Throw another banger on the barbie

By Dionne Christian

Just how Kiwi is the barbecue? Dionne Christian looks into the history of cooking outdoors in New Zealand.

In summer the men in a family are - theoretically - on holiday and can assume the cooking duties to give 'Mum' a break. Photo / Thinkstock
In summer the men in a family are - theoretically - on holiday and can assume the cooking duties to give 'Mum' a break. Photo / Thinkstock

Summer is here, which must mean you've pulled the barbecue out of hibernation, cleaned it, fired up the grill or lit the charcoal and invited your mates round to take part in that time-honoured New Zealand tradition of eating burnt or undercooked meat outdoors.

After all, it is a New Zealand tradition, right? Why else would we feel the need to wheel out the barbie for VIP guests if it wasn't an integral part of our heritage? This time last year, Prince William enjoyed a state dinner barbecue with lamb chops, tomato sauce and salads. He was pictured manfully grilling the meat while Prime Minister John Key did the supportive mate thing and stood by, drinking.

It conjures up visions of fellow guests, like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, arriving with supermarket meat packs and the PM's wife, Bronagh, in the kitchen making salads.

In November, the Government House barbecue fired up again - this time for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton got the upmarket menu, possibly a signal that the Government considered we are on our way out of recession.

There were Nelson scallops, whitebait fritters, oysters, crayfish and hapuka, wild boar sausage, paua fritters, venison and liberal helpings of salad, followed by a whole dessert buffet.

One of the country's top chefs, Steve Logan, of Wellington's Logan Brown restaurant, sourced and prepared the dinner and stuck around to answer questions about what was being eaten and where in New Zealand it came from.

There's a fair chance local guests had questions about why food at most backyards barbies is never like this. Great value as they are, Mad Butcher BBQ meat packs don't contain wild boar sausages, venison racks and crayfish.

Still, nothing supposedly says summer like the aroma of barbecuing sausages wafting across neighbourhoods when the warmer weather arrives. We've been enjoying that custom since when exactly?

Not so long actually, according to social and cultural historian Andre Taber, who has a special interest in the country's food traditions.

Taber presented a provocative paper at the New Zealand Food History Society's annual symposium late last year and declared the old-fashioned Kiwi barbecue is not as traditional as we like to believe.

He turned his focus to the culinary import after listening to a lecture by University of Otago Emeritus Professor Helen Leach about New Zealand's food traditions. When asked about barbecues, Leach, one of the country's leading authorities on cuisine and culinary history, simply replied they came from America.

It's true the barbecue is big in North America, home - it's believed, although a matter of debate - of the word itself and the cooking method it denotes. Etymologists believe "barbecue" comes from the word barabicu, used in indigenous languages in Florida and the Caribbean.

Translated, it means sacred fire and appears to have moved into European usage, through Spanish, Portuguese, French and English colonists, as barbacoa. A barbacoa involved digging a hole in the ground and placing meat with a pot underneath it so the juices made a hearty broth. It was then covered with leaves and coal and set alight. It was slow cooking, and remains so in the US, where barbecue aficionados can spend days competing in events like the American Royal Barbecue Contest and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Teams of cooks enter different categories such as best pork, beef or poultry - in parts of Kentucky they prefer mutton - and the all-important best barbecue sauce because, to our American friends, a barbecue isn't worth its salt without a tangy tomato-based sauce.

The sauce preferred varies from region to region. In Kentucky and North Carolina, they like to marinate meat in vinegar-based ketchup sauces, while in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, they prefer sweet tomato-based sauces.

Reflecting on Leach's declaration that the barbecue originated in America, Taber wanted to know more about when, why and how it came to be iconic in New Zealand.

Starting with the Victorian and Edwardian periods, he searched numerous newspapers for historic references to or advertisements for barbecues but found they were rarer than vegans at a sausage sizzle.

Taber then looked to historic recipes books and back issues of the NZ Woman's Weekly and again found scant mention of them.

It wasn't until November, 1958 that the Weekly featured an article on outdoor meals that used the "B" word. The magazine declared summer had always meant picnics to New Zealanders, but now it just as "deliciously" meant barbecue.

"There were several telltale signs that the recipes came directly from America: the use of words like 'hamburger' instead of mince, 'lobster' instead of crayfish and ingredients like 'chilli sauce and seasoning' and 'dill pickle liquid'."

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, barbecue-themed references and recipes remained in short supply. Taber didn't find advertisements for home-grown barbecue-related products in local publications until the early 1970s.

Imported books had arrived from the US before that time featuring articles on barbecue building and garden design, but it seems we were late adapters.

"One of the biggest surprises I got was when I discovered the advertisement for a wheeled trolley barbecue in a Western Leader from 1979. I was amazed how late in the piece they came about."

As he chewed over his findings, it began to make sense that the barbecue - as we know it - was a late development in our culinary culture.

Taber says in colonial New Zealand, the only people who ate outdoors regularly were Maori or "swaggers", transient single men who were viewed with suspicion by the moral majority.

From a purely practical point of view, the cuts of meat most suitable for barbecuing weren't widely available until recent years - nor did most New Zealanders have the type of backyards suitable for entertaining in until the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Its increasing popularity corresponds with leisure activities becoming more focused on the nuclear family and the home.

Not only is summer supposedly more conducive to outdoor cooking, the men in a family are - theoretically - on holiday and can assume the cooking duties to give "Mum" a break.

Barbecuing is seen, as Taber points out, as a leisure activity and an escape from the everyday routine which allows us to break dining rules and lower normal culinary standards.

Even if it doesn't have a lengthy vintage in New Zealand, we have taken it and made it our own. Here barbecuing is frequently regarded as a fast cooking method, where meat, poultry, fish and/or vegetables are grilled directly over high heat from charcoal or gas.

We're not particularly bothered about fussing with marinades and sauces, preferring to throw a steak, a chop or a sausage on and eat it when the cook decides it's ready - and the cook is nearly always male.

But the way we define barbecue cooking creates some issues. Lamb shoulder chops are not a fast-cook cut of meat - they're better suited to slow-cooking in a sauce - yet they're sold as being "ideal for BBQ".

That's true if you're barbecuing them in the American slow-cooking style but not if you're grilling them Kiwi-style. It may explain why tough chops, frequently well-browned, tend to be standard barbecue fare.

"The more research I do into the history of cooking, the less judgmental I get of food," says Taber. "I'm interested in how and why people cook certain foods, but I don't want to deny them the right to eat food they like."

He also believes that while our barbecue equipment and food may have become more sophisticated, we're becoming less generous.

"People seem to arrive at a barbecue these days with their own meat, which is cooked for them and then put on their own plate rather than being shared and everyone trying a bit of everyone else's food."

Just as the barbecue is regarded as iconic, fish and chips is seen as a cornerstone of Kiwi culinary culture.

But some claim fish wasn't widely eaten by Pakeha New Zealanders, especially of British descent, who viewed it as a working class food. Instead, early settlers signalled their upwardly mobile status by eating meat, which was affordable and so readily available you could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It raises a question. If a significant portion of the population shunned fish, how did it become part of a national dish which is it still the takeaway food of choice for many of us?

Archaeologist and food writer Dave Veart, whose book First Catch Your Weka: A Story of New Zealand Cooking was published in 2008, reckons he's stumbled across a tale from the past which shows non-Maori New Zealanders have long been hooked on fish.

In 1890, Rangitoto Island was set aside as a Recreation Reserve. To help fund development, camping sites were leased to the public from 1914 and bach sites from 1919. By 1937, there were 140 baches across three different settlements on Rangitoto and a thriving bach community.

However, that year it was decreed the baches were on public land and leases would be granted only for another 20 years. After that the baches would come down. In the meantime no new baches could be built and existing ones were not to be modified.

In the 1970s and 80s, many were removed until there were only 34 left. By then, appreciation for Auckland's heritage had grown and the baches were seen as an important part of the city's past and a reflection of wider architectural and social history.

The Rangitoto Island Historic Conservation Trust formed to conserve and interpret this heritage.

Through his work as the Department of Conservation's programme manager for historic sites in the Auckland region, Veart learned more about "the bach families" who holidayed on Rangitoto.

He was particularly intrigued about how they fed themselves during hot summer holidays, on an island where there was no general store, no refrigeration, limited food storage and cooking equipment.

Veart says they pretty much lived on fish, which was abundant in the surrounding Hauraki Gulf waters. Fish was supplemented with potatoes, which could be bought in bulk - along with flour and sugar - which were less perishable than many other foodstuffs.

Shellfish and rabbits shot on neighbouring Motuihe Island also featured prominently.

"They basically reverted to hunting and gathering," he explains. "Most days during summer, those holidaying on Rangitoto Island went out and caught fish while those who stayed behind, usually women and children, often went off and foraged for shellfish.

"Shellfish were often regarded as a kind of 'play' food that you gathered and ate at the beach, but during World War II, when meat was rationed, it started turning up more often in cookery books as something you could make a meal out of."

He believes because fish and shellfish are frequently hunted and foraged for, rather than purchased which would show up in consumer studies, it has left gaps in our knowledge about what people actually ate.

Among those who holidayed on Rangitoto, this type of food-gathering behaviour has been documented and can possibly be extended to other areas and eras of New Zealand.

"The thing about fish is that it was often caught rather than purchased and it was a commodity that became part of a gift exchange between friends, neighbours and workmates," Veart says. "A mate concretes your driveway, you pay him with a couple of smoked fish you caught and smoked yourself. I think that sort of gift exchange is something European New Zealanders shared with Maori quite early on in the piece."

Fostering a sense of community was clearly important to our forefathers and mothers, often miles away from their native lands.

In her book Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand, historian Dr Alison Clarke declared the picnic was "undoubtedly" one of the great institutions of 19th century life.

Arranged by organisations as diverse as churches, temperance and friendly societies, recreation groups and even private landholders, picnics were especially popular on public holidays and one-off occasions like Queen Victoria's jubilee.

The people of Arrowtown celebrated the jubilee in 1887 with a community feast, which included a whole roasted bullock, a roasted pig, 40 loaves of bread and 100 weights of plum pudding, washed down by tea served in buckets.

In the days before the 40-hour working week, time for recreation was limited. Clarke says public holidays were treated as an occasion to escape the daily grind and venture forth on an excursion. This usually involved stopping somewhere for a picnic, which makes sense considering families would have to eat and there weren't the fast-food or casual dining options available.

"I guess there weren't a lot of other organised activities on offer, so going out for a picnic was something to do," says Clarke. "Picnics were very important in terms of building a sense of community. Everyone from the smallest child to the oldest person would be there. There would be games and competitions, things like baby shows. There are hundreds of photographs of picnickers and we can see how important they were by the way people dressed. You'd put on your best clothes [for the occasion]. We look at these images today and think our unsuitably dressed they are for a day in the bush or by a beach."

Clarke also makes another observation from looking at those black and white snapshots of pioneer life. "There were a lot of bottles, so I think there was probably a lot of drinking."

Whether it's a barbecue, a picnic or fishing with a mate and then giving part of your catch to someone else, there's sameness in what this says about us as a nation and people.

As Taber points out, set themes emerge: we're laid-back, with easy-going personalities and lifestyles. We value community, family, tradition and the natural environment but we're also independent with a strong survival instinct.

Maybe that's why VIPs are increasingly treated to barbecues at Government House - because that supposedly relaxed way of cooking and eating mirrors the image we like to project to the rest of the world.

- NZ Herald

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