Page last updated at 11:52 GMT, Saturday, 24 January 2009

Australia's thrill for the grill

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Scotland has the haggis, Turkey has the donor kebab, England has the Yorkshire pudding and from the land down under I give you... the overdone sausage.

Men having a barbecue on Coogee beach (Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty Images)
Australian summers provide ideal weather for barbecuing

I am being a tad unfair perhaps since multi-cultural Australia boasts some of the most mouth-watering food in the world. But that just makes it all the more intriguing why one of Australia's great national dishes comes partly incinerated.

The great Australian barbecue, of course, occupies a singular place in the national psyche.

Come the southern summer, Australians do not have water cooler conversations, they have barbecue conversations - the forum at which the most pressing national issues of the day are given a beer-fuelled airing. This year, it has been the state of Australian cricket, normally so dominant, but now so imperilled.

National pride

It is also the place where Australians can speak freely in their national tongue.

A king prawn cooking on a barbecue (Photo:Ian Waldie/Getty Images)
The country's fondness for barbecuing has been used to promote tourism
The barbecue, or barbie, gives people the chance to chew upon a sausage (a "snag"), drink a few beers ("blow the froth off a couple of cold ones") which usually come in ice-cold bottles ("stubbies"), which are stored in a refrigerated ice-box (an "esky").

People normally arrive wearing their flip-flops (their "thongs"), while a beachside barbie might even see a few pairs of swimming trunks ("budgie-smugglers").

Australia's most successful ever tourism campaign lured international visitors by promising to throw another shrimp on the barbie.

And in recent weeks, Australians have been bombarded by another series of government-sponsored advertisements designed to promote Australia Day.

Even in this most egalitarian of societies there is a distinct sense of hierarchy when it comes to the barbecue
Their star is an officious young bureaucrat who arrives on the door-step of a suburban bungalow to lambast its bewildered occupant for spending last year's national day on the couch.

"Not a fan of barbecues?" he asks, disapprovingly.

A search of the back garden uncovers a rusting barbie prompting even more official censure.

Then there is the newspaper version of the campaign, where the bureaucrat carries the official Australia Day checklist.

Its calls upon true patriots to celebrate their national day by making a disparaging remark about English cricket and overcooking a variety of meats on semi-hygienic barbecues.

Licensed to barbie

Having recently married an Australian, I now have to take my barbecuing with the utmost seriousness.

In fact, one of my first gifts from my wife was a set of cooking utensils, knives, tongs, kebab spikes and the like, which came in the kind of the gleaming silver attache case James Bond might use to carry his Beretta.

I am now licensed to barbie.

But even in this most egalitarian of societies there is a distinct sense of hierarchy when it comes to the barbecue.

You can tell a lot about an Australian man, for instance, by the size of his barbecue
In my wife's family, there is a rigid pecking order in which I have been relegated to the role of hapless spectator, while more senior brother-in-laws stand proudly at the grill.

Topping the barbecue league is my oldest brother-in-law who can boast an expansive repertoire of barbie dishes, from a whole snapper doused in lime juice and wrapped in an envelope of aluminium foil, to barbequed bananas oozing with melted milk chocolate.

So masterful are his barbecuing skills he does not even burn the sausages.

Gender divide

The barbecue brings to the fore Australians' generosity of spirit.

Sausages on a barbecue
Making sure your 'snags' are cooked can take a great degree of skill
I regularly serve up scorched snags that resemble one of Australia's most lucrative exports, a lump of coal. But judging by the response, you would have thought I had just produced a plate of Beluga caviar. "What a beauty," they might say.

There are other national traits which we can mine from the veneration of the barbie.

The love of the outdoors. The fondness for humour, often lubricated with one of the aforementioned stubbies, or anything else that has alcoholic content and arrives chilled.

I have only ever spotted one woman slaving over a hot-barbecue, and she turned out to be French
Humour quickly evolves into the kind of slap-the-back bonhomie that the Australians call mateship.

Then there is the love of competition. You can tell a lot about an Australian man, for instance, by the size of his barbecue, and some are so very capacious that they resemble small mobile homes.

It is also worth pointing out that at an Australian barbecue the segregation of the sexes is complete.

The men burn the meat, while the women tend to the salads. Rarely is this unwritten doctrine ever breached.

I have only ever spotted one woman slaving over a hot barbecue, and she turned out to be French.

I spotted her at the local beach last weekend, happily barbecuing alongside a Swiss man at a neighbouring grill and a group of Indians from Punjab at another.

If you want to successfully assimilate into the mainstream of Australian life then hurl a crustacean in the direction of a flaming grill. Here, the barbecue takes the place of the multi-cultural melting pot.

If you have not partaken of this antipodean ritual, then I would thoroughly recommend that you do. Tell me when you are coming, and they will have an overcooked shrimp awaiting your arrival.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 24 January, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Australia
05 Sep 08 |  Country profiles


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