Ian and Blanche

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3.2.1 An Apparent Abundance

Though family had little money during the depression and war years of the 1930s and 40s, they never wanted for essentials. Sheep too old to grow their quota of wool ended up on the dinner table (Ian was a capable butcher), and there was always a roast chicken for special occasions. The Sunday afternoon shotgun forays on the river or salt lakes yielded wild duck.

These meats had a splendid solidity of texture and strength of flavor. In the case of mutton, the texture might have been due in part to Ian’s practice of slaughtering the sheep at dusk and leaving the carcass outdoors, hauled up high out of the reach of flies, and propped open with a stick to allow free circulation of air so that the meat set hard overnight. As for chicken, the poultry were to an extreme degree what nowadays would be called "free range." The flesh of the wild duck from the river and salt lakes had a dense consistency and a mahogany color when cooked by Blanche or Maud Gittins. It never occurred to them to stop the cooking at a deep rose color, so that what might have been the gustatory experience of a lifetime was lost through inattention.

Milk, butter, eggs, potatoes, onions and other vegetables in season, and fruit were also produced on the farm.

In summer Ian always made a summer vegetable garden in one or other of the damp sandy spots, or "soaks" on Gilella. These gardens produced plenty of pumpkins, tomatoes, cucumbers and greens like silverbeet (US Swiss chard). Ian’s approach to gardening was in some ways unconventional. For example, when planting cucumbers, he would always put in a handful of salt along with the seeds and superphosphate.81  This, he explained, was to save the bother of putting salt on the finished product.

The orchard on Riverview produced quince as well as apricots, while the one on Gilella, though far past its prime, still produced an abundance of mulberries. One Christmas day Ian ate one thousand mulberries as a post-prandial snack, a feat of gluttony subsequently emulated by each of the children as soon as they learned to count that high..

Despite this apparent abundance of food, the family’s diet might have been lacking in some element essential to perfect health. Ian and the children, like many others in the district, suffered from a condition known locally as "Barcoo rot," a symptom of which was that an break in the skin developed into a sore that was slow to heal and left a scar. The doctor thought it might be due to iron deficiency and prescribed a "tonic," but like most medications of the time it was totally ineffective.

If there was a missing dietary factor, what might it have been? The one notable lack in the family diet was cabbage. Cabbage or other similar vegetables containing vitamin C and other essential nutrients could have been grown on the farm throughout the rather mild winter, but nobody saw the need for cabbage and nobody knew how to prepare it except in a perverse tradition of British cookery. Overcooked cabbage was in fact the lure of choice for the labyrinth-type blowfly trap kept by the sheep yards.

Blanche’s attitude to cooking, and to food in general, was one of mild distaste. She had a small repertoire of dishes that she prepared to perfection: roast leg or shoulder of mutton with potatoes, potato pie (leftover mutton ground with onions, topped with mashed potatoes and lightly browned), creamed potato and onions, sponge cake, and a yellow sultana cake called, for reasons unknown, "railway cake." She cooked without enthusiasm, in the manner of a deaf person playing the piano, and she had little patience with Ian’s more exotic tastes. When it came to such items as the brown dripping that accumulated at the bottom of a can of rendered mutton fat, steamed silverbeet glistening with butter, fish, pancakes, fluffy omelets, or sheep brains, she would gladly grant him the kitchen. Early in their marriage, Ian took over preparing eggs and other dishes for breakfast.

In egg cookery Ian was a sensitive artist, for example undercooking slightly to allow for the time the cooked egg was expected to reside in the warm oven before being served. He selected eggs that were fresh but not too fresh, perhaps three or four days old. Beside egg dishes, he produced more often than not some variation on the theme of savory puff pancakes, or "pufftaballoons", as they were a called by baby Gwyneth.

Ian’s most refined dish was sheep brains in browned butter. His method was similar to that of classical French cookery, a system he had certainly never heard of. But, being the butcher as well as the cook, he could afford to omit a couple of the steps in the standard preparation. Since he killed the sheep by cutting its throat rather than by hitting it on the head, the brains did not need washing to remove blood. He simply kept the head in a cool place to set overnight, split it with an axe, scooped out the brains and cooked them without ado. Probably because the brains were always well set, no preliminary poaching was necessary.

With their childhood memories of food shortages, neither Ian nor Blanche gave much thought to the danger of a dietary surfeit in animal fats or animal protein. Only Alexander, whose daily intake consisted mainly of plain oatmeal porridge (no milk or sugar) sounded an alarm on that score, and that for reasons of morality—"waste not, want not"—rather than of health.


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Footnotes:
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81. A mixture of calcium acid phosphate and calcium sulfate, important amendments for most Australian soil.