Turner, James
Alfred Boiling the Billy with My Friend

No utensil is so generally used in the bush as the billy-can; none is more widely distributed, none better known in Australia. It is cheap, light, useful and a burden to no man. It goes with every traveller, it figures in comedy, art, writing and tragedy, and has been the repository of the last words of many a perished swagman. Often it is found with the grim message scratched on the bottom beside the dead owner.

Billies are of all sizes - from one to six quartz. Some hard up swagmen improvise by making a billy out of a fruit tin, with a bit of fencing wire for a handle.

So while the billy sits on the fire boiling, and you wait for that bush tea, share a story or two with your friends.

While the Billy Boils

Shearers' Cook by
Nicole Cody

Back when I was at College, my best friend Yarby came from a little place called Toompine, which is halfway along the road between Quilpie and Thargomindah in Outback Queensland. For those of you not familiar with this place, it's as far out west as you can imagine. Toompine had been a pretty big place back during the goldrush days in the 1800's, but even then the town was a shanty town mostly - shacks nailed together of bits of tea chest and canvas, a few timber and corrugated iron pubs, and lots of tents. By the early 1900s floods had washed most of the town away - the gold seam had run out, and so had the people.

Yarby's family own the Toompine Pub - a timber and corrugated iron hotel, painted pink, and with packed dirt floors. It is the only building left standing in Toompine. In fact, this pub IS Toompine. I met Yarby while I was studying a degree in Business, majoring in hospitality and tourism management. She invited me out to Toompine during our winter break. We would spend some time helping her Mum and Dad at the Pub, and then go across to a friend's cattle and sheep station at Julia Creek, where we could make good money as cooks for the shearing teams.

I'd never been a shearers' cook before, but I'd worked in a friend's catering business in Brisbane, and in some brasseries and coffee shops too. Yarby and I had just finished a semester of Hotel Cooking, the equivalent of a first year chef's course and we were both eager to show off our cooking skills.

Yarby's brother Pigskin drove us over to the station in his old utility. It took several hours as the dirt roads were rough, and we got two flat tyres. When we got there the Boss Cockie (the man in charge of the station) sat us down and gave us a list of requirements stipulated by the Shearers' Union. As long as we stuck to the requirements, had the meals on the table on time, and didn't run out of food, we'd get paid $500 a week. Cash. This was a fortune!

The Shearer's requirements read like the sort of Rider a rock band would send to their Five Star Hotel or concert venue. There must be Smoko - biscuits, tea and coffee served at 4.00am. Breakfast was to be served at 5.30am. There had to be at least four choices of cereal, milk, and at least two hot choices. Morning Smoko must be cake, served at 9.00am. Lunch needed to be a hot or cold selection plus salads and fresh fruit served at 11.30am. Afternoon Smoko at 3.00pm could be cake or biscuits, but not the same cake served at Morning Smoko. Dinner was at 5.30pm and must consist of soup or other starter, meat, a minimum of three vegetables, and pudding.

At all meals including Smokos there must be tea and coffee, cordial and cold water, fresh bread and butter, and the following condiments: vegemite, peanut paste - smooth and crunchy, honey, strawberry jam, apricot jam and marmalade. Any other condiments at discretion of cook.At all main meals, the following was to also be provided - salt and pepper, mint sauce, mustard - hot and sweet types, hot sauce, worchestershire sauce, soy sauce, HP sauce, sweet chilli sauce, barbeque sauce and tomato sauce.

The Boss Cockie, Steve, also know as "Boss", handed us the keys to the cold rooms and pantry. It was 8.00pm at night. As he walked out the door he glanced back and said, "Dunno how much bread's left. 'Spose you'd better make some more. Your Quarters are behind the kitchen. Cheers, Ladies."

Make bread. Make bread? Sheez, I'd never made bread. Yarby looked at me and didn't bat an eye. "How hard can it be? I've made damper heaps of times. Damper's like bread!" Excellent, first problem overcome. We dragged our swags and duffle bags over to our Quarters first so we could change and get washed up before we started. Pigskin had lent me a swag (a canvas sheet containing a thin mattress, pillow, sheets and blankets) after he realised I'd just brought my pillow and pyjamas. We walked into our room and I was immediately grateful that he had. Our two beds were old wire hospital frames, and the bare mattresses looked like whole families had been born and died on them. They stank to high heaven, and Yarby's was covered in mouse droppings. We dragged the beds outside, swept the floor and unrolled our swags straight out on the floorboards. Changing into our chefs uniforms (what were we thinking?){well, in our defence we were 19 and keen...} we marched back over to the kitchen, eager to prove our worth.

Firstly we took stock of our equipment. Two huge ovens, an eight burner cook top, a microwave and a walk in cold room and two normal fridges. There were two cupboards full of appliances like toasted sandwich makers, blenders, toasters, electric frypans and electric mixers as well as a stack of saucepans, baking pans and cake tins. The pantry was as big as my mother's entire kitchen, and better stocked. There were also a handful of cookbooks, very old ones, and a dusty folder full of recipes torn from magazines or peeled off tins, and some handwritten ones on backs of envelopes and scraps of paper.

We sat down and did step one, Make A Cup Of Coffee. Yarby poured a generous slug of scotch into both of them. Since having a near-death experience drinking rum at the Nindigully Bachelor and Spinsters' Ball, Yarby was favouring the mellowness of scotch. It certainly did help calm the nerves.

Next we drew up a rough menu plan. Yarby found a recipe for bread in one of the cookbooks. It seemed simple enough. There were boxes of shop bought biscuits in the pantry, so we decided to use them for first smoko. I began by making a chocolate fudge brownie slice for Morning Smoko, while Yarby tackled the bread. The bread proved to be a little complicated. It had to be let rise and then punched down and let rise again. We were cooking for twenty four men, so we figured we'd need at least eight loaves to start, and then if it went quickly we'd make more in the morning. Yarby made a quadruple mixture in a washing tub - the only thing large enough to hold all the ingredients. I then proceeded to make a fruit flan and small Butterfly cakes for Afternoon Smoko.

Suddenly it was 2am, and Yarby had only just wrestled the strange looking loaves into the oven. We made another cup of coffee, but ommitted the scotch, electing for double strength Nescafe instead. I began to make quiche lorraine as the cold selection for tomorrow's lunch, while Yarby set up the tables and made up vast vats of lime cordial. She then made an orange and walnut salad, a spiced lentil and capsicum salad, and a pasta shell salad with peaches and ginger - all things we'd made at College. Later we'd put out a green salad and some sliced tomatoes. We'd decided on stuffed pork fillet in pastry with a prune and bacon filling for the hot selection. The fruit was easy and could be done at the last minute.

Suddenly it was First Smoko time, and men began drifting into the kitchen. They were quiet but friendly in a shy sort of way, and almost all of them commented favourably on our Chef's outfits, especially the natty little hat things. Tiredness lifted like a veil and we attacked breakfast with renewed zeal.

Our hot selection was stuffed tomatoes with lamb chops and a breakfast savoury of zucchini, capsicum, eggplant and onion in a tomato sauce.

We began to cook up the hot food as the shearers and jackeroos ate their cereal, and Yarby put out four loaves of fresh bread on the table with serrated knives and butter dishes. She left another two loaves and knives near the big eight slice toasters.

Then it all got a bit chaotic. Men wanted eggs, but we hadn't cooked any, and we had to keep stopping to explain what the tomotoes were stuffed with, and what was in the breakfast savoury. Everyone took some to try, but it seemed that it was the chops and eggs that got demolished mostly.

Finally the men left, and we stopped to have some breakfast ourselves. By this stage we could hardly keep our eyes open, and we weren't hungry at all. Yarby offered to make some toast to go with our lime cordial. It was then that we realised how bad the bread was. Yarby had added too much salt, which also killed the rising process. The bread was like a rock, and we couldn't make more than a scratch on the surface with the knife. Somehow the men had hacked pieces off, but most of it had gone in the bin, and we found they'd used the Weetbix as a bread substitute instead. The breakfast savoury was delicious, and so were the stuffed tomatoes, so we ate those instead while we cleaned up from breakfast and got the Morning Smoko ready. Once we'd sorted out the kitchen and got the pork ready to bake we decided to get some shut eye for an hour before we began the lunchtime cooking.

After a quick shower and some sleep we dragged ourselves back to the kitchen. Something smelt delicious. We looked in all the ovens, but there was nothing there, it must have been the cakes we'd made! We put the pork loin to roast, and made the rest of the salads. I began a sweet corn and egg cloud soup with chinese noodles for dinner.

The men arrived for lunch bang on 11.30am. Just as they walked in the door there was a sound like a whole bunch of alarm clocks going off. One of the jackeroos pushed past us into the pantry with a big tray, and two minutes later came out with eight perfectly baked loaves of warm bread, four white and four wholemeal. Yarby and I looked at each other bemused and the boys started laughing. "It's a breadmaker, love " someone yelled, and on further inspection he was right. Just next to the huge flour bins was a whole bank of them, and the recipes were written on a chalk board above them, complete with instructions. All you had to do was put the ingredients in the top and turn a dial. We couldn't believe it!

We spent the rest of our luch hour explaining what quiche was, and what was in the pork. What the stuff was mixed in with the capsicums, and what was in with the pasta. And we scurried back and forth from the pantry opening tins of beetroot and corn and three bean mix. We couldn't really answer them when they asked us why we hadn't just fried the pork plain. Or why bacon and egg pie was called quiche and served at lunch when everyone knew it was a breakfast dish. Of course it didn't really matter what food we'd prepared as they smothered everything in a variety of sauces anyway. It was heartbreaking.

Then one toothless old bloke asked Yarby what we were cooking for dinner. "Lasagne, " she replied cheerily, and then was met with confused faces. Finally one of the men plucked up the courage to ask what Lasagne was. "Savoury mince", smiled Yarby through gritted teeth. "Ripper," was the immediate response. "Will you be serving that on toast or with mash?"

They ate everything in sight, and polished off all the bread. The afternoon smoko butterfly cakes and fruit flan I'd made with such care were demolished, and that night they made their own toast on which to sit the lasagne. The soup was largely ignored because it didn't look like any soup they'd ever had before. For pudding I had played it safe and made a rice custard with tinned fruit. We were going to make Bombe Alaska - an early College triumph, but we were so tired, and we'd decided quite correctly that it would be wasted on them.

That night as we had a quiet beer and made the next morning's bread we discussed what we'd put on tomorrow's menu. While we were talking the "Boss" came in and sat down beside us. He never quite looked us in the face as he asked us how our day had been and if we had settled in okay.

After a few minutes of strained silence, he sighed heavily and told us he needed to speak with us about the food. "Don't get me wrong, girls. It's all lovely, and very high class. It's just that these blokes are struggling a bit with all the dainty cakes and the foreign stuff, you know the quiches and the pork and all. The savoury mince was okay tonight, but you didn't need to pad it out with all that pasta and stuff. If you're running short on meat just check out the second cold room." He handed over another set of keys. "The dessert was a beauty though - just like me gran's."

I felt like crying. The "Boss stood up and stretched. "Look, to be honest, the boys really like you and all, but they don't like eating this queer foreign poofter food." He leaned forward conspiratorily. "They're not like us - they haven't been to the big smoke much. Not much education. Anyway... What's on the menu tomorrow?"

I looked across at where we'd started writing such delights as sweet and sour pork with fried rice, blood plum roulade and caramel upside down cake. "Sausages and eggs. Apple sponge for smoko. Corned beef for lunch with salad, or hard boiled eggs and meatloaf. Scones for afternoon smoko. Cream of tomato soup. Roast chicken and veges for dinner with jelly, ice-cream and tinned peaches."

He smiled a long slow smile. "Geez girls, you ladies are real professionals."

After he'd gone we retired to the Ladies Lounge - our newly christened front verandah, with a few cold beers, and a tinny radio. As we soaked our feet in a big tub of iced water we toasted each other with a beer, drawling, "Geez girls, you ladies are real professionals" and then cracking up with fits of giggles. We never made another poofter foreign wierd food mistake again in our time as shearers' cooks. And everyone was the better for it!

Stuffed Pork Fillets Take two pork fillets. Shallow fry in a little butter or oil until browned on the outside. Set aside. Roughly chop four rashers of bacon and fry until soft and browned. Slit the pork fillets lengthways and place bacon into the slits. Then add some pitted prunes. Wrap the pork fillets in some short crust pastry (the ready made sheets are fine for this) and seal the edges with some melted butter as you turn them under to make a packet for the meat. Brush the top of the packet with some melted butter. You may also add some decorative pastry shapes. Cook in a moderate oven for one to one and a half hours, depending on size of fillets. If pastry begins to brown too quickly cover with some foil. Serve with a green salad and jacket potatoes. You may also wish to make a brown bravy with meat stock (gravox is fine). To the gravy add a dash of port, some orange juice, seeded mustard and a little grated orange rind. Yummy!!!