Tears, laughter and champagne: A story of friendship forged through fire and food

Eat Canberra

As the anniversary approaches, fifteen years on, the devastating 18 January 2003 bushfires, which killed four people and destroyed nearly 500 homes across Canberra, are another chapter in the history books.

But the story that hasn’t been told, until now, is how the fire-affected families are faring years down the track.

Tears, Laughter, Champagne: A story of friendship forged through fire and food, by Canberra historian Karen Downing, chronicles both her personal bushfire-survival story and the stories of eight other women – the ‘Singed Sisters’ – who found each other in the aftermath of the Canberra firestorm.

From tea and tears in the months following the fires, to the champagne and laughter as they moved into newly-built homes, and ultimately to their lives today; the book is about friendship and resilience – and the recipes that helped along the way.

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At the launch from left to right: Jane Fitzgerald, Chandani Prammer, Peta Mackenzie Davey, Liz Walter, Annabel Crabb, Karen Downing, Liz Tilley, Alison Mills, Sue Kukolic and Julie Pham.

“I was really interested in telling the story of how people recover from the loss of everything they own,” Karen says.

“I wanted to tell how they rebuilt homes and lives, and the place the bushfire trauma has in the stories of their lives as time goes on.

“The extremely hot weather of recent weeks, and the fires that have recently raged in the south-east of South Australia are a stark reminder of the devastation and loss that bushfires have wrought throughout Australia’s history.

“I hope that sharing our stories will help others who have suffered similar loss and trauma, and show them there is a path forward,” Karen says.

Gluten-free chocolate slice.

The book is split into sections that follow the road to recovery from destruction to celebration and commemoration:

  • ‘Destruction’ is the stories of the fire experience; 
  • ‘Desolation’ recounts the stories of loss, along with recipes for comfort food to nourish the body and soul; 
  • ‘Restoration’ is the time-consuming business of rebuilding homes, along with delicious recipes that you can be whipped up in a hurry; 
  • ‘Celebration’ recalls the happiness of new homes and shares special dishes for special occasion; and
  • ‘Commemoration’ reflects on resilience and new beginnings, along with treasured recipes, many of which are family heirlooms.
Beetroot and feta salad and Radish, kohlrabi and daikon salad.

All the Singed Sisters found being without their favourite trusted recipes after the fires one of the more tedious practical impacts of losing everything. Over the years as they came together over lunches and dinners, shared new recipes and realised they were all very good cooks, they dreamt of one day writing a cookbook. That dream cam true when Tears, Laughter, Champagne: A story of friendship forged through fire and food was recently published.

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Lemon Yoghurt Cupcakes

All profits from the book will go to YWCA Canberra, chosen by the Singed Sisters because of their work in housing support, early learning education and family counseling, as well as their advocacy on gender equity and women in leadership.

ABC’s Annabel Crabb – political commentator, TV presenter, author and fabulous cook – launched Tears, Laughter, Champagne: A story of friendship forged through fire and food in December 2017 in Canberra. 

Tears, Laughter, Champagne by Karen Downing, with photos by Grace Costa, is available from selected outlets and online at Obiter Publishing.

Feature image is Aunty Pat’s chocolate cake.

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