Numerous questions remain unanswered as the Victorian town of Leongatha grapples with the deaths of three people and the hospitalisation of another after a family lunch – but some facts have emerged. By Chloe Hooper.
Six things we know about the Leongatha mushroom poisoning
1. Beef Wellington
Like a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, beef Wellington is a tenderloin or fillet wrapped in a layer of mushrooms inside puff pastry. It was named for Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, an Anglo-Irish conqueror of Napoleon, who was very unhappily married. After a decade at sea, he’d returned to find his fiancé altered –“She has grown ugly, by Jove!” –and for the rest of their days he and the duchess lived apart, or when at the same residence, in different wings.
This was probably not the reason Erin Patterson, 48, of Leongatha, chose to cook beef Wellington on Saturday, July 29. Rather, she wished to make an impression. She was expecting her estranged husband, Simon, and his parents, Gail and Don, along with Gail’s sister, Heather Wilkinson, and her husband, Ian. This was to be a chance to discuss a potential reconciliation between Erin and Simon, and Ian, as pastor of the nearby Korumburra Baptist Church, would play mediator.
The stakes were high, but Erin had the flair and fortitude to pull it off. As Jamie Oliver, who rates this meal’s difficulty as “showing off”, puts it: “Beef Wellington … is one of those ultimate blowout dishes that hits the right spot several times in one meal.”
A few days later, all of Erin’s guests were in hospitals with what at first appeared to be terrible gastroenteritis. Patterson’s children ate the meal, sans mushrooms, the next day to no ill effect.
2. Mystery illness
It is not known how the conversation about reconciling played out, but by week’s end, Gail, Don and Heather were dead. Ian, having been transferred to a Melbourne hospital, was fighting for his life, awaiting a liver transplant. It appeared likely that some of the mushrooms in the beef Wellington had been death caps. Suspicions ran high.
Simon Patterson, who had pulled out of the lunch at the last minute, had recently been battling a mysterious illness of his own. He’d reportedly spent 21 days in intensive care the previous year, including a stretch in an induced coma, after collapsing at home. He wrote later on Facebook, “I had three emergency operations mainly on my small intestine … My family were asked to come and say goodbye to me twice as I was not expected to live … I have a big scar on my tummy which is healing itself slowly, and I have ICU acquired weakness which is a common condition of people who lie in intensive care for a long time as I did.”
Swiftly, Victorian police’s homicide squad named Erin a person of interest in the deaths. The Saturday Paper is not alleging Erin Patterson poisoned Gail, Don, Heather, Ian or Simon. Of course it’s not. Locals claim Simon never spoke a bad word about his estranged wife. He nevertheless chose to stay with his parents while rehabilitating.
In certain sections of the media, Ms Patterson has been painted as “unusual”. She is someone who likes unicorns. Who doesn’t? She is also reported to possess various books on fungi. Again, who doesn’t? In recent times there’s been something of a mainstream publishing trend showcasing the mind-bending capability of fungi and the ways these organisms can stretch underground for miles in what is called the wood wide web. (See: Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures. Also, How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan, and The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World, by Aliya Whiteley, three books I’ve been meaning to read for the past few years.)
Ms Patterson has a reputation for being “blunt”, but in my experiences of this region that is not uncommon. (Full disclosure: my own in-laws are from the hilltop town of Poowong, a stone’s throw from Korumburra.) The people of South Gippsland gather the delicious, short-lived field mushrooms, brown and white, that most years grow in rings in the paddocks after the first rains of autumn. They also call things as they see them. When Erin was confronted by a swarm of reporters outside her front door, and one silver-tongued city slicker inquired about her welfare, she replied “shithouse”, and slammed the door.
4. The death wall
Soon a “macabre twist” was being reported. A Korumburra tradie who had been called to Erin Patterson’s previous place of residence claimed to have found something that chilled him to the bone. A section of kitchen-living room wall was covered in child-like scrawl, with messages in Texta, such as, “You don’t long to live 1 hour exactly” or “Your dead from my sword”.
“I’ve looked at it and gone, ‘Holy shit, what the hell is going on here?’ ” he related to news.com.au. “It was eerie.” He named the feature “the death wall” before applying four coats of primer and two of wall paint. “It went that deep,” he told a local reporter. “I suppose if you scratched it off, you’d be able to see it. It’s still there under the paint.
“As you do, when you see something interesting,” the anonymous painter continued, “I took a photo.” And as you also do, he sold the copyright on to The Australian. The Saturday Paper cannot therefore show you the death wall. Let’s just say there is no point scraping back six layers of paint to get a closer look. This is actually a patch of scribble, the likes of which can be found in many places housing those under 10 years.
On a further note, much has been made of Ms Patterson apparently avoiding interactions with other school parents. But anyone with school-aged children has to learn, often the hard way, that at drop-off and pick-up it is better for everyone not to make eye contact.
5. Food dehydrators
A food dehydrator can be used to create a range of wonderful snacks: banana chips, beef jerky, fruit leather. True, it is not a device one associates with the preparation of beef Wellington, but with field mushrooms out of season it makes perfect sense to use the ones you dried last autumn. At any rate, according to the lengthy statement Erin provided to the media, a few days after her husband’s relatives fell ill, she suddenly felt worse for wear herself and attended hospital. While visiting, her children’s conversation turned to Erin’s dehydrator. Simon, who was in attendance, reportedly asked – some might say, in the blunt style of the region –“Is that what you used to poison them?”
Her ex’s attitude alarmed Ms Patterson. She thought it threatened her custody of the children. Fortunately Erin was “discharged after a short presentation”, but the dehydrator preyed on her mind. Besides, as any cook will tell you, bench space matters. Too many gadgets just make cooking more difficult. Erin took the dehydrator to the local tip. But, as we know, in small towns little goes unnoticed. The police soon came and picked up the device.
It could take a long time for forensic analysis to pinpoint exactly what fungi contributed to the deaths, and in the meantime many of us are left to contemplate issues within our own relationships. If I, and this is purely a private speculation, but if I were on the outs with my beloved’s family, and I’d scoured my mother-in-law’s Country Women’s Association cookbook, rejecting a slew of other anglophone dishes such as coronation chicken salad or jubilee chicken or Victoria sponge, and I was midway through a demanding session in the kitchen, I might have a glass or two of the wine or Madeira called for in the recipes for beef Wellington, just to calm my nerves. And as I unwound, I might start to feel, well, a little miffed. Not poisonously miffed, but miffed.
It’s often a lot of thankless work dealing with relations by marriage. Different mores, and boundaries, and aspirations, and styles of conflict resolution. Part of me would, of course, want these people to feel welcome and, I’ll be honest, impressed by my efforts. However, if I sensed their uncertainty about me and my cooking—which has been an issue in the past – I’d try hard to hide my indignation and say, jokingly, “Oh, am I not good enough for your precious son?” and everyone would stare at their meal in discomfort. But that’s just me. I don’t like being taken for granted.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Six things we now know".
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