On Vegemite — Skinny Girls Roadshow LIVE from Australia

Certain foods I associate with songs. Consider, for example, the Supertramp song, “Breakfast in America,” and specifically the line: “Could we have kippers for breakfast, Mummy dear, Mummy dear?”

If ever I see or hear the word, “kippers,” I begin singing Breakfast in America.

A similar association exists for the Australian staple, Vegemite.

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Vegemite toast

Colin Hay, lead singer of the famous 1980s Australian band, Men At Work, lives a few houses down from me. If you remember their music — which was inescapable back then — you’ll appreciate this joke:  I imagine walking down to his house in the middle of the night in my pajamas, banging on the door, and when he opens, singing, “I can’t get to sleep!…” (reference: the opening line of their hit song, “Overkill.”)

Anyway, their most famous song is, of course, “Down Under,” with it’s unforgettable chorus, “I come from a land Down Under…” My very first exposure to the idea of Vegemite was a line from this song: “I said do you speak my language? He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich…”

Which, over the course of the ensuing three decades, left me wondering: “What the heck is Vegemite!?”

At the IGA on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia, I purchased a jar. The kids watched like some science experiment was unfolding as I opened it. The stuff inside was blacker than night, thicker than clay. I scraped off a thin bit with a knife and tasted it. The kids gaped, eyes wide and mouths hanging open. I may have winced; it was intense.

“What does it taste like?” one of the asked.

“Sort of a cross between molasses and beef bouillon.” They cringed.

I then went about doing a bit of research to figure out what on earth the Aussies do with this beloved ingredient. Colin Hay’s Vegemite sandwich?? It seemed one of the most common applications was Vegemite toast for breakfast — toasted, buttered bread spread with a small amount of Vegemite. Here was the key — “small amount”. I tried it. And I began to understand. This, the savory umami spread mixing with the rich butter, was tasty! Soon it became my Australia morning staple.

“Are you gonna have some Vegemite?” Immy would ask as I strolled toward the kitchen in the morning.

“I sure am, honey.”

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Then, inspiration struck one evening in the Eastern Shore town of Urunga, five hours north of Sydney. I had purchased a beautiful Australian tomahawk rib steak to “throw on the barbie” of our riverfront house. I was browsing through the sparse pantry at our Airbnb when I spotted it — my jar of Vegemite. I smashed some garlic and salt on a cutting board, then folded in a heaping tablespoon of Vegemite along with some olive oil. I spread the mixture on the steak, let it sit for an hour, then grilled it. It was truly one of the best steaks ever. Garlic, olive oil and salt, of course — but the Vegemite provided a welcome blast of flavor enhancement and caramel/molasses notes.

“What’s it made of?” my mom inquired when I emailed her about my Vegemite endeavors.

“I’m not sure. It says ‘vegetable protein’.”

I didn’t want to delve too deeply into the particulars. I liked a bit of mystery to my Vegemite — the stuff of blacks the black of deep space, and smiling strangers in Brussels handing me sandwiches.

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Meat Pies, Brewpubs, Bay Bugs & Other Exotica — Skinny Girls Roadshow LIVE from Australia

“Be sure to eat plenty of meat pies,” said pal Jon as we prepared to depart for three weeks in Australia.

Throughout my life, I’ve had people trying to convince me to enter into some sort of food enterprise with them. Jon is one of those people. Married to a New Zealander whose family he was compelled to visit, he developed a taste for savory hand pies and thought it was a can’t-miss opportunity for a business in California. I was more skeptical. Lately Jon’s business concept has moved on to tacos, but that’s a subject for another post…

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Australian Rice Krispies

Back to the meat pies. Arriving in Sydney a day or two before the winter solstice, we checked into our cool Airbnb terrace house in Darlinghurst, a few blocks from the Central Business District (CBD). One of our first destinations was not the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge, but the IGA grocery store. Here, along with milk, Rice Bubbles (the Australian version of Rice Krispies), fruit, etc., I purchased a meat pie — chicken curry, to be specific.

We heated the pie up for breakfast the following morning. It was quite tasty, the crusty flaky and light, almost puff pastryish. All in all good, although perhaps not the stuff of lucrative American franchise.

I had done my research. I was looking forward to a joint called Hayden’s Pies on the coastal road to Melbourne a week later. I Instagram messaged them ahead to find out what kind of pie-of-the-day they would have ready for us when we rolled through. I guess they were busy, as I did not receive a reply.

My childhood pal from Topanga, Geoff, moved to Sydney a couple decades ago and was looking forward to my arrival. We had a nice lunch together, him and me and my family, our first day in the city, and made plans to have him and his mother to dinner at our place later in the week. In between, he wanted to take me for a microbrewpub crawl in his neighborhood in Newtown.

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Geoff & I brewpubbing

Still jet lagged, I reluctantly set out in an Uber on a drizzly Saturday night to meet Geoff at Batch Brewing Company. We opted for the six-beer sampler which included several strange flavors (spicy chili and cherry vanilla) that were well executed and enjoyable. Two more joints followed which blend together in my mind and I’m not sure which was which — the beer was fine and I was more focused on catching up with my friend.

Nearing the end of the crawl, we wound up at a record-store-by-day, whisky-bar-by-night, where Geoff ordered us two house-distilled whiskies and two Norwegian lactose beers. “This is a great combo to end the night.” He was right, the lactose beer delicious and unlike anything I’d had. I peeled off the label in the hopes I might find it back home, while making jokes that I was definitely not lactose-intolerant.

Nearing midnight, we found ourselves in a large private club bar watching a distinctly Australian punk pop band playing some pretty darn good music. I yawned deeply while talking briefly with a beautiful Quebecois musicologist (punk rock specialist) and then decided it was time to Uber home, as Geoff was chatting up various women and seemed to be just getting going.

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Yellowtail at Baccomatto

The next day, I got another meat pie from the IGA — a “tradie” of beef, bacon and cheese. My wife disliked the “gloppy” texture of the sauce, my kids recoiled from the boingy mystery meat. I ate most of it myself, and it was decent, though again definitely not the stuff of the American franchise of your (Jon’s) dreams.

One-day-away-from-9-year-old daughter Imogen was eager to wear her high heel shoes and special dress for a “fancy dinner”. A bit of internet research later and I had found Baccomatto, a stylish Italian eatery a few blocks from our Airbnb. As we approached the restaurant just as it opened, we helped Immy out of her Patagonia (it’s winter here, remember) and into her dress and high heels, and sat for a meal. The food was delicious and gorgeous — my main course of yellowtail tuna with Roman artichokes and squid ink sauce sublime — and they graciously made ziti and meatballs for the kids.

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Imogen approves of Baccomatto

The next day, Geoff texted: “I’m at the fish market. Anything you want or need?”

I had heard about “bugs” — not the kind I ate in Oaxaca, but a crustacean member of the shrimp family unique to the waters of this part of Australia. As eager as my kids were to see kangaroos and koalas, I was to put some unusual seafood onto the plate. Our last night in Sydney before we hit the coastal road south toward Melbourne, Geoff and his mom came for dinner, bearing Balmain bugs. Perhaps the strangest crustacean I’ve ever seen — what appears to be a giant tail is actually its face.

I tossed the snow white meat with butter and a squeeze of lemon, and was not disappointed. It was somewhere between lobster and scampi, and I was able to check off another box on my world’s most unusual crustaceans list.

The next day, we hopped in the mini van early — me driving “on the wrong side and upside down,” as my pal Dr. Lindsay Sharp forewarned me. Ahead: the great coastal road south, supper at Dr. Sharp’s house in the eucalyptus rainforest, Hayden’s famous pies and the great (we were assured by Melbourners) food and coffee mecca of Melbourne.

Tacos on the Mesa

My children have all attended our local community school — Flynn, now 15, is in high school, his sister Willa, 13, is in middle school, and Imogen — the youngest at 8 — is our last kid at Topanga Elementary.

Vaquero Colgin on the Mesa

Each year, there is a fundraiser to raise money for the school, in the form of an event/dinner/auction. In the past, themes have included “1970s (roller girls and disco),” “1980s (hairspray, lots of pink and purple),” with live bands to match, “Totally Topanga” in which you were supposed to dress up in hippy garb, I suppose. One event was held at a spectacular mountain-top midcentury modern with views of city, ocean and islands, and Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes performing; another particularly unsuccessful version was held in a Marriott ballroom near the airport.

I provided food for two of these events — the decades ones, in fact — turning out pizzas and cowboy ribeyes from a wood-fired outdoor oven at the 70s event, and fancy small plate courses for the 80s. This year, after a decade being asked and politely declining, I finally joined our school’s version of the PTA. And was promptly asked to produce the entire event.

 

Don Schneider at the Santa Maria grill

Having attended nearly a dozen such fundraisers in the past, I was able to consider what I liked and didn’t like about previous events, and what I might do we’re I the one in charge (which I now was). One thing I didn’t so much enjoy about the past events was what often felt to me like rigid scheduling by a Type A event producer — cocktails at 5:45, dinner at 6:15, live auction at 7, dessert at 8… etc. At the prior events where I had cooked, I could tell I was causing great anxiety with my general indifference to schedules. (“I’m not serving dinner yet, it’s not done!”)

I’m decidedly Type B. And I host pretty good parties. So I simply decided to throw a great party. The date was already set at May 4. A day before Cinco de Mayo. And so we would jump the holiday and do Quatro de Mayo. I had a theme!

Our event would take place on a wild and remote plateau in the canyon called “The Mesa,” where my friends Sue and Martin have a ranch where we had once done a very successful pop-up restaurant fundraiser.

The very first, most important thing to do was to find and hire a good mariachi band. I called some an amigo, was directed to one band but they were busy. So a whole lot of internet research later, I hired Mariachi Mexico de Sylmar. They looked great in photos in their matching mariachi garb, the band’s leader was named, “Nacho.” I was hopeful.

Next was to secure a Santa Maria grill belonging to a Topanga old timer, and plan my menu. In terms of people pleasing, there are few certainties in life as solid as the taco. For two days prior to the event, I drove around the San Fernando Valley with the school credit card, made salsas, slow roasted a cochinita pibil, delivered several large briskets to my pal, Desmond, a Texan with a nimble finger at the smoker. The food gods were smiling and the stars were aligning.

When hosting, as opposed to simply cooking, there are many things to consider besides tortillas and salsas. Toilets, for example. How to get the deluxe VIP restroom trailer I rented up the twisty road and onto the uneven event site. What to do when it is delivered to the wrong part of the event site. (Because we didn’t want our toilets right in the middle of the dining and auction area.) How to get lights to the event. How to get WiFi so we could check people in and swipe their credit cards. What to do when your friend who has graciously donated her ranch decides she doesn’t want drunk people driving back down that twisty road and so you must figure out another way to get your guests there. Now I’m an artist, mind you — this is not my comfort zone. But it was good to stretch my logistics muscle and realize that I was capable when pressed into duty.

I assembled my A-team of helpers — including pal Katy, my don’t-drink-too-much-while-you-cook minder, who’s daughter Lucy produced a lovely assembly of Mexican sweets for dessert. (A portion of the meal I usually don’t devote too much thought to.) A mountain of mesquite set ablaze promised good things to come.

It was a perfect evening on the Mesa — a Western sun warming the sandstone and sage as it settled toward the ridge, the horse stables and dusty corral area where we held the event decorated with piñatas, papel picado and hay bales covered in colorful Mexican blankets. Trumpets and violins set a decidedly festive atmosphere as Nacho and his band of eight struck up the nostalgic sound of mariachi, and the first shuttles began delivering guests

Behind the grill, we poured ourselves some Pacifico from the keg, sipped a little mezcal and got to work. And the tacos? Even after Katy accidentally spilled two thirds of my key salsa, the results did not disappoint. Desmond’s brisket never fails to elicit lustful sighs — and there was some talk of taking the Colgin-and-Burrows taco show on the road. Crispy tlayudas, a specialty of Oaxaca slathered with lard and black beans, was another hit.

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The evening’s reviews were extremely positive — the venue was enchanting, the band fantastic and the food unforgettable. How about the hosting? Well, I suppose if you do your job correctly, people don’t even notice the hosting…

MSG = Monosodium, Good Mate!

I was at a pizza & wine cookoff recently — me with a few bottles of my family wine versus my pal Craig, with his family wines, making pizzas in the wood-burning oven of my friend and Craig’s brother-in-law, Chris. Basically, dads showing off for their and their friends’ wives.

Somehow we got on the subject of foods-that-used-to-be-taboo-that-have-been-redeemed — perhaps we were talking about eggs from each of our backyard chickens. Maybe it was butter, I can’t remember. I said aloud, “They’ve even determined that MSG is harmless.” Chris looked surprised. “Really??” However, his mother-in-law — his wife Mary’s mom — who had also joined us, looked aghast.

“Oh no!” she said, “MSG is terrible. It gives me headaches and irregular heartbeat and flushed skin!!”

I didn’t follow up.

A few weeks ago, I was cooking a test dinner of a sample menu for a briefly-mentioned-in-my-last-post-restaurant-possibility with some shall-not-yet-be-mentioned celebrity dinner guests who would be involved. My potential-restaurant-partner quizzed the guests about what their favorite kind of chicken was, and one of them replied, “KFC.”

Now I will pause here briefly to say that anyone who has ever told you they don’t like KFC is lying to you. It is @#$%ING delicious. Why? Well, there are those 11 secret herbs and spices. There is also the pressure frying which keeps the meat tender and thoroughly cooked without overcooking the crust. But there is also a fair helping of MSG.

My MSG

The bad rap MSG got from the beginning was largely bogus. It’s simply a protein isolate attached to a sodium molecule. The bad rap also dates to the 1960s, when people reported experiencing strange symptoms after eating Chinese American food. In a famous article exploring “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” the author proposed a number of possible suspects — huge quantities of sodium, equally heroic amounts of oil… or, a heretofore unknown substance called monosodium glutamate. It was the latter that captured the public imagination — especially after some well-meaning scientists injected pregnant mice with 30,000x the amount of MSG any human could possibly consume and discovered problems in the resulting offspring.

If you are afraid of MSG, consider that you likely consume half a gram of the stuff daily in the foods you eat. That’s not counting naturally occurring MSG, which is chemically the same as the additive, and found in foods from mushrooms to cheese to fish.

I wanted my guests to really like the chicken. So I purchased a bag of MSG.

I was a little ashamed as I brought my contraband to the check-out line. But then I remembered I was at the Japanese market, and the Japanese still dig MSG. They were the ones who brought it to the world! Anyway, in terms of my meal, it would not be the main component of the dishes I was making; rather, it would merely enhance the flavors of garlic, salt, sugar, pepper, spices and so forth. I used a very small pinch in my spice mixture, a bit in my brines, etc. How was it? Delicious — and a bit better than it would’ve been without. My celebrity guests were on board 100%.

And I am now onboard too. With MSG.

Don’t shame me, well-intentioned food extremist. I realize yours is a small, flavorless world in which your self-righteous indignity to my defense of the world’s most hated food additive will provide you a temporary sense of purpose. I give you that. With a side of kale.

Just give me a KFC thigh and wing, please. And some kung pao chicken on the side.

Pretentious Plating and Other Random Thoughts

I had meant to do my periodic sort-of annual “Trends for the New Year” post for 2019, but all of a sudden it’s late March.

What happened to February? How is it one day we are hugging and ringing in the New Year, and then suddenly the year is a quarter over?

I haven’t been blogging as much as I used to. I’ve been quite busy with potential movie projects, potential restaurant projects… and paintings sets for my daughter’s elementary school musical.

I’ve also been spending more time on my @skinnygirlsandmayo Instagram account, where I have a bazillion followers and advertisers pay me untold figures to endorse their products as a social media influencer. (Actually, I don’t really have that many followers, and sometimes I worry that advertisers will actually charge me for doing whatever the opposite is of appealing to their all-important 18-34 demographic). It’s fun to just post photos and not have to write anything about them. But then, since I am technically a “writer,” after awhile I miss writing and so return to my blog.

I follow a hashtag on Instagram called “Art of Plating,” that features chefs, foodies and restaurateurs posting shots of beautifully photographed plates of food. Examples:

This was something I could enjoy looking at! So I followed it for a couple months, and then realized that all the photos kind of looked the same. There were lots of flowers and microgreens, nasturtium leaves, creatively smeared or dotted sauces, ingredients cubed and brunoised, food all pushed to one side of the plate… Everybody is doing beautiful food now!

Sometimes I do beautiful food. I do admit that. (And then usually have to go out on the back property afterward to chop some wood.) But all this Instagram “Art of Plating” was beginning to feel a little precious and pretentious. So I decided to have a little fun with #artofplating.

My first submission was “toaster hash brown with ketchup”:

The response was positive.

Whether people were picking up on the joke, or perhaps overly serious foodies were saying to one another, “Look at what he manages to do with a simple hash brown!” I do not know.

This was followed a couple weeks later by my next beautiful food shot, “fish nuggets with tartar sauce and parsley”:

I had something here.

Perhaps I could do something with Pop Tarts. Then, of course, there was Hamburger Helper.

In the interest of full transparency, I may have been subconsciously inspired by a photo my pal Jon sent me many years ago of his dinner — mac n’ cheese with chicken nuggets randomly dropped onto the shiny plasticine surface.

I often wonder where the food world can possibly go next, especially now when everyone is doing beautiful food. What is the next trend — ugly food? And while they may be beautiful, it is fair to ask — how many people really enjoy eating flowers??

 

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