Roast Cat Jam

Jenny Shand

"Betty and John." Mother called. "I want the stove lit right away. Close up the oven and keep the fire stoked. I want a good hot oven for the roast."

"I wish Mum would get an electric stove." said John. He and I were the eldest of seven children and looking after the stove was our chore. Every day the blocks had to be chopped small enough for the stove and carted to the wood box in the kitchen. John did the chopping, I loaded and pushed the barrow.

We had been living on a farm but for a number of reasons, one being the very dry season, farming did not support our large family. Dad was lucky enough to get a job delivering mail, so we moved into the town where a large old home had become available.

Finances improved so we were able to have the power connected but Mum did not want an electric stove. She loved the old wood stove. It cooked so well and the oven stayed warm long after the fire went out. Another point in its favour was that firewood was cheap and easily obtained from the nearby sawmill.

The warm oven was useful for all sorts of things. Shoes saturated in wet weather dried well there and in very cold weather it was great for warming feet! Dad would sit reading the paper, his feet in the oven.

One day we had run out of jam for the after-dinner scones, and when Mum brought a fresh jar of plum jam from the pantry she found it had candied, so she put it in the oven to melt.

Another member of the household and a member of the family in many ways was Moggy, the cat. She was of very mixed ancestry, with signs of ginger stripe, grey tabby, white-smooth and black-fluffy in her coat. She loved that oven too.

In the evening, after the fire was out and the oven door was left open she would creep inside and curl up, comfortable and warm. It was a vantage point from which to watch the mice that came into the kitchen looking for scraps after everyone had gone to bed. Occasionally we were awakened by a crash in the kitchen and would find that Moggy had knocked something over while catching a mouse.

On this day, when the oven was hot enough Mum came in from tending her beloved garden, prepared the roast and put it in the baking dish – we always had a roast on Saturday night when everyone was home from school to help with vegetable preparation, washing up and anything else that needed doing. We'd brought some really dry wood in so the fire was burning brightly and the oven was nice and hot.

Being Saturday afternoon Dad was over at the sports oval watching the football. Later he would wander down to the pub, have a drink with his friends and replay the day's match ball-by-ball, kick-by-kick, and goal-by-goal. He often helped Mum, and was proud of the very good stew he made about once every week in the huge cauldron, but on Saturdays he didn't appear in the kitchen until dinner was on the table.

"Time to put the meat on." Mum said. She opened the oven door, screamed loudly and banged it shut again. "I ran into the room. She was as white as a sheet. "We've cooked the cat! Moggy's in there all roasted!" Other members of the family came rushing in. I hadn't checked the closed oven door before stoking the fire to produce a good hot oven. Mum was mumbling miserably. "Oh Moggy! What a thing to do to you – a poor innocent little animal." Moggy, hearing her name being called, also came running into the kitchen and began rubbing herself against Mum's leg. Mum screamed again. "A ghost, do cats have ghosts? Moggy's come back to haunt me."

I decided to open the oven door. For a moment I thought what I saw was a dead, roasted cat. I pulled the oven tray out. There was a cylinder of scorched plum jam. One end was melted and curling over the end of the tray, looking for all the world like a cat's tail. At the other end two ears of shattered glass protruded realistically. "Look Mum," I said, "I think we've got a jammy cat."

"Well I'll be…. Take the tray down the back and scrape it into the bin. Then get it back here as soon as possible. It's time I had the roast on." Mum's voice wavered and I saw a tear on her cheek. She turned away, gathered Moggy up and left the room quickly, heading for the passageway to her bedroom.

That evening the family waited till Mum was out of the room before telling Dad the story of "roast cat jam."