We enter the hall through the kitchen. A twenty-something woman is busily arranging squares of sultana slice on platters. It looks moist, and the sultanas appear deceptively like chocolate. Two enormous bowls of a gorgeously colourful salad greet us first—roast pumpkin, avocado, spinach, pinenuts and feta. I am captured…
Foil-wrapped chocolate santas and juju-rasberry lollies on toothpicks accent the flower arrangements on the lace-clothed tables we are seated around. 'Last month’s activity', the woman beside me explains.
I’ve accompanied my friend to the December meeting of the Country Women’s Association, the 89-year-old Australian women’s organisation struggling to shake its grandmotherly image. New to Orange, my friend is keen to make connections. The CWA wants to attract younger members. And me? I’m just curious. And maybe a little hungry.
Four hours west of Sydney, Orange is a bustling little agricultural community of just over 39,000 with about 30 vineyards and several orchards. About 15 women have gathered on this rainy Thursday evening. Many are Sydney transplants: a teacher, a human resources manager, an accountant in business attire…some are Orange born and bred with grown children. They greet us warmly and offer a cuppa, along with homemade chocolate orange macadamia nut biscotti and gingerbread women.
'Careful,' the biscotti baker warns, 'better dip it in tea so you don't break a tooth!'
The meeting opens with the reciting of the CWA motto.
‘Honour to God. Loyalty to the Throne. Service to the Country. Through Country Woman. For Country Woman. By Country Women.’
I opt to create my own motto in response: ‘Keep an Open mind, Lynnette!’
The meeting sprawls over the evening; formal with “motions” that must be made and seconded.
What's on the CWA agenda?
Item 6: Request for support for Peta Beelen’s new book on tea cozy knitting patterns; ‘Let’s Get Cozy.’
Should daylight savings be abolished? [No!]
Should headlights be mandatory during daylight hours? [No! Well, the state CWA says yes…but anyway…]
Is a price-raise from $1.50 to $2 for freshly baked scones with homemade jam and cream AND tea or coffee a fair price for a promotion at the annual Orange Field Days? NO, says the pensioner, ‘It’s like drawing blood from a stone!’ The youngins and middle-ageins reckon that should be doubled, even tripled. 'That's why people come!' The oldtimers are not so confident: 'What if they boot us out? It's our biggest promotion of the year!'
I love the clash of old and new, unreserved and diplomatic.
“St George Bank is as tight as a cat’s bum, in my opinion,” quips an immaculately presented white-haired, crimson-lipped woman at the head of the table during a discussion on how best to maximize interest on a sum of money.
Later, the club’s president explains the parameters of the cooking contests to be held at the upcoming field days; everyone creates the same dish and one woman tastes and judges all 15 versions of chocolate cake…or whatever concoction has been selected.
“One of the recipes is carrot-and-something jam. Can you imagine?!’ the woman who does not bank with St George interjects.
“I got a severe warning because my apricot jam was in the wrong sized jar,” chimes the chairwoman seated in a properly upholstered chair. “But I did win…”
Had it been state level, I’d have been disqualified, she notes…
My friend has only allotted an hour and a bit for the meeting—she has to head off to work, but I cannot leave without sampling supper. Red wine beef stew. That salad, now dressed in mapley balsalmic...as good as anticipated... Fresh breadrolls.
Is it rude to have seconds and then eat and run? That is a rhetorical question....
The women reconvene after dinner—last month’s meeting lingered beyond 10pm—but already more than two hours in, I'm ready to exit….I've got my quotes….
I open the door to drench-you-before-you-can-say-jiminy-cricket rain.
“I’ll get you an umbrella!” says one of the women. “Are you coming to our Chrismas Party on Sunday?”
“I’ll drive you home,” offers the baker of the delicious biscotti. She returns a moment later, keys in hand.
I decline, of course, though maybe she wanted to escape a bit of the laborious proceedings that would follow. Maybe it's the tradeoff one must make for country cooking and hospitality.
Stepping out into the rain I have to smile. The CWA may not be my style, but these women have indeed welcomed the stranger.
My motto has served me well. Now, not to forget it...