The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918
Army Sketches. — 1. The Cook-House
1. The Cook-House.
Our work as a unit consists in the supply of helmets and steel burnisherg for bits and stirrup irons to the Australian Forces. So we are not a very popular unit; but such as our work is, we do it to the best of our ability: and we are enabled to employ a number of middle-aged men, too old for the fighting line. Thus our cook is well over forty-five and has run to flesh some what: he is an old soldier and knows how to carry himself; and only that his chest has slipped down a bit, he still has a fine military figure. During his years of military service he has learnt how to handle men. So he affects a ferocity of demeanour and language that serves its purpose by keeping the younger men in order; while he is'quite ready, nay, even eager, to enter into an argument with the seasoned old soldiers, who tell him to "cut out the bluff and talk sense". In private life he is a quiet and successful tradesman, whose life is devoid of incident; but here he has to cope every day with the problem of feeding two hundred hungry Australians, some of whom have known the best, and others the worst, cooking in the world. As he says himself, "It's not the blokes that lived at the Hotel Australia that grumble; it's tne men that's been in the Northern Territory, livin' on water-lily roots and goannas, cooked by black gins!" But he does not lose any sleep over the grumblers—not like the French King's cook, who hanged himself because the fish was not done enough. Our cook would persuade any grumblers that they did not know the right way to cook fish!
Let us suppose, now, it is after tea in camp. The boiling Egyptian sun has slid down into his couch of fleecy clouds and the cool desert breeze brings life and cheerfulness on its wings. The cook-house gang, all smoking, sit on the form outside their shed, prepared to take on anybody. A fair sprinkling of men are lounging about, smoking after tea, and there is a constant coming and going of men from the tents. A dixie of water is simmering on the fire, and this has to be kept to make the tea for a detachment of men, who have been away delivering helmets and steel burnishers to brother Australians further up the line. There is a concert on at an adjoining camp, where many "sisters" will be present; so every man who has leave for the concert wants to get some of that hot water to shave with. And first comes up one, "Bluey", a character, mug in hand, and sidles towards the dixie, with one eye on the cook.
"Now then, 'Bluey'," says the cook," cut it out! You can't have none of that water. I want it for the boys that are coming in late."
"Bluey" is a large, red-headed, good natured youth, full of joie-de-vivre, and, occasionally, other liquids: he is no debater, but is always ready to join in any sort of rough-house gambols that will serve to help the afternoon performance along. He puts his mug on the ground, and adopting an exaggerated version of the Hughie Mehegan smother, he advances on the cook-house.
"Now then," says be "I've fought and beat every man in this cook-house, except one."
"Which one is that?"
"Donnelly! Come on Donnelly, you've lived too long! Come out here and stack your apparel, till I kill you."
The words " till I kill you" are apparently Donnelly's cue, as he at once takes the stage and grapples with the intruder. They wrestle and bump about among the stoves and firewood. The spectators cheer impartially. "Stay with him, Donnelly!" "Good on you, 'Bluey'!" "Uppercut him, 'Bluey'!" "Come off the stove!" From distant tents come hoarse cries of encouragement: "Choke him!" "Put the boot in, Donnelly!" And so on. After a while, the Cook, seeing that the "turn" has lasted long enough, signals to his next in rank. "Jack," he says, "go over there and throw that man 'Bluey' out. Donnelly might kill him."
Jack makes a short rush, puts his arms around the struggling pair, and rushes them out into the open. Here "Bluey" is sorted out from his antagonist, his mug is thrown after him, and he disappears from the stage, not without applause.
Next comes a tall, angular, morose-looking soldier, very dirty. He is known as " The Nark", being a man of trouble-making disposition; on more than one occasion he has put in a complaint to the orderly officer about the cookery. He has a great flow of invective, and spectators rouse themselves in anticipation as he bears down on the cook-house. The cook, on the principle that attack is the best defence, gets in the first shot.
"Now, 'Nark', what do you want? It's no good your comin' after water. You'd only say that it wasn't boiled the way you like it."
The audience laugh, but "The Nark" regards the cook coldly, and says nothing. Following up his initial success, the cook is emboldened to further flights.
"Ho", he says, "'The Nark's' a good soldier. When you roust on him, and he knows he's in the wrong, he don't answer back; just stands there and takes it."
"The Nark" shows his teeth in a dry grin. "Was you roustin' on me?" he inquires, in great surprise.
'Corse I was roustin' on you. Who else would I be roustin' on?"
"I thought most likely you were talkin' to some of those pot-washin' staff coves of yours. They want roustin' on. If the whole lot of you went cookin' in a shearin' shed, you'd be lynched."
"You hear that, Donnelly!" says the cook, in horror. "He says you wouldn't cook for shearers! You that was voted in as cook seven years runnin' in the biggest shed in Queensland, with two hundred shearers! Wasn't you, Donnelly?" " I suppose I was," says Donnelly. But" The page 3Nark", like a good General, throws on his forces on the weakest point of defence.
"Donnelly", he says, "put in most of his life ' helping to put new roofs on public-houses!" And with this parting blow, which is generally conceded to be somewhat of a bit below the belt, he slouches off with the dishonours of War.
Next comes a little London cockney, who has joined up with us in Australia. He has the Londoner's readiness of tongue.
"Cook", he says, as he swaggers up, "why dont you call those men of yours to attention when I come past? I'll 'ave that stripe off you, if you aint careful!"
"I'll put Donnelly on to you", says the cook, for want of any better retort.
"I'll job Donnelly on the bread-basket. Why aint he boilin' up some water for me, instead of loafin' there?"
"Why dont you go out and pinch some firewood, and I'll give you plenty 'ot water?"
"Garn! If there was enough of you there to put up a decent fight with me, I'd go in and knock the lot of you." Thud! Thud! Thud! Three bad potatoes, skilfully thrown by the cook-house gang, land on him like machine gun fire, and he ducks and bolts off to the accompaniment of Homeric laughter from the troops.
"There you are," says the cook. "I was keeping them potatoes to show the orderly officer, and you go and waste them on that!"
But now there is a tramp of feet in the gloom, and the detachment marches in, hungry, tired, and bad-tempered, as men are after a long day in the Egyptian sun. While they are having a wash, the cook bustles about dealing out the stew, and making tea. Two mess orderlies come up to draw the stew, and the cook ladles out the steaming mixture. The first man gets his allowance and departs, and the cook, glancing casually into the stew-pot, says, "How many have you got, Mick?"
Mick is a harassed youth who takes everything seriously.
"Nine, and all gormandisers," he says.
"Do they like ungyuns?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Well, here you are then. There's a beautiful lot of ungyuns in this." And the cook ladles out a mixture in which the "ungyuns" advertise themselves with no uncertain voice.
The mess orderly has learnt to fear the Greeks and they bringing gifts, so he inspects the dish narrowly.
"Why," he says, "its all onions. There's hardly any meat."
"Go on! There's plenty meat. And you said you wanted plenty ungyuns."
And the mess orderly retreats with his steaming dish, merely pausing to throw over his shoulder the remark, addressed apparently to the universe in general, "Cooks always is the lowest dorgs in the Army!"
But the cook takes no notice. The day's work is over, and turning to Donnelly, he asks him whether he thinks he could keep one down; and Donnelly feeling equal to the task, they go off to the canteen together.