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About me and my kitchens

Kitchens have loomed large in my life. I love all my cooking pots and utensils. A smart set of sharp kitchen knives is my pride and joy. It was not my destiny to train to be a high profile Chef, but a cook I became, one who loves creating different dishes using fresh ingredients, one who follows the dictates of her history. Do not be mistaken, there has been a love of creating good food running in the veins of the women in my family for several generations. I am but one in the line of women who has taken pride in the produce of her kitchen. I have passed it on to my sons, who in turn have passed it on to their children and I am very proud of this continuing tradition. What follows is the story of my life through the oven door.

New Year’s Eve 1994

We?d been having an elegant shared dinner with friends, and our hostess, a dear friend Susanne, insisted that we make a wish as 12 o?clock chimed. The fireworks went off on the television, the champagne glasses clinked and kisses were exchanged all round. I wished for a new stove; in a shiny new ?magazine look? kitchen.
That may seem a bit odd to you, but to me it meant the fulfilment of a long held dream. I?d had a love affair with the idea of having a really classy and efficient kitchen for as long as I can remember, but each time I achieved this aim, life had taken an unexpected turn and I?d moved, leaving my beloved kitchen behind.

Stoves of all kinds

I have known many stoves (thirteen in all) quite intimately during my long cooking life, having begun my apprenticeship in cooking at an early age. At the end of WWII, when I was seven years old, my parents built a corner shop that kept them busy from daylight to past dark, and needed the help of my brother and me. Having lived through the Great Depression and the war, my parents were driven by deprivation and hardship to succeed. Therefore by the time I had reached the age of eleven, I was considered old enough to help with the meals, and not just the dishes. Life was not as it is now for children, for there was no television, and children were expected to ?pull their weight?.
My mother?s pride and joy was a shiny midnight-black metal monster using kerosene for fuel, similar in operation to the smelly kerosene heaters that were used in the 1960 to 1970 era. Mum considered this to be a relatively safe appliance for me to use, and I would prepare the vegetables for tea. She would bring home the cooked meat part of the meal in a large stock pot, used on a primus stove in the room at the rear of our shop, as long slow cooking didn?t need constant attention, and she was always busy with customers, but not so busy that she couldn?t prepare tasty meals. Mum was a mistress of the art of ?Slow Food? before the title was even thought of in culinary circles. We often had Steak and Kidney, Braised Lamb Chops, Stewed Rabbit and Curried Sausages all carried home in that big pot.

Learning to cook

My job on arriving home (after having completed my shop duties, which usually meant washing up a mountain of milk-shake containers), was to wash and peel enough potatoes for tea, according to mother?s instructions. They had to be cut in even sized pieces, covered with water and set to boil on the kerosene stove. Accompanied by my father?s radio on the shelf in the corner as it banged out my favourites, ?The Argonauts? and the ?Hit Parade?, they boiled away steadily. It is no surprise therefore, that sometimes the odour of burning potatoes had me dragging my ear reluctantly away from the radio and leaping to rescue scorching food. A panic ensued in a rescue attempt; to get the saucepan scrubbed, add more water to the trimmed potato pieces, the windows and doors flung wide to let out the odour, and the cooking completed. Often it was too late and I had to start all over again, hoping that the smell would leave the house by the time the family came home for the meal. I admit to watching their faces more than once, to see if their expressions indicated a detection of the burnt offerings. Hunger must have dulled their senses to the smell of scorched food in the kitchen, or perhaps they were just too kind to mention it.
My great delight at the age of twelve was baking in the oven of our old wood stove which my mother kept spotless. From time to time she would renew the coat of Silver Frost on the door, and the hot plate was painted with stove black. My Grandmother had taught me how to get the wood and light her wood stove, so I was confident I could manage ours. I began poring over my mother?s meagre collection of cookery books looking for recipes that I could try. Mum owned a Domestic Science book, a Green and Gold, a Barossa Cookery book and her own book of favourites written in beautiful copperplate. She had copied out recipes, probably from her own mother?s handwritten recipe book, of melting moments, coconut jam tart and lamingtons. I tried my hand at golden syrup dumplings(see recipe section) and custard, and had instant success with my brothers and sister; it made a pleasant change from tinned peaches and custard. This approval gave me the courage to continue learning. Pastry making was pure pleasure. I followed the lead of my grandmother who was an expert in this art, and skilled in making jam tarts with pastry decorations on top. Whilst checking the tarts during the cooking process one day after school, a tray slipped forward, upending a tart full of boiling fig jam onto my foot. I didn?t have time to worry about the mess of hot jam on the hearth, or the ruined tart and baked roly-poly pudding. Mum came home to find a sad and sorry mess in the bathroom as well as in the kitchen. I sat miserably clutching a damp towel around my very red foot and one huge blister. No wonder my mother worried about what I was doing while she was busy working in the family shop until quite late. Being able to cook made me very popular with my much younger sister, who was very fond of what she called ?Jenny Muir Cakes? after a fellow pre-school student who had a little currant cake in her lunchbox each day.
With the growing prosperity of the family business, my mother?s great delight was to have the kitchen renovated. Gone was the old silver-fronted wood stove replaced by a neat little cupboard for storing the saucepans, and solidly built cream cupboards with green Laminex tops, on which now sat a small metal primus stove for everyday cooking. In reality it was a bit of a monster that required methylated spirits to be poured into a small bowl at the base of the burner. I would light the meths. using a match, and when it had almost burned away, air was pumped into the kerosene tank and the knob turned to send the kerosene vapour to the burner. A truly horrible contraption! About this time we acquired an electric griller with a coil element, similar to a toaster, under which we grilled sausages, chops or pork fillet. I?m not quite sure how I managed to survive this experience, as more than once while turning the sizzling meat, the fork came into contact with the coil and I received a jolt, throwing me back across the room. Shaking but thankful that it had not been worse, I would push the little tray back under the griller and vow that I would be more careful next time. A somewhat shocking experience for a 12 or 13 year old, I think you would agree.

Electric oven

My father then bought mum a lovely little cream enamelled electric oven that sat on its appointed green bench top, and in which she baked wonderful sultana cakes. This was Mum?s pride and joy and I was not allowed to use it, being considered too young to manage the electric controls. But I suspect my parents were really concerned about the electricity bill if I was let loose with this new piece of equipment.

Back to the wood stove

In 1960 I graduated from my apprenticeship. Marriage brought with it a home of my own, and my very own stove. It was back to the old faithful silver-fronted wood stove, that kept the high-ceilinged kitchen warm in winter, and provided a means of preparing slow food such as baked beans, stews and bottled preserves. With its ability for drying damp nappies brought in from the clothesline, and for airing off the towels and sheets, as well as keeping the home warm, it was a multi talented piece of equipment. When the children began school I, along with many other mums of school-children, had a weekly baking day to provide cakes, biscuits and slices for school lunch boxes and trading tables. Patty cakes with icing and cherries on the top were favourites. The old wood stove took second place when the electric frying pan came on the scene. It meant instant heat for fried sausages and onions, or an ideal container for preparing that ?meal in the pot? such as braised chops and vegetables or savoury mince and rice. My first Asian stir fry meal was cooked in that frying pan under the tuition of a friend who had lived overseas, and had more advanced cookery ideas.
When we moved to Naracoorte in 1974 I was fortunate to have an electric stove as well as two wood-burning pot belly stoves for room heating. The pot belly stove provided an ideal environment for proving bread dough, and many an evening was spent in mixing the dough, watching it rise, and making up the loaves and rolls ready for baking. The yeasty smell of the rising dough was wonderful. Saturday mornings were fun-filled with children helping to use the Sawa biscuit maker, fill the biscuits with icing, and licking out the mixing bowls.
A move to Mount Gambier in 1981 gave me the opportunity to renovate the kitchen of the gracious old home which we?d bought. A cabinet-maker friend installed beautiful pine cupboards, with stunning green bench tops, and we purchased a large second-hand gas stove, found abandoned in a farm shed, filled with bits of straw, and covered with bird droppings and dust. A day or two of dismantling and scrubbing had it as good as new. Lovingly cleaned and polished it was like a new stove. Being extra wide, it had plenty of capacity for cooking large family meals, as well as for entertaining. I loved ?cooking with gas?. The heat was instant, and it gave me the opportunity to develop a new skill: making quiche in my home kitchen, a skill that led me on to my next culinary phase.

Polly’s Pantry

The wheel turned full circle when my husband decided to invest in a run-down snack bar, the perfect means of presenting my cooking skills to the general public he thought. I was back working in a shop. A quick makeover for the premises included painting walls, lacy curtains, bright green bench tops. We added little vases of flowers to the tables and opened for business, christening it ?Polly?s Pantry?. My father?s aunt, Aunty Polly Morgan who came from Wales, and whose name I had always loved, inspired the name. My recollection of her was of a petite woman with white hair in a bun, the image of a little Welsh housewife.
My ambition was to present good wholesome food. The ordinary fare of hot chips, pies, pasties, sausage rolls and yeast buns, all with instant coffee didn?t inspire me at all. Those who came to enjoy our new style food found quiche and salad, fresh wholemeal scones with jam and cream plus proper cappuccino topped with thick froth and a sprinkle of chocolate. The whole life of the business undoubtedly revolved around the second-hand electric oven at the back of the shop, in which we did our daily baking. Without that old oven we would have been nothing more than any other ordinary snack bar, but being able to create new dishes each day transported Polly?s Pantry into the world of the gourmet, and I just loved it while it lasted.
A business decision in 1985 brought us back to the city, and I regretfully said goodbye to Polly?s Pantry, a creation of which I am inordinately proud. A sense of adventure then led us into purchasing a piece of farmland at Kanmantoo, on which there was an abandoned farmhouse. It was overshadowed by a huge overburden mound from the no longer operating local copper mine, and often had me wondering how it would look without its man-made mountain. A new roof and lots of sweeping gave it some semblance of being habitable, at least on a weekend basis, and so we had a farm retreat in the country, with its own wonderful slow combustion wood stove. A wide solid creation in cream enamel that filled the whole fire place, which although it had seen better days, could still cook a beautiful scone, or roast a great leg of lamb, and so on weekends we lived like kings. Shearing time meant hot scones and biscuits for the shearers, taken up the hill to the shearing shed in a large wicker basket together with big pots of coffee. I think of living at the farm like being on the top of the world, with just the sheep, lambs and the magpies in the tall gum trees for company.

The orchard at Lacewood

A couple of renovations later whilst living in McLaren Flat at our property ?Lacewood?, I began making sauces and jams on the kitchen stove, using the windfall fruit from our orchard. I had no intention of starting a new business; I simply wanted to stock my pantry shelves. The sheer volume of products in jars meant we desperately needed an outlet for distribution. A few wineries sought local products, and with that expansion of cooking activities, the kitchen stove became sadly inadequate. My husband had developed an aversion to the commercial activities invading his domestic domain. He disliked the pungent aromas of coriander, cumin and ginger from the stores of cartons under the pool table in the family room. He winced each time I unpacked the oven after sterilising jars, especially if he was watching the television during this process.
When the brand ?Lacewood? was born, its cradle was the converted garage at the end of the implement shed. We?d had it lined and the lower walls clad in stainless steel. Using two large gas burners and a couple of secondhand jam pans we began manufacturing such products as Wild lime sauce, Bushman?s Plum and Dragon?s Roar salsa. The aromas in that kitchen became impregnated into its very walls and ceiling. If only I had a dollar for each time we had a visitor to the kitchen, who upon entering, lifted up his or her nose to the ceiling sniffed, and said with rapture, ?Oh that smell. I can remember my mother?s kitchen smelling just like that when we made sauce.?
Stoves have had a significant place in my experience, since as a small child I helped my grandmother make pasties and cook them in her cream and green wood stove with its beautifully polished copper water tank built into the side, its little copper tap ready to supply hot water for tea or washing up the dishes.
I have always loved the washing, cutting and general preparation of ingredients, the slow, wonderful smell of cooking food, and the pleasure that others have taken from the finished dishes. I began to dream about a whizz-bang, stainless-steel fronted oven to make food preparation easy in my later years, one that did not have a temperamental door hinge, or a cranky electric ring. So, I made a New Year wish for a wonderful new kitchen, complete with stainless steel oven, gas cook top and a dishwasher that worked every time.

The final chapter

When ?Lacewood? was sold we retired into the nearby town, moving into a ten-year-old home with it?s pre-loved, and rather tired, coffee coloured kitchen. The obvious thing to do was renovate, and so my dream became a reality. We chose a modern and efficient wall oven, stainless steel range hood and sparkling gas cook top installed in cream timber cupboards, featuring local craftsman-made leadlight doors.
You can take the woman out of the kitchen, but you can never take the kitchen out of the woman.

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