No bother latching the windows
because my cast iron skillet is the most valuable object we brought to the Schischka House, a hirable bach at Wenderholm Regional Park in Auckland, New Zealand. Well, the most valuable object except the car we borrowed from a friend, but that latches itself when you leave it sit long enough. Takes itself out of my hands.
Red metal roof, chimney up front sits just above the four point peak over what’ll be the lounge. Concrete water tank on the west side, deck on the east with two picnic benches, compass directions obvious this time of day. Ranch sliders all round.
The house is beside the mouth of the Puhoi River on the estuary that’ll take you to the Whangaparaoa Bay, seven kilometres north of Orewa.
The tide is out when we arrive and we tell the boy not to slip in the quicksand and get all swallowed up. Healthy hesitation by fantastic suggestion. Might even be river dragons in that mud, and his eyes widen in obedience.
He dances around with his hat on, jandals flipping and flopping as he ducks behind the bank, probably chasing some poor pukeko, yelling “swamp chicken!”
“We yell your name and you yell back, right?” and he yells yep, and he’s off to collect stones to attack that dreaded dragon and to listen to their aquatic plop as they burst the surface tension and the fish scatter, fishermen in the distance, hanging a net across the current.
I walk up the steps carrying my skillet and my knife, through the ranch slider and into the mud room. The window bench looks a pleasant spot for an afternoon read.
The house is owned by Auckland Regional Council and they’ve curated something of a self-guided tour. A picture frame of an A4 printout next to the older house-door. It says: “Family & Fun,” explaining that Alma Schischka was the matriarch here, cooking all day long. “Worse than the four-hourly feeds of a baby” she reported in her 2007 oral history. And I’ll be doing the same, I reckon.
Sign says “Faith” and a paragraph describes the family as Bohemian and strong Catholics. “Helped them through lean times,” it says, and I well know we could all use a dose of that spirit. I yell out the window to Charlie and he yells back Yep.
The kitchen is big and open, ten metres of bench space in here, no doubt. Single basin sink and electric stove and a giant window with a view of that estuary and that little boy, gorgeously timelessly gorgeous. I could stand here till dusk. Dusk tomorrow I mean.
It’s a farmhouse kitchen, big open and tall, sturdy bench in the corner, family sized, and I mean sized for a big big family, solid macrocarpa, looks to me. Knotty and well-joined. Built as I would. Good finish, but it won’t win any prizes. Here it’s desire tempered by practicality: a simple farmhouse. There are some empty cabinets below that window bench in the mudroom. Check your complications there, I figure, outside this kitchen. Inside the house, want and need don’t intersect.
I unpack the chilly bin, frozen chicken and sausages keeping the cheese and butter cool. A pack of streaky bacon sandwiched between the meats is ready for the skillet. Seven of eight ticks on the electric dial ought to do, and I set the cast iron skillet on the heating coils. No need for oiling. Years of patina and not so much as a drop of water could penetrate the cooking surface.
Outside, the tide fills the estuary. Ducks waddle the deck, accustomed to scraps from visitors past. I make a raspberry buzz with my lips and blow the sound waves through a closed fist, flicking my fingers into an OK as the shape alters the buzz to a quaaack-uh. The duck turns an eye to the window and quacks back and the little boy echoes my disbelief: whoa! He talked to you.
By now the skillet’s plenty hot and I peel off layers of bacon and lay the strips across the blackened surface and they sizzle and fat runs to the centre of the stove, the far edge of the pan, which tells me to circulate the meat, and I guess I’ll pick clockwise. Two minutes in and I give them a flip and shift, the trick to even cooking on an uneven surface. And that’s the nature of perfection, I reckon. Nothing but tricks of the trade.
The little boy slings mud into the rising tide, meaninglessly smearing it along his sleeves.
The bacon’s crisping up and looks done enough. In the second drawer down I find a pair of silicone tipped tongs and with those I transfer the strips to a dinner plate I’d rinsed earlier, an oily soap film rainbowing down the drain, through pipes to a concrete holding tank where bacteria will break down most biodegradable material and pathogens before releasing the greywater back to the Earth from whence we all came — assuming the previous occupants used the prescribed sort of dishsoap, which they likely did, if I’m to judge by the excess bottles of Eco-Store solution left behind. I’ll use the same. It’s the least I can do.
I will repeat this process. With chicken. The boy will throw rocks. With sausages. The boy will chase ducks.
As it has been, so it will be, since 1911, when the Catholic faith of the Schischka family inspired them through hard times on untamed land, not delivered as promised but re-imagined with the help of funds from Joseph’s job in Auckland, at his brother John’s grocer shop, and Te Hemara, a Ngati Rongo chief of this area, without whom the family would have suffered for want of food and transport.
Inside, me and a cast iron skillet. Outside, a borrowed Toyota at the end of a gravel road, adjacent to a concrete tank now bypassed by the town water supply, potable it clarifies in the welcome book folded neatly on the farmhouse bench. And my vanity fades.
Today, I am not living Alma Schischka’s life. I am simply using her kitchen. Others will follow.