February 8, 2011
Anyone who watched American television in the 1980s probably remembers the Australia tourism commercials with Paul Hogan (aka Crocodile Dundee) saying he’d “slip another shrimp on the barbie” for us. Never mind that Australians don’t use the word “shrimp”—they call them prawns—the catchphrase stuck, along with its concession to American nomenclature.
It is true, though, that Aussies love a barbecue. In the two weeks I was there over the holidays, I attended no fewer than four. Most featured sausages and marinated chicken, usually served with ketchup (or tomato sauce, as they call it) as the only condiment. But one barbecue was different.
The friends I stayed with in Melbourne are a bi-continental married couple—the Australian husband, Konrad, met his American wife, Nikki, while she was studying abroad in Queensland—who had returned to his homeland after about seven years in the States. During his time in America, including a year in Jacksonville, Florida, Konrad had developed a deep appreciation for Southern-style barbecue. Since returning home, with nowhere local to sate his cravings, he had bought a smoker and made it his project to learn how to replicate his favorite foods himself. During my visit he planned a backyard bash to introduce his Aussie friends to a barbecue with all the Dixie fixin’s—pulled pork, brisket and beer-can chicken with four kinds of homemade barbecue sauce on the side, plus potato salad, macaroni and cheese, baked beans and cornbread. Sweet tea and mint juleps were on the drink menu.
But first we had to go shopping. It turned out that the main ingredient in cornbread—cornmeal—was not stocked at local supermarkets. We tracked down a Spanish market in the artsy Fitzroy neighborhood (the Melbourne equivalent of New York’s Williamsburg or L.A.’s Los Feliz) where we found a package of P.A.N. brand, which had a drawing of a sassy-looking lady with her hair tied up in a polka-dotted scarf.
Since we were out for the rest of the afternoon and evening, this meant carrying around a sack of cornmeal everywhere we went. “Pan” became a kind of mascot, and we took a series of photos with “her” that became increasingly ridiculous as the night wore on.
Konrad and Nikki spent the better part of the next day preparing for the feast that afternoon. For the most part, the food seemed to be a hit with the Aussies. The biggest surprise was the baked beans—over there, as in England, baked beans are most commonly eaten at breakfast with eggs and toast. Their version comes out of the Heinz can in a relatively bland tomato sauce without the zip of BBQ baked beans, and some of the guests were downright excited about having them in this new context. The macaroni and cheese and the smoked meats and sauces also got raves.
As for the cornbread, I think Pan, which was pre-cooked, was the kind of cornmeal meant for arepas (delicious South American corn fritters) and not quite right for American cornbread. Although I didn’t get to try the resulting corn muffins before they disappeared at the party, they must have tasted alright anyway.
Maybe next time, they’ll introduce the Aussies to one of my favorite Southern dishes, shrimp and grits. But I’m sorry, y’all, “prawns and grits” just sounds wrong.
July 20, 2010
I spent last week in and around Cape Town, South Africa, traveling with my mom to attend my brother’s wedding. All we knew ahead of time about South African cuisine was that they love a good cookout, and sure enough, our first meal there turned out to be a braai (Afrikaans for “roasted meat,” though like “barbecue,” the word is used to describe the event as well as the food itself) at the home of my brother’s new in-laws.
They seemed surprised that I was so impressed by the wood-fired brick oven built into their outdoor patio—apparently those are about as ubiquitous in South Africa as backyard gas grills are in America. There, as here, the grill tends to be literally manned, while the kitchen is women’s turf (at least in the homes I visited). On that particular Sunday afternoon, a guy named Willem was the chef d’jour.
See the boxy metal container inside the grill in this photo? That’s where Willem stoked a wood fire for at least an hour while the meat marinated. From time to time, he shook the container so that hot embers fell out and could be raked into a layer under the rest of the grill, creating a low, even source of heat.
“A good braai can take all day. It’s not just a meal, it’s an occasion, a time to get together and talk and relax outside,” he explained as my stomach rumbled. Finally, he brought out the meat, starting with a long rope of boerewors (sausage) which he coiled inside a clamshell-style metal grilling basket.
When I asked what was in it, he shrugged.
“I don’t know, just minced meat. Boer means farmers, and wors means sausage,” he explained.
“So….it’s made of minced farmers?” I responded, generating a round of startled laughter.
Next up were chicken sosaties, or what I would call kebabs, one batch marinated in mustard and yogurt and the next in a sticky-sweet barbecue glaze. Then came lamb chops, and finally, some three hours after it all started, the food was ready to eat.
I don’t usually eat much meat, but when traveling, my mantra is “be open,” which extends to both mind and mouth. Besides, I was ravenous! So I dug in, following the lead of others. We ate the meat with our hands, dipping pieces of wors in a sweet curry sauce, picking up the lamb chops like sandwiches, and plucking bites of wonderfully tender chicken off the skewers. For side dishes, there was also mealie pap, a kind of corn porridge served with tomato and onion sauce, and a salad replete with chunks of avocado (or just avo, as they call it).
Pretty tasty, but if I were braai-ing, I’d love to try some vegetables and fish, or even a pizza…
June 18, 2010
As you’re probably aware, Father’s Day is this Sunday in the United States. Wondering what you can cook up to make the day special? Here are a few fun ideas:
1. A truly tasteful tie. People blog about the strangest things. A few months ago, I came across someone who just likes putting weird things in coffee, and yesterday, I got an email from a young guy who “likes neckties. A lot.” He’s got an entire blog called Tiepedia, and for Father’s Day, he collected a bunch of Flickr photos of necktie cakes. Enjoy, and perhaps be inspired to create your own. (Come on, does he ever wear the real ties you pick out, anyway? Might as well give him the kind you can all share.)
2. Mower dessert? Torture Dad sweetly by reminding him of his household chores. Or give him these lawnmower cupcakes along with a coupon promising to take those chores off his hands for a while.
3. Thank him for raising such a brat. Then make up for it by grilling him some of Bobby Flay’s beer-braised brats.
4. Think he’s full of beans? I don’t know about your father, but mine drinks more coffee than Juan Valdez himself, so I often give him a bag or two of good beans. (And since he’s a bit of a nerd, one year I gave him this T-shirt depicting a caffeine molecule.) I bet he’d also love a coffee cake made with these recipes from Joy the Baker and The Pioneer Woman, both of which involve actual coffee.
April 19, 2010
As I explained a few weeks ago, we’re trying something new here at Food & Think, a semi-regular feature called Inviting Writing. Each month, we’ll offer our readers a general theme to chew on—this month’s was “manners”—and an example of a related story. Then, we hope you’ll feel inspired to e-mail us your own true, food-related stories on that theme.
Thank you to those of you that responded to our call for submissions! We’ve selected a few of the best, and will run them on Mondays for the next several weeks. If yours wasn’t chosen, please try again next month; we’ll announce a new theme in May.
By Katrina Moore
I grew up in a small town in East Tennessee, in a neighborhood where the ladies looked perfectly put-together every day, paid their landscapers, took on charity projects and went to church with their husbands on Sundays.
“Manners Class” was my seventh-grade term for an etiquette course taught in the home of Mrs. Thorson, an elegant Southern woman with the cleanest house I’d ever seen. There, we learned poise by walking with books on our heads, which was cause for much giggling in a group of clumsy adolescents. We learned what colors looked best with our skin and whether we were a spring, summer, fall, or winter color palate. We discussed attending social events and talking to boys; I think we even had a lesson on waltzing. This was saccharine Southern charm at its sweetest and most sinister.
In one of our lessons, Mrs. Thorson sat us around her kitchen table. We learned the purpose of each fork, knife, spoon, and plate. We learned not to eat with our fingers unless the situation directly called for it. When buttering bread, for example, one is to tear off only the amount one can put in her mouth, rather than buttering and attempting to bite into the whole thing at once. We were excited to try out our new skills at the graduation dinner, a dress-up meal at a fancy place in the city.
The dinner involved much dainty sipping, meat cutting, and napkin folding, but I was so focused on perfection that I neglected to have any fun. Looking back, I see an awkward 12-year-old desperately trying to fit into a genteel environment. I thought I might grow up to be like these neighborhood women: charming, smiling, and poised. Before I understood that the smiles were all too often replacements for sincerity, I wanted to be like them and didn’t understand why I wasn’t.
About a week later, I attempted to eat barbecued ribs with the same delicacy I employed at the graduation dinner, but the ribs refused. A fork and knife proved to slide them all over my plate, smearing it with red-brown sauce. With some prodding from my family, I finally acknowledged the necessity of picking up the ribs—but I still tried to use only the tips of my fingers, and pulled back my lips as far as possible to keep them clean.
After the first bite, I realized that I was never going to finish my dinner that way, so I dug in with gusto. My lips burned with spice, and I could feel the fatty meat and astringent sauce commingling on my tongue. So what if there was some sauce on my face and hands? When I freed myself of strict social limitations, the food actually tasted better. I even licked my fingers as I reached for the moist towelette, satisfied.
Don’t tell Mrs. Thorson!