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Fulton, Margaret Isobel (1924–2014)

by John Lethlean

from Australian

Margaret Fulton, by Greg Barrett, 1993

Margaret Fulton, by Greg Barrett, 1993

National Library of Australia, 11653702

Celebrated food writer Margaret Fulton, OAM, has died at the age of 94.

In a statement, her family said they were “mourning the loss of their loving, inspirational and treasured mother, grandmother and great-grandmother early this morning”.

She was known as “the woman who taught Australia to cook.”

Indeed, such was the lifelong drive of the diminutive matriarch of Australian home cookery that she released her 21st book on the cusp of her 85th birthday, back in 2009.

It was the same year she appeared alongside the impressive frame of a mop-haired nascent food celebrity — Matt Preston — in the first series of MasterChef, an indelible image of contrasts. Ratings history was made when more than 1.93 million people tuned in.

Fulton later unleashed on reality food shows and “contestants (who) cannot cook well and don’t know the basics” in a frank newspaper interview. Feisty to the end.

But it was her very first book in 1968, the much-revised over the years Margaret Fulton Cookbook, that planted the little Scot’s flag firmly in the soil of Australian domestic history. Fulton gave a conservative and affluent Australian generation of women and men — but mostly women — the wherewithal to tackle coq au vin, boeuf bourgignon and Caesar salad in the safety of their rapidly evolving home kitchens. By the end of the century, few Australian households were without at least one Fulton title; the MFC was the most successful Australian cookbook ever, a definitive text for what became known as International Cooking. A new, 50th Anniversary edition was published in 2018, the culmination of a long, and highly influential publishing career in food.

It might not have been the case had not her father, a tailor and hunting and shooting outfitter from Glasgow, Scotland, taken the decision to relocate his young family to Australia in 1927. Margaret Isobel Fulton born (October 10, 1924) in Nairn, near Inverness, was three when she arrived in the NSW country town of Glen Innes, the youngest of six children.

The family’s circumstances were reduced, but her childhood was normal enough.

“If you’ve been brought up in a socialist household, the youngest of six and the boys were not allowed to tease you, you’re used to speaking up,” Fulton told The Sydney Morning Herald’s Stephanie Wood in 2009 “To get your bit in, you’ve got to be quick and you’ve got to be spot-on.

“Mum and Dad were used to going to theatre and balls and here we got to this tiny-weeny town. When we got to this house … I don’t think I’ll ever forget it because we walked in and there was this little sitting room, oh, it was so tiny … there was an old fuel stove, no sink, an old tin bath and a chip heater; the laundry was a copper in the backyard.”

Fulton moved to Sydney at 19, in 1943, taking a job at Munitions Supply Laboratories in Lidcombe. It wasn’t what she had dreamed of.

“I thought, ‘I can’t stand this’ and I handed in my notice, which you couldn’t do in those days,” Fulton said later. “Oh, when I think of the awful things I’ve done. I said I was pregnant. After I left, I kept on running into the head of the munitions laboratory, Mr Metcalfe. He kept looking for a difference in my shape. Finally he said, ‘Oh, have you had the baby yet?’”

First foray into cooking
Horizons expanded by the bright lights of the city, even in wartime, a new crowd beckoned: writers, artists, activists, all facilitated through her sister, Jean, and socialist writer brother-in-law Bill Hatfield.

Fulton took a job as a cookery teacher at the Australian Gas Light Company; it put her in the company of people she later described as “the smallest minds in the world … In my family we read a lot, we liked music; I was terribly aware that I had totally different interests to the people around me.”

In 1948, Fulton married former soldier Trevor Price; they had a daughter, Suzanne, before the marriage failed just two years in. Interviewed in 2009 by Andrew Denton for Enough Rope, Fulton laid bare the acrimony of the relationship.

“He said, ‘How do I know this baby’s mine’?” she told Denton, “and there’s little Suzie, she was the spitting image of him, and I just thought, ‘You evil person’.”

The split was to prove the unlikely catalyst to a whole new way of thinking and career.

Fulton and her baby went to live at Mooney Mooney, on the Hawkesbury River, with Jean and Bill. With little money between them, they grew vegetables (including then esoteric species such as asparagus, eggplant and artichokes) fished, kept ducks and made cheese from their dairy goats. Fulton juggled sole-parenthood with a job at David Jones’ kitchen department, reportedly hitchhiking to the city each working day.

‘Ann Maxwell’, and a turning point
The turning point came in 1954 when she took a job with the magazine Woman as a cookery writer under the nom de plume “Ann Maxwell”. It didn’t last long: the burgeoning advertising industry was on the lookout for talent and, somehow, the young “Maxwell” came onto the radar of American Loyd Ring Coleman, a New Yorker heading up the local division of ad giant J. Walter Thompson. Coleman made Fulton an account executive in 1955 and she eventually ran the Australian accounts of Kraft, Kellogg’s and Kelvinator. It took her social life in a whole new and more glamorous direction, including socialising with Coleman and his Belgian wife, Louise, and her European friends.

“I found the whole experience electrifying,” Fulton wrote of one cocktail party in her autobiography I Sang for My Supper. “The amusing conversation, the flippant remarks, the waiter offering the perfect martini. I took to this high life like a duck to water.”

Five years later, another twist in the Fulton tale: the then editor of Woman’s Day identified Fulton as the ideal food editor, not just for her knowledge and communication skills but also for the commercial instincts honed in adland.

It must have seemed a dream job: it meant travelling the world and bringing home ideas to a waiting team of photographers, designers and stylists.

Her recipes encouraged Australian housewives to alter the Australian staple of “meat and three vegetables” and to be creative with food. She “discovered” cuisine from exotic places such as Spain, Italy, India and China and as Cookery Editor, brought these into Australian homes through her articles in the Woman’s Day.

“The editor of Woman’s Day was very, very interested in food,” Fulton told interviewer Robin Hughes for the SBS series Australian Biography in 1992. “They told the world that they’d got Margaret Fulton. And Margaret Fulton was going to do these marvellous things for them.”

It was about this time, in 1960, that Fulton married for a second time to actor Denis Doonan.

The job, and indeed the marriage, lasted about 19 years during which British publisher Paul Hamlyn published Fulton’s first eight books. In 1968, while still food editor at Woman’s Day, she released The Margaret Fulton Cookbook. After its initial print run of 30,000 copies sold out, the book ultimately went on to sell more than 1.5 million.

“There was something in it for everybody,” Fulton told Australian Biography. “I think the Australians responded to this enormous excitement that I was feeling about food. And they were feeling it too.”

In 1979, Fulton moved to the then News Ltd-owned New Idea. Around the same time, Fulton and Doonan divorced; by this stage, he was running a luxury retreat in Bowral where the couple hosted a Commonwealth Heads of Regional Government gathering in the immediate wake of the 1978 Sydney Hilton bombing. It was, by her own account, a very stressful undertaking for them.

‘Love of my life’
She later partnered a third time, to retired actor and director Michael McKeag, who died in 1988. She was oft quoted as saying he was the “love of her life”.

“For the first time in my life,” she told Australian Biography “I had companionship, and I had the kind of things that some women have all their lives. I had [that] for eight wonderful, wonderful years, with a mentally alert person, with a person who enjoyed things that I enjoyed. Enjoyed travel and enjoyed theatre. And so I had eight years of life of going how it should be. And I’m terribly happy about that.

“The only thing, he smoked Gitanes cigarettes, and then one day he was coughing, and the next day he … you know, was being told, 16 weeks to live. And yes, he died. But it was a very happy time because it reassured me that relationships are important and are good.”

Fulton was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in the 1983 Queen’s Birthday Honours: “In recognition of service to the media as a journalist and writer in the field of cookery”.

Life’s course wasn’t without further rough patches. In the late 1990s a property deal went bad and she nearly lost her home as a result. In 2003, with her friend of 30 years, the late Anders Ousback, Fulton began a business — Margaret Fulton’s Kitchen — that collapsed a year later with Ousback’s suicide. In 2005, she had a quadruple bypass operation and a year or more of illness.

On the flip side, in 2012, a stage musical called Margaret Fulton: Queen of the Dessert toured Australia. It characterised a plucky, no-nonsense woman who helped change Australia’s grey, post-British meat-and-three-veg culinary landscape.

Asked where her renowned confidence came from by SBS, Fulton replied:

“Oh, being loved from the time I was a minute old. Being adored by everyone that surrounded me. That gives you confidence. You know, when I say adored, it didn’t stop them tying me up under a bed, my brothers and sisters. Or doing all kinds of funny things to me. But basically, I think love is so important. And gives you a feeling of self-confidence and assurance. And everything that you, everything you do when people love you, is all right. And so I’d started my life that way.”

It’s also how she finished her life. Fulton passed away at a retirement home in the NSW Southern Highlands.

The culinary icon was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1983.

She is survived by her daughter Suzanne Gibbs and her granddaughters Kate Gibbs and Louise Fulton Keats.

Original publication

  • Australian, 24 July 2019

Other Obituaries for Margaret Isobel Fulton

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Lethlean, 'Fulton, Margaret Isobel (1924–2014)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fulton-margaret-isobel-29801/text36888, accessed 28 September 2020.

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