A Personal Tribute to Margaret Fulton OAM

With Margaret when she launched my book The Best Collection in 2009

This week Australia is remembering Margaret Fulton, OAM who passed peacefully away, surrounded by her family in the early hours of Wednesday morning 24 July, aged 94. She was only a few weeks short of her 95th birthday. Her daughter Suzanne Gibbs was holding her mother’s hands when she died.”All through my childhood those hands meant so much to me … cooking, cutting, sewing. I just treasured those hands of hers that did so much and just were so powerful” she said.

I have been privileged to know Margaret personally since the 1980s, brought together by food. We have shared many experiences and travelled together and were indeed friends. I was touched when the family asked me to be available to do media interviews on their behalf, while they sought some privacy. These I was honoured to do and you can see the links on my website here.
Such an outpouring of fond emotion for Margaret has led me to abandon my usual weekly newsletter and instead devote it to this outstanding Australian. 

I was thrilled to give the tribute speech for Margaret’s 85th birthday, at a dinner put on by the Food Media Club of Australia (which later became The Association of Australian Food Professionals). Margaret was our Patron. I researched this speech carefully, enjoying her autobiography I Sang for My Supper (with a somewhat polite story of her life). One would not want to get anything wrong for Margaret as she would let you know in no uncertain terms. The following tribute is an updated version of what I said that night nearly 10 years ago.

There is probably hardly a household in Australia that does not have at least one of Margaret Fulton’s cookbooks nor an Australian who would not recognise her warm smile or impish ways from her countless appearances in the press or on TV.

Certainly anyone who watched the World Premiere of Our Food Journey on the Lifestyle Channel which screened on her birthday in 2009, would have heard her acknowledged by Stephanie Alexander, Damien Pignolet, Cheong Liew, Neil Perry, Chris Manfield, Karen Martini and Shannon Bennett. They, or their mothers had been influenced by her books.

However, I think Margaret could be summed up in a comment she made to George Negus in an ABC programme screened 5 years ago before her 80th birthday  – “I’ve always felt that cooking is just as fascinating as men.” As George said, she is unmistakable and eminently quotable.

For Margaret is one of life’s true individuals, an active and always vibrant participant in life. Never bored and never boring. It is SHE who was fascinating!

The youngest of a family of six Scottish migrants, Margaret grew up in Glen Innes during the Depression where she learnt the value and importance of the family meal and its preparation from her parents. She learn’t to shop, cook and think for herself.

As she told the Australian Biography project when she was interviewed in 1997 “ I’ve since learnt I was born in the Year of the Rat, which actually tells me what my future is going to be: I’m always going to be surrounded by food.”

The programme and menu from Margaret’s 85th birthday which she signed for me

Although she really wanted to be a Blue Bell girl, rather take up an offer to go to University and study Nutrition, she came to Sydney as an 18 year old and took a wartime job as an X-ray technologist . This was followed by a secretarial position at the Australian Gas Light Company where she quickly moved on to become a cooking demonstrator. And this lit the flame to what was to become a hugely successful gastronomic career.

Somehow amongst all this she got married, spent time in her beloved native Scotland, had her only child Suzanne and ended up as a single Mum, though enjoying a wonderfully close relationship with her sister Jeannie Hatfield and her husband William, living with them for a time on the Hawkesbury River.

Margaret turned her hand to many things including making babies clothes, working at David Jones and then going on through sales and advertising to become a cookery writer for Woman magazine, concurrently gaining professional qualifications, something which has always made her a champion of learning to know and respect the classics first and foremost.

Pages I had torn out and kept from Woman’s Day April 26, 1971. I certainly cooked the Swiss Cheese Fondue and the Ham Steaks in Sour Cream

Ultimately, Margaret joined Woman’s Day magazine and so began the overseas travel, broadening her culinary knowledge,  which was to influence the way Australians thought about food and ate.  Significantly too Australia was opening up after World War 2 and a wider range of foodstuffs began to arrive in shops, along with European migrants and it was Margaret through her magazine columns who was to show the nation how to cook in new and exciting ways. Margaret went on a mad gastronomic adventure and brought the flavours back, translating them into achievable recipes, something which was to be a hallmark of her first, and to me, still greatest book.

In the kitchens of Australia, 1968 was a year of revolution. While Women’s Libbers fled cooking’s drudgery, career woman Margaret Fulton embraced its joys. This cookbook, mixing standards like pot roast with exotic dishes like goulash, and when it was released had people queuing along the city streets to buy it, much like people may queue today for the latest I phone. It lured Australians back to the stove and helped fire a national love affair with food. The ‘Margaret Fulton Cookbook’ became a publishing sensation. A previously unseen comprehensive and reliable collection of both basic and adventurous recipes, tried and tested with clear instructions and precise details.

The original Margaret Fulton Cookbook first published in 1968, second edition 1969 and my copy which was a reprint from 1971 and her signature when I showed it to her in 1999.

And you know that as a teenager I saved my pocket money to buy that book in 1971, though I only got it signed by Margaret  when we shared a literary stage together with Tony Bilson in 1999. Note how tattered, well-loved and well-used my copy is and what Margaret wrote to me in it in 1999. It sold an unprecedented 1.5 million copies.

In 2003 I was thrilled to find two copies at a garage sale which became treasured possessions of my own children who both took pride in how they cook and entertain. Funnily enough in 1971 I also sent in a recipe for the Prize Recipe in Woman’s Day. I chose it over The Australian Women’s Weekly because the prize, should I win,  was $10 rather than $5! The recipe for my Frozen Coffee Torte was subsequently printed. It has only occurred to me while writing this, that Margaret must have chosen it as the winner. I know I still have it in a filing cabinet somewhere. Little did I know then that Margaret would launch two of my nine cookbooks: Balls, The All Round Cookbook (co-authored with Loukie Werle) in 1999 and Best Collection in 2009. I was fortunate indeed.

Everyone has a Margaret Fulton cookbook story. At my gym this morning, one lady said she still uses her sausage stuffing for turkey. I have found it on p67. Another said Margaret’s Turkish pilaf is her “go to” rice dish as an accompaniment to spare ribs. I have found Pilaf à la Greque on p132.

The menu and programme from Margaret’s 85th birthday, the menu choice a tribute to her legacy

It is largely through Margaret’s inspiration and example that younger Australians realised the pleasurable and creative possibilities of fine dining and our national cuisine was transformed. As Margaret says “anyone that cooks finds that life gets better”.

And this is part of her magic, an ability to communicate with people of all ages and from all walks of life. She began a working relationship with her daughter Suzanne Gibbs, collaborating on a part series that was very successful – ‘The Margaret Fulton Cookery Course’. Suzanne, whom she had sent to Le Cordon Bleu in London, just loved it and Margaret has since said she taught her the joy of making cakes and desserts, something Suzanne excels at.  Now her grand-daughters Kate and Louise carry on. They are a family who cook and eat together.

And they are clearly proud of Margaret. How fabulous that all four of them collaborated on the revised edition of that first cookbook. Even without it, 10 years ago her cookbook sales around the world were over 4 million and even that figure was way out of date. With at least 25 cookbooks to her credit, there were also updates of her Encyclopaedia and Margaret Fulton Christmas. A particular favourite of mine is Margaret Fulton Superb Restaurant Dishes, published in 2000, which also has food stains throughout its pages, which is just what we cookbook authors like. To this day it is the crêpes recipe from here which I use because like the higher proportion of eggs to flour which makes them tender. It is in the section called Silver Service and The Grill Room, honouring the restaurants in the great hotels of the world. What a life she led!

With Margaret and Tetsuya at the launch of my Best Collection cookbook in 2009

Margaret  moved on to New Idea for many years, again working with Suzanne and at that time, ten years ago, she still gave cooking demonstrations with Suzanne and also the granddaughters. She was immeasurably proud of them. Margaret was unfailingly generous and always the first to support a good cause or encourage a young person.

She famously ran Berida Manor where she cooked for the CHOGM meeting soon after the Hilton bombing with all the security that entailed of taste testers to ensure she wasn’t poisoning anyone. It was here she got the late Anders Ousback to source the best of Australian wines to accompany the Australian food she was so proudly showcasing despite the challenges of the time.

Margaret had her ups and downs, economically and personally. But as my own dear mother, who was also thrilled to know Margaret (sharing some Scottish heritage and the name Isabel, Margaret’s second name, spelled the Scottish way), always said, it’s not what happens to you in life but what you do with it that counts. And Margaret always did, magnificently.  Mind you, I learned NOT try to sit in between her and a handsome man for there was no competition – she was a flirt – and I speak from experience! For they all loved her from Janni Kryitsis who learnt English from the original Margaret Fulton cookbook to one of this country’s most famous chefs, Tetsuya Wakuda.

Margaret at NSW Parliament House for her 85th Birthday dinner

Margaret had energy and vitality and remained dynamic – though at this dinner she’d given up weight training for yoga. She was a woman of strong views. A fierce proponent of a good education, it is interesting that she made her career path, as many of us who followed her have done too, in what was seen as a traditionally domestic area, yet she remains a career woman par excellence. She was and remains the first Domestic Goddess, even then still sending abroad for the Shetland wool which she loved to knit – but still stimulating her mind by reading the Zen of Knitting. And I am still amazed that as a young woman she read Ulysses in one night!

Margaret was the first and still the greatest of the Australian celebrity cookery writers – from long before the term was invented – and with no need for gimmickry or bad behaviour to make HER name. She continued to shop locally and freshly, and cook for herself and those she cares about until the last few years.

Margaret’s interests and influence go far beyond the kitchen – though indeed we could subscribe to the theory that whomever controls the stove controls the household. She was a political activist, a passionate environmentalist, supporter of Greenpeace and fierce opponent of genetic engineering of food.

Margaret was always a leader, a thinker and a do-er and never a follower. A close friend of the late Faith Bandler AC (a civil rights activist of South Sea Islander and Scottish-Indian heritage who campaigned for the rights of indigenous Australians and South Sea Islanders). Faith was best known for her active role in publicising the YES case for the Aboriginal question in the 1967 Referendum. When Faith was awarded her AM in 1984 (which preceded her elevation to AC or Companion of the Order of Australia) she celebrated afterwards with her husband and Margaret over lunch at the original Edna’s Table Restaurant in Clarence Street where brother and sister Ray and Jennice Kersh were pioneering the use of indigenous foods. Margaret instantly became a supporter of what they were trying to do and they too became close friends.

The last time Jennice Kersh (Edna’s Table) and I shared a table with Margaret just over a year ago, at Suzanne’s

Margaret and I shared her 70th birthday in Morocco on the most magnificent trip, organised by the International Olive Oil Council. The Australian contingent gave her three beautiful scarves at dinner, and Margaret, who had been sampling the scotch in the bar fridge at the hotel, immediately performed the dance of the three veils (being so small we felt she only needed three rather than the usual seven.)

I found some interesting parallels. The role of women in Moroccan cuisine cannot be over estimated. The men may be the authorities outside the home but the cuisine is the business of women and men are excluded. So, strangely perhaps, they wield huge, if unseen power. Moroccan culinary heritage is therefore not linear. One of most refined in world, it is not disseminated but kept within family.

An important force within the family and shaping its food is the da da. They are professionals and cooks. In large and important families there are da das who have become mothers and concubines. But in families where there are 4 wives, it is always the da da who is the cordon bleu of the house. They were the most brilliant women, now on the way to extinction. Always important and respected.

What we learned on this trip is one of the driving forces in my planning a hosted trip to Morocco in April 2020, to relive some of that special time we spent there.

At Margaret’s home in Balmain in 2006 when American food writer Kitty Morse, whom we had met in Morocco, visited.

Margaret may have been diminutive in size but she wasn’t in force of character. She was an always interested and supportive Patron of The Food Media Club Australia. She could speak magnificently, off the cuff, and sometimes very naughtily. However, due to her height we did have a Margaret Fulton Podium made for whenever she made a speech.

Many of today’s food legends worked with her and were her friends, like Maureen Simpson and Rosemary Hemphill, the mother of Ian “Herbie” Hemphill.  Margaret would go to the Hemphill’s Somerset Cottage herb and spice business in Dural from when Herbie was only 12. He says his mother always enjoyed that she and Margaret could look each other directly in the eye, as she was also of limited physical stature. They had a wonderful reunion when Herbie had a party at his then Rozelle store. It was wonderful to see them together. Maureen would always say “Margaret was so very pretty as a young woman”.

L: The Margaret Fulton Speaking Podium R: Margaret with her friend Maureen Simpson

In 2005, at 81, Margaret had a quadruple heart bypass operation. The surgeon warned her to slow down, take it easy, and give up butter. She absolutely refused to give up cooking with butter but  she did take up exercise, a “Kama Sutra kind of bendy yoga” as she cheekily told to ABC television interviewer Andrew Denton.
She received an OAM in 1983, was named a National Living Treasure by The National Trust in 1998 and in 2014 was honoured with other chefs when Australia Post released their Legends of Cooking series. It was announced at The Australia Day lunch at the Convention Centre in Darling Harbour and I was thrilled to be there to see it.

Margaret on her podium responding to my tribute at her 85th birthday in 2009

Margaret remained feisty, always looking forwards and was in no way stuck in a culinary rut. She said “wouldn’t you rather be cooking something new than something you’ve been cooking for 20 years?” Retired food writer Consuelo Guinness told me that her father had sent Margaret on a trip to Spain after which she pioneered using olive oil in Australian recipes. Her travels gave her a deep knowledge and understanding of all cuisines. She had an incredible palate. Another friend tells of being reprimanded when he proudly presented her with a winter fruit salad of carefully simmered dried fruits. “Why did you use apricots dried with sulphur” she asked?

I was sorry to be overseas when Margaret Fulton the Musical, Queen of the Dessert was reprised in Sydney in 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of her first book. It had a successful debut at Theatre Works in St Kilda in 2012. She enjoyed the premiere as did her family and friends who also attended.

Margaret was also Patron Saint (as I liked to call her) of the Libran lunches. My friend the late Judy Hirst and I started these back in the 1990s thinking how harmonious a lunch of all Librans might be. I have continued them on. Everyone brings a unisex gift to a certain value and Margaret would choose and hand them out.

Top: Libran lunch 2010, L: Margaret ding a reprise of her dance of the three veils and R handing out the birthday presents

Yet food was not all Margaret knew. She was well-read and intelligent, with an enquiring mind and had a great love for and collection of art, appreciation of music and  an eye for interesting jewellery.  She was a bohemian at heart but could not abide bad behaviour.  She did not suffer fools and had little time for style over substance.

She has a wonderful family. Her daughter Suzanne chose her husband wisely, learning from her twice-divorced mother’s mistakes. Robert Gibbs has been the most amazing son-in-law, accompanying Margaret when required, or driving her to events. He and Suzanne lived only a few houses away and cared for her well until she moved quite recently into a nursing home in the Southern Highlands near her granddaughter Louise. She was delighted to have four great grandchildren and to see Louise and Kate happily settled and forging food careers themselves, though they both began different careers to begin with.

But I think her greatest honour was the effect she had on everyday Australians. She was our own da da. Her very life itself is part of this country’s history, and not only food history though she taught Australia to cook.

Margaret Fulton: OAM, da da to Australia , National Living national treasure, inductee into the World Food Media Awards Hall of Fame,  Honorary Governor of the University of Sydney Nutrition Research Foundation,  Patron of the Australian Native Dogs Society, Greenpeace activist, environmentalist,  party girl, Patron of the FMCA, Patron Saint of the Libran lunchers, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, mentor and friend, Australia thanks and salutes you.
As we sit around our own tables let’s look at what we are eating and reflect on Margaret’s legacy.

At the 2010 Australian Food Media Awards; L to R Suzanne Gibbs, me, Gabriel Gate and Margaret

Lyndey & Herbie’s Moveable Feast on SBS Food

This is the episode where Edna breaks down

 Lyndey & Herbie’s Moveable Feast continues this Saturday night 27 July at 6.30pm on SBS Food (Channel 33) with double episodes.  I am joined by my longtime friend, Spice King, Herbie (Ian Hemphill) Here’s a link to the trailer for the series. And it is my daughter, Lucy, who sings the theme song.

Episode 5 Riverina Food Bowl
Defined by the great Murrumbidgee river, the Riverina area is a flourishing food bowl, brimming with magnificent produce. Here, we uncover some gems: a lake in the middle of Wagga brimming with fish, an innovative lamb farm, and a beautiful cherry orchard. These local ingredients pave the way for some delectable recipes including ‘Slow Roasted Tunisian Spiced Lamb ’, Herbie’s special fish curry and a tantalising sour cherry parfait.

Episode 6 More Riverina Treasures

With such an array of wonderful produce, this episode explores more Riverina treasures with us discovering a citrus orchard singing with freshness, walnuts straight from the tree, a quaint caper farm and world class wineries. And while the produce is amazing, the recipes really shine here:  a classic bruschetta with a twist, a rice recipe that includes some magic and my homage to Riverina produce, a walnut and orange cake

L: Slow-roasted Tunisian Spiced lamb in paper and R: Caper, Olive & Basil Bruschetta

Join me in Morocco 16 – 28 April 2020


Listen to me on Weekend Mornings with Simon Marnie on ABC Radio Sydney on Sunday 28th after the 11am news as I talk all things Moroccan.

You could join me on my next tour with By Prior Arrangement I first went to Morocco in 1978 and then again on an amazing food trip in 1994 with the International Olive Oil Council with Margaret Fulton and have been entranced by the place ever since. Morocco is an extraordinary destination, but one best visited with specialised knowledge and contacts to ensure a happy and seamless experience. Carol Prior of By Prior Arrangement focusses only on Morocco, a country she has known for 30 years and where she lived for over a decade.  I could think of no-one better to plan the tour with.

This trip will see us travel from Rabat the capital, to spiritual Meknes and Fes, and to Marrakech the red city. On the way you will explore the archaeological site of Volubilis, hike or ride a mule to a Berber village in the Atlas Mountains, and relax by the coast in tranquil Essaouira. You will discover the delicacies of Moroccan and French food, dine in local eateries through to upmarket restaurants, and experience the making and flavours of Moroccan dishes during cooking classes. Your luxury accommodation is in charming, authentic riads.
Highlights of the tour include:
– personal hosting by me
– must see destinations Rabat, Fes, Essaouira, Marrakech
– visit of an authentic Berber village in the Atlas Mountains
– a unique foodie tour of Marrakech souks and some cooking classes
– historical and cultural visits throughout with local licensed guides
– the Majorelle Garden and the Yves Saint Laurent museum
– accommodation in traditional riads, sometimes in exclusivity

Details here

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