Sunday, January 30, 2011

What to eat on Australia Day.

The celebration of Australia Day (26th January) always leads to discussions around issues of national identity such as the flag - when are we going to get rid of the colonial connotations of the Union Jack - or the national anthem - when are we going to get a decent one -or even perhaps when is Australia going to become a republic. The Prime Minister however is never asked what she (or he) is going to do about a national dish, about the lack of any defining Australian cuisine. I'm not suggesting that this is necessarily a matter of great national importance and don't intend to get into a discussion of the whys and wherefores of traditional cuisines (fascinating though that might be) but I am intrigued with the idea of what might be, and indeed is being, promoted as the most appropriate meal to consume on Australia Day.

To begin with the notion of a national day. Australia Day commemorates the landing of Captain Arthur Phillip in Sydney Cove in 1788 and the beginning of European colonisation. The anniversary of that event has been officially marked, at least in New South Wales, one way or another since 1818. Not all states celebrated Australia Day, even after Federation (1st January 1901) and it wasn't until 1935 that the 26th January became a day of national celebration. When I was growing up Australia Day was just an excuse for a long weekend and Commonwealth Day seemed a more significant event because, as I remember, it involved a half-day off from school. Having a public holiday on the actual day - the 26th day of January - was only introduced in 1994 and it seems that it is only since then that there has been any significant promotion of Australia Day. Even so it seems that celebrations have less to do with nationalism and patriotism than they do with enjoying a day in the sun and the last of the summer holidays before the new school year commences.

Last year the Australia Day Council ran this advertisement

with the clear message that barbecuing on Australia Day is the right and patriotic thing to do. As the picture suggests in Australia barbecuing involves 'cooking meat on a metal grate directly over the heat source' be it glowing coals, an open gas flame or an electrical element. This however is the definition Harold McGee gives for 'grillling'. According to McGee in America 'barbecuing is the low-temperature, slow heating of meat in a closed chamber by means of hot air from smoldering wood coals. It's an outdoor cousin to the slow oven roast.'  Americans have a very clear idea of what constitutes barbecue and it usually involves smoke and sauces and cuts of meat which require slow cooking. It seems a bit odd then that  the initiation of the Australian enthusiasm for barbecuing should be attributed to American troops who came here during World War II, although it seems that  they probably did introduced the idea that cooking in the outdoors was both socially acceptable and socially desirable.

 Clearly the barbecue (neither the method of cooking nor the apparatus itself) is far from being uniquely Australian - in fact every culture must have some tradition of cooking food over hot coals predating modern kitchen gadgets and the use of gas and electricity as heat sources.
Barbecuing certainly suits our climate and is consistent with a general preference for casual entertaining and a relaxed eating environment. You could also argue that cooking over an open fire appeals to our pioneering instinct, to some sort of desire for simplicity and communing with nature and lets not even get started on the image of the rugged, Australian male wielding the barbecue tongs. (Surely the modern 'outdoor kitchen' has done away with any suggestion that the barbecue is a primitive and impromptu way of preparing a meal and the notion that there is something intrinsically manly about cooking food out of doors?) Even so there is nothing new or traditional or specific about the way Australians barbecue.

None the less lets say we are prepared to accept having some friends around for a barbie could be an appropriate way of celebrating Australia Day what would you actually cook on the grill? Some would argue that the completely charred 'snag' (sausage), which is often the result of over exuberant 'grilling',  is most representative of traditional Australian barbecuing. Certainly the 'sausage sizzle' is a quintessential phenomenon - no school fete or fundraiser, voting day or even trip to the hardware store is complete without the smell of hot fat and  frying onions. Most home barbecuers would opt for something a little more exotic but how many would opt for lamb?

Since 2005 Meat and Livestock Australia has been trying to convince us that it would be un-Australian not to eat lamb on Australia Day.

 Sheep of course are not  indigenous but  they have been here since 1788 and after all what we are celebrating on the 26th January is the arrival of the first Europeans. Kangaroos are an indigenous animal but eating them and more specifically promoting their consumption is always somewhat controversial - there are those who would consider that eating them was more un-Australian than not eating them.
The assumption in the Meat and Livestock advertisements is that the meat is destined to be barbecued. Lamb is a good choice for the barbecue be it cutlets, chops or a butterflied leg and, although the price fluctuates a bit, good lamb seems to be available here all year round. What's more eating lamb, as distinct from pork or beef, is acceptable to a large percentage of the population, vegetarians excepted of course.  Lamb figures in many of the traditional cuisines of the 25% of the Australian population who were born overseas to say nothing of the household traditions of the 20% of Australians who have at least one parent who was born overseas. So whether you can trace your ancestors to the First Fleet or you arived here yesterday chances are you could celebrate Australia Day by barbecuing something lamby which would both suit your cultural tastes and demonstrate your Aussiness.

Overall then, as Sam Kekovich so eloquently puts it, it does make sense. But as Mark Thomson points out, barbecuing in Australia is not so much a style of cuisine as a form of behaviour. It might well be possible to suggest a tradition of barbecuing lamb on Australia Day, and  some of these advertisements do state explicitly that there is a 'custom' of eating lamb on Australia Day, but it would indeed be un-Australian to try to proscribe how that lamb should be prepared - this year it might be a butterflied leg spiced up with chermoula and then maybe next year souvlaki or kefta or perhaps cutlets marinated in a spicy tandoori paste.

The Meat and Livestock campaign might be clever and entertaining but I think perhaps it might be advertising eating lamb on Australia Day which becomes more traditional than the actual practise.
And finally, I can't resist this image from the newspaper

The young man in the photograph was fined $800 for careless riding.

To read more about the history of the celebration of Australia Day see here
To see the 2011 Meat and Livestock Australia Australia Day advertisement see here
To read more about careless riding see here
For more on Australian barbecues read Mark Thomson's Meat, Metal and Fire (Harper Collins, 1999)
The quotes are from Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking.

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