I’ve been looking forward to hosting Jenn J McLeod on my blog for ages. Apart from the obvious connection as writers, we share a love of small, quirky country towns and the Australian outback. Jenn’s the sort of gal who’d have fun anywhere and I’m pretty jealous of her youthful adventures on the open road. As you’ll see, some of those adventures have inspired scenes in House For All Seasons which is out now. Welcome, Jenn!
Food glorious food! Such a foodie was I that in 2006 I gave up corporate life, moved to a small country town and bought a cafe. (I’d drunk loads of coffee. How hard could making one be?) Hard – although not as hard as writing a book (and, BTW, my book is about to hit the bookshelves across the country in … synchronise watches … about 24 hours from now).
So, when Louise suggested I grab an apron and whip up a blog post about food in a book I love… well, forgive my indulgence, I’m sharing a little titbit from my debut novel – House for all Seasons. (Did I mention it’s unofficially out now?!)
The food excerpt I am sharing today was partly inspired by an experience I had as a 22 year old, travelling the country in an F100, when my girlfriend and I were ‘rescued’ by four Sth Aust. farmers (on their annual pilgrimage). We’d dropped our exhaust on the (then corrugated dirt) Stuart highway, not far from the ‘smack-bang, dead centre’ of Australia. We later ‘bumped into’ our ‘heros’ at Coober Pedy pub and they suggested it would be safer to camp out of town with them, rather than the insalubrious c’van park with the seedy caretaker.
We did! (No Wolf Creek back then, obviously.)
What an experience. In the middle of nowhere –100 clicks from Coober Pedy – they cooked us kangaroo tail soup, kangaroo steak, damper and baked vegies – all from a campfire. My love of a life in the country was born.
Now, some thirty years later, here’s my fictional version from House for all Seasons.
A knock at the door wiped the smile from her face. She hoped it was the old man, reneging on the dinner arrangement.
‘G’day.’ Eli didn’t attempt to open the screen door, remaining on the porch, an old esky in one hand, a blanket in the other. ‘Ready?’
‘Ready for what?’
‘Dinner. Come on.’
‘Come on where? I thought you were going to use the stove.’
‘That was your idea, not mine. Fish is meant for the fire. You’re Johnno Hamilton’s daughter. I thought you’d know that.’
She did, of course. Johnno used to say the same thing, once upon a time.
‘Grab your coat and let’s get a move on. Gotta get the fire goin’ ’fore dark.’
He was already striding down the porch steps and towards the back of the house as Poppy unhooked a hoodie from the hallstand, tied the sleeves around her hips and followed, almost running to keep up, wondering where the frail limping old man was that she’d given a lift to earlier today.
‘What’s the dog’s name?’ Poppy managed to ask while catching her breath.
‘Odd thing to call a dog.’
‘Not really. Not when he’s a bloody pain in the arse you can’t get rid of.’
She might have giggled at the explanation, only it hardly seemed appropriate. She was starting to like Eli. Anyone who called a spade a spade was all right in her book. Poppy was a black-and-white girl. She detested grey and hated fence sitters even more, even though impartiality was a prerequisite in her business. Tolerating something wasn’t the same as liking it in her book of life.
‘So how far are we walking exactly?’ she asked after a few minutes, the isolation and the growing darkness tripping a little warning bell in her head. They’d left the open paddock area at the rear of the main house, followed the water’s edge, and were now blazing a trail into the bush. ‘Should I be leaving breadcrumbs?’
‘No need. We’re here. By the river. See?’
A campfire was ready for lighting and Eli wasted no time striking a match and burying it beneath several scrunched-up sheets of strategically placed newspaper pages.
‘Nice to see that particular news rag getting what it deserves,’ Poppy said, trying to make conversation.
‘Don’t read ’em much meself. Not interesting or truthful in my experience.’
She was about to say he sounded just like her father. Instead, she asked what she could do to help with dinner.
‘In there.’ He nodded at the esky. ‘There’s plates. Should be a lemon that needs cuttin’. Tomato and some rabbit food in there too. Thought I should, you comin’ from the city and all. You look the salady type.’
‘Oh, right. Thanks.’ Poppy wasn’t sure what to make of such a description. She sure as hell hadn’t had anything too salady of late and it had been a long time since anyone even cared about her diet, except Max, of course. Good old Max.
‘Okay, fish is on. Won’t be too long.’
She did as instructed, while Eli took a small shovel to the river’s edge and started scraping the surface.
Eww, please, not witchetty grubs!
To her surprise and amusement, Eli returned juggling four small foil parcels from one hand to the other without missing a beat.
‘Where did you learn to juggle?’
‘Best way I know not to burn your hands on hot potatoes.’
‘Yeah, well, not so clever with live grenades.’ He grinned and then went back to the in-ground fire for a cast iron pot.
‘Happened in Vietnam. You know there’s always one crazy clown who thinks some dumb-arse trick will give his mates a bit of a laugh. Until … boom! No more laughin’, if you know what I mean.’
‘Oh!’ she said, watching him unwrap and drop two steaming potatoes on each plate.
‘Here we go.’ Gnarly fingers upturned the pot, tipping a round of baked bread onto the rug. ‘Ahh now, some things are worth dyin’ for. Fresh beer damper from a camp oven is one of ’em.’
The smell of fresh-baked bread and hot beer both confused and tantalised her tastebuds.
Dinner was ready.
Now how about that Beer Damper? You will need…
A hole in the ground
A camp oven
Flour, salt, can of warm beer
Plonk flour, salt and a can of beer in a bowl and mix into a dough.
Whack the moulded dough into a camp oven.
Chuck the camp oven in the hole (preheated with hot, hot coals, of course).
Cook for however long.
Uncover coals, dig up, crack open, eat!
Want to know how the night ends, and what Poppy discovers?
House for all Seasons (Simon & Schuster, Aus) http://www.dymocks.com.au/ProductDetails/ProductDetail.aspx?R=9781922052049
Tells the story of four estranged school friends called under a bequest to return to the country town of their youth. Only spending a season each in the century-old Dandelion House will Sara, Poppy, Amber and Caitlin uncover the a secret the town’s kept for twenty years that will bind them to each other and to the house forever.
Come home to the country with Jenn: www.jennjmcleod.com
Facebook Author page: /JennJMcLeod.Books