People, Stories and Articles

Ellen McDermott – Millungera Station – Julia Creek – Western Queensland

“I Just Enjoyed Cooking”

On the twenty-seventh of February 2001, with CWA catering and cooking for four kids as her main qualification, Ellen McDermott started work as station cook at Millungera. “I just enjoyed cooking,” she says simply, and in 2014, fourteen years’ worth of providing three wholesome meals each day of the mustering season makes for an awesome tally.

Ellen was born in Taroom in 1954 and spent her school years on and around the Sunshine Coast of Qld (Hervey Bay, Nambour and Yandina.) She met her husband, Barry, in Yandina and they were married in 1973. They had four children… Trevor, Graham, Leonie and Steven. Sadly, in 1993 Barry died and Ellen was left with the responsibility of rearing their children. At the stage when Steven was soon to turn sixteen and Ellen would lose access to the sole parent pension, she enrolled in a course which equipped women who wanted to get back into the work force. During the enrolment process, she was required to provide a work history and the course coordinator reassured her, “You’ve done a lot of things… you’ll have no trouble getting back into work.”

Steven indicated that he wanted to leave school and was keen to join a mate, who was working on a station. For Ellen, a couple of job opportunities opened up. One was at the Wellshot Hotel at Ilfracombe and involved bus loads of tourists and the second? … the cook’s job at Millungera. Both prospects prompted a doubtful response. “I dunno, it’s a long way to go!” After some deliberation, Ellen came to a decision. “I think I’ll take the station job… it might be a bit easier!”

As planned, Steven had started work out West but was finding it difficult to adjust to life away from home. Ellen’s need to find employment, combined with her love and concern for her family, produced a heartfelt conflict of interests. Wonderfully, a resolution was at hand. Around the time that Ellen accepted the cooks position at Millungera, Steven had met Phillip Curr at Auckland Station and the teenager was able to transfer to Millungera. Ellen’s voice falters. “I get all emotional,” she ventures. “We came up together on the train. It was a big step to take. I hadn’t been anywhere away from home either.”

Steven found his niche at Millungera and stayed for six years. He also met his future wife, Kirstie. “And I’m still here,” Ellen laughs.

One of Ellen’s early challenges was “getting into the way of cooking big amounts and creating dishes from mostly beef”. It remains a constant, yet enjoyable task. “There’s lasagne, crumbed steak, “ordinary” steak, roast, spaghetti bolognese… and they all love Burritos.” And what about sausages? She laughs, “Last year I couldn’t keep sausages up to the crew, but not this mob! You find different crews like their certain things… there are a lot of cereal eaters this year. There’s cakes of course, but this year they’re not big sweet eaters.”

So goes the everyday life of a dedicated station cook. Ellen is appreciated not only for good food but also for her friendship and support offered to all who regularly and hungrily gather at the station kitchen.

There have been very few dramas. “I nearly set fire to the stove once,” she admits, “Before we got a deep fryer I had a big pot with a wire basket and we made our own chips. The fat boiled over… there were flames everywhere!” Ellen also recalls an unpleasant visitation in 2011 when a rat plague spread across a vast area of Western Qld. It caused kitchen chaos at Millungera. She shudders, “they chewed through a lot of stuff… they could chew through anything!”

Fourteen years of station cooking is a significant record and during that time Ellen has earned a valued reputation. She is a definite “legend” at Millungera. By contrast, when she first stepped into the role it wasn’t easy and she admits… “the first three months I was in tears.” Resilient and committed, she journeyed on and in April 2014 celebrated her 60th birthday. She is realistically philosophical “I won’t say I’m going to be here forever… I’ll have to retire someday.”

The conversation is interrupted as one of Millungera’s workers arrives for a quick snack before heading back to work. “Yum, that brownie, Ellen,” he calls out as he leaves the kitchen. She responds with four words and a broad smile. “I just like cooking.”

Ellen McDermott – Millungera Station, Julia Creek, Western Qld, 2014.

Image captions:

1) Ellen in the Millunera kitchen with another successful batch of ANZAC biscuits.

2) “There’s cakes of course,”
A sample of yummy cakes Ellen has baked for special occasions.

3) “Good food, friendship and support… at the Station kitchen.”
Ellen and the Millungera Station crew on the kitchen/dining room steps.

4) Ellen, dressed up and ready for the races.