Aunty Dale Tilbrooks’ Bush Tucker Talks & Tastings. Hosted by Aboriginal Tours and Experiences—WAITOC, Dale Tilbrook Experiences and Gather Foods Co. At Gather & Co, September 23, 2022. Ticket price: $69.95.
Bush Foods and Beyond: the Aunty Dale Tilbrook Experience
‘Greenwaste’ collections are always a hazardous affair in my garden. A few times a year, my family launches into an afternoon frenzy of trimming and sawing, braving bougainvillea and lantana thorns and dodging falling palm fronds. A couple of collections ago, we were attacking a rampant, conveniently thornless philodendron in the backyard. It suddenly struck me—student of agricultural science, professional environmental consultant—that this plant looked and smelled very much like a crisp celery. So, naturally, I licked the weeping end of one stalk, then gave it a good crunch. Somewhat celery-like texturally, but quite tasteless—yes, even compared to celery.
Some plants, as I well knew, rely for their defence not on glove-tearing thorns, but nifty chemical compounds. Philodendrons, as I now well know, are of that variety. My mouth burned, my throat swelled, and my laughing father contributed a ‘you should know better’. But I quickly recovered, and have managed to mostly avoid urges to eat unfamiliar plant material since.
The experience, though, made me the perfect punter for one of Aunty Dale Tilbrook’s ‘Bush Tucker Talks & Tastings’. Arriving at Inglewood deli-café Gather & Co. for one of Tilbrook’s signature events, I hoped to learn how to more safely channel my wayward culinary impulses. Greeted on arrival by a selection of bush-tucker ‘tartlettes’, a smooth indie/R&B soundtrack and a table covered with intriguing fruits and leaves, I was ready to feast and learn. The Gather-crafted tarts each showcased a different range of bush foods, as a teaser for the main event soon to follow. The sandalwood-nut option with strawberry-gum custard cream was delicately sweet and smoothly toasty; however, the quiche-like goat’s cheese topped with bush tomato pearls and native thyme were a little bland. Perhaps that was because I’d come across that one after the sharp and vivid desert-lime cheesecake, which introduced me to the slightly bitter, pleasurable aftereffect I came to associate with many of the ingredients offered for tasting throughout the evening.
Once we’d all settled in, the trendy playlist was silenced in appropriate deference to Aunty Dale Tilbrook herself. She opened with a detailed Acknowledgement of Whadjuk Country, and emphasised that, as a Wardandi Bibbulmun woman, her cultural experience and language were specific to her own peoples—although she had also learned about many native foods from across the continent. Gesturing then to her generous table-selection of ingredients and to her own midriff, she joked ‘as you can see, I love food’. Tilbrook’s passion for growing, cooking and sharing knowledge about native foods from Noongar Country and beyond was obvious and joyful. The evening was structured as a free-flowing exhibition and discussion of a small selection of the ‘approximately 6500 bush foods’ so far identified across this continent. Tilbrook would introduce, with Noongar names for locally endemic examples, a particular type of food (merenj), and then hand it around for the audience to taste—though not before first glorying in a bite for herself. The discussion focused especially on plants, with some small mention of dartj (‘flesh foods’) too. At regular intervals, the Gather & Co. staff appeared with cooked samples showcasing bush foods incorporated into stylish morsels; wattleseed-infused pork, lemon-myrtle chicken and saltbush lamb with native-mint tzatziki led the meaty fusion-pieces. I personally went for the pickled youlk salad in its crunchy wonton case. This radish-like root’s rendering was startlingly acidic at first, but soon followed by a lingering earthiness—very much a highlight of the night, flavour-wise.
The true highlight, however, was Tilbrook’s warm, intelligent commentary. Sweeping from stories of cultural uses for the various ingredients to discourses on First Nations intellectual property, she skilfully involved the audience in a wide-ranging discussion. As an example, here is just some of what she told us about sandalwoods: the tree is semiparasitic, the toasted nuts are high in protein and function as an anti-inflammatory, but ‘millions of trees were ripped out’ following colonisation, until controls were put in place in 1929. Throughout the procession of other native seeds, herbs and fruits (‘native limes deserve a chapter of their own’!) we were witness to Tilbrook’s encyclopaedic knowledge of scientific, English-vernacular and Noongar names, and to her generous sense of humour. A tale of cows behaving strangely after eating ‘maybe psychedelic’ wattleseed was a crowd favourite, as was the eye-rolling quip that ‘some people seem to think we didn’t have fish until Europeans arrived’.
Arrogant European misunderstandings of native foods—including those even more toxic than philodendrons—were an especially interesting feature of Tilbrook’s talk. Vlamingh and his crew had their journey interrupted by ‘violent illness’, brought on by eating unprepared boyoo (zamia) seeds; Noongar people soaked these carefully before eating them or grinding them into flour. Meanwhile, referents grasped for by the audience to describe the unfamiliar sensations and textures of some ingredients were fascinating: bush basil apparently smells ‘like Voltaren cream’, while another plant ‘tastes like Vicks’ (though I’m pretty sure that second one, much like the boyoo seeds, wasn’t meant to be eaten in quite the way that man ate it). The historical (and audience) examples of European misuse were placed in clear contrast with the care and close knowledge of Noongar peoples in managing food sources. One example among many is the way yanget (bulrushes) were burned in the season of Bunuru to stimulate growth, then roots selectively harvested in Djeran to ensure a continuing source of starch into following years.
But, of course, and to the disappointment of some in the room, Tilbrook made it clear that it is illegal to take local bush foods ‘from the wild’. Escaped interstate plants are fair game, as are those growing in your own garden; although it would be better, it seems to me, to support First Nations producers like Tilbrook and her suppliers if you’re after a bush food ingredient. Better to, in her words, ‘respect the IP’ earned through a deep First Nations history of exploration, creativity and management of foods across this continent. As Tilbrook mentioned, enforced European management of this continent’s ecologies has led to numerous damaging waves of weed invasion. Meanwhile, local flowers have been exported with cavalier ease and no royalties for First Nations peoples, such that ‘most of the world’s commercial production of Geraldton wax and kangaroo paws occurs in Israel’.
I’ve occasionally been told by friends or family members on camping or bushwalking trips that such-and-such native plant is edible. I’ve been burned by tasty-looking plants before, though, and nowadays would never snatch so much as a wildflower from a native plant. So I won’t take their word for it, but I most certainly will take Aunty Dale Tilbrook’s word. That word is merenj, and you can’t go wrong hearing all about it from her.
For details about upcoming ‘Dale Tilbrook Experiences’, visit Tilbrook’s website. For information on a range of unique First Nations-led events and experiences, visit the Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council (WAITOC) website.
Riley Faulds is an Environmental Consultant in the streets and a Creative Writing Honours student in the sheets. His poems and reviews have appeared in Rabbit, Westerly, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain and the 2021 Australian Poetry Anthology. He was the 2021 Editor of Pelican Magazine.