The ‘water burner’, ‘cookoo’, ‘silly look’, ‘baitlayer’, and ‘babbling brook’, … all names used to describe, not always kindly, the long-suffering shearer’s cook.
In the smaller southern woolsheds the property owner’s wife usually cooked for shearers. Women would bake for days to provide the generous quantities of food the shearers expected. It comes easier now, with shearers usually living locally and bringing their own packed meals. This is different, though, in the northern sheds. Men live in the ‘quarters’ and a cook is employed for the duration of shearing to cook the three meals, and two ‘smokos’, each day for the whole team.
The demands are rigorous, with meals having to be served ‘on the dot’ to the whole team, which can number up to 60 people. Smokos are carried to the shed in baskets and buckets, while meals are eaten in the shearers’ dining room. There must be plenty of food, with as much variety as possible. Conditions are difficult, with the cooking often being done in a tin shed with a wood stove going flat out, however hot the day. the cook starts at 5.00am for a hot breakfast at 7.00am, and finishes at night when the kitchen is clean and the bread set to rise for the next day. A bread oven can be found in many of the old shearer’s kitchens from station times, while today it is more likely to be a freezer if power permits.
A cook’s ability is a matter of gossip among the shearers, and reputations are made or broken on the word of the shearers. A poorly-organised cook, no matter how tasty the meals, is soon moved on. In some sheds the shearers employ the cook and can sack him without notice on a vote. The good shearers’ cooks are top class, multi-skilled workers for whom there is little praise or thanks. They have been the butt of jokes and ribald songs since the trade began 200 years ago. Praise is rare, and one farmer’s wife tells how for years she treasured a passing comment of one of the shearers…‘that was a good feed missus.’
Like an army, the shed runs on its stomach.