Saturday, December 20, 2008

Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte Cooks

What is life like in the kitchen in the Australian outback?
Cooking on an Australian station does not induce placidity of mind. In the first place it is a seven-day-a-week job; in the second it very often happens that one or more of the men are late to meals having been delayed by sheep-work in a paddock; and in the third place the hours are long, and the cement or wooden floor of a kitchen is particularly hard on a cook's feet.
On account of those drawbacks cooks are scarce, good cooks are priceless, and all cooks are martinets. A cook's uncertain temper is, therefore, regarded with the indulgence given to lumbago, or gout, the sufferer receiving all consideration and sympathy. (p. 59)
So begins Chapter 14, "The Passing of a Cook," in The Sands of Windee by Arthur W. Upfield (originally published 1931). The cook on the particular station in the book, called Alf the Nark, was ready to leave his position on a remote sheep station in the wilds of Australia; the date is 1924. At the last meal he cooks:
After beating his triangle calling the men to dinner, Alf the Nark began to cut up two roast legs of mutton. Usually the first man entered the kitchen-dining-room precisely ten seconds after the triangle was struck, but this day the men were in bed and asleep, and it was fully ten minutes before the first of them arrived...
"Soup?" snarled Alf.
"Please," came the sleepy answer.
"Soup?" snarled Alf to the next man, and so on... Then "Ive 'ad enough of this. If yous think I'm going to be on deck orl the blasted day and 'ang about 'ere arf the night waiting for yous to grease yer 'air, you're mistaken. There's yer tucker. Eat it or chuck it art. I'm finished." (p. 60)
And so Alf leaves for the nearest tiny town "visions of whiskey-bottles drawing him on." Bony, or Police Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is already on the scene. He's presented himself as a horse trainer and laborer, but Bony is actually a man of many talents -- and in fact has a university education. His reason for being at this station is to investigate the mysterious disappearance and presumed murder of a man who had recently visited the owner of the sheep station. He's hiding his position as an inspector, but he is open about his education and talents.

Bony quickly volunteers to take over the cook's job:
At six o'clock he was up cooking the men's breakfast; and the men, who thought they would have had to cook their own meals, were highly gratified. (p. 62)
Bony uses his new position to advantage; as the author describes his work, we learn a lot about the outback:
The vacancy in the men's kitchen ... presented to Bony a sure avenue of winning his way to the hearts, via the stomachs of Moongalliti and his tribe. ... Had he been a full-blooded aboriginal they would never have accepted him as one of themselves.... As a half-caste, and a strange half-caste, he would at all times be regarded with suspicion; but as a station cook, with somewhat of their racial blood in him, he could successfully bribe them and win a measure of friendship with food, for food and the getting of food occupies far more of the native mind than any other subject. (p. 63)
Bony bakes bread, serves morning lunch, midday lunch, afternoon lunch, and dinner. When asked to explain why he wants to be in the bush. He says:
"I wanted to go ahunting as my mother's father had hunted, and I wanted to eat flesh, raw flesh, and feast on tree grubs, and then lie down in the shade and go to sleep, fed full and feeling the wind play over my naked skin." (p. 65)
In the course of the book, the author at least briefly describes many meals, from genteel teas and marriage celebrations to native feasts. The clanging of the kitchen triangle, calling the workers to their meals, punctuates the passing time for the workers and owners. The portrayal of Bony and his dual identity uses food in what I find a most interesting way. Of course the plot is really the key, as Bony discovers the full story of the mysterious disappearance.

The overt and indirect attitudes of characters in the book toward the aboriginal natives -- and clearly, also, the author's attitude -- are really condescending and even demeaning. However, the details are of great interest, as they refer to a time now lost, when the native people were still free to live as they pleased, and hadn't been forcibly settled on reservations in the unfortunate and unhealthy conditions that followed. I hesitate to judge the attitudes that the author held so long ago in the terms that are now familiar and politically correct. The use of food to portray this lost civilization, even disrespectfully by modern standards, is very interesting.

1 comment:

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I remember reading some of the Arthur Upfield books many years ago -- attitudes aside (awful, I agree), the stories were well crafted and Bonaparte an interesting lead character.