Here’s some food for thought: Australia is rich in natural resources, with over 90% of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs and milk sold in supermarkets being domestically produced. We make so much that we’re able to export more than half of our agricultural produce, and the meat industry takes great pride in advertising the world quality of Australian lamb and beef.
So why is it that so many of our culinary icons, the foods most associated in a broad, Caucasian sense, of being ‘Australian’, are largely fast food concoctions filled with meats of an unknown and highly suspect origin? I’m speaking here of the Chiko roll, the sausage roll, devon sandwiches, the dim sim, and of course the iconic Aussie pie.
In 2015 Australia was ranked the world’s meat eating capital of the world, consuming three times the global average, and it is estimated that half of our land mass is dedicated to meat production and processing. In fact, the consumption of meat, whether it be cooked on a barbeque or baked in a pie is held so close to our modern national identity that it has been the basis of many major advertising campaigns over the years, including the tongue-in-cheek series of ads featuring Sam Kekovich for Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) despairing of people eating anything else on January 26.
So with so much quality on offer, why do we continue to fill our guts and sense of nationalistic pride with so many mystery meat products? As of January 2017 it was estimated that Australians eat 270 million meat pies every year — or roughly 12 pies per person — with MCG caterers Spotless Group reporting in 2015 that they sold 25,000 pies and sausage rolls during the AFL grand final. That’s a lot of sauce.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand updated their definition of a meat pie in the early 2000s, whereas previously they needed to contain 25% meat — a requirement that several major brands failed to meet according to a 2006 test by Choice — they are now required to contain 25% ‘meat flesh’. However this updated definition also includes ‘skeletal muscle of any slaughtered animal as well as any attached animal rind, fat, connective tissue, nerve, blood and blood vessels’. “Every meat pie comes with an unmistakable taste of Australia. Savour it,” enthused The Guardian in a 2014 tribute to the iconic pastry. Yum.
Nevertheless, the cultural significance of a hot pie with sauce can’t be overstated, no matter what the hell it’s made of. Check out this ‘70s TV ad that lists ‘football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars’ as Australian interests, and in fact pies were common at Australian sporting events from the late 1800s.
Even the manner in which you devour a meat pie has nationalistic connotations, who can forget the furore that surrounded then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when a video was posted to his Instagram account showing him tucking into a meat pie using a knife and fork?
But what of that even more mysterious culinary icon, the Chiko Roll? Like the dim sim, this was based upon an existing Chinese dish and modified for local tastes. While the original rolls were indeed made with chicken, the recipe has changed over time to a combination of processed meats, cabbage, celery, rice and carrots.
The contents are in fact quite similar to those found in Aussie sausage rolls and dim sims, but its cultural significance is what caused a 2016 debate in Parliament over the Chiko Roll’s place of origin, with MPs from Wagga Wagga, Bathurst and Bendigo each staking their claim.
Similarly, a South Australian man made the news last year when he took Woolworths to task over Facebook of its labelling of the processed meat devon, which he insisted should be identified by its SA name of fritz. In truth, the pink lunchmeat is also called polony in WA, pointing towards its origin as baloney, or Bologna sausage, named after the Italian city in which it was invented and itself a variation of the same city’s mortadella. The only difference is that our version is artificially pink and we don’t know exactly what it’s made of, but then again, that’s never bothered us before.
So what conclusions are to be drawn from this list of mystery meat products that are held so dear to the national consciousness? Are we a nation of unpicky eaters, content to wrap our collective lips around by-products of unknown origins, as long as they are marketed to us by ex-footballers and have images of the Southern Cross on their packets? In a land of such natural splendour, are we that easily swayed, do we, in fact, as a nation have such little discernible taste?
But say what you will about our national maybe-meats – at least we don’t do Pink Slime.