Hard as it may be to believe, Peter Russell-Clarke didn’t invent the idea of cooking up meals on the sizzling engine block of a car. But he knows who did.
G’day. Back when the great Snowy Mountains Scheme was being built, the roads weren’t much better than bullock tracks. Or at least they weren’t around the rugged high country and the Brindabellas. Cooma was like a Wild West-Tombstone type town. The Snowy labourers were tough, work-hardened hombres from all around the world.
Workcare was a thing of the distant future. But it was the food habits of the people who built this Eighth Wonder of the World that set the eating standards from which we all benefit today.
The various ethnic groups grew what was considered at the time to be mysterious fruit and vegetables. The herbs and spices that bubbled their perfumes from the cooking pots not only amazed the Aussies who smelled them, but somehow frightened them, as though they were sniffing frogs and lizards from a witches’ brew. But one bloke saw all this as an opportunity.
Garlic seemed to be the main ingredient and that was easy to grow. It also keeps well, which was another plus. He was also acquainted with the old Indian hawker who drove a covered horse-drawn wagon throughout the mountains, selling cloth and yarns as well as flour, salt and other staples. His customers were the housewives living with their families in the near-impenetrable stringy bark regions better known to wallabies and wombats than humans. But our hero – Tall Timbers was his name – knew that the Indian hawker also had jars of mysterious substances that smelled exactly like what the Snowy Scheme workers used. So he found the old hawker and bought a selection of these edible perfumes. Tall Timbers experimented with these dried leaves by adding them to a stock of boiled ’roo bones or by sprinkling them into diced dingo cooked in creek water and eucalyptus leaves.
Before long, Tall Timbers had the spices’ measure, so to speak. His greatest triumph was baked bunny, slow-cooked in his three-legged, cast-iron Dutch oven. The young rabbit was portioned and the flesh taken off the bone, sprinkled with garlic juice and paprika. He’d serve that with sour cream flavoured with chopped raw onions and sesame seeds. Once presented on the plate, he’d splash the bunny meat with a little rum, which he’d made in a still behind his old outside dunny, placed there to ensure no nosey parker would sniff around to find his illicit booze-making building.
Tall Timbers tried his concoction on a selection of what were then known as New Australians. “Wunderbar!” “Merveilleux!” “Meraviglioso!” “Maravilloso!” “Mareavilhoso!” they enthused. “But,” they added, “we eat our main meal at noon, so we need you to deliver it to us on the job. A bowl of food with a bowl of wine, ya?”
Tall Timbers instantly got the picture. Like a pioneering pizza home delivery, he set up a “take-to” instead of “takeaway” operation. His problem was how to deliver his offering hot.
Leaning on the bonnet of his old red International, which he’d just driven from town, he muttered, “That’s the bloody answer. The bloody engine’s a bloody red-hot oven top.”
And so he designed his Take-To Food to cook on his truck engine.
He made sausages full of sage and coriander, then arranged them down the manifold. In a shallow foil tub he heated diced emu, sour cream, cumin and garlic, by tying it onto the top of the engine block. He baked spiced rabbits, which he’d nestle, wrapped in foil, down the side of the engine. He made coffee from hot water drawn from the radiator.
Now, all the above sounds nice and simple. Heat the food on a hot engine – no worries, eh? But what if you only have to drive around the corner? Surely the engine won’t get hot enough to heat the food. Or if you’ve got to drive all the way from Tom Groggin to Tumut Ponds? The tucker would be burnt to a crisp. So how do you solve this problem? “By arithmetic,” Tall Timbers reasoned.
“Drive the vehicle at a speed designed to dovetail with the distance to the hungry workers. In other words, if you need to drive 26km to the workers, you need to calculate the speed you need to drive to perfectly cook the food tied to the engine block. Faster speeds for a lesser distance. It’s quite scientific, really. You just need to be bloody careful to get your distances and speeds right.”
And so, folks, that’s exactly what Tall Timbers did. Delivered tucker anywhere, any time, from his oil-fuelled oven. His “Food to You” was prospering. The workers had buckets of money. Apart from the Cooma pubs there was little to spend it on – and anyway, many had been banned for monumental punch-ups between the various ethnic groups.
Then a band of Italians decided to go into opposition to Tall Timbers. They requisitioned one of the Snowy Scheme’s giant earth movers. It had a mammoth engine, so they reasoned they could supply more food to more workers in more sites without needing to constantly return to base, as Tall Timbers was required to do.
The Italians tied rabbits all over the massive engine. Napoli sauce hung in buckets near the carburettor and chorizo sausages, which they made between shifts, were tied to the manifold. Also protected by foil and wrapped around the exhaust was unleavened bread.
They arrived with their first offering at the same time as Tall Timbers rattled up in his old International, flinging spicy garlic smells into the clear mountain air with his over-worked fan. A hand-cranked record player belted out “Come and Get It” from its spot on the passenger seat.
The Italians’ truck had arrived trailing a spiral of smoke. As it stopped, the smoke caught it up and enveloped the huge truck. Flames flicked from under the bonnet. The Italians abandoned ship, screaming in panic. The watching workers bellowed with laughter as they bucketed creek water over the flames.
Lifting the bonnet, the distressed Italians examined their blackened, smouldering fare. “You had the engine revving too high,” grinned Tall Timbers. “And you’ve travelled too far in one run. You’ve got yer arithmetic all wrong.”
The dispirited Italians clambered aboard their smoking monster and turned the key. Nothing. Not even a burp. By then Tall Timbers was dishing up his perfectly cooked tucker. Under his “Food to You” signage he’d chalked the words “Served al dente.”
All that was years ago. The Snowy Mountains Scheme and Tall Timbers’ adventures throughout these marvellous mountains crowned with scribble gums, iron bark, stringy bark, ghost gums, peppermint gums, yellow box, grey box and all the other magnificent specimens of that wonder world have been forgotten. But the home of the wallabies, kangas, wombats, dingoes, brumbies and other unique Aussie wildlife is still there. Towns like Cooma have grown up, but the ecology of the top of Australia and the deep fern-covered valleys remain as God invented them.
To pay homage to Tall Timbers, I once cooked a full three-course meal on my car engine, then drove it onto the set of the Don Lane Show as the cameras whirred and the smell of garlic and spices fanned out into the audience. I fed Don and Bert Newton in what they considered a new and novel way of cooking food.
Tall Timbers smiled down through the TV lights.