An Austrian migrant’s tale
An interview with Johann Brunnbauer.
My husband’s parents and four of his siblings arrived in Australia from Austria in 1955. They came by ship to South Australia and from there sent to the Northfield migrant centre. The houses were domed shape and galvanised. Johann said it looked like a WWII military centre.
From the migrant centre our family finally ended up in a housing trust house in Hillcrest. At that time it was on the very outskirts of Adelaide and considered ‘no man’s land’. We had to travel back towards the city to Windsor Gardens to collect our mail because Australia Post did not go out as far as Hillcrest.
At last we had our own very large block of land where my parents could really start living as they did in Austria. My father worked and his income had to support a family of eight. My parents turned our back yard into a very sustainable ‘food supply’.
The front yard resembled the traditional Australian front yard of low cyclone fencing, a lawn and a couple of trees and it was filled with children. On those dreadful Australian hot summer evenings the television would be moved outside and all the neighbourhood children would come over.
The backyard, however, was a different story. A large double garage resembling a barn was where my father would spend most of this time when not working. Dad was a ‘Jack of all trades’; he could build anything and fix anything. On top of that he had a still and a grape crushing machine. Dad would score cherries, walnuts and apples from mates’ orchards to make his schnapps and apple cider. He was really upset that the local shop did not stock 100% proof alcohol in order to make his schnapps. He had to settle for cheap vodka although every now and then he did score the 100% alcohol from his orchard mates who had a special licence.
Behind the ‘barn’ was a large oversized tool shed which we often used in our games of hide and seek. The roof also made a great lookout where we could view the neighbours and way beyond.
Apart from a small lawn immediately outside the back door, the rest of the back yard was used to feed us.
We had a large chook shed in the very back corner. Next to that was the rabbit shed. At least two thirds of the back yard was a vegetable patch surrounded by an assortment of stone fruit and citrus trees. We also had a very large grape vine hanging down a trellis.
On the odd occasion we had turkeys, you know for Christmas and the like. I always viewed these birds as flying dragons. We’d let them out and they would wander through the veggie garden and fruit trees. Those buggers, and I am not sure how they knew, but they knew the exact time we would arrive home from school. They would sit side by side on the makeshift trellis near the back of the house and had a view of the side gate from where we would enter. Upon spotting us they would fly from their perch, making a hell of a racket in the process, gunning at us. Our goal was to get from the gate to the back door ASAP! Our two dogs, a Labrador and a Fox Terrier lived with this same dread and fear. As with all birds reared to be eaten I knew it was only a matter of time before karma would prevail.
When that fateful day came I remember dad chasing them with an iron bar in an attempt to seal their fate. He finally got close enough to swing the fatal blow. Revenge can be difficult. Those beasts were so large that they would not fit into a conventional sized oven so my mother had to chop them in half. They were big mean bastards but they were very delicious. My mother was a superb cook. This type of back yard shenanigans was typical of my childhood memories.
I remember my mother, who couldn’t drive and dad took our only motorised vehicle to work, would walk three kilometres to the local butcher with a bucket in hand. She would return with chicken livers, chicken hearts, and the occasional lamb livers which were all given to her free as the butcher had no use for them. I recall that this caused a bit of a chuckle from non-Europeans when my mother would ask for her bucket to be filled up. No matter, we ate well and all those who came to our house ate well. You should try some of my mother’s cooking where she used “scraps”. It was always a treat when we were served ‘bucket food’.
Returning to our back yard: We had chooks and eggs. The chooks were fed all our scraps and what they didn’t eat was compost. On top of that we had a lot of chook poop for fertilizing the garden. Part of the deal was that in order for us kids to have all this wonderful endless supply of good food meant we had to contribute to the work. We would help in the vegetable garden and from an early age we were taught how to behead our chickens and rabbits. We were also expected to participate in the endless bottling of fruit to be preserved, apricots, peaches and plums. What was most interesting living in our community is that our neighbours on three sides were non-Europeans and their back yards were devoid of fruit trees, and veggie patches, in fact they were mostly dirt and gravel, not even a lawn. Even back then my mother was ahead of her time. In drought ridden South Australia she made good use of the grey water by irrigating the garden with it.
It wasn’t until I left home and indeed some year’s later learned that these types of back yards were typical of country people’s back yards and some city people of that generation. In our poor suburb it was only the Europeans who utilised their yards thus.
I also recall when dad bought our one and only fishing boat; a wooden clinker. For a joke we kids nicknamed it ‘the Bismarck’ but dad wasn’t amused. It was a very heavy, odd looking boat but we had a lot of fun with it. We spent many summer holidays camping and fishing on the banks of the Murray, a time when the water was clear and there was no carp. We camped in old ‘army-type’ tents large enough for a family of eight. Dad and his mates would always bring their •22 rifles to go rabbit shooting. He must have thought he had died and gone to heaven here in Australia. Those times are etched in my memory. I can close my eyes and see myself there whenever I want to.
In my teenage years we discovered a wonderful place called Coffins Bay on Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. It was an ideal spot for camping and fishing. At the time we visited there were only the camping grounds and one little general store. My father, who was from Austria (girt by land), was enthralled that his new country was ‘girt by sea’. We caught an assortment of fish which were in abundance and my father often remarked how exciting it was that he could just go out and catch fish nearby to our camp. My parents were people of few words but we could always tell that this was where they were at their happiest. They loved camping and fishing.
Food was always at the forefront of our camping trips. We were a large family and we always holidayed with other families. Due to the remoteness of the area and the distance travelled from Adelaide, some eight hundred kilometres, we relied on our parent’s hunting and gathering skills. In fact in order to eat we relied on those skills on a daily basis. Food, the cooking, sharing and eating is important in our culture and our mother was a fantastic cook. I remember eating her cakes with coffee on a Sunday evening. We went home from school for our lunch.
When it came to good healthy food my parents never let us down.
(Two of Johann’s mother’s recipes will be added soon.)