Food Safari 8: Hebel Seafood Extravaganza

If the semi-arid, remote, inland of Australia is famous for one thing and one thing only, then surely that one thing is the quality of its seafood. It’s a no-brainer, therefore, that each year the P&C at the Queensland town of Hebel (just up the road from the Ridge) should put on a seafood fundraiser for its tiny public school. This year, a record seven families sent their children to the school. Go Hebel!

It’s a big deal, the Hebel seafood thing, as it raises funds for the students’ annual trip away. It’s such a big deal that both buses left from the Ridge: the big one and the little one (I know). We boarded the little one and headed up the Castlereagh Highway, which in parts is the bumpiest stretch of bitumen in the whole of the southern hemisphere. We all had jogger’s nipple by the time we’d reached the Nine Mile.

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The day had been cool and overcast, threatening to rain but without really following through. When I did my laps at the pool this morning (20, since you’re asking) I was the only one there apart from the kiosk lady and the lifeguard. It was odd, after so many hot weekends crowded with students, to plough up and down the black line under a heavy sky and a thin drizzle.

The ominous clouds still hung over Hebel as we mooched over to the community hall. We’d crossed the border and so there was a one-hour time difference. Of the many things that I’m not good at, maps and time differences are two of them. The hall was locked and the people inside couldn’t find the key. They mouthed through the window, “It’s only 5 o’clock!” I thought it was 7, when maybe it was 6. I kept quiet. There was a Maths teachers and an intimidatingly over-qualified biochemist Food Tech teacher with us and I didn’t want to say anything that would show exactly how ignorant I am of how clocks work.

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Eventually someone found the key and they let us in, or themselves out. It was your typical small-town country hall, set up with tables and a small stage displaying the raffle booty. On the wall was the list of sponsors: The Linen Cupboard at Dirranbandi; Mr Cheap and Lost Sea Jewels at the Ridge; Eclect. Chic Vintage at Goodooga; and, inevitably, John Murray Art Gallery. That guy must get hit up for every single fundraiser in north-western NSW.

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A hardy team had been at it all afternoon, setting up tables inside and out for the ravenous hordes. It all looked very beautiful and very promising.

Perhaps too promising.

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We’d settled into our second stubbies of Gold when the change hit. Chairs went flying, table decorations blasted around like shrapnel from a pipe bomb, and every burly cocky within 50 kilometres was called upon to dangle from the foldable shade tents. The Ridgites stoically remained seated, hanging onto our lucky door prize tickets and our beers, not helping in any useful way. What could I have done? I’ve never in one place seen so many men capable of knotting down a tarp. I would have used neat bows and granny knots and looked like the feckless, soft-palmed teacher that I have become.

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The time difference thing may have taken the Maths teacher and the biochemist by surprise too as we sat for what seemed like a trillion years waiting for the food to appear. Or maybe time slows down in Queensland and it was only quarter of an hour.

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Eventually it came, and the ravenous hordes fell upon the glisteningly icy cold seafood. There was salad and ham and bugs and crabs and fish and calamari: the works. My God, it was bloody delicious. BTW I know that ham is not a seafood but it was there.

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Someone said it was flown in to St George this morning. Someone else said it was bought from the freezer shop at Walgett but I think that was sour grapes. I had salads and oysters and bugs and a bit of everything. I went back three times.

A CD player plugged into the PA provided a thoughtfully curated playlist: Aqua’s Barbie Girl followed by Johnny O’Keeffe’s Shout followed by Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger followed by Billy Joel’s The Piano Man. Spotify and Pandora really need to get their shit together. When I’m relaxing at a seafood dinner I find that the theme tune to Rocky II really hits the spot.

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Outside, the tarps flapped and cracked in the wind. Inside, I caught a glimpse of the tables for Visiting Celebrities and the local Rotary Club and the sponsors. Perhaps the actual Mr Cheap was in there? I’d always thought that it was just the name of a shop but maybe, maybe, there really is a Mr Cheap from Lightning Ridge. The thought gave me tingles.

Just as we finished our meal the rain, which had huffed and puffed in clouds the colour of gun metal, eventually threw itself down upon us. We scuttled inside, but weren’t game to cross the threshold into the Big Room. Instead, we hung around the bar, shuffling from foot to foot and feeling slightly self-conscious.

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We had all eaten way too much. And then dessert came. I didn’t have any but I did use the suddenly cool weather to my advantage: I bought a red wine. The stubbies of Gold were 5 bucks but a brimful glass of wine was only 3. You beauty. The only downside was that I had stand at the bar and ask for it. The first time I said, “Could I have a red wine please” I’m sure the PA stuttered into silence and tumbleweed blew down the middle of the hall. A man with an unfeasibly large belt buckle and a hat with a brim as wide as a small planet looked at me askance. I blushed, but held my nerve. My reward was to be the envy of everybody.

 

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At last the raffles came on. It’s a golden rule of events like this that the prizes should range from the highly desirable blockbuster first prize to the strange assortment-of-things-in-a-basket-wrapped-in-cellophane 15th prize. The blockbuster was a car fridge and I didn’t win it. Second prize was something to do with gardening (a hose? some seeds?) and a John Murray print, which I didn’t win either. By the time we were at 7th prize the goods were grouped into increasingly random combinations: a set of screwdrivers, a flashlight, a bottle of Jim Beam and a John Murray print. A gigantic box of washing powder, a John Murray print, a pair of nail scissors. Didn’t win anything.

We were all quite relieved when it was time to go. We’d had a good time but we were stuffed with food and drink and getting sleepy. Everyone stumbled out of the hall. As we headed over to the buses in the park across the highway the air became filled with the sound of Toyota diesels firing into life as the locals headed back to their properties.

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It was a cracking night. Numbers were down due to the weather but hopefully the P&C raised enough to send the kids somewhere lovely.

Forever now, when I think of seafood I will think of Hebel.

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