Wednesday, August 01, 2012

I came across Dione Lucas by chance. A friend gave me some old cookbooks he had collected from secondhand shops and in amongst them was a 64-page color cookbook, designed for lifting out of the main magazine, The Australian Women’s Weekly, and keeping. Dione Lucas, hair pulled back and secured in a bun, wearing a strange German national costume looked up from her work—piping meringue onto a baking tray. As I learned by reading the introduction, Dione was an American celebrity chef and TV presenter who toured Australia and demonstrated French cordon bleu (blue ribbon) cooking in major department stores in capital cities. The cookbook was undated but had all of the signs of 1950s Australia. It was one of three cookbooks produced by The Australian Women’s Weekly after each of her three visits in 1956, 1958, and 1960.

After a quick internet search, I realized where she was placed in America’s culinary history, and I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of her: I’d cooked roast turkey using James Beard’s recipe for our Christmas lunch the year before and was familiar with Craig Claiborne’s food writing in the New York Times—both were her contemporaries. What I didn’t realize, until I read Jeanne Schinto’s article “Remembering Dione Lucas” in Gastronomica, was that she had been misremembered or forgotten in America’s culinary history too. (Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 34 Winter 2011.)

Schinto spent time at the Schlesinger Library when she researched Dione Lucas for her article, and she suggested I contact the library. There was a file on Dione’s Australian tour in her archive with some 100 pages of material. Rather than hire a researcher to access the files and relay information to me, I decided I needed to make the trip and see what they contained for myself. Lucky me! The 2012 national conference of the National Popular Culture and the American Culture Association was to be held in Boston, and the abstract for my paper on Dione Lucas and TV in Australia was accepted. Harvard and the Schlesinger Library were an easy trip to make each day on the Boston metro. I gave my paper, ditched the conference, and spent the week at the Schlesinger Library with Dione Lucas.

I share author and editor Joan Reardon’s thoughts on walking down Brattle Street to the library—“Every day for a week I made my way along Brattle Street to the welcoming Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts …” (As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis De Voto, 2010). Reardon made her trip to the Schlesinger to read correspondence between Julia Child and Avis de Voto; my trip was to access Dione Lucas papers donated to the library by Dione's friend and co-author Marion Gorman, and like Child's, they were “inventoried and catalogued and open to readers.”

Television was first broadcast in Australia 10 years after broadcasting started in the United States and it was my belief (based on my research in Australia) that Dione Lucas was brought to Australia in 1956 to promote the sale of TV sets and the idea of TV to Australian housewives. Her cooking demonstrations were televised by closed-circuit TV throughout the department stores where they were held, and TV sets were strategically placed throughout the stores and in the windows. If you couldn’t get a seat to see her demonstrations you could watch it on TV in the store and then if you had any queries about TV or if you wanted to purchase a TV set you could visit the TV center in store. Then, if you had any queries about TV or wanted to purchase a TV set, you could visit the TV center in store and put a down payment on a new TV—so the marketing around her first visit went. Dione’s first visit to Australia was by invitation from new media owner Sir Frank Packer, who owned The Australian Women’s Weekly and had just bought the rights to Melbourne's channel GTV9. Australia’s first broadcast of TV was just two months away—and what better way to promote it than with a seasoned and very professional TV cooking “star.”

My belief based largely on the promotion around her tour in Australia in 1956 was confirmed by material in the “Australian file” at the Schlesinger. I have a feeling that a hired researcher would have not made the connection between TV and Dione Lucas, due to TV being already a big part of America’s culture by the 1950s. For this discovery alone, I was glad I had made the trip to see her files.

But it was more than that for me. I had already formed a connection with Dione—one that I am now exploring in a paper I am writing, “Dione and Me.” I had met her son whilst he was holidaying with his family in Australia and spent a day reminiscing with him. I shared my discoveries about her Australian tours with him, and he shared some treasured memories of time he spent with her. We had similar backgrounds: I too had studied at Cordon Bleu in Paris and knew how to “turn a mushroom,” a decorative skill she demonstrated many times on her TV cooking shows and one that she used to sustain her during difficult financial times at the start of her career in New York. Every day that week, I felt that I was spending time with Dione. I looked through her handwritten recipes from her Cordon Bleu days and her phone book with its doodles and phone numbers for suppliers and friends—including influential food writer Craig Claiborne. I read letters from her and about her. I watched her making her famous strudel and thought I might just have a go. And I listened to her achingly tired voice as she struggled through a radio interview just 12 months before she died.

I came away with a deeper understanding of her life and work and with a list of addresses for her cooking schools in New York. On the way home from my short stop over there, I visited each location in New York.


Jillian (Jill) Adams is a PhD candidate at Central Queensland University, Australia. Her research relates to the 1950s kitchen and definitions of the housewife in Australia, and she uses oral histories, women’s magazines, and cookbooks of the period to inform her investigation. Adams studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris in the 1970s and was employed by the William Angliss Institute, in Melbourne, for 10 years, where she was a manager of the Coffee Academy. She has a master's in oral history and historical memory from Monash University. Adams can be reached at agoodbrew@mac.com.