In My Kitchen, I dream, plan, write, contemplate and meditate as well as chop, weigh, cook, time, taste and decorate. Friends and family come and go, drink wine, tea or coffee, laugh and gossip. Little ones open the pantry door to inspect the contents. Older ones with longer legs climb up on chairs to lift the lids of secret tins at higher levels. One of our many computers resides in the kitchen; it is a source of vital information during the summer months. We constantly monitor the weather, temperature, humidity and wind speed as well as checking the CFA site ( Country Fire authority). We listen to ABC radio, our national broadcaster and independent icon, which relays up to date reports of fire and emergency warnings. We are vigilant and at times very uneasy. We self evacuate often. It hasn’t rained for weeks. The land is bleached and too dry. Beauty comes at a price.
As February 7 approaches, the 5th anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfire in Victoria, my mind wanders back to my beautiful pre- fire kitchen and the things that were there and the life we enjoyed in it. To be truthful, I think about my old kitchen quite often: it doesn’t need an anniversary to take me back. I can see the long jarrah wood benches, the green and cream Mexican tiles, the moon rising in the East window, the overloaded antique Australian pine dresser, the kookaburra paintings on the walls. I admire the apple green Fowler ware bowls on the shelves and the Italian plates collected from trips to Italy. There is a marble island bench for pastry and breads and a walk in pantry. In the centre of this large room stands a huge antique farmhouse table of kauri pine with black wood turned legs, antique kangaroo chairs, spindle backed chairs still retaining their original paint, and a quaint kangaroo high chair painted red. There is music and dancing, Nanna’s disco, laughter, cooking and food. This beautiful kitchen, as well as the house itself, was destroyed by the bushfire in 2009.
As the anniversary draws near, I reflect on two important perceptions:
- the overwhelming generosity of Australian people during times of national disaster, and in this case, the Black Saturday bushfire of 2009, and
- The ephemeral nature of material objects and the importance of non attachment.
I look around my current kitchen and am reminded of the generosity of the Australian people who donated goods, some new, some second-hand, money, and labour to those who lost everything in that massive fire storm. In the first year following the fire, a year of temporary accommodation in converted sheds and house minding, we would visit Bushfire Relief and Support centres, to acquire the basics to begin life again. At first our needs were simple- underwear, second-hand clothing, towels and sheets, toiletries. With each week, new needs arose- tools, spades, wheelbarrows, buckets to assist in the clean up of our blocks. Then came the non perishable food items such as canned foods and pasta, the pots and pans, cutlery, crockery and so on. Some of these support centres were small and very personal. One centre in particular, the Hurstbridge support centre, run by the energetic Helen Legg and her team of tireless volunteers, became a special club- a place to chat with others, to share a laugh, a coffee, a weekly breakfast. If anything fabulous was donated to that centre, Helen held a raffle. Sometimes odd donations would arrive, for example a crate load of incontinence pads. Helen and co liked to parade around wearing these napkins as hats.
Another bushfire relief centre was the size of a warehouse. It was a big day out going to Clayton, as it took three hours to view the massive aisles of donations. Most of the items, except food and toilet rolls, (!) were second-hand. It was a treasure trove. In terms of the kitchen, I found a classic old Kenwood mixer, some wonderful little entrée plates once used in first class on Qantas flights, and numerous pots and pans. There were second-hand towels, still with plenty of life left in them, sheets, and toys. Lost amongst the boxes, I found a little gift wrapped parcel, containing a hand towel, some soap and some pegs. Attached was a neat hand written note. “I hope this will come in handy. Best wishes”. This was typical of all those who donated. It was given so freely and anonymously. Big and small, all was appreciated. I received a wonderful white platter from a friend of the mother of my son-in-law. I use it all the time. A friend of my niece passed on a colourful purple bowl, made by Leon Saper of St Andrews market, now deceased, knowing that I would have owned some ( she was right). My niece sent a new copy of The Cooks Companion, by Stephanie Alexander, but made sure it was the original orange one! it is inscribed, ” Zia, Spring will come again. Louise”. Family members were exceedingly generous with money and donations. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul, the Country Women’s Association, The RSCPA - on and on it goes. People who remark on our Resilience may not know that we owe this to the Australian people.
The second perception, the ephemeral nature of objects and non attachment, was dramatically reinforced during that life changing event. Let’s visit my Kitchen of five years ago. To be precise, this visit occurs from February 11th as we were prevented from returning to our destroyed homes for some days as the police and army searched for the dead- although some photographers made it their business to jump the control lines and to this day I still feel ambivalent about this. Some photographers saw beauty in the charred remains of the bush. We only saw terror. A small digression!
We enter the smashed and gnarled house: nothing appears to have survived. We discover a small terracotta plaque hanging on the crumbling wall above the wine cellar. It is Balinese and depicts a scene from the Ramayana. I attempt to lift it from the wall. It disintegrates into invisible dust. It doesn’t crack, crumble or break- it simply vanishes. It survived on that wall for three or so days until a human hand touched it.
My cook books had a dedicated bookcase – they are transformed into a snow white blanket. The ashen pages can still be discerned. The following day, a strong wind removes any evidence of their existence.
Green depression glass is welded and re -sculpted by fire. Antique Chinese Buddhas lose their heads and ears. A dishwasher sags, there are still items left inside. The Ilve stove, still young, is a burnt out shell. Plates are smashed and cutlery blackened. A sink lands on the ground. Pottery enjoys its time in the new kiln, but smashes under the weight of falling walls.
The photos of My Old Kitchen below are aired today – I haven’t looked at them for a long time. Value what you have but don’t be attached to objects. We have a lend of them for a while, then they vanish as we all must.
I would like to thank all the Australians who donate during times of disaster. This fundamental goodwill and generosity makes me proud to be Australian. And lastly, thanks to Celia of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, the amazing host of this monthly expose of In My Kitchen. Please visit her site to see other inspiring February kitchens.