Our mission had been to find a rare banksia and our success had been achieved so quickly we were faced with the prospect of returning before we’d even popped the plugs on our battered Aladdin vacuum flasks. We stood there surveying the scene of our triumph in doleful exhilaration. We were boffins mostly so the emotion came as easily to us as our woeful choice of tailors. One of the gayblades swept his cap across the tops of the grass. He’d received his cap during a Bi-Lo grocery chain promotion and you can’t look a free cap in the peak so it had become part of his ensemble.
‘What’s this?’ he hooted mournfully and we all looked into his cap wishing it was us who’d been there the day Bi-Lo went mad with generosity. His cap was full of seed.
‘Themeda triandra,’ another of the thrill seekers murmured, ‘kangaroo grass.’ The brolgas moved on planning a grand celebration of thermos coffee on the beach. They had a drug problem.
I dawdled behind them, not wanting to get involved too early in the shenanigans, and repeated Bi-Lo’s action with my own cap, found on the river bank after the 2009 flood. We love a good flood.
My hat was full of seed too and I looked around at the uniform height of the grass heads. Growing through the heath and banksias was a monoculture of kangaroo grass, all the same height and nearly all maturing its seed at the same time. If twenty of you stretched out in line with … let’s say coolamons, you could harvest this two hundred acre field in three or four days.
That’s too much seed to eat all at once but if you milled the grain and stored the flour you could eat it later on. I remembered that Giles and Mitchell had found such stores on their Australian explorations, Gregory had seen fields being sowed and irrigated, Sturt had seen the grinding process.
I’ve been walking this heath since 1974 looking for orchids, tawny crowned honeyeaters, banksias, ground parrots and the sort of stuff people who wear second-hand hats are interested in. I should have noticed this grass before, should have wondered why it was so predominant, why it was seeding all at once. But I didn’t. I’d been educated in Australia where we train our minds not to think of stuff like that, preferring instead to be excited by rare sightings of a dull green parrot.
But the gruff teachings and questions of the elders was taking effect at last. I was questioning everything; especially those things Australians claimed to know about Australia.
We had just walked through a field of harvest but a field where the harvesters had been discouraged from their labour 170 years ago. Discouraged by murder.
The image of the hat full of grain stayed with me and when at last I began to investigate the real Aboriginal economy so frankly described by the explorers I remembered the ugly hat. I’d been growing murrnong for five years and the Bakinji, Latji Latji and Mutti Mutti had shown me how to make bread from panicum decompositum in the sand dunes of Lake Mungo.
I went back to the heathland, eschewing the charms of parrots and obscure banksias, and stripped the heads of the Themeda triandra. I posted the grain to a mate whose edgy glee comes from milling the seed of grasses. I knew the first time I met him that he knew what he was doing because he was still driving his mother-in-law’s 1986 Mercedes which gloried in a dashboard cracked like a surfer’s lips and decorated by enough tartan rugs to keep the highlands happy for a decade.
He returned me a Leggo’s pasta sauce bottle of seed in the bar of the nearest pub. We raged on for hours over a schooner of Boag’s. One each! No wonder Sydney was celebrating the Vivid festival at the time.
Next morning I was being buffed up by a very disappointed make-up artist at Channel Ten. She would have had more luck with the Mercedes’ dashboard. I looked at my bottle of flour and wondered what the hell I was going to do to entertain Australia. They’d just seen a girl with a prosthetic leg open her birthday present and find a doll with a prosthetic leg. The girl bawled, the Morning Show hosts bawled, I bawled and I knew I had no hope.
Action. I had Ita Buttrose on my left and she’s in rare company, very few have ever been to my left. Next to me was a tall blond woman called Sarah and beside her a man who makes a living out of cavorting in front of cameras.
Thirty seconds prior to me going on air I’d been told that I would be doing the cooking. Me? What are you paying the jesters for?
But Ita was supportive and Sarah was gently encouraging me to pick up an egg lifter or a pan. The jester was poncing around and mugging like Barnaby Joyce. Just as well, the camera had something to look at.
Finally I got handy with the bowl and made dough the colour of three day old bruise. Sarah nudges me encouraging me to commit the dark cloud to the pan. I stared down at it like a mournful Bi-Lo customer but Ita took the fork from my cold dead hand and tasted it. She looked at me. I tasted it and looked at her. It wasn’t bad, in fact it was bloody nice. The jester entertained himself by bashing the stale demonstration loaf on the bench and Sarah leant down from her height and tasted too. She smiled but on her wage that’s just career insurance.
Other stuff went on, advertisements for new Mercedes and peaked caps, that sort of crass merchandising, but the generous women tasted again and smiled at me. The cameras weren’t even on us as the jester was doing David Leyonhjelm impersonations by this time, so considering how it started the segment was a triumph.
Mercedes Miller picked me up from the studio and drove me to his mate at the Brasserie Bakery who tasted the flour, swilled it about in his mouth, said hmm twice, tasted some more and then declared he’d buy as much as I could produce.
Flying back to Merimbula on the Pencil of Death I went straight to sleep, realising that a career as a Morning Show host was not going to be offered. I turned the bottle of flour in my hands wondering why it had taken 220 years for any Australian to turn it into flour. And this in a country that broadcasts fifty cooking shows every day.
Next day my wife, Lyn, the only orchid boffin I know who can walk into a bush paddock looking like Shelly Ware from the Marngrook Footy Show, blended the themeda flour with white flour and combined them with her starter yeast and baked a loaf of bread. I was nervous. The pancake was tasty and edible and looked good enough to fool a jester and a camera but in fact I’d used too much oil and it was a bit gluggy. I chewed a corner off the loaf and my heart leapt. It was beautiful and had the unmistakable perfume and flavour of the kangaroo grass, a quality I have been trying to define ever since that first harvest. The best I can do is to say it smells like a summer’s dusk in a grainfield by the sea.
Millionaire’s are going to be made by selling murnong and kangaroo grass but I hope some of them are Aboriginal. Mick Dodson assures me that Monsanto make it impossible for Indigenous people to take advantage of the intellectual property invested in their foods but the tiny second hand hatman of my soul believes that maybe Australia is ready to acknowledge the whole history of the country. After all it can’t be as hard to do as Richmond winning a premiership.
The local South Coast Aboriginal Food Company plans to harvest next December and market flour under their own brand. Please God, let Australia remember who domesticated this grain and invented bread 15,000 years before anyone else on earth. We won’t get many better chances to come together in friendship.