Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


What to do with four parsnips.

I once wrote about the supermarket cashier who brightly remarked, “Oh, a white carrot!” as she scanned my parsnip. It happened again the other day when I visited a supermarket without self-service checkouts. “Yes, they’re quite rare,” I replied. “But tasty.”

In fact I prefer the earthiness of parsnips to the jaded sweetness of the carrot. Or maybe there are just too many carrots in the world.

I baked a topped head of garlic, squeezed out the pulp, and combined it with four boiled parsnips, a tablespoon each of butter and cream, and a shake of nutmeg. Salt to taste and a quick vroom with the beater, and a slurp or two of the reserved cooking liquid, just to thin it out very slightly. Then I seared scotch fillet steaks, served them over a plinth of garlicky parsnip purée ... and rained down a mess of deep brown pepper-studded sauce over the steaks. Where the sauce met the purée was culinary cloud nine. The steak was just the meat in the sandwich.


Sunday afternoon exit.

An hour to Dromana from the sharp end of the peninsula, on what is usually a fifteen minute drive. Late Sunday. The sun behind us. This will jam up even tighter once everyone tries to muscle onto the freeway back to the city. Sure enough, I rounded the curve away from the beach road and there they were, almost stationary on the overpass, just their roofs showing. I spurned the turn-in and kept ahead, passing under the city bound ant-trail of cars. I flicked a quick left and right hook at the Mornington turn-off, and in a few minutes we were on a dead straight roller coaster through farm land where, at the peaks, as you pass under linear stands of old windbreak pines dating to the nineteenth century, you can glimpse Westernport’s oily flat wetness in the distance ahead before it drops out of sight. Then north again, through Hastings, and onto the other freeway and home in an hour. 

There had been whispers of permanent - mainly of the ‘retired’ type - residents spying, or appointing themselves lockdown sheriffs, or otherwise similarly busying themselves. Indeed, they had been encouraged by government to do so. As far back as March some, revisiting their primary school art classes or their anti-Vietnam protest days, had made big banners reading Visitors Go Home. Baby boomer art lives on.


Hold that Novocain ...

I grew up, and the dentist grew old and retired, and life went on. Decades later, I'm halfway through a book, and I read this:

They waited for the Novocain to take effect.  ... Above her feet a large window curtained in dun sacking framed an abstract view; the slate roof of the Tarbox post office descended in courses of smaller to greater from a ridge of copper flashing set smack, it seemed, against the sky. The day was balmy for this late in November. ... a small blond radio played colourless music ... In mid-melody, the radio music stopped. ... ‘A special bulletin. Shots have been heard in Dallas in the vicinity of the Presidential motorcade.’ ... 
(Couples by John Updike, reviewed here 21/10/20.)


The dentist.

The dentist’s surgery was upstairs in a Victorian-era Newmarket shopfront just down from the old Flemington post office. You climbed the steps into darkness and came out in a dim hallway with name-plated doors on both sides all the way to other end, which seemed a couple of buildings away. The dentist owned two of the doors; the second being the grey waiting room where you sat on 1950s steel and leather chairs, and you either picked up a Women’s Weekly, or stared out the long narrow window at a vertical cross-section of slate roof and a terracotta chimney and blue sky. When the muffled noise of the drill through the adjoining wall fell silent, you could hear the dentist and the ug-ug-ik reply of the patient, and behind that the soft murmur of a radio. It was November. I was about six. I sat on the chair and read the comics in the magazine while I waited.

When I was called in, the dentist and the nurse were statues as if someone had switched them off. The radio was louder, but not because I had just come into the room. One of them had turned it up. It was saying something about President Kennedy being shot.


Last Post.

I was revising Part One of the book. (Part One covers the quarter century from 1895 to 1919.) Soft music drifted up the hall into the white sunny room where I work. I prefer music at a distance when I'm working, so that it comes to you from around corners, like a shy cat. As usual when I am writing, time means nothing. Hours die. 

In the book, the Club is coming out of war and is about to face its first pandemic restrictions (Spanish flu 1918-19). I commenced a new paragraph: 'Armistice Day came, but the battles continued.' As I wrote that sentence, the cat music changed and a different sound floated up the hallway. It was a bugle. It was eleven o'clock.


Scene Two: The Creek.

Late afternoon; the rocky waterhole where children have been gathering these past few months when other amusements were out of reach, or banned, or closed. Dogs wheel and race; children splash. The angelic man from the church is there with assorted family; grandchildren in the water, knots of adults on the bank. After a while wife and daughter depart with two grandchildren, leaving him with the youngest, a boy of about four.

The child ploughs the water, and for a time the man darts along the bank, following him up and down; seems unfamiliar with the technique of calm supervision. The child is crying, must have slipped or stood on a sharp rock. The grandfather shouts at him; the quavering alto now with a hint of wheedling menace. The boy ignores him and gives little soliloquised sobs, face cast downward as if looking sorrowfully for a lost fish. He nears the edge of the water. The man seizes him and shakes him. ‘Stop crying!’ he commands. ‘Why are you crying? You are a boy! Boys never cry. Girls cry! You are not a girl!’ He drags the sad child away from the water and up to the path that runs behind a line of old eucalypts, and they disappear.


Scene One: The Church.

His face beams; short, dark, an angelic sixty year old, the star of the show in the small choir in front of the small congregation in the large church that was built for hundreds. It would probably fit a thousand. The short angelic man has dark hair greying at the ends, and expressively reverent hands, like a French silent comic who has washed his face paint off. He sings in a quavering alto. The Lord’s Prayer is the highlight of his day, or maybe the moment he takes communion. You can see it on his transcendent face.

He’s in everything. He runs around with the collection basket on a long stick that comically looks like a butterfly net. He shuts the church after mass. One year before the Easter vigil he tried to light the brazier, but overloaded it with some kind of incendiary or propellant, like an over-enthusiastic Holy Spirit, and nearly set some hovering parishioners on fire. The white-light glare lit their gathered, aging faces in a two-second photographic capture of surprise turning to shocked fright.


I never saw it.

'I never saw it,' I said. They were talking about some movie that featured a well-known song. Studios hijack famous songs and then everyone associates it with the movie. (Likewise, play some Vivaldi and someone says, 'That's the dog food ad!') Incredulity all round. 'What do you mean, you've never seen it? Everyone's seen it!'

Then someone mentioned a scene out of one of the Star Wars movies.

I said I hadn't seen it.

They were staggered.

I added conversationally I hadn't seen any of the Star Wars movies.

They all but fell off their chairs.

'What, not even on TV?'

Not even on TV.

'But ... why?', as if I'd murdered my mother or something.

I didn't know. I just hadn't. I didn't object to Star Wars movies; well, the idea was a bit boring, but I just hadn't gotten around to it. (I did once see a Star Trek movie by accident; the plot was several hysterical people run up and down inside an asteroid-bound cylinder with blacked-out windows for ninety minutes.)

That started it. They reeled off movie names, trying to pick one I'd seen.

'Indiana Jones?'

No. None.

'Lord of the Rings?'

No. None of any of the various series. Read the books though. Twice.

'Superman? Titanic? Gone With the Wind?'

No. No. No.

Getting desperate now. 'Ghostbusters? Pearl Harbour? Batman? Austin Powers, either of them? Men in Black?'

No. None of those.

'Forrest Gump? The Exorcist 1 or 2?'


'Surely you've seen Saving Private Ryan then? Surely!'


Someone mentioned ET.

Yes. Saw that when it came out, took my now-grown-up children to it when they were small in the 1980s. Found it corny, over-sentimental. What, me a snob? Can't be: I still call them movies. Snobs call them 'films' and they watch them in 'cinemas'; as in 'Have you seen the new Shankenheimer film? It's called The Pleasures of Total Silence and it's playing at the Flea Pit Arthouse Cinema'.

Of course, I've seen hundreds of movies over the years. They just named the wrong ones.

History kind of repeats. Recently I saw an earlier Spielberg movie with my children: Duel. Amazingly, it was made for TV. It was good. After that we watched that 1970s Clint Eastwood movie where the avenger gets the townspeople to paint the town red before it burns to the ground ....


Unintended consequences.

Now let's go back a few days to that peninsula jungle. I slashed my block while the overgrowth was still alive, making it easier to dispose of. As summer sets in, anything not removed will dry out and die, creating a vast layer of combustible material. Inevitably some owners will not carry be able out this work in the narrowing  window of time before Christmas. Well into November, they are still banned from entering the peninsula at all - and there not enough local tradesmen to clear thousands of properties, even if they could access them. The peninsula is already a fire-prone narrow isthmus of land carrying a population that doubles over summer, exceeding that of Hobart.

And there’s only a few ways out.

It was dangerous here even before the pandemic - I posted this on the last day of 2019.


Cup Eve and the music that made me.

Hot afternoon in the shade. The first of the season. A noise bubbled quietly in the background; as if from long ago and far away. I drifted somewhere and it was green and a shaft of sunlight fell to earth. Flute. A flight of children came into the garden and the slanting sunlight pixelated them into medieval elven sprites wearing mirrored tunics that blinded me. Mellotron. Melismatic notes fell out of the bubbling noise and lay on the ground in neatly ordered lines. I woke. The elves had gone. The music was amusing itself now with little introverted self-congratulatory notelets as if rewarding itself for lasting forty-five minutes.

That was the thing about progressive rock. Some of the over-serious stuff was not as good as those who were satirising it. 


Thick as a Brick: Jethro Tull, 1972; Trilogy: Emerson Lake and Palmer, 1972; Music inspired by Lord of the Rings: Bo Hansson, 1972.

Highlight: From the Beginning from Trilogy, a lost diamond of a song lost in a forest of endless prog. rock.


Stupid things you read in the newspapers: No. 1 in a series of 17 million.

Interviewer: ‘Did Coronavirus disrupt your plans for 2020?’



Gnocchi in olive oil, a scattering of parsley growing wild - approved wild - in the back garden, and a dusting of parmesan sent me sleep (I found a bottle of red as well). I had worked until after sundown. 

Now it was 7.30am. I walked down the hill for the morning paper and it was a ghost town, even in the early morning sunshine. The permanents must have been still quaking inside their houses set behind front gardens fussily manicured as if in purse-lipped contrast to their enforced back-to-nature neighbours. Now, back at the house, coffee and the paper, and back to work. The mountain of thistles lay behind the old bungalow, the original fisherman’s hut that sat further down the block a couple of decades before the modern square flat-roofed timber house was built on the crown of the hill to catch the 1970s sun. I got the mower out of the shed.

By mid-afternoon the place looked half-civilised again, the mower modified by leaving off the catcher and wiring the flap to half-open. I cleaned up, locked the house and set off again down the long sloping hill to the bus stop on the beach road. The overgrown gardens looked even wilder than yesterday.



It was late afternoon now, and I stared at the once-lawn. My thoughts raced ahead of themselves, and one of them won, so I abandoned the idea of resting after the four-hour journey with a cup of tea and one of several half-finished books on my chair at the north-facing window of the lounge room. No motor-mower could cut down a hundred four- to five-foot thistles. And I didn’t have any other power tools. A combine harvester would have been handy. But that was wishful thinking. I might have to pull them out by hand.

The sheer force of unbridled nature had produced an almost perfect three-tiered wild garden. The thistles towered over a lower level, those weeds that grow to about two feet and produce seed heads that stick to your socks. The understorey below that was a mess of assorted flora of the weed and non-weed kind. In one corner, a poppy about four feet high was about to raise its several heads into flower. I hadn't had poppies here for years, but this was clearly offspring. Its seeds had lain potent in the ground, waiting for their chance. How is this possible?

I pulled a four-foot thistle. The stalk at its base was an inch thick. It came out in a clump of dirt the size of a tennis ball. Ninety-nine to go, in round figures.



This time there were no trapped birds or mice plagues, and the ever-present unkillable cockroaches were minding their own business in dark corners. They were probably hibernating, long having finished off any micro-crumbs of food that might have been left the last time humans were here. 

First things first: the refrigerator. I couldn’t remember what I’d left in it, if anything. Having travelled directly by tram, train and long bus ride, I did not want to set off again to the supermarket which in any case was several kilometres away - and furthermore - was off limits, due to lockdown regulations. I opened the freezer door. One pack frozen pumpkin gnocchi, one pack frozen mixed vegetables: that’s dinner. Frozen bread rolls and sliced bread, and frozen sliced ham. That’s for tomorrow.  Oil, salt, pepper, tea, coffee, sugar in cupboard, plus random cans: tuna, beetroot, tomatoes. Rice. I could live here for a month without leaving the house.

Then I passed through the kitchen and unlocked the back door. I’d kind of hoped - meaning I instinctively knew otherwise - that the back garden might be generally in the same state as the front lawn; overgrown to foot-high grass, barely - but still - mowable. The back garden was a jungle.