Musical soothes the dessert storm
THE first time Doug MacLeod met Australian culinary legend Margaret Fulton, he cracked a joke the usually good-humoured Fulton didn't find amusing. Retribution was swift: a promised morning tea of Anzac biscuits never materialised, and Macleod departed her Balmain home with an empty stomach.
The two had met to discuss a television series MacLeod was working on with Steve Vizard about powerful Australian women. It was 1990 and MacLeod, whose writing credits include The Comedy Company and Fast Forward, was sent to coax the reluctant icon on board. ''Unfortunately, I tried to assume some kind of affinity with her by referring to our joint Caledonian heritage. I said it seemed strange that someone with a Scottish background should be so devoted to food when Scottish cookery is so awful. I thought I was being funny.'' Fulton stopped him in his tracks. ''She told me in her view, Scottish cookery was very good. Her argument was the carnivores in Scotland honour the beast because they use every part.''
Vizard's show was never made and MacLeod still hasn't had his Anzacs, but next month, 20-odd years after sitting in Fulton's ''picture window with its magnificent view of Sydney Harbour'', a very different rendering of Fulton's life story will be realised in Margaret Fulton: Queen of the Dessert. It's a musical, MacLeod says, that's as much a celebration of an extraordinary woman as it is a snapshot of Australian history. It's also a tribute to their friendship, which, after MacLeod suffered a stroke during writing, extended to Fulton sending him a bunch of lucky heather from Scotland - much to the chagrin of customs officials, who delivered the parcel to MacLeod's doorstep with a stern warning about the rules governing the shipping of flora.
Cooking icon Margaret Fulton in 1968, when her first book was published.
The show's songs, MacLeod says, evoke a time when pizza was an exotic food and cappuccinos were beverages you drove to Carlton to buy. They also recall, beyond the recipes and depictions of ''domestic calm and bliss'' that many associate with Fulton, a ''really rather racy'' life. Bohemians, artists, communists, life in Sydney's Rocks district in the 1940s; no one who saw Fulton on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton in 2008 will be surprised. Least of all Amy Lehpamer, the leggy, glamorous blonde who plays Fulton.
''[Denton] asked her to teach him how to cook scones blindfolded and she replied saying that she would, but only if he agreed to demonstrate how to use a condom [a reference to Denton's first TV appearance],'' Lehpamer says. ''My first impression was of this feisty, quick-witted and passionate woman who was always far more than a cook.'' Lehpamer's research took her through countless interviews and cookbooks, not least of which was Fulton's I Sang for My Supper: Memories of a Food Writer, which spoke of a time before MasterChef, when the term ''celebrity chef'' was yet to be coined.
''Her first cookbook was published in 1968, two years before Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch,'' Lehpamer says. ''I don't know whether she'd use the word 'feminist' to describe herself but she was a fiercely independent woman who never rested on her laurels. She worked at a lot of jobs, had several husbands, travelled the world, was recognised with the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1983, and still leads a spirited life.''
Amy Lehpamer as Fulton in the musical about her life. Photo: Eddie Jim
The details captivated Lehpamer: ''Not that long ago you could only buy a whole chicken, so recipes didn't ask for six chicken breasts because that would involve buying three chickens. Instead, you bought a whole chicken and used every part. But then recipes changed, wholesalers changed the kinds of cuts of meat they supplied. [Fulton] was a massive part of that.''
The show as a musical, she says, ''takes it out of the shackles of representing someone as they exist. It's a celebration and it reintroduces people to her and [her] times.''
Fulton has been involved in the production from the get-go. Ask her a question and every response ''spins into a great anecdote'', MacLeod says. The cast of twentysomething performers ''play 50-odd characters between them,'' many of whom were icons of Australian television and arts history ''from well before they were born. But it's quite sweet. They sit in rehearsal with their iPhones and if there's a reference to Rosemary Margan or The Mavis Bramston Show they just Google and look it up.''
History isn't lost, it seems. Sometimes we just need reminding.
■Margaret Fulton: Queen of the Dessert is at Theatre Works, November 16-December 1.