Steve Krodman’s Cheerio stirred up a lot of memories and set me to thinking about life, and New Zealand, and oatmeal, and the springtime of my life. If you’re not sure about any of the lingo contained herein, just ask.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s I spent a few years in the Shaky Isles, living mostly off the music. If money got really tight I’d work at anything I could get, and back in those opulent days there was plenty to be got. As well as working in the trade when the mood took me, I’ve been a laborer in the seasonal freezing works – slaughterhouses – that catered to EnZed’s lamb exports; seagull (casual laborer) on the docks loading aforementioned export lamb carcasses into ships; splitter and fish buyer for a big fishmonger and his supplementary fish-and-chip shop; farmhand; deckhand; scythe-hand on a shire (county) maintenance gang; cheese-factory slushy; guest-house cook; pump guard in a mine – you name it, taking in both New Zealand and Australia I’ve probably had a crack at it at one time or another.
Back to the oatmeal. At one time I took a job on a big station (ranch) in some of the highish country on Te Waipounamu, the South Island. It was a beautiful place, sprawling over the sensual hills of Otago and close by the breathtaking and tragedy-stained gorge of the Clutha River. I’d been employed to assist with tree-planting as part of a reforestation project and to help with the muster (round-up) and a bit of sheep-marking – tail-docking, castrating and ear-tagging lambs.
The property was run by an elderly bloke, his wife and their two grown boys, one married, one single, with occasional help during busy periods such as the marking or shearing. The married son lived with his wife in a new house on the property, the single boy lived with his parents and I ate my meals in the homestead and slept in the old shepherd’s hut, down the hill a bit. Ghost, that hut was cold. No matter how high I built the fire at night, by morning my top blanket would be stiff with frost – but back to my yarn.
Walking up the hill to the old house for my first breakfast, I shivered in the crisp, blue morning, willing the sun up over the huddled hills. A ground mist dampened my sock protectors and the first tentative birdsong was drowned by the rumbling in my guts. It was 5 a.m. and my belly thought my throat was cut.
I was welcomed into the kitchen by the Old Man, speaking in the soft, South Island burr that hints at Scots heritage: “Sit down, son, and we’ll take a bite.” That kitchen and its products were a testament to healthy stomachs and hard work. There was a loaf-and-a-half of bread toasted on the wood-fired stove top, a frying-pan full of eggs quietly going about its business at the stove-top’s edge where the heat was less fierce, a giant teapot, jam, honey, butter and, in pride of place, an enormous pot of oatmeal. And all that was the entrée. Waiting in the oven, I was to discover, was the main course: a side of hogget chops, – forequarter, loin and chump – to be eaten with the eggs. Hogget, sometimes called two-tooth, is a sheep one year old, usually a wether when referring to the meat.
But it’s the oatmeal that concerns us here. That steaming cauldron at the table’s heart held the real stuff, and plenty of it. Looking something like coarse grits, proper porridge needs to be soaked overnight, then gently simmered in the same water for at least 20 minutes. Eaten by the oatmeal purist with just salt and perhaps a dash of cream, it bears the same relationship to rolled oats as, let’s say, a hamburger bears to a Big You Know What.
I was aware of the Old Man’s gaze as I took a porridge bowl from the stack and, at that stage still ignorant of the existence of a main course, heaped it with oats. As was the custom among the Povah clan, I laced it with a spoonful of jam which I stirred in along with about a tablespoonful of fresh milk.
The patriarch cleared his throat. “What arre y’, son, queerr? I s’pose next y’ll be wantin’ tomato sauce with yrr chops.”
“Tomato sauce with chops? I’m not a Pom,” I shot back.
“Yrr not s’bad then, sonny. Eat hearrty, there’s a wee bit to be done arround the place.”