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into the Australian way of life. : DATELINE AUSTRALIA

Don't Digest Ingredients List

September 23, 2000|MIKE PENNER

What the hot dog is to Americana, the meat pie is to Australian pop and peptic culture. Both are national icons, both are staples at sporting-event concession stands, both have ingredient lists most consumers assume are better left unread.

Australia's obsession with the pies goes back to the mid-1800s. Englishman Marcus Clarke, visiting Melbourne in 1869, wrote about the pie stands on Bourke Street, where, Clarke reported, a pie vendor would poke a hole in the crust with his forefinger and pour a mixture of water and salt inside for extra seasoning.

Intrigued as he watched the process, Clarke asked a customer about the rather suspicious-looking contents beneath the crust.

Relax, the local told Clarke, "Mutton's cheaper than cat."

Today, the salt and water are already a part of the mix, with tomato sauce--we call it ketchup--the additive of choice. First-timers tend to splash the ketchup all over the upper crust, often splattering their Sydney 2000 souvenir T-shirts. Gristled veterans advise taking an introductory bite, then squeezing the sauce directly into the pie.

Adelaide pie eaters are renowned for preferring pea soup with their steak pastries. They float their pies in bowls of pea soup and call them, of course, "floaters."

Aussies consume about 260 million meat pies every year, with the chopped-steak version accounting for 62% of the sales. Next in popularity are steak and onion, steak and kidney, steak and potato and steak and mushroom--with chicken bringing up the rear at 2%.

Times colleague Grahame L. Jones, who grew up eating meat pies in England and has put a serious dent in the Melbourne pie population during the Olympic soccer competition, claims "meat pies are the foundation stones of the empire. Meaning steak and kidney pies are probably the kidney stones of the empire."

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