The Great Aussie Barbecue

Posted on July 10, 2011

My talk at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Oxford U.K., 8–10 July, 2011

Here’s the full text:

INTRODUCTION

The Aussie barbecue is a unique celebratory institution. From humble beginnings, with meat cooked on a ploughshare over an outback campfire, or on a shovel in the firebox of a steam locomotive, the Aussie barbecue has now reached iconic status. It forms the focus of many of our national and personal celebrations. To give just one example, the 2009 award of “Australian of the Year” at the National Parliament House in Canberra on Australia Day was accompanied by a barbeque for some 650 invited VIPs where “chefs manned barbeques cooking Australian produce – beef, lamb, chicken, seafood and vegetables.”1 According to organizer Nicole Lieschke2, the 2010 award ceremony followed a similar pattern, with 8 chefs manfully manning four giant barbecues. Even more impressively, the Queen was farewelled from her 2011 visit to Australia with a giant barbecue attended by over 100,000 people, where more than 600 volunteers cooked over 130,000 sausages, with celebrity chefs contributing their own barbecued dishes for the royal visitors3.

The Aussie barbecue is clearly here to stay.

Two out of three Australian homes possess a barbecue, and more than half a million new ones are sold each year4. We celebrate birthdays, christenings, anniversaries and even weddings and funerals5 around them. Think of Australia, and as likely as not you will visualize the alpha Australian male (the one holding the tongs), dressed in shorts and a loud Hawaiian shirt, standing under a bright blue sky as he turns the sausages, steaks and prawns on an oiled metal plate heated from below by a bed of glowing coals or bottled gas.

How does the Aussie barbecue differ from barbecues in other countries? What is its history? How does the flavour of its products differ from simply frying the food indoors on a stove? Why do we bother to construct elaborate contraptions to perform essentially the same process out of doors? What is it that gives the Aussie barbecue its mystique? How has it become such a national icon?

HOW IS THE AUSSIE BARBECUE DIFFERENT?

The traditional Aussie barbecue consists of a flat metal plate and/or a set of metal bars, open to the air and heated from below by a wood fire, hot coals or, in more recent times, a propane gas flame6.

This arrangement is similar in principle to the French-style barbecue, where meat is also cooked on a griddle over hot coals. There the similarity ends. In an Australian wood-fired barbecue we traditionally use whatever dry wood is to hand, from the eucalypt tree branches that litter my back garden to old railway sleepers “rescued” by a friend. This casual tradition is becoming refined in some quarters, with long-burning desert hardwoods such as mulga and gidgee (a type of acacia) being preferred by serious barbecue afficionados, and cooking over charcoal also coming back into favour7. The refinement has not reached the level suggested by Larousse Gastronomique, however, whose editors claim that barbecued entrecote steak cooked only tastes good if cooked over glowing Cabernet vine shoots8.

The Aussie barbecue is very different from its American counterpart, where “barbecuing” means the low-temperature, slow heating of meat in a closed chamber by means of hot air from smouldering wood coals9. A rotating spit (rotisserie) above the grill is also common. In Australia, the meat is out in the open, and the slow heating is not infrequently replaced by blazing flames fueled by dripping fat from the sausages or lamb chops above. Instead of a slow infusion of aromas from the wood, the result can too often be a coating of charcoal. I have personally seen people eating the charcoal in preference to the sausages.

This traditional image of the Aussie barbecue is changing rapidly, however. While gastronomic disasters are still a not-infrequent occurrence, the barbecue also has culinary advantages that are increasingly being recognized and exploited by serious amateur cooks and professional chefs.

THE HISTORY OF THE AUSSIE BARBECUE

Mankind has cooked meat over open fires since pre-historic times. The earliest known European example10 was discovered in the Czech republic by archeologists who uncovered a 31,000-year-old barbecue pit containing the remains of not one, but two woolly mammoths (a mother and calf). The beasts had been cooked luau-style, buried along with heating stones.

The history of open-fire cooking in Australia goes back even further, with ancient middens and charcoal from hearths having been discovered from as long ago as 40,000 years11. Middens are waste dumps from cooking, and often consist primarily of burnt shells from oysters and other seafood – an ancient forerunner of the present-day “throw another shrimp on the barbie”. This well-known phrase was actually an invention of the Australian Tourism Commission, and was used in a 1984 advertising campaign featuring Paul Hogan and aimed at Americans12. Before that campaign, the modern Aussie barbecue was primarily used for cooking red meats. Now, almost any food seems to be fair game, including fish, pizzas, vegetables, tofu and even soufflés13.

The modern Aussie barbecue had its inception with the arrival of nearly 1,500 European convicts, soldiers and settlers in a fleet of eleven ships (the “First Fleet”) in Port Jackson (now called Sydney Harbour) in 178814. The new arrivals had little choice at first but to cook their food in the open air over a fire. The earliest recorded description of the European invaders cooking in something approximating a barbecue style was given in 1790 by one Captain Watkin Tench, who described how salted pork sent from England had to be treated15: “We soon left off boiling the pork, as it had become so old and dry [through being preserved in salt for several years] that it shrunk to one half of its dimensions when so dressed. Our usual method of cooking it was to cut off the daily morsel, and toast it on a fork before the fire, catching the drops which fell on a slice of bread …”

From the earliest times of European settlement, however, the aim of middle class families was to emulate the cooking and food styles of their native England16. Emigrants to the new country were advised17 to bring as much as possible of “Domestic ironmongery [and] all useful cooking utensils of the same kinds as are common in England [including ovens]” and were told that “There has been a general want of coarse crockery in the colony. Dinner and breakfast services most colonists have remembered, but almost all have forgotten milk-pans, covered jars and pans, and things of that kind. You will find it expedient to purchase jugs and vessels in which liquids and stores are kept, with covers to them; the number of flies which seem to claim a right to everything consumable by man is extraordinary…”.

With the kitchen thus equipped, an imitation of English practices could prevail18. Even when eating outdoors, the whole box and baggage was brought along, including a tablecloth to lay on the grass19. An open fire was nowhere to be seen. Cooking outdoors over an open fire was looked down on as the province of rough and uncultured itinerants and farm workers, often accompanied by their dogs. A typical scene is described by Henry Lawson in his wonderful humorous short story “The Loaded Dog”20. The principle human characters are three gold prospectors called Andy, Dave and Jim. Dave and Jim have been out prospecting, while Andy looks after the camp:

“Andy saw them coming, and put a panful of mutton-chops on the fire. Andy was cook to-day; Dave and Jim stood with their backs to the fire, as Bushmen do in all weathers, waiting till dinner should be ready. The retriever went nosing round after something he seemed to have missed.”

The men stood next to the smoky fire, not just to keep warm, but also to keep the mosquitoes away. The pan would have contained water to boil the chops; the practice of using an oiled metal plate to cook the meat at a higher temperature was still far from common, perhaps because oils and fats were scarce, valuable commodities in 1901, when this story was written.

It is very difficult to track down just when the practice of cooking meat on a metal plate over the fire started. There are anecdotal accounts of train drivers cooking on shovels in the firebox of the engine, and dish-shaped ploughshares (like a giant wok with a hole in the middle) have often been used as barbecue plates6. This latter practice was common in the Australian outback in the 1950s, with the fat running out through the square sprocket hole onto the fire, producing a spectacular jet of flame.

How this sort of cooking became a socially acceptable middle-class activity is also something of a mystery. The transition began in the early nineteen-thirties, and the first published record of a socially acceptable middle-class barbecue appeared in a newspaper of 193321. It was recorded that Sir George Fairbairn and Lady Fairbairn graciously made their grand home “Greenlaw” available for a “chop picnic” in aid of the Animal Welfare League. “At this unique party,” says the article “chops were grilled in the open and grilled in picnic style out of doors.” It is worth noting, however, that “Lady Fairbairn also provided a cold luncheon in the dining room for those who preferred it.”

The idea of outdoor meals cooked over a fire as a means of hospitality rapidly caught on. At the same time the description “chop picnic” began to be displaced by the pithier “barbeque” 22. It is unclear why this spelling was preferred to the American “barbecue”, since American barbecues had been referred to in Australian newspapers for a century or so. The earliest reference was in a 1855 article entitled “A Timeless Speech”, quoting a Texas Methodist preacher who advertised a “barbecue, with better liquors than are generally furnished”. Hopeful imbibers who turned up found that the “liquor” referred to was water23.

Perhaps the British spelling “barbeque” was preferred because it was thought to carry a connotation of English gentility, rather than American brashness. Following the Second World War, and increasing contact with visiting American servicemen, the American spelling began to take over. It was soon abbreviated in typical Australian fashion to “Barbie”, and in the 1970s to the even shorter “BBQ”. The very first appearance of this latter abbreviation in print was in an advertisement in the Australian Women’s Weekly for June 6th (1973)24, which was headlined “How to B.B.Q. chump chops”:

“Season 4-6 lamb chump chops with salt and pepper. Barbecue quickly and serve immediately with 1 can Masterfoods hot Mushroom Sauce.”

I remember my mother following this actual recipe. Unfortunately, she overlooked the word “quickly”, and the strong-tasting sauce failed to obscure the flavour of the over-cooked meat buried beneath it.

THE PHYSICAL BARBECUE

During the 1970s the quintessential suburban barbecue became a more-or-less elaborate permanent structure of brick, stone, or Besser blocks25, occupying a prominent position in the back garden or even on the verandah or deck. My younger brother even built one with a chimney the height of the house. Owners took considerable pride in these structures – far more pride, in fact, than they did in the cooking itself, which could become a burnt offering of biblical proportions.

The barbecue plate was generally made of cast iron, which is prone to rust. “Cranking up the barbie” became a ritual, where the plate was heated, scraped and wire-brushed. The finishing touch was steam-cleaning with a splash of the ubiquitous beer or, in sophisticated households, white wine.

In the nineteen-nineties, such barbecues fell out of fashion, to be largely displaced by portable barbecues6, 26 with names like “Turbo Classic”, “Cordon Bleu” or “Patiomaster”, and stainless steel replacing the cast iron. These barbecues are generally gas-fuelled, easy to use and easy to clean. There is also a burgeoning industry in barbecue cookbooks (e.g. ref. 13), many with innovative recipes that reflect the current popularity of TV cooking shows. There are, in addition, forums such as the Aussie BBQ Forum27, where enthusiasts exchange recipes and cooking practices.

All of these changes have meant that the culinary standard of the Aussie barbecue has been on the rise, in some quarters at least. While there are still plenty of examples where over-cooked steaks and sausages are piled up on one side of the barbecue and left to cool and congeal while people file past to collect them on cold plates, there is also a serious foodie revolution in progress. It is not uncommon, according to barbecue historian Mark Thompson28, to “find fairly average blokes willing to have a complex discussion about marinating  fish with lime juice and shredded ginger. That was rarely the case 10 or 15 years ago. The carbonized snags are now the exception rather than the rule.”

Another trend has been the rugged individuality of some people in manufacturing individually crafted barbecues out of the most unlikely-sounding materials. Washing machines, lawnmowers, old hot-water systems, forty-four gallon drums, the blast-resistant floor of an armored personnel carrier, and even discarded loudspeaker enclosures from public address systems have all been put to good use in this way6.

BARBECUE FLAVOURS

Just why barbecued food cooked on a hot plate or griddle has its unique flavour is rarely discussed in culinary literature. One author has suggested (on the basis of no evidence whatsoever) that “juices vaporizing on a hot surface underneath the meat [are] thrown back onto it”29. Others believe that the aroma of wood smoke (from eucalyptus branches in most Aussie barbecues or mesquite, hickory or applewood in the US) contributes (although this hardly applies to the presently popular gas barbecues).

According to Mark Thomson, founder of the iconically Australian “Institute of Backyard Studies”30, the simple act of cooking and eating outdoors creates an ambience that contributes to the perceived flavour. “Because you’re outside” he says “all your senses are alert: the sight of the meat cooking, the sound of it sizzling. The smell is fantastic, your mouth is salivating (quick, put some beer in it to prevent stressing your saliva (sic) glands …)”.

There is likely to be some truth in this; certainly there is plenty of evidence that environmental factors have a significant role in our perception of food flavours31. The major factor, though, is surely the temperature of the meat surface during cooking. When meat is grilled in a frying pan, moisture released during cooking tends to be retained and to act as a coolant. On a barbecue, (especially one with open bars) the meat surface is hotter and dryer. The Maillard reactions between protein amino acids and reducing sugars in the meat, which contribute to the flavour32 but which require temperatures in excess of 150C, can occur more readily.

The increasing popularity of barbecuing has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the availability of flavour-enhancing accompaniments in the way of sauces and seasonings, marinades and dry rubs, pastes and seasonings. Some of these are constructed from uniquely Australian ingredients such as wattleseed, lemon myrtle and alpine pepper. The best of them can enhance or complement Maillard products, although many contain sugars that caramelize rapidly at barbecue temperatures, producing a visual illusion that Maillard reactions have been taking place without the corresponding complex flavours.

CONCLUSION

Overall, the Aussie-style barbecue provides a wealth of culinary opportunities in the right hands, although it can also produce culinary catastrophes. Its primary role in Australian celebrations, however, has little to do with its culinary attributes.

The real value of the Aussie barbecue is as a focus for celebrations, regardless of the quality of the cooking. As my correspondent “Davo” from the Aussie BBQ Forum has pointed out “[In the 1970s when we were young] we didn’t care much what was being cooked…all the food was one colour…BLACK…but stuck between a couple of slices of white bread…and heaps of tomato sauce….Bloody bewdy mate!!”

The quality of the cooking may have improved since those days, but it remains true that “the Australian barbecue is a universal one-size-fits-all celebration that is religious worship, tribal bonding and ritual ceremony all rolled into one. It’s the place where big lies and truths are converted into myth and legend”34. It is, in other words, a place where the suburban Australian male can still imagine that he is out in the wilderness, fighting and taming nature in the way that his pioneering forebears were doing for real as they cooked over their outback campfires.

REFERENCES

  1. Ratcliffe, Carli “Australia Day”. SBS Food (http://www.sbs.com.au/food/occasion/3385/Australia_Day), January 23rd (2009).
  2. Nicole Lieschke, personal communication March 1st, 2011.
  3. Tony Barrass “More then 100,000 people in Perth farewell the Queen”. The Australian, October 29th (2011) (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/more-than-100000-people-in-perth-farewell-the-queen/story-fnapmixa-1226180291017).
  4. Anon “Why Do Men Hang Around the Barbecue?” http://health.ninemsn.com.au/whatsgoodforyou/theshow/694078/why-do-men-hang-around-the-barbecue (December 2 (2009)).
  5. See, for example, http://www.allsuburbs.com.au/event-catering-funeral-catering.php
  6. Thomson, Mark “Meat, Metal and Fire: The legendary Australian barbecue”. HarperCollins, Sydney (1999).
  7. Thomson, Mark, personal communication.
  8. Montagné, Prosper. Larousse Gastronomique: The New American Edition of the World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia. Edited by Jennifer Harvey Lang. Crown, New York (1988), 418.
  9. McGee, Harold “On Food and Cooking” (2nd edn; Scribner, New York (2004)), 157 – 158.
  10. Jiri Svoboda et al “Pavlov VI: an Upper Paleolithic living unit”. Antiquity 83 (2009), 282 – 295; http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31085915/ns/technology_and_science-science/.
  11. Presland, Gary “Aboriginal Melbourne: the lost land of the Kulin people” (2nd Edition). McPhee Gribble, Melbourne (1994), p. 128.
  12. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xn_CPrCS8gs
  13. Howard, Peter “Peter Howard’s BBQ Collection”. New Holland Australia (2009).
  14. Dunn, Cathy & McCreadie, Marion “The First Fleet”. Australian History Research (http://www.australianhistoryresearch.info/the-first-fleet/ ).
  15. Daunton-Fear, Richard & Vigar, Penelope “Australian Colonial Cookery”. Rigby, Adelaide (1977), 7.
  16. Daunton-Fear, Richard & Vigar, Penelope “Australian Colonial Cookery”. Rigby, Adelaide (1977), 8; D.H. Borchardt “Australians: A Guide to Sources” (Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates, Sydney (1987)), 327.
  17. Gouger, Robert “South Australia in 1837”. Harvey & Darton (London), 1838.
  18. Daunton-Fear, Richard & Vigar, Penelope “Australian Colonial Cookery”. Rigby, Adelaide (1977), 23.
  19. Picture “Christmas Day – A Picnic at Studley Park”. Illustrated Melbourne Post , December 22 (1864). Reproduced in Daunton-Fear, Richard & Vigar, Penelope “Australian Colonial Cookery”. Rigby, Adelaide (1977), 18.
  20. Lawson, Henry “The Loaded Dog”. In Lawson, Henry “Joe Wilson and His Mates” (1901) (http://freeread.com.au/ebooks/e00025.txt ). The dog very soon comes into the story when he picks up a stick of dynamite and trails the fuse in the fire, then follows the terrified prospectors as they try to get away from his playful antics while still holding onto the dynamite.
  21. “Chop Picnic for Animal Welfare League”, The Argus (November 2 (1933)), 4.
  22. The earliest reference appears to be in The West Australian of May 17th (1933) (http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/32479007?searchTerm=barbeque&searchLimits=l-australian=y|||sortby=dateDesc ).
  23. “A Timeless Speech”. The Moreton Bay Courier, July 28th (1955) (http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/3709069?searchTerm=barbecue&searchLimits=sortby=dateAsc|||l-australian=y ).
  24. http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/47224914?searchTerm=bbq&searchLimits=sortby=dateAsc|||l-australian=y
  25. Taylor, Peter “All About Barbecues”. Methuen of Australia, Sydney (1979); Whelan, Rob & Sue “Building Barbecues”. Bay Books, Sydney, date unknown (1984?).
  26. See, for example, “Barbeques Galore” website (http://www.barbequesgalore.com.au/products/barbeques.aspx ).
  27. http://www.aussiebbq.info/forum/
  28. Mark Thompson, personal communication.
  29. Taylor, Peter “All About Barbecues”. Methuen of Australia, Sydney (1979), 8.
  30. http://www.ibys.org/shed/
  31. Auvray, Malika & Spence, Charles “The Multisensory Perception of Flavour”. Consciousness and Cognition 17 (2008), 1016 – 1031.
  32. Martins, Sara I.F.S., Jongen, Wim M.F. & van Boekel, Martinus A.J.S. “A review of Maillard reaction in food and implications to kinetic modeling”. Trends in Food Science and Technology Vol 11 (2001), 364 – 373.
  33. Vic Cherikoff “A Taste of the Bush” (http://www.atasteofthebush.com.au/). Cherikoff , a chef and tireless promoter of Australian-based flavours, also comments, (personal communication by email, May 8th (2011)) that: “Considering the BBQ often features high fat meats (sausages, cheaper cuts such as ribs and pork belly, chicken etc) and sugary sauces and rubs, the popularity can also be ascribed to a response to our instinctive, evolutionary taste drives towards fat and sweetness. In hunter-gatherers, quenching the drive for fat delivers proteins and fat soluble (lipophilic) antioxidants (including some fibre from sinew and skin and vitamin C in the livers of game animals). The drive for sweetness expends significant calories in attainment and delivers dietary fibre, slow release carbohydrates, micro-sugars and water soluble (hydrophilic) antioxidants (although wild Australian fruits have also been shown to be extremely rich in lipophilic antioxidants in contrast to modern fruits). The significance of micro-sugars is in their ability to up-regulate the cellular absorption of beneficial nutrients.
    Perhaps the modern BBQ is a logical extension of our hunter-gatherer skill of cooking with an open fire increasing the absorption of food nutrients by appealing to innate taste drives for a balance of the 10 building blocks of flavour – sweet, salt, sour, bitter, aromatic, pungent, umami, Maillard, metallic and fat.”
  34. Thomson, Mark “Meat, Metal and Fire: The legendary Australian barbecue”. HarperCollins, Sydney (1999), pp. viii – ix.

 


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