Farewell Wilga Thurgood: Macleay’s microwave queen bows out

The Macleay’s Queen of Microwaves will be remembered as a culinary pioneer whose success sprung from a passionate dislike of people telling her what she could and could not do.

Born, bred and now resting in the Macleay Valley, Wilga Thurgood is widely known as the first person to successfully cook a sponge cake in a microwave.

I don’t like people telling me what I can’t do

Wilga Thurgood

Her innovative methods of home cooking, which progressed to include books-full of microwave recipes, saw her feature in the pages of Australian Women’s Weekly, on the Mike Walsh Show and the Ray Martin Show. 

On January 17 2018, at age 87, Wilga passed away and on the morning of January 25 her loved ones laid the culinary queen to rest at the East Kempsey Cemetery. 

Wilga found that her method of microwave cooking left the tops of her sponge cakes soft. She discovered that by dusting cornflower over the top of the cake and drying it with a hair dryer - the cakes hardened.

Wilga found that her method of microwave cooking left the tops of her sponge cakes soft. She discovered that by dusting cornflower over the top of the cake and drying it with a hair dryer - the cakes hardened.

“She was the most outgoing person you’d ever met,” Wilga’s son John told the Argus.

In a 1980’s edition of the Argus, Wilga spoke of the events that led to her first attempts at cooking a sponge cake in a microwave.

“We’d been told at the time that you couldn’t cook a sponge cake in a microwave,” she said. 

“And I don’t like people telling me what I can’t do.”

After just a few tries, Wilga mastered what had been regarded as an “impossible” art. 

“I found with my first attempts that the cakes came out moist on top,” she said.

This dilemma was solved by the inspired use of a hair dryer to dry out the tops of the cakes.

“Now before using the hair dryer I dust the tops of the cake with cornflower and it comes out nice and hard.”

When Wilga was in the kitchen she drew salivating crowds as family and friends knew something scrumptious was not far off.

When Wilga was in the kitchen she drew salivating crowds as family and friends knew something scrumptious was not far off.

At a time when fast food and packaged meals were rare and creative cooking an essential skill for family matriarchs, Wilga’s unconventional methods taught people in kitchens right across Australia how to create scrumptious meals quickly and without losing moisture - an unsolved challenge of microwave cooking.

“It takes me four minutes and seven seconds to cook a cake in a microwave. This compares very well with 35 minutes in a normal oven.” 

The opportunity to conduct a demonstration on the Mike Walsh Show was a highlight in Wilga’s life. 

When Wilga appeared on the Mike Walsh Show to give a demonstration of her microwave cooking, they needed four minutes and seven seconds (the time it takes for the sponge cake to cook in the microwave) to fill, so Mark and Wilga danced to the song, 'If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake'.

When Wilga appeared on the Mike Walsh Show to give a demonstration of her microwave cooking, they needed four minutes and seven seconds (the time it takes for the sponge cake to cook in the microwave) to fill, so Mark and Wilga danced to the song, 'If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake'.

“I think it means something to have a woman from the Macleay become known as the first woman to make a sponge cake in a microwave,” she said.

One of eight Arthur children, Wilga learned to cook at her mother’s elbow, using a wood stove to turn out fancy cakes for weekend visitors.

A cartoon by Tony Nolan featured in The Argus on Wilga.

A cartoon by Tony Nolan featured in The Argus on Wilga.

The Arthur family is well-known in the Macleay Valley. Wilga’s father and uncle planted the Norfolk Island Pines at South West Rocks.

In 1949, a month after the great floods of Gladstone, Wilga became the wife of dairy farmer Keith Thurgood.

“She was vivacious and social, he was gentle and reserved and they loved each other very much,” John said.

An article in The Argus on the wedding anniversary of Keith and Wilga. This photo features Keith, Wilga and their great granddaughter Charlotte.

An article in The Argus on the wedding anniversary of Keith and Wilga. This photo features Keith, Wilga and their great granddaughter Charlotte.

For 42 years, Keith and Wilga lived and worked on the Thurgood dairy farm at Belmore River and spent the remainder of their lives in Gladstone, opposite the church they were married in.

Along with cooking and Keith, Wilga loved her community, turning strangers into friends, and keeping up to date with the latest in fashion.

“Mum never didn’t get friendly with everybody. She’d meet someone in a shop and before you knew it she’d know everything about them and they’d be coming over tea.”

Wilga worked on fundraising for the installation of the Kempsey Hospital hydrotherapy pool.

Wilga worked on fundraising for the installation of the Kempsey Hospital hydrotherapy pool.

“She loved getting dressed up and going into town – that was ‘her day’ she used to tell us. One time, she met a couple travelling through town and invited them back for a cuppa. That couple came back every year and are now really good friends with the family.”

Wilga was known for her work among the community where she baked for and hosted a number of fundraising events. Her work on fundraising for the installation of the Kempsey Hospital hydrotherapy pool is most notable.

Even though 2018 marked the end of Wilgas life, the Queen of Microwaves survives through the scrumptious recipes featured in many flour-caked cookbooks piled on kitchen tables around the country.

The stories of her vivacious and infectious character will no-doubt continue to be shared at the dinner table by her children and grandchildren over a slice of four-minute-and-seven-seconds sponge cake.