By Amanda Balagur
Despite the wet and windy weather last Thursday evening, a lively crowd attended the third Pépin Lecture of the semester to learn about “Icons of Australian Food Culture: Vegemite, Kangaroo & the Flat White”. Emily Contois, who graduated from the MLA in Gastronomy program at BU in 2013 and is in her third year as a PhD student in American Studies at Brown University, greeted the audience warmly and dove into her topic with enthusiasm.
While she grew up in Montana, Emily’s father is Australian, and she and her sister were born Down Under. So it should come as no surprise that she feels a connection to the food and culture of her homeland. There are quite a few iconic dishes from Australia, including meat pies and desserts like pavlova and lamingtons. However, Emily chose to focus on three slightly polarizing foodstuffs: kangaroo, the flat white and Vegemite.
According to Emily, kangaroo is a lean gamey meat that has been eaten by Australia’s indigenous population for thousands of years. Since it’s considered to be ecologically friendly and nutritious, there has been a recent (and mostly unsuccessful) effort to get more Australians to incorporate it into their diet. However, kangaroo meat is often associated with road kill and pet food (it’s largely exported to Europe as an ingredient for the latter), and the trend has been slow to catch on. But creative marketing, such as 2008’s Taste of Kangaroo/Roocipes campaign, may be making a dent in the Australian market — kangaroo is now more widely available, and sales may be increasing.
While Aussies may be slow to embrace eating kangaroo meat, the same can’t be said for the iconic treat Emily spoke about next. The flat white was described as “Australia’s greatest contribution to global gastronomy” by Australian food history scholar Michael Symons. Stemming from European coffee culture, this popular hot drink is a product of 20th century immigration. It consists of a double shot of espresso and micro-foamed milk, resulting in a coffee drink that’s velvety sweet without the fluffiness of a latte or cappuccino. Traditionally served in a 165ml tulip cup, it’s also enjoyed at a slightly colder temperature than other coffee/milk specialties. From Emily’s point of view, the flat white is uniquely global, created as something new in Australia based on Italian coffee culture. Members of the audience at the lecture who had enjoyed the flat white while visiting Australia agreed it was a truly enjoyable part of their daily ritual while traveling there.
The last featured food of the evening seemed to spark the most interest from the crowd: Vegemite. Developed in 1923 due to the decreased availability of Marmite from England during World War I, Vegemite is made from yeast extract left over from the beer brewing process and is seasoned with salt and vegetable extracts. From the start, it has been promoted as a health food that is “packed with B vitamins”. Emily shared some impressive statistics, including that Vegemite can be found in 80% of Australian kitchens. It’s also rumored to be many Australian babies’ first solid food, and many Australians don’t leave home without it (because, of course, it comes in convenient travel-size tubes). She pointed out the culinary tie to the British Empire and explored marketing campaigns in Australia and the U.S., noting the correlation between the first successful sales of Vegemite in America and the Aussie pop culture wave that occurred here in the 80s.
The evening ended with a Vegemite tasting; each audience member received two Ritz crackers with a thin coating of the inky spread, which garnered some spirited reactions. Overall, it was a fun and informative presentation, and the audience was keen to participate. For more information on Emily’s work in food studies, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @emilycontois.