I am reluctant to admit/announce that serendipity is a key research method I am using for my work on Australia’s food and culture history. Reluctant because its very nature seems in opposition to the often painstaking process research is. One of the reasons I went back to uni to study history was that I kept finding things by chance – really important and interesting things – and I thought if I learned how to do research I ran a better chance of finding things by process and not by chance. That way, I thought, I would never miss anything.
But five years later, a Masters done and dusted and my PhD resting in draft form, I still find that my best finds are by chance.
Here’s the lastest …
I rent a room in my house on airbnb and last weekend I had a couple stay with me. He was from Seattle but living in Australia. I am going to Seattle this week to do an oral history interview with GK a celebrity chef in Australia in the 1960s. Not only did my airbnb guest’s mother, who still lives in Seattle, know GK, but after he contacted her she agreed to be interviewed for the project. Her friend was GK’s recipe tester on a recent cookbook.
But this latest accidental find is one of many.
Last year at the Oral History conference in Adelaide I was listening to a presentation on the Cheer-up Society leader Mrs Alexandra Seager. The Cheer-Up Society was a WWI organisation that looked after soldiers arriving and leaving Adelaide. The women who ran it provided meals and social activities for servicemen. I had been trying to find biographical material on an Australian writer Helen Seager at the time. I had collected many of her articles in the Argus and some early short stories, a poem she published on Anzac Day in the Adelaide Advertiser and a few articles in Woman’s Day. I knew she was born in Adelaide and that she died in Melbourne and that she was an articulate intelligent writer across many journalistic areas. I was told by a former colleague of hers at Woman’s Day, that she had a daughter with Cerebral Palsy. But that was all I knew.
Sitting at the presentation I wondered if Helen may be Alexandra’s daughter. I worked out that the dates were OK as was the soldier connection – Helen’s poem was an Anzac day poem – and I knew that she was from Adelaide.After the presentation I asked and Helen was indeed Alexandra’s daughter. At last I had access to biographical material: The presenter linked my up with Helen’s cousin.
And then there is Dione Lucas. Would I ever have discovered her, had a friend interested in collecting cookbooks, not given me access to his collection?
But serendipity doesn’t happen on its own. I think to be lucky you have to be in a position to be lucky. I am always blabbing about what I am doing … that helps. Someone who knows someone who knows someone is always somewhere waiting to put you in touch!
And finally, just when I am working on home decorating in the 1950s in Australia I wander into a funny old junk shop about to close down and find the September 1955 edition of Home Beautiful and it’s all about painting made easy!