Norma Allen was born in Bega on December 1, 1927, to Jack and Josie Rheinberger, the only daughter with seven brothers: Ron, Frank, Ted, Father Paul and John (deceased), Henry and Peter.
Norma lived and grew up at 125 Auckland Street, Bega. Her father was a tailor and poultry breeder who died of pneumonia, leaving her mother a widow, when Norma was eight years of age. Her mother was a great influence on her life, being an excellent provider and a wonderful cook.
Norma attended the convent school in Bega until the age of 13, when she was offered a job at Fossey’s in Bega as a cashier.
She met her husband, Jack Allen, at the local dances and he was her debut partner. They married on January 7, 1946, at St Patrick’s Church, Bega. Jack and Norma lived on a dairy farm at Galba where they raised their children: Anthony, John (deceased), Mary and Paul. Norma’s 13 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren gave her immense joy and pride over the years, as can be seen from the many photos and cuttings on display in her kitchen.
Norma always had a passion for cooking and collecting recipes. After she married, she had her first taste of exhibition cooking through the Cobargo Show, being encouraged by Jack’s extended family who were very show oriented. Norma also volunteered as a steward. Her first entry into show competition was a “Boiled Pudding” for which she received a Champion Ribbon.
On May 7, 1948, Norma attended her first recorded CWA meeting. She was awarded Life Membership in May 2017, recognising her many years of dedication and loyalty. She was pianist for concerts and drama productions and was renowned for “colourful” jokes. Norma was a CWA cookery judge and sat on the organising committee of the State Land Cookery Competition for many years, travelling the state conducting workshops and seminars on competition cooking and judging.
Norma was in her early 20s when her big breakthrough came at Singleton, where she judged under the watchful gaze of the pavilion’s chief steward, Fran Binnie. Norma gained her respect when she disqualified an entry in the damper class because it was made in a pan, not baked on a tray as the standards of show cooking demand. “I’ve been wanting to see that done for a long time,” Fran told her.
Norma had no idea she was passing a kind of test at the time, but Fran also happened to be in charge of cookery at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. She was so impressed with Norma’s thoroughness and uncompromising approach that she invited her to judge in Sydney.
A long association ensued and Norma ended up judging at the Easter Show for more than 20 years, seeing out the old showground at Moore Park in 1997 and seeing in the new grounds at Homebush two years before it was used as an Olympic Games venue in 2000. Norma was awarded a rare and prestigious life membership of the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW for her services.
Norma was recognised as one of the most respected judges in NSW for her standards that make show cooking unique and for her no-nonsense approach to assessing quality.
For more than six decades she cut, prodded, snapped, sniffed and tasted her way through thousands of slices, biscuits and scones, checking cakes, top and underneath, for paper and ‘rack’ marks.
Norma was also a steward for the Cobargo AP&H Society for 50 years and was given an award for that contribution. She recently became the Patron of the Yuin Folk Club, in recognition of the enormous effort she contributed to the success of the annual Folk Festival. She volunteered or participated in the Cobargo Agricultural Show, Cobargo Cricket Club, Bermagui Senior Citizens, Cobargo Garden Club, Bega Shire Medallion Committee, Narira Retirement Village and fundraised for Cobargo swimming pool.
On the benefit of volunteering, Norma said, “It is not what you gather, but what you scatter, that tells what kind of life you have lived.” Around Cobargo, she has cooked for many families when the “cook” was not well.
Norma attracted the attention of the broader national public when she appeared on radio and television with media personality Andrew Denton, who commented in his book in 2003: “Norma’s knowledge of all things sweet is as impressive as it is mouth-watering. Her standards are uncompromising and woe betide the sloppy baker! With her fridges crammed with food, her door is always open for anyone who drops by.”
Music was a major part of Norma’s life and her gift of playing piano was shared at many local dances when she was part of the local dance band. She always entertained guests in her home and music was a part of family life. She also enjoyed gardening and reading. Many a Cobargo garden boasts bushes grown from cuttings from Norma’s garden.
Norma was a loyal and dedicated member of the Catholic parish of Cobargo. She, husband Jack and the family, contributed greatly to the ongoing upkeep of this church and Norma enjoyed being part of the parish family until failing health prevented her from attending Mass. She had a love of the Rosary, depended on St Anthony to find anything she had lost and had a genuine friendship with St Mary MacKillop, whose intercession she invoked for any type of request, big or small.
Over the past couple of years, Norma had a number of health issues but remained strong and in control until the end.
It wouldn’t surprise us if she is already teaching the angels how to make the perfect scone!