Piers Kelly writes:

It’s official. The great Aussie meringue dessert we know as a Pavlova, actually originated in New Zealand.

A great deal of fuss has erupted over these revelations which come to us via the relaunched online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Apparently, the revised dictionary has resolved a ‘decades long battle‘ by listing the first printed attestation of Pavlova in a 1927 New Zealand edition of Davis Dainty Dishes. Pavlova recipes didn’t appear in Australia for another 10 years. The dessert was named in honour of Anna Pavlova, a Russian ballerina who toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s.

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Davis Dainty Dishes, Christchurch, 1927. An early Pavlova on the front cover?

The 86-year-old chef Margaret Fulton, who would have been a child of three when the New Zealand recipe appeared, was outraged by the OED decision: “They can make all the claims they like, and the Oxford dictionary can go on like great academic know-it-alls, but I think most Australians would agree with me that the true Pavlova belongs to Australia”

The irrepressible First Dog on the Moon conceded that the dessert had actually been invented in Qatar but defended its intrinsic Aussieness. “No amount of facts can take our birthright from us,” he barked. “They will have to prise it from our cold dead sticky meringue hands”.

Passions aside, none of this is really news. The 1927 reference was available in the prelaunch version of the OED and is listed in the Dictionary of New Zealand English: A dictionary of New Zealandisms on historical principals, published by Oxford a good 13 years ago.

You can read an excellent summary of the history of the Pavlova by The Old Foodie, who has found at least one New Zealand recipe for ‘Meringue with Fruit Filling’ from 1926, though this was not called ‘Pavlova’.

For the record, the current OED definition is:

Originally: a dessert composed of coloured layers of jelly made in a mould resembling a ballerina’s tutu (now hist. and rare). Later (orig. Pavlova cake): a dessert consisting of a soft-centred meringue base or shell filled with whipped cream and fruit (sometimes with other fillings, such as ice cream).

We would hardly recognise the 1927 jelly “resembling a ballerina’s tutu” as Pavlova today. The dictionary provides just one line of the original recipe: “Dissolve all but a teaspoonful of Gelatine in the hot water, and all the sugar except a dessertspoonful.”

None of this makes the Pavlova any less Australian or any more Kiwi. The Australian National Dictionary lists the 1927 reference alongside later Australian recipes, and one of the office computers in the Centre is affectionately named Pavlova. (The others are dubbed king prawn, icypole, lamington, floater and neenish.) An additional sense is provided by the AND, “Used allusively as an emblem of insubstantiality” and the two instances of this usage are both from 1972:

1972 Berman & Childs  Why isn’t she Dead! “As a graduate of the pavlova belt he was too inhibited to try anything novel or unfamiliar.” 1972  Bulletin (Sydney) 30 Dec. 15/1; “What it most sadly didn’t seem to merit was the recent final softening of TDT into television’s equivalent of the pavlova, a nightly pudding of feeble comedy and stingless comment.

Has anybody uncovered further instances of this metaphorical usage?

Perhaps the real dispute should be over whether the jelly dish is a genuine antecedent to the Pavlova as we understand it now, or whether an Australian was the first to name ‘Meringue with Fruit Filling’ a Pavlova.

Frankly, I’m more interested in eating the thing.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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