in and out in any given year, you often also come across other letters, which are not the one you are looking for, but are historically or socially interesting in their own right, and make you stop and wonder ‘how and why’ did this letter come to be written?

There was something fishy  

One such letter was written in late 1914, by a previous Director of the Queensland Museum, Dr Ronald Hamlyn-Harris (between 1910-1917). It was addressed to Professor L Joubin, from the Institut Océanographique, Paris, and contained several typewritten pages of fish recipes. This is one of the more unusual letters of the Director’s tenure. Why did the Director send such a letter?

A special request of you!

Professor Louis Joubin was the Director of the Institut Océanographique, founded by Albert, 1st Prince of Monaco.

It turns out, that both institutions had been corresponding over some years, as both were members of the International Board of Exchanges, which concerned the dissemination and exchange of publications and books. In this case, the exchange of the Queensland Museum Memoirs and the Annales de l’Institut Océanographique, which were received between 1914 and 1917, and then it paused during the war, picking up in 1924 with a new series. However, in reading this correspondence, it seems that sometimes copies of the Memoirs did not always make it to France, and replacement volumes were requested.

However, at end of one such letter from the Institut Océanographique dated the 21st of June 1914, contained a special request to the Director. As original letters inward was written in French, they all required translation. It must have been surprising, and novel, to receive the following request from Prof. Joublin “I have something special to request of you! With the object of increasing the consumption of fish in France, we are collecting culinary recipes for fish, crustacea, shellfish and intend issuing these in the form of a popular booklet. If you could get me any such recipes peculiar to Australia you could render me a service –“  

Enter Miss Henry and the Technical College

Was Hamlyn-Harris particularly fond of fish and already have several different recipes on hand that he could share? Or, if not, where did these recipes come from? Did they come from a cookery book?

Further searching through the archives revealed that the Director must have written to the Technical College, Rockhampton, for assistance. While the original request letter has not been located, the reply from the Technical College in October 1914 indicates that several recipes were supplied by Miss F.M. Henry, the Instructress of Cookery at the Rockhampton Technical College. A further letter records Hamlyn-Harris’s appreciation of these recipes being sent to him.   

Many ways with Fish!

In total, Miss Henry provided seven typewritten, foolscap-sized pages containing a total of 17 recipes for fish, oysters, prawns and scallops, with each recipe set out with title, ingredients and method – as you would expect from a cookery school. The selection included:

Fried Fish (Filleted)
Boiled fish
Steamed Fish
Baked Fish
Baked Fish (Filleted)
Soused Fish
Stewed Fish
Fish in Curry Sauce
Oysters Au Gratin
Oysters Fried in Batter
Oysters Stewed
Oysters Steamed
Oysters Plumped
Devilled Oysters
Prawns Curried
Scalloped Prawns
Scalloped Crab

The bundle also included a clipping from the newspaper, titled ‘The Art of Frying’ where it stresses that good cooks need to be able to fry well! It also contained information on how to fry fish, and how best to prepare the best accompaniment, potato chips.

Another interesting aspect of 1914 fish recipes revealed

Was there a popular book of fish recipes produced as Prof. Joubin hoped? Did France eat more fish? Why were people encouraged to eat more fish?

Joubin’s request came just before the outbreak of the First World War (28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918), and he likely received the reply with recipes in late 1914, after the war had begun. During the war, food was rationed, subject to shortage, and prices increased substantially. The war affected food consumption around the world. The United States Food Administration suggested people should ‘save the products of the land and eat more fish’, and The Canadian Food Board urged people to buy fresh fish, and save meat for the soldiers and allies.   

Today the institute’s website has a page dedicated to recipes and ideas for sustainable cooking, including 300 recipes. I wonder if Miss Henry’s are amongst them.

For other fish recipes from 1914 see TROVE and investigate Dining in France (including fish!) during and after WW1.