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Travelling Light – Training the Cook


Today I learned a humungous amount about food safety. As I listened with rapt attention to the facts about the horrors of those ever-lurking demons within our food, just waiting for each of us to drop our guard and give them an opportunity to breed into plague proportions and invade our stomachs, then our entire bodies, and carry us off to our cemeteries, chuckling hoarsely with unseemly glee and rubbing their little pseudopodia together like Shylock as he counted his money, I marvelled more than once about the survival of my own children.

At least one of them reared himself almost entirely on dog biscuits which he shared with the dog as they cemented their relationship up the back steps during his toddlerhood.

No amount of threats and offers of substitute food would alter his fondness for the contents of the dog’s dry-food bowl (we drew a firm line at the wet food), for which he would inevitably make a beeline whenever I was looking the other way. We kept the dog duly wormed, and 20 years later it would appear that no hydatids or hookworms were exchanged, as the child in question is now a strong, handsome man with engineering aspirations.

When the supervisor of the Food Safety Management course which I undertook today at the Toowoomba TAFE, in a bid to become a responsible cooker of breakfast at a motel, asked the class if we knew how to make rissoles, I couldn’t resist the temptation to tell them all I knew about the subject; which was, in the infallible way of the traditional (and possibly mythical, one would hope) shearer’s cook, to shape them under the armpit so that they are uniform in size, and a perfect shape.

Alas, Humour was not in that room today. Neither the class nor the instructor was amused, so I sat back down in my box. As everyone looked at me with undisguised horror and disgust, I stifled my mirth and attended to the serious matters at hand, such as the core temperature at which the meat in the fridge should be kept and whether or not to cover leftovers with Glad wrap. I found it best not to think of Tom Quilty’s poem The Drover’s Cook, because it was off-putting in the context of such momentous deliberations. All the same, most people in the Outback have been regaled at one time or another with that timeless favourite, and many a drover survived prototypes of Tom Quilty’s cook’s ministrations without so much as a fridge let alone Glad wrap, and without dying of food poisoning.

These are the words to The Drovers’ Cook by Tom Quilty (1958)


Now the drovers’ cook weighed 15 stone and he had one bloodshot eye

He had no laces in his boots and no buttons on his fly.

His pants hung loosely round his hips hitched by a piece of wire,

And they concertinaed round his boots in a way that you’d admire.


Well he stuck the billy on to boil and then emptied out his pipe,

And with his greasy shirt sleeve, he gave his nose a wipe.

With pipe in mouth he mixed a dough and a drop hung from his chin,

And as he mixed the damper up, the drip kept dripping in.


I walked quietly over to him and said “Toss that mixture out,

And in future when you’re working, keep your pipe out of your mouth!”

Well he stood erect and eyed me, with such a dirty look,

And said in choice Australian, “Get another bloody cook.”


“A cook” I said, “you call yourself, you greasy slob made out,

Why you should be jailed for taking work that you cannot carry out!”

He then uncorked some language, and I felt a thrill of fear,

As he swung his hairy paws about and said, “Trot your frame out here.”


Now, in outback brawls there are no rules, nor limits to the weight,

So I had to squib, or meet him, with my meagre 9 stone 8.

We both bounced into action, and fell into a clinch,

I put a headlock on him, but I couldn’t make him flinch.


For hours we fought in deathly grips, swung upper cuts and crosses,

We staggered and floundered in distress like broken-winded horses.

Then gaspingly he stuttered, “I’ve fought all through the north,

You’re the gamest thing I’ve ever met, so gimme your hand old sport.”


Well I can’t explain my feelings, with joy I nearly cried,

As we staggered to a shade close by where he sank down and died.

Now you talk about that saltbush scrap*, why – it was only play,

Compared to that gruelling battle we fought that fateful day.


And now above his resting place where the grass has grown to seed,

On stone is carved this epitaph for travellers to read,

“Here lies the son of Donald Gunn, none gamer ever stood,

Who died in dinkum battle, with Jimmy Underwood.”





*NB:  This refers to the ballad Saltbush Bill, by Banjo Paterson – a very funny read and worth Googling.


© Jane Grieve –


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