Whenever I visit Australia I’ll usually return to the US from Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport. It’s become a convenient tradition to spend the night before leaving at the PARKROYAL Melbourne Airport. Sometime during the late afternoon of the day before leaving, and after checking in, I’ll flop into one of the Bar Airo Lounge’s chairs overlooking the terminal to watch the procession of arriving and departing traffic and indulge myself in a few ice colds. If the truth be told, savouring a pot or two of Melbourne Bitter is a pleasing way to empty the pockets of left over Australian dollars. When twilight starts to steal the daylight, and the airport buses and taxis and bustling travellers become silhouettes, I’ll take a squizz at a copy of the Herald Sun that’s laying around on one of the tables. I hurry through the news and the other sections to get to the sports. If it’s summertime Down Under it’s the last chance I’ll get to soak up the latest cricket news.
As a youngster, I never really had a passion for cricket, but like most young boys, when Australia was playing a Test Series in England I was glued to the wireless at night. I’d put myself to sleep on those cold winter Melbourne nights listening to the ABC’s erudite, and snobbish descriptions of play at Old Trafford and The Oval. The wireless was turned down low, or maybe it was low because I had the bed’s thick woollen blankets pulled up over my ears. Growing up I played tippity run and street cricket. When we played cricket in our street the electricity pole was the wicket and the gutter was the crease; the bowler bowled from the opposite side of the street. We played with a tennis ball. You were out if you hit up a catch, if the ball hit the pole, or if you hit the ball on the full over a neighbour’s front fence. The electricity pole wicket was a couple of houses down from the Tillerson’s. If we were playing cricket on a nice warm day Mrs Tillerson would wheel John out of their front gate on his flat wooden cart and onto the footpath so he could look out onto the street; he’d watch our game with his rigid legs stretched out along the length of his wooden cart. John had polio and his legs were in iron braces. We called him tin legs Tillerson; but not to his face.
The last time I was in the Airo Lounge I never made it to the cricket news in the Sports Section because I was stopped dead in my tracks by the headline “Arnott’s announces two VERY Australian new Shapes flavours for summer”. With a beside myself look and still clutching the Sun, I turned toward the bar, raised two fingers, and pointed to my empty pot of Melbourne Bitter. I reread the newspaper headline word by word a second time, and a third time, and then started on the article.
After the overwhelming response that Arnott’s got for their Shapes VEGEMITE and Cheese last year they’re now launching Sausage Sizzle Shapes and Meat Pie Shapes in mid-December; the Shapes will be shaped like the Australian continent and there’ll be Tasmania shaped biscuits in every box.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always loved meat pies; what’s not to love about a plain and simple pastry shell filled with a mixture of gravy and chunks of meat. My love affair with meat pies started when I was in First Form at Williamstown Tech and mum volunteered to be a canteen lunch lady. On the days she was on canteen duty she’d sometimes give us lunch money to buy our lunch; It was mum’s special treat. And that meant a pie and sauce for lunch. Sometimes I could control my longing for a meat pie and sauce and would order a salad roll. I found that denying my urge for a pie caused me to conjure up colourful abstractions of warm succulent meat swimming in rich gravy and tomato sauce.
Once in a while during the school holidays mum would give us money to buy a pie and malted milk from Mrs Worms in Melbourne Road. Mrs Worm’s Milk Bar had a flywire screen door instead of a plastic strip curtain and she sold Adams Pies. I loved Adams Pies more than a Four N Twenty. You’d start eating your pie in the shop because you had to drink your malted milk inside; the cups the malted milk were made in were metal and Mrs Worm wouldn’t let you take them outside. Choosing a malted milk flavouring was as hard as choosing the lollies for a sixpence mixed lolly bag; after an agonising ten minutes I always narrowed my flavour down to either chocolate, spearmint, banana, or blue heaven.
The meat pie is affectionately known as a rat’s coffin, a maggot bag, or a dog’s eye, and tomato sauce as dead horse; so to most Australians a meat pie with sauce is a dog’s eye and dead horse. The train you took from Newport into town went past the Four N Twenty pie factory after it left Footscray and crossed the Maribyrnong River. Back when Kensington and Flemington were the home of Melbourne’s slaughtering houses, soap and candle makers, and bone manure and glue factories. The factories used the Maribyrnong River as a drain. I never thought much about it at the time but it was ironic the pie factory was just past the South Kensington railway station. The stench from the still remaining slaughtering and rendering houses, and the smells from the tainted river blanketed the area and the Four N Twenty factory.
The rancid choking stench was especially bad during summer. At Footscray station passengers started preparing for what was coming by closing all of the carriage’s windows and doors; we all crossed our fingers the train was express to North Melbourne and wasn’t stopping at South Kensington. The South Kensington pie factory has stopped baking it’s 50,000 pies an hour. Four N Twenty was sold back to an Australian company and now the Four N Twenty baking is happening in the fresh country air at the bucolic country town of Bairnsdale.
The music, pop culture, and social changes of Youthquake caused my love affair with the meat pie to wane. I plunged into the traditional Aussie hallowed right of passage; a working holiday in England and wandering Europe, and meandered through the Middle East along the ill-defined Hippie Trail. Each unknown path I travelled down was a journey without the comfort and enjoyment of a meat pie. Next off, I explored South East Asia, Burma, Nepal, and India in the never-ending search for inspiration and idealism in the ordinary.
When I returned to Melbourne after my last crusade I longed for the contentment and an understanding of life’s obscurity; I retreated back to the comfort of my roots. I decided to once again eat meat pies, and stand in the outer on a Saturday winter afternoon with the proud brotherhood of football followers. I’d be surrounded by the smell of meat pies and tomato sauce, and cigarette smoke and beer. I’d have a Four N Twenty in one hand, a beer in the other, and be balancing on tiptoe between busted beer bottles and puddles of vomit. I’d savour the rich subtle gravy of a Four N Twenty that’d be hot enough to burn the roof of my mouth or on the cold side of warm. I’d be licking pie spillage from my fingers or letting it fall into the sludge of vomit, urine, and beer I was tip-toeing in. My love affair with the meat pie would be rekindled.
The last couple of times I’ve been in Australia the societal and cultural changes are confusing my nostalgic memories and understanding of my childhood, and early adulthood. Not only is it nearly impossible to find a Milk Bar, but it’s becoming difficult to find a good old Four N Twenty. It seems every pie warmer in a cake shop or bakery is stuffed with gourmet pies; you’re forced to scavenger through Scallop and Saffron, Steak and Cheese, Caramelised Pork and Pepper, Chicken and Asparagus, and Thai Green Curry Chicken pies to find a plain meat pie. Mrs Worm must be turning in her grave. It’s heartening to see that the classic Aussie combination of a pie and pea soup hasn’t been messed with. The pie floater is a flaky pastry beef pie, heavy with gravy, turned upside down into a bowl of thick green pea soup. Floaters are usually eaten with plenty of tomato sauce; but some floater aficionados add mint sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or malt vinegar. It’s worth spending a few days in Adelaide eating floaters at the Bakery on O’Connell.
There’s been a couple of attempts to combine the traditional meat pie with some of Australia’s favourite food. Not all that long ago Pizza Hut Australia introduced a pizza and meat pie combo; their Four N Twenty Stuffed Crust Pizza included tomato sauce and came with eight delicious parry size Four N Twenty’s stuffed into the crust. Also, Wonderpop & Deli, a Melbourne destination pie shop sells a pie burger. Scottish born chef Ray Capaldi calls his pie burger a Tradie Slammer; it’s a mincemeat pie covered in caramelised onion jam sandwiched in a brioche bun. Ray credits his Slammer to the days he was in London and didn’t have much money. He says he’d buy a bread roll, put a pie in it and eat it like that. If I was still searching for inspiration and idealism in the ordinary these two meat pie xanadus would have been the age of my enlightenment.
And now you’ll need to excuse me. I need to start planning for the outdoor Aussie themed afternoon soiree I’ll be hosting in a few weeks. My thought is to have a seven-course Australian meal for each guest; a six-pack of Melbourne Bitter and a pie with sauce. I wonder if Arnott’s have any plans to release Melbourne Bitter flavoured Shapes in the near future; they’d be perfect for my soiree and the footy.