Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The weird world of vegemite. And more on coffee.

Forget religion, politics or sport. The thing that really defines a people is their attitude toward particular foods. After two weeks in this country, coffee continues to confound us: while restaurants typically serve capuccinos, lattes and the like, in their homes it seems most people drink instant coffee. I suspected as much by visiting the grocery stores, where the coffee selection is typically split between espresso and instant.

It's quite good instant coffee, but it's difficult to explain to Australians the deep-seated prejudice many Canadians have against instant. In Canada, instant is the coffee you drink if you can't find anything else, suitable for camping, particularly rustic cottages, and rather run-down workplaces, but really not something you would choose to drink every day. To have instant coffee topped with professionally-frothed milk and a dusting of chocolate sugar is nothing less than bizarre. Still, as I said, it is very good instant, and I can quickly get used to it.

Stocking up on food is another area where we seem to differ. It's not difficult to see why: Canadians come from a culture in which you have a few months to grow and store the food that will get you through the winter. We're only a couple of generations removed from the time when a pantry full of canned foods, a root cellar full of potatoes and turnips, and a few smoked hams hanging in the attic were signs that it was going to be a good winter. Even though we can now buy "fresh" strawberries trucked in from Florida in February, most of us still keep a few weeks of food on hand in our pantries and freezers. Australians, from what I've seen, don't seem to do that. When farmers bring in the summer crop, that just means it's time to start growing the winter crop. The one exception, I've been told, is in the northern areas where they have a pronounced wet season, and people stock up to ensure they've got enough food in case they get cut off by floods.

Then there's Vegemite. It's a complex part of the Australian psychology, more myth than food. Foreigners don't like it, and aren't expected to. The ability to eat and enjoy vegemite is a defining national characteristic. I really can't come up with an analagous custom from Canada. Our national foods are things like donuts, butter tarts and poutine, foods which are easy to enjoy; we haven't taken dishes like seal flipper pie or prairie oysters and made them into national icons. Our most iconic trait is winter: we take pride in our ability to withstand the cold, and relish hearing others complain about it, but the analogy doesn't hold since most of us don't really enjoy winter the way Australians enjoy vegemite. After all, when we go on holiday in winter we usually go somewhere warm; when Australians go on holiday, they take a jar of vegemite with them. (In fact, it's now available in tubes just to cater to travelling Aussies who don't want to risk having a glass jar burst in their luggage).

Other Australian dishes are much easier to like. Their meat pies are fantastic (there are pie shops in many towns), we were already fans of pavlova and Australian wines, and the beer is excellent. We've had store-bought lamingtons (sponge cake covered in thin icing and rolled in coconut), and been underwhelmed, but I'm told we really need to get homemade lamingtons to fully appreciate them. I'm looking forward to trying kangaroo, "bugs" (lobster-like sea critters), more seafood, and various types of "bush tucker". But Vegemite is going to take some more getting used to.


leo said...


leo said...

I wouldn't go boastng about the Canucks tolerance for cold weather just yet. In Noosa it will only get as low as 7 degrees or so..maybe 4 (at a stretch)..but we actually live at that temperature. No fireplaces or central heating.
Here in Canada its always 22 degrees...except for the 30 secs it takes to get fm the car to the shop front.

Andrew said...

Very true. I'm actually looking forward to seeing what winter in Noosa is like. Some people have said we'll find it really cold, while others have said it's short, mild and quite bearable.