Battle of the barbecues: AU vs US

Words by Elizabeth Seychell
Art by Elaine Xuefei Li

If you tried to make a list of ‘quintessentially Aussie things,’ I’d bet you wouldn’t be able to get too far without a mentioning of BBQ.

Yes, the humble Aussie barbie. It defines us as a nation of laid-back, outdoors-loving larrikins, who love nothing more than cracking open a cold one while the snags sizzle away. As much as we love a good barbie, though, we definitely aren’t the only ones in this camp. To find out who really rules the roost in the question of the better barbie, it’s time to compare the two juggernauts of the BBQ world. It’s time, ladies and gentleman, for a classic Aussie VS Yankee showdown, and there can only be one winner in this beefed-up battle…

Let’s quickly look into the history of the barbecue tradition. Given how inherently ‘Australian’ the barbie is considered to be, it’s surprising how relatively recently it was introduced into mainstream culture. The story of the Aussie barbie goes (roughly) as follows: when European settlers arrived in Australia, they quickly realised their indoor English-style ovens weren’t exactly practical for our sweltering climate. So, upon seeing the way Aboriginal communities cooked outdoors using hot coals and earth ovens, they soon got on board with cooking out in the open-air, and alas, the prototype barbie was born. It wasn’t until the 1920s and ‘30s, however, that barbecuing large cuts of meat became popular at public events or social gatherings. Furthermore, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the BBQ was considered part of the ‘Aussie lifestyle’. Thanks largely to publications like the Australian Women’s Weekly, the BBQ was promoted not just as a culinary method, but as a social event that capitalised on our warmer weather and our love for relaxed, outdoor entertaining. Soon enough, chucking a few chops on the hotplate became synonymous with celebration and community – from election-day polling booths to Australia Day barbies in the park, the BBQ became a frequent component of everyday Aussie life.

Comparatively, America’s barbecue history is just slightly more extensive. When Spanish conquistadors came to North America in the fifteenth century, they brought with them a cooking method they had encountered during their Caribbean exploration known as barbacoa. Barbacoa – the style of cooking meat over an indirect flame – became particularly popular amongst the Southern states of North America (especially amongst African-American slaves). Compared to the Aussie style of barbecue, this method’s all about cooking meat low and slow. While we tend to use a hotplate to quickly sizzle our meat before grilling it over a direct flame, American barbecue cooks large cuts of meat, slowly smoked over a pit of wood or charcoal. Similarly to Australian culture, the American BBQ was also a means of catering to large crowds at social functions, and emblematic of a specific national character – you just couldn’t envision any social gathering, church event or Fourth of July celebration without a barbecue going down.

Of course, there are differences regarding what actually gets cooked on each type of barbie. Concerning the Yanks, there’s a notable emphasis on pork – think pulled pork drenched in sauce, pork ribs rubbed in special-spice combos, pork chops, pork sausages. You’ve also got your classic beef brisket, and let’s not even get started on those sides. Due to its historical popularity with African-American slaves, American BBQ is often considered soul-food. Hence, a Yankee BBQ is rarely amiss of cornbread, potato salad, coleslaw, BBQ baked beans, mac-and-cheese… The list is endless and it is WONDERFUL – (seriously, have you tasted fresh, straight-out-of-oven cornbread? If not, taste some and then try telling me that God does not exist).

Not only that, but a Yankee BBQ is incomplete without a multitude of condiments. If you thought there was only one type of BBQ sauce, oh boy, you thought wrong. There’s Carolina Gold sauce (a mustard and vinegar based concoction), Western Carolina BBQ sauce (a tomato and vinegar based condiment), the classic molasses-thick Kansas City BBQ sauce, and even a mayonnaise-and-tomato based White BBQ sauce – and the list only goes on. If there’s one thing to gather from the culinary offerings of an American BBQ, it’s that the Yanks are enthusiastic to say the least.

Of course, that isn’t to say that the Aussie barbie begins and ends with a snag in white bread with tomato sauce – though, keep in mind, even celebrity chef Curtis Stone admits that ‘nothing beats an old-fashioned sausage sizzle’. Sausages, lamb chops, beef steaks – these classics have and always will be a mainstay of Aussie BBQ. Given the multicultural nature of our country, however, a variety of foreign cultural influences can be increasingly witnessed in our current barbecuing practices. Think Greek souvlaki, Portuguese-style flame-grilled chicken, Japanese teppanyaki – you don’t have to look around too far to see foreign barbecuing styles popping up in not only restaurants, but also onto our plates at home.

Combined with the popularity of shows like Masterchef, it seems Australians have a growing palette for the gourmet; Italian pork and fennel sausages, prawns marinated in a South-East Asian nahn jin dressing of coriander, lime and fish sauce; or even Middle Eastern lamb kofte. Yeah, we’ve come a long way since Paul Hogan ‘slipped a shrimp on the barbie,’ haven’t we?

So, who conquers when it comes to campfire cookery? The answer’s murky to say the least, and you can’t deny how integral BBQ is to both American and Australian culture. My final verdict, though? I give my vote – in a totally unbiased, completely objective, wholly unprejudiced manner – to the Aussie barbie. And no, it’s not just because I agree with Curtis Stone and think that a Bunnings snag first thing on a Saturday morning is one of the most marvelous things this country has to offer, but because the BBQ epitomises the most vibrant and diverse aspects of our food culture. Taking from here, taking from there, and synthesising a myriad of cultural influences into something exciting and constantly evolving – that’s the nature of the Aussie BBQ, and bloody oath, you count on me attending.

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