Pomegranate Jewels in The Kitchen Garden


The glistening beads pop in your mouth. Melded with tomato and herbs they add sweetness and a firm texture. Little bursts. No one can quite believe the little red gems are as delicious as they are. They are an ancient fruit. They seem the kind of thing you might search for in the desert. The saviour that you stumble upon when, blistered and thirsty, you finally make it to the oasis. They come from a hard-shelled case. Of course it is fiction that each and every pomegranate holds the exact same number of seeds. But still, imagine. Its brittle matte surface defies the beauty underneath. It is a fruit I remember from my childhood garden too. Sometimes we cracked one on the red cement path, or used a tool from the many hanging on the wall in the garage – when Mum wouldn’t let us inside because she was vacuuming, or mopping or just because. And so we were outside and we were hungry. We could eat Gooseberries too – cocooned in their lacy lantern. The kind of fruit you don’t buy. Like lemons and figs and passionfruit – every good garden needs to supply its own.

In the Kitchen Garden it is time to cook. Long crusty baguettes are sliced on an angle and toasted in a frying pan. Then they are rubbed with a crushed garlic clove. Five times is the agreed number of rubs for each slice. The zucchini is sliced and cooked in a little extra virgin olive oil till it takes on some colour. Each crispy piece of bread is spread with the mixture of cream cheese and sheep feta cheese (our budget version of goat’s cheese). The zucchini slices are laid on, like fish scales, and topped with a sprinkle of diced preserved lemon rind and a crumbling of crisp sage leaves cooked in butter.


Our tasty main is Risotto with leek and yellow capsicum. A fearless mother takes on the task – despite it being the Death Dish on Masterchef. She’s unfazed. She gets her students in a preparatory huddle – they will make the best Risotto ever! It is a winner. A truck load of parmesan. Very cheesy. When not enough jobs remain the students find ways to garnish the dish with slices of radish.

At the communal table a child seeks my permission to lay his healing hands on my broken spine. He has the class reputation for healing headaches. Why not? Give it a whirl, I say.

When all the dishes and washing up is done – there are biscuits with raisins squirrelled back to the playground – turning to blur and dust in a pocket when a game of soccer rounders seems more pressing.

These days the year 6/7 group move around the kitchen with precision and speed. They know their work space. They have yet to work out the ovens, but either have I. Mostly they know where stuff is, although there is always a contingent of boys who need to ask for the item right before their eyes. Today I am about the clumsiest in our group as I nearly lose my grip on a slippery bottle of olive oil and send it to the floor. I save it in the nick of time. Kids are beginning to be confident around sharp knives and have mastered the skills meal-making requires. They no longer avoid the messy or tedious jobs. Well mostly. They work as a team to get the food on the table. Then they enjoy it mixed with conversation and pride. They know there is cleaning up to be done. They know the scraps need to be recycled and sent to the compost. If only we had some chooks. There are girls so keen on tomatoes that they scoop up the leftovers. The kitchen is ready for the next group. There might even be time for a cup of tea between classes. Funny how they think the tea towels might dry in a wet pile…


Leunig in the Kitchen

Michael Leunig

Leunig asks himself, “What is this?”

It is his way in to everything.

He describes his childhood as one of benign neglect. He grew up in a working class family with four other siblings. He played in paddocks on the suburban fringe. His playground was the rubbish tip. As a child he started a fire and burnt himself severely enough that it took him six months to recover and learn to walk again. He nearly lost some toes. His playthings were a dog and shanghai. He pinged at tin cans. He says it taught him much; trajectory, velocity…I can imagine him. A mop of wavy hair, poking a stick at rubbish, asking himself, “What is this?”

He had a duck, bought as a fluffy yellow duckling. It imprinted on him. It followed him. He likes ducks. He likes their rounded beak. He likes that it is does not peck but rather dabbles. Non-threatening. To him ducks provide the way forward.

He doesn’t look for meaning. He admires the musician, who, in making music is not asked to explain its meaning. They are free from that kind of scrutiny. To the musician mystery is allowed.

He has been able to stay in a childhood state of wonder, asking, as he looks at the world, “What is this?”

People in the audience are hanging on every word. They lean forward on their lecture theatre seats, tipping towards him, craning. The man in the row in front lifts his glasses and wipes his eyes. People are hungry for his simple wisdoms, given like small morsels. We are the ducks and he throws us satisfying crumbs. He tells us “hang on to your childhoods.” All the aged people in the audience murmur in agreement. But their childhoods may already be lost to them. How to get them back? He talks of wonder, dreaming, mindfulness. It is what a child does without thought. He needs no courses on how to do it. No meditation retreats. A rubbish tip, a duck, a pencil and a piece of paper will do.

Leunig sees the pathos in things. This is what attracts him. As a child he saw two men engaged in a fistfight. A drunken brawl. It filled him with shock and sadness. Again he asked, “What is this?”

“Love your enemy,” he tells the audience. War doesn’t end on the battlefield. Deaf in one ear, he could not be conscripted to go to the Vietnam War. He had been prepared to go to gaol as a conscientious objector, but in the end his disability prevented him from having to make a stand. “They took the wind from my sails,” he says.

He failed Year 12 twice, he tells us. The second time he did worse than the first time. Someone asks him why he continued at school if it was so hard for him. Wouldn’t he rather have stayed home? He says he wanted to be with his friends and that he had some worthwhile teachers along the way. He liked being there. It didn’t matter to him that in the end he hadn’t passed the exams.

It is a hot sticky day before the crossing of Cyclone Rusty. I have returned from Kitchen Garden where eggs were marbled in a pot of black goo – star anise, soy, cassia bark, black tea and more. The hard-boiled eggs were cracked and peeled and inside the egg white had turned beige and brown filament veins mapped the ovoid. Like wonderfully cracked porcelain. Like terrazzo. I felt like Leunig might on viewing the beautiful eggs. What is this?

marbled eggs

And how much Leunig would have loved the sago pudding?  The minature white balls are like miniature stuffing for a bean bag. The kids can’t help but let them run through their fingers, over and over again. They are white and hard, but cooked they turn into translucent beads. They are sticky and gooey and have no flavour – not until mulberry syrup and coconut milk are added. The mulberry syrup is a deep dark purple liquid. Viscous. As it gets added to the sago it turns it mauve. It is the colour of the storm cloud, the one that is heading our way. It still isn’t flavoursome, but it is delicate and strange in the mouth and everyone has an opinion. It is a bead. The tapioca is more about texture than taste. It awakens another sense. To the children who made it it is magical. The artist-child holds one between a finger and thumb and says to the little glasslike ball – I call you Nemo.

The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Big Lunch…

It is the day before the Big Lunch and there are only a couple of volunteers in the kitchen with a handful of kids doing the mise en place. Lee explains to the kids this is what restaurants do to prepare. Today they are sous chefs. How grand. We mothers are kitchen hands once more. We are hosting a Big Lunch tomorrow for around fifty people who are coming to see the progress of our kitchen garden. We are on display. Our food will be on show. Our kids will be too.

Just as when you are hosting a dinner party, there are a few nerves. But we have been practicing all term. The kids really know how to make pasta dough now. They have it kneaded into their souls. They have been baptised with flour. They are pros at passing the dough through the rollers of the macchina per pasta and getting the tagliatelli just the millimetre-perfect thinness. They know how, after, they must use a pastry brush to cleanse the machine of flour. Never using water. Like old Italian Mammas they have mastered a soft touch and Lee has taught them not to overwork it, and trust me, it’s not easy for kids to stop themselves from pawing the finished product, or even the unfinished product.

Because being in the kitchen is about being tactile. It is about using all your senses. It is about trying new flavours. It is about experiencing strange textures. It is about using your hands and seeing what can come from them. Transforming the simple lettuce and peas into a silky smooth, green soup seems somewhat miraculous to all involved. The lettuce is sourced from the garden and heavily laden with rich soil. It is crunchy and fresh but not all that interesting straight from the plot. It is washed and washed again. The heart of the lettuce is removed and the leaves fall about in a sink full of water. One boy picks out the older leaves and they will go in the compost bin. Lettuce in soup? and a scrunched up expression.

After sweating down the spring onions and finely diced garlic in our own home pressed olive oil the lettuce and peas are added and allowed to wilt down. Finally the veggie stock is poured in. Once it has simmered for fifteen minutes we need to blend it and then pass it through sieves to strain it and get it truly silken. It is a long, slow process made sweet and meditative by conversation and the warmth of being involved in a shared task. But eleven-year-old boys are not meditative for long. They wander off to something that looks more entertaining – like the job of popping from their pods the broad beans.  They need to be herded back to their bench. Always there seems a scarcity of help when there is washing up to be done. Where is my Chef de plonge? But reeled in they can clean as good as the rest of us. The benches need to be clean! I need my lasso.

On the day of the mise en place there is not the usual sit down and eat for the kids at the end of the cooking session. Imagine not eating after all that work. They have a dejected look. Welcome to our world. That is how mothers feel often, I think. All that work and it is eaten by someone else. So they make the most of their tasting opportunities. Just checking the seasoning one more time! Another spoonful of peas goes missing from the pot. If they were chipmunks they would be filling their cheeks for the winter.

On the day of the Big Lunch many volunteers have come to help, along with a handful of children from Grade Six. These kids will be the waiters and the representatives of the school. You can see their chests puff up a little as they are told this. As they are given their instructions from Lee, just as the head chef would give her front of house staff the run down of the menu, they are all ears. Pony tails are retied. Hair clips repositioned. Dirty aprons are swapped for clean ones. Girls adjust theirs to be just the right (cool) length.

The art room has been transformed into an Italian cantina with red and white checked table cloths, jugs of water with added sprigs of fresh mint and recycled Italian tomato cans hold the serviettes and cutlery. It looks a treat. There is even a guitarist.

It is an impressive menu – dips three ways with crostini, pea and lettuce soup served in a shot glass, mountains of homemade tagliatelli with zucchini and thyme sauce, a green salad with pumpkin seeds and ending on sweet strawberry tarts with vanilla whipped cream. All served and made by children around the age of eleven. The guests were struck by the well-mannered children, the spanking stainless steel kitchen, the fact that such a small school had a hive of volunteers and, that in the space of six months, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden experience at East Fremantle Primary has grown into a beloved and integral part of the school experience.


What will you be when you grow up?

I am contemplating this. I am still finding my own path. It seems I want to be many things. Story-teller, for one. Of course there are some dreams that I must simply accept are out of my reach. I don’t pine for them any longer. Acceptance is a good thing too. I will never be a dancer, a zoo vet or a stage actress. I no longer contemplate my curtain call bow or my darting of an elephant.

When I was six there was no bigger joy than the sight of a creature. Any creature, save a rodent. I was in love with my chocolate Dachshund. It started out skinny, smooth and wriggly. Sam was lithe and athletic. When he grew old he had foul teeth and dreadful skin. I now know it was probably Idiopathic Seborrhoea, for which there is no cure, but back then, as a teenager, I researched what I could, to find a remedy for the greasy flakiness that afflicted him, and which banned him from the good rooms of the house. “That dog smells,” and indeed he did. But somehow it did not bother me. I still hankered to have him sleep with me and play with him on my bed. Bathing was the only thing that worked, and so I did it religiously, fervently, determinedly. If I could have cured the dog through diligent shampooing I would have.

Despite his smelliness, which made most people push him away, I still wanted to be near him. I felt an incredible bond with this dog whom I’d been given as a six-year-old. He was mine. He was ill-behaved in so many ways. He was, to a right-minded dog owner, somewhat unlovable. He was ferocious, through his lack of socialisation with any other dogs. Walking him, I needed to be on my guard, because if he spotted another canine he went berserk, straining at the leash and threatening to attack. He once fought a Rough coated Collie; hidden beneath the flowing Lassie coat of the large dog he hung on, till they could be prised apart. This was to be one of his last casual saunters around the block.

My parents solution to the problem was that I shouldn’t walk him, and so he became a yard dog, confined to his quarter acre and the rear of the house. He noisily patrolled his fence line and it was a brave or careless intruder to venture beyond the side gate. He could bite. And still, I loved him.

My love for him was the seed. It morphed into veterinary science where the love of dogs becomes worn down and whittles away. For day in day out the love of dogs is tested by unruly, boisterous beings. They are deformed and inbred. They are badly trained or not at all. They are child substitutes or are, in fact, human. They are scared witless or fearful enough to bite. They are held down, and they piss and poop on you, petrified. They are noisy and smelly and, of course, sick, and sometimes dying. Sick dogs come with stressed owners. Owners who want answers, like people do when their cars have broken down. A new battery?

But despite all this, I cannot be without a dog. I need to commune with another species to be at peace. I need his soulful head to come to rest on my body. I need his eyes. What is it that being close to another species gives us as humans? It is, surely, incalculable, the way we are nourished by their presence. It is too magical to be able to be measured. Does it happen on a cellular level?

Because I am thinking of more study in veterinary science, it makes me question what my path is. I want to keep learning but am fearful of being mediocre, of just scraping through. Not trying might be the surest way not to fail. But still I have enrolled, because it is something I keep coming back to. The love. I am sure it is corny and inanely wet, to go on like this. I can feel the finger-in-the-mouth-nausea rising in the vets who will read this. Get over it. You are not six anymore. Still wanting to cuddle and hold?  That’s your motivation? Yes. I just like to be around animals. Especially ones not sick. I like to watch healthy dogs eat at the rate of knots. I like to watch fit dogs run and cavort. I like to watch tired dogs (and dogs not tired at all) sleep. I like to watch dogs dream of chasing cats or baling up the postman.

And then I want to write about what it is like to feel the dog’s coat beneath your fingertips. I want to write about watching the dog that’s been a companion for years die, as a viscous green liquid is injected into his vein. Nora Ephron, screen writer and director, said that every house where teenagers reside needs a dog, so at least there was one being pleased to see you when you came home. Greeting is what they have perfected. Joy too. Random silliness. We all need, yearn for that unrestrained love. Given so freely, truly with no strings attached (except, let’s be realistic; maybe feed me, walk me, pay my vet bills).

And then I think of Jasper and how his future might unfold. I keep a look out for him, at what he likes to do now, knowing that a seed might be trying to find its earth. His soil is teaming with life it seems. One day a soccer star, the next an AFL legend, a Wimbledon finalist. The next he is writing stories of an evil meat lover’s Pizza slice, AKA Mr. Pizza, and a humongous battle between chef and inanimate food. He is a master of the sound effects of explosions and gun-fire of all kinds. He is drawing cartoons of skate boarders taking to the skies. He hates dinner table talk of vomiting and diarrhoea, or any procedures of any kind on animals. He has an intense and burning love for his own dog, but he’s not moved to cuddle all things covered in fur. Rightly, he seems to know that loving his own dog does not necessarily destine him to veterinary science. He abides school, only just. If anything he appears to be a story-teller and so that could take many forms. But perhaps that’s what we all are, just trying to find the tale in which to tell our story…


Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden

This is my first day as a parent helper in the Primary School Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden project. I have signed the declaration assuring the school I have no criminal convictions against children. I am allowed in their vicinity. I arrive early. Sun is flooding the north facing verandah and striking the stainless steel bench tops. I read from the white board the menu for today. I am thrilled to think this can happen at school.

Lee is in charge. First names are the norm in the kitchen. We are three mothers and the school Chaplin – about to instruct 29 or so children from the grade 5/6 class on how to get the meal on the table. Jasper is in the group but I can sense he wishes his mother was not volunteering. I remember the embarrassment I felt at my mother signalling across to me when she was on canteen. I remember wishing I could sink through the bitumen to not have her see me and blow me kisses. Luckily for both of us he is not assigned to my group. The menu consists of soda bread, green salad with fennel, broccoli and potato soup, and for dessert, apple sponge pudding.

The kitchen bench has a wicker tray overflowing with the fresh produce. Wonderfully green and fragrant. Fennel bulbs will be shaved with a mandolin slicer. Something even I am afraid of. More greens than most kids see in a week. As yet the produce isn’t grown from the school garden but purchased from the Fremantle Markets. Behind the kitchen, the elaborate garden beds constructed from limestone have been completed and a small section of the class will be assigned to work in it, while the others cook. Then at the end we will all come back together to eat.

The long narrow kitchen has four workstations, colour coded.  The deceptively colourful plastic-looking scanpan knives are not plastic at all and are indeed very sharp. Lucky their first lesson is in how to chop safely. Part of me, that overly anxious bit, imagines cut fingers, bleeding hands, burnt skin, scalds…There is a lesson for mothers here too. One helper will be assigned to work with 5-6 children on one dish.  So in effect there are little hives of kitchen activity huddled around each workstation. Someone has never peeled the tight brown paper-like skin of an onion before. For the first time a girl realises, with tears in her eyes, why she sees her mother crying at the sink whenever she slices onions.

I have been given the job of the soda bread. I have six boys. One makes pizza dough at home. One is keen to do the weighing of the flour. We divide into two groups of three and a couple go off to bring back to our area the utensils we need. You need to know what a sifter is. You need to bring back baking trays and baking paper. Can someone get the bicarb soda? What about the salt? There is commotion. But it is good commotion. A bustle of activity, of sorting how we will do this and who will do what. There is excitement at the idea of producing edible stuff.

For a good while we cannot work the electronic scales to weigh the required 500 grams of flour, until a teacher’s assistant goes off to get an old-fashioned scale from the classroom. Pushing the buttons less often may have helped.  Eventually we have two bowls of 500g flour, 2 tsp. of bicarb and 1 tsp. of salt and the boys have sifted the dry ingredients together. Get your hands in it, I suggest. They are amazed at the texture of the flour. It’s so soft. Do you remember the first time you felt flour? It is finer than sand. It is light like air. It is clean. Now we need 400mls of buttermilk. Ewh it stinks, says one. Make a well and pour it in and then mix. What with? Your fingers. Get in there. That is my instruction. It is a god-awful mess of sticky goo. They have their hands in it and they have almost as much on their hands as in the bowl. There is laughter. There is flour. How this goop will turn into bread is something none of us can believe is possible. But somehow two loaves are constructed. They are very different in consistency and look despite the supposed measuring. They go into a hot oven and then the boys must clean up.

This is new to them. They need a bit of help to work out how to get the caked on flour mixture off the bench. Wetting a cloth is not something they have done before, it seems. They need prodding to wash the bowls. Come back here. This isn’t clean. But the mothers are not to do it.

There is something quite liberating about standing back. Lee has instructed us that it is their job to do the cooking and the cleaning. We are simply their guides. We can leave it to them. Some are setting the long table outside with the cups and plates and bowls. Others are filling jugs of water. Others are still working on their dishes. I look across at Jasper, on task at the  apple sponge making. He has a navy blue apron on. His hair stands on end. He catches me looking and smiles despite himself. A group of three girls stand around the saucepan of soup, each with a wooden spoon watching it cook.

Our soda bread slowly transforms itself from a pile of gloopy slop to a browning rustic loaf. The kitchen now has an aroma; of bakery, of country kitchen, of Grandma’s. The boys are outside and are called back to come check on their loaf; to tap its brown underside and hear whether it sounds hollow. We all agree it is done. It has been some kind of magic. It must be cut while it is hot and it is a difficult job for the boy who does it, but he manages and carries a board of steaming bread outside to the long table.

Lee serves the soup. They love their food. The food they cooked. They love the compliments their friends are giving about their part of the meal. You can see a sense of pride and achievement for something created and then enjoyed as a group. The boys are eating green leaves and saying  – leave us some salad! Some people want more soup. Everyone wants the dessert. It is sooo yummy. It is a small but delicious meal and healthy too.

One group is also assigned the cleanup but everyone must deliver their own used bowls and utensils back to the kitchen and help stack the dirty dishes. The dishwasher is used for almost all of the washing up and the job is over quickly and the kitchen spanking again ready for the next group.

There is time for a cup of tea and then the Year 7 group will arrive and we will make it all again.

And what have the children learned? They have learned to work cooperatively, to create a dish that from its raw ingredients is nothing like the end result. It is chemistry at work. It is biology. It is maths. They have learned about healthy eating and even some table manners. They have talked about the memories that the sharing of special food evokes. They have learned to get their hands dirty and then to clean up again. It is culture and it is fun. Perhaps it will create a happy memory of childhood that later an adult can remember; and what could be better than that?



Old fashioned Ruler and Wafer Biscuit


Because I don’t know what else to do….

Seeing the teacher this afternoon. Guts in a knot. Ate one biscuit. Wanted another. Stopped myself.

Took a photo of it instead.

Yesterday Jasper left his hat in his bag in the corridor at lunch time so could not go out in the sun. He sat undercover and watched the others running amok. No Hat No Play. The classroom is locked at lunch time. A no go zone. Perhaps this is because children might graffiti or vandalise. Perhaps someone might turn the word on the black board from lock to fuck. Even a girl.