Australia: On The Trail of Possum Magic

Family Travel Down Under

by Jennifer M. Eisenlau

Possum Magic by Mem Fox is the most popular picture book in Australian history.My family and I arrived in Sydney and set up housekeeping for nine nights in a beachside apartment in Manly. My friend, Tonny Bassett, an ex-pat living in Australia, welcomed us with a basket of Aussie treats: sea-salt potato chips, Tim Tam biscuits, and a library book for my son.

The book is called Possum Magic

. It truly was magical because once we read it, my four-year-old and I embarked on a mission: our vacation goal was to eat our way through a Land Down Under.

A Treat Treasure Hunt

The story, by Mem Fox and illustrated by Julie Vivas, is a charming tale of a granny possum who makes her granddaughter disappear to protect her from snakes and such. But when it’s time to make Baby Hush reappear, nothing works until Grandma Poss realizes that only by eating all sorts of human goodies will the baby will the baby become visible again.

Anzacs Biscuits

By following the treat trail of Hush and Grandma Poss, my son George and I discovered a special Australia. In Adelaide, we ate Anzacs biscuits, and we learned that the crunchy coconut cookies were originally baked by mothers and sweethearts for the Anzac troops (Australian and New Zealand Corp).

The cookies proved so popular with these returning WWI soldiers that bakeries started making them. Today, a percentage of every package Anzacs sold is given to the veterans.

We learned all this history by simply reading the cookies’ packing, and we really broadened our knowledge of the place.

Lamington Cakes

The view of Sydney from Taronga Zoo: George's dream come true.
The view of Sydney from Taronga Zoo: George’s dream come true.

We drove down the Anzac Highway toward the ferry to Kangaroo Island, where we had Lamington cakes. A Lamington is a sponge cake dipped in chocolate and rolled in coconut. These cakes are a blast from the past, when frugal Australian housewives needed something to do with the English spongecake that went stale so quickly in the tropical climate.

Named for Baron Lamington, a popular Queensland governor in the late 19th century, Lamingtons were one of our favorites on the trip.


Another dessert from days gone by is Pavlova: a meringue shell filled with fruit and whipped cream. This dish, now a comfort food, was once the most elegant of desserts. It was named for the Russian prima ballerina — Anna Pavlova — who sampled it upon her visit to Perth, Australia in the 1930s.


Who knows who'll want a bite of your Vegemite sandwich? Photos by Jennifer Eisenlau
Who knows who’ll want a bite of your Vegemite sandwich? Photos by Jennifer Eisenlau

The treat that started all the possums’ magic was a Vegemite sandwich, a perennial favorite in Australia since the 1920s. Made with butter, white bread and Vegemite — a yeast extract paste — a Vegemite sandwich is an acquired taste. George and I tried to eat them, but we just couldn’t do it. But when we munched our fish and chips at a seaside park on Bronte Beach one day, we knew what all the kids had in their sandwiches.

Making Friends Through Food

As we searched for Possum Magic treats, I entered many conversations by asking bakery and market clerks, “Where are the Lamingtons, please?”

“How’d you know about those?” they reply, surprised by my American accent

“Oh, Possum Magic,” I’d answer and smile.

“Oh, I loved that book…” the clerks would reply, and soon a nice conversation would follow.

On a walking tour of Adelaide, I mentioned the book to my guide from Tourabout Adelaide. I wanted to stop at a bookstore and take a copy home to Colorado.

“Possum Magic? That’s a classic. Every Australian child loves that book. Mem is such a dear…” said Sandy, my guide.

“You know her?” I asked.

Sandy did know the author; she lives in Adelaide. If she’d been in town, I could have met her. Wouldn’t that have been magical?

Sticky and Sweet and Delicious

My friend’s boyfriend, a local Sydneysider, was so impressed by our culinary adventures that he brought us what he called “Sydney-Suburbs Bush Tucker” – vanilla slices, scones, and fruitcakes. All these pastries were sticky and sweet and delicious. And we’d never have found them without a little Possum Magic.

What I learned from a child’s storybook is this: next trip, I will do a bit of bibliographic research for a local favorite for my son. We have a trip planned to Switzerland, and maybe there’s a tale about a train that eats chocolate bars and loves fondue. Who knows, but if there is – it could certainly make for a magical family vacation.

eisenlauJennifer M. Eisenlau is a freelance writer from Boulder Colorado.

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