The food of the English commonwealth, save for fish and chips perhaps, has not thrived beyond the homeland the way you might expect given the influence of the rest of its culture. The music, the literature, the fashion, and especially the language have taken hold of the world, but not so the food.
Whether because of reputation (awful) or competition (stiff), Anglo food is just not the dish of choice, at least not when you can eat a taco, a pizza, a gyro, pad thai, teriyaki, or sushi, or any number of adopted foods we have come to call our own. To be fair, a lot of American food is essentially British food of some type, whether it is mashed potatoes, meatloaf, pot roast or a BLT sandwich. The ritual might be different, but the DNA is the same. English food is neither exotic enough to tempt, nor familiar enough to embrace, and it suffers from a reputation of blandness and mediocrity.
So with expectations set low, and curiosity high, I set off to eat a variant of English cooking: Australian food.
The Kangaroo & Kiwi pub in north Seattle opened in 2001 on ANZAC Day, April 25, the day Australians and New Zealanders set aside to remember the veterans who fought with the British against the Turks during World War I in the battle of Gallipoli, a peninsula in Turkey. The casualties were heavy, the campaign unsuccessful from the British point of view. (In 1981, the battle became the subject of a movie, “Gallipoli,” starring Mel Gibson.) The bar is located at North 73rd Street and Aurora Avenue North, across from Green Lake, where Aurora makes the transition from freeway to controlled arterial.
The bar is the kind of place where strangers talk to one another and barkeeps are quick to shake your hand. Here, it is acceptable to eavesdrop on a conversation and drop into it if you care to. It is a true refuge for expatriates, a friendly and singular place for homesick Australians (and to a lesser extent their national cousins, the New Zealanders) to watch Australian-rules football, drink Australian beer, hear English the way you grew up speaking it, have a chin-wag with other countrymen, including co-owner Brad Howe, and eat food particular to Australia.
Much of what an Australian might eat in a typical week is not so different from what we might eat: a piece of grilled chicken, salad, Chinese takeout, lobster in a nice restaurant. The foods that stand apart are the country’s casual foods, the kind served at concession stands, convenience stores, and street carts, and, here in Seattle, at the Kangaroo & Kiwi.
The main feature is the beef pie, served alone ($5), in a shallow bowl of pea soup ($8) or with fried potatoes, baked beans and mashed peas ($10). The meat pie is to Australians what a hot dog or a hamburger is to Americans, which is to say that sometimes Australians eat a fresh-baked, hand-made pie (the equivalent of a restaurant burger), and sometimes they unwrap the plastic package it comes in and stick it in the microwave.
For instance, the Four 'N Twenty meat pie is the most popular mass-produced pie in Australia and one of the country’s most recognized brands, synonymous with the sport of Australian-rules football. Fans traditionally eat a Four 'N Twenty pie while attending a game, the way Americans eat hog dogs at baseball games.
The meat pies at the Kangaroo & Kiwi come from the Australian Pie Company in Burien, a bakery owned by Australian Angus Wood. The filling of ground beef and gravy is stuffed into a round pie shell the size of a burger. The custom is to spread ketchup (which Australians call tomato sauce) on your pie. Woods’ bakery also supplies the K&K with sausage rolls ($4), equally popular in Australia. The sausage is not whole, but finely ground and also stuffed into a pastry shell.
A sausage roll or meat pie is low-end eating, the kind of food meant to satisfy, not impress — the way that a plate of nachos or a grilled hot dog from a street car satisfies. In other words, it is perfect drunk food, salty, savory, and, for Australians at least, nostalgic and full of sentiment.
Here at the bar and at the Australian Pie Company’s retail store in Burien, you can also purchase Australian cereal, biscuits, snacks, and cookies. Weet-Bix is a block of compressed wheat cereal. Tim Tams are chocolate-covered wafers. The most notorious of dry goods sold and served at the K&K is Vegemite, the dark brown paste eaten almost daily by most Australians.
“I can eat it all day, but I know Americans don’t like it very much,” said patron Jake Phillips, a visiting, homesick Australian who has been working most of the past year in England.
Vegemite is made with yeast extract. It is salty, bitter, with a sharp aftertaste, like cheddar cheese, possessing, some say, that so-called fifth flavor, umami. In general, umami is not an American thing. Umami is deep, musky and savory, often associated with fermented foods, which are more common in the traditional foods of other countries and less a part of the modern American diet, which came about in the age of refrigeration.
Australians describe the flavor of Vegemite as addicting, used as a spread on sandwiches, crackers, biscuits, and toast. The K&K serves it on toast with a side of potato chips ($3). The consensus is that Vegemite is an acquired taste, not likely to become a breakfast staple in America. But taken with a beer and a slight buzz, it’s really not so bad.
Another peculiar offering at the K&K is spaghetti on toast ($5), which is exactly that: canned spaghetti served on top of sliced toast. The spaghetti is not just any variety, but the Wattie’s brand of canned spaghetti from New Zealand, which tastes slightly sweeter than the American form of canned spaghetti but is more or less the same, the noodles soft, the sauce a dull red in color. According to the Wattie’s website, New Zealand consumes more canned spaghetti per capita than any other country. Its love of canned spaghetti is maybe like Hawaii’s love of Spam. Sometimes you love a food not because it tastes so good, but because it tastes so familiar.
The dish that should be less of a mystery to Americans is the meat pie. Twenty million Australians love it. The British have their version, called a pasty, which is flat like a calzone or turnover. They are sold all over the country in coffee shops, train stations, and vending machines. Americans have their version of meat pies, but if they were ever popular, they are definitely no longer in fashion.
Why meat pies of the Australian or British variety have not taken off in America, still a meat-and-potatoes country at heart, is something of a mystery.
“There used to be a few companies here in America who made Australian pies,” said John Hawking, whose family owns Everything Australian, a retail store and mail-order business in Little Rock, Ark., that sells Australian food and goods.
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