One of the great traditions at Ormond is the formal dinner, where the community gathers to celebrate over a candlelight dinner.

In the College archives, we have an archive of nearly 100 menu cards from such occasions over the last 110 years. Together, they provide a potted history of Anglo-Australian food. They also offer a liberal helping of wit in the form of quotes inserted between the menu items. ‘Oyster Soup’ read a menu from 1960, after which came ‘There is death in the pot’ (2 Kings 4:40).

Formal meals during this period almost always began with soup and or seafood, the latter entrée changed with shifting food trends and prices. In the 1960s, it was lobster mornay (‘Dear Lord! It hath a fiendish look!’ – S.T. Coleridge); by the 1980s we ate seafood cocktail, seafood crepes or something called ‘avocado seafood’ (‘We all live in a yellow submarine’ – Lennon/McCartney).

Main course was more consistent over the decades, perhaps due both to logistics and Anglo-Australian culinary tradition. For decades the main was one or more roast meats (‘They pursued it with forks and hope’ – Lewis Carroll) served with potatoes and boiled vegetables (‘Not bloody likely’ – G.B. Shaw). Vegetarian alternatives arrived in the 1990s along with chicken fillets, lamb racks, filo pastry and polenta.

Dessert was more fluid, metaphorically at least. Who now could identify Charlotte Russe or apricot cream as served in the 1910s or Strawberry Romanoff  (‘Be not deceived’ J.B. Priestly)? By the 1960s however it was all fruit salad and ice-cream, after which profiteroles and tartufo make a brief appearance (‘Can such things be?’ – Macbeth Act II Scene IV). Cheesecake was big in the 1980s.

The menu for an Ormond dinner in 1971.

The ending to the meal has also changed dramatically. For the first fifty years dinners concluded with cheese straws, devilled almonds or simply nuts and raisins. In 1962 the final dish was ‘chedderettes’. Later in the century, dessert was followed by cheese platters (‘We will proceed no further in this business’ – Macbeth). 

Wider twentieth century Australian food trends influenced Ormond menus. Italian dishes first appeared at College in the 1950s following the arrival of postwar migrants.

Similarly, when French food was the height of sophistication in the 1970s and 1980s, College cooks began to serve dishes with French titles. These were unpopular with menu card writers: Duckling a la Bigarade was listed with the quote ‘Upon whose dead corpse there was such misuse, such beastly shameless transformation’ – Francis Bacon).

Cheesecake was big in the 1980s and the 1990s brought the first vegetarian options along with Middle-Eastern flavours, chicken fillets, lamb racks and filo pastry.

Some things served at Ormond formal dinners in the past have disappeared entirely from our table, including boiled fowl, tongue and saddle of mutton. Similarly, who now could identify a Charlotte Russe, Strawberry Romanoff or apricot cream (‘Be not deceived’ – J.B. Priestly)? 

Some dishes not even Google can now identify, such as ‘Turkey a la krombach’. Also mysterious are Polynesian carrots, ‘piemontias’, Steak Zingara, and Konigin pastete corbert, which appears to be German for a vol-au-vent filled with ‘corbert’. One year the meal began with a ‘crudity platter’.

A formal dinner in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Some menus are entirely unintelligible. In the 1940s each menu was translated into another language – German, Japanese or Icelandic, say – or even rhyming slang: ‘Dark and murky’ (turkey) with ‘coastal freighter’ (roasted potato).  Even less intelligible was the menu for 1946. Google translates one item as Yoruba for ‘Turn on the moon and uninstall it.’

In all, some things about formal dinners stay the same and some have changed. Beyond the food, claret, hock and ‘fruit cup’ have been replaced by wine and beer and toasts to the King, Queen, Master, tutors and even ‘the Ladies’ have been superseded. But the Dining Hall in its candlelit glory likely looks similar to how it did a century ago and the enthusiasm of Ormondians doesn’t shift with fashion.

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Every Ormondian has their own unique experience of College life, and their own story to tell. What Ormond moment stands out in your memory? Whether on the sporting field or the stage, in the JCR, Dining Hall or on Picken Lawn, share your favourite story of life at Ormond College.