Geoffrey Blainey's Black Kettle and Full Moon: Daily Life in a Vanished Australia (Penguin 2001) is my latest train reading. It is a fascinating book, exploring how Australians lived from the gold rushes until the First World War. While the book is likely to be of most interest to Australians, I suspect that all readers will find it of some interest.
Growing up, one of the common stereotypes of Australians that appeared in books and films presented them as sun-bronzed, tall and lean, even lanky. Sun bronzed can easily be understood by modern urban Australians because of their obsession with the beach, although they are likely to misinterpret it, but tall and lean?
What Australians ate, how they prepared it, how they ate it, changed greatly over the period Blainey wrote about. Despite that, new arrivals all generally commented on one thing, the availability of cheap food and especially meat compared to Europe. On Blainey's measures, Australians were the greatest meat eaters in the world.
The ready availability of a plentiful, high protein diet helps explain the tall part. There is plenty of evidence to show people do increase in height over generations if well fed.
The lean part is a little harder to understand. While the "standard" Australian meal did vary between groups and over time, modern Australians would find the composition of the diet and especially the quantity of food consumed strange. They would find it hard to understand why people did not put on weight, why there were so few fat people.
The answer lies in exercise. Many jobs involved very hard physical labour over extended periods, lifting and carrying weights that were then standard, but would not be allowed today. Then, too, people walked or, a little later cycled, far more, often over long distances. A high calorie intake was required to feed the machine.
There were overweight people, especially in the more sedentary urban upper middle class. This group included the 10-15% of Australians who could afford servants. But for many Australians, the high calorie intake was the minimum required, and sometimes not that, to keep going.