Food Ya’ll! – or – How Australia Helped Me See My Roots

It was 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday, in Aisle 6 of a Coles grocery store in Brisbane Australia, when it hit me: I am a Southern Woman of a Certain Age. I knew it to be true when these words escaped my lips “What am I going to do?! They don’t have Duke’s mayonnaise!”

Though I had never made pimento cheese myself before, I intrinsically knew what all people raised in the American South know- you cannot make a proper pimento cheese without Duke’s mayonnaise.

Of course- you can’t make it without pimentos, either, and they didn’t have a can of these either. Which didn’t bother me so much, because I’m actually not sure what a pimento even is- a pepper maybe? After seriously considering buying a jar of olives and pulling the little buggers out of the middle, I decided instead to substitute a can of diced red capsicums (which is just Australian for bell peppers).

And then, too, you need cheddar cheese. ORANGE cheddar cheese. All they have here is white cheddar. Evidently, they are above ingesting day-glo food dye here. Whatever.

But I had committed to making pimento cheese for a potluck, and dagum it, I was going to do just that.

After my little moment over the lack of Duke’s, I realised that I would have to buck up and settle for what my Gramma Dee would have called a “make-do.” So, I sifted through too many aiolis (which is just fancy talk for flavoured mayo), “traditional” mayo (which is code for knock-off Miracle Whip) and settled for a little jar of “whole egg” mayonnaise. And now that we all know too much about my mayonnaise dilemma- let’s ignore the sound of my grandmother doing cartwheels in her grave and get to my recipe for Makeshift “Southern” Pimento Cheese.

*Not many photos for this post- as I was too busy cooking. Scroll down to the end to see the scrumptious results!

**in the spirit of my Gramma Dee’s recipe process, the amounts listed here are merely suggestions. Feel free to interpret them however you like:

 

Makeshift “Southern” Pimento Cheese

Ingredients 

  • Two handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese
  • A couple of big spoonfuls of cream cheese
  • A little bit less mayonnaise than cream cheese- but not much less
  • One or two cans of capsicums- depending on how big the cans are
  • A pinch of sweet paprika- more for colour than flavour
  • A dash or two of hot sauce

Instructions

  • Mix it all up together
  • Eat on bread or with some crackers, or just straight with a spoon if you’re me.
  • If you’re feeling frisky, you can make it into a grilled “Kiss Me Not” sandwich with onions and pickles.

After figuring out the pimento cheese situation, I started hankering for other Southern delights. I wanted shrimp and grits (guess what- no grits here!), biscuits and gravy (hey there- none of the white sausage or “sausage” gravy packets I had come to rely on back home), succotash and slaw.

So, I set to figuring out how to make that happen.

 

“Shrimp” and “Grits”

Before I give the recipe I used, I’ll go ahead and dispel this Crocodile Dundee myth of Aussie’s throwing “shrimp on the barbee.” Just like Foster’s is NOT what they drink, shrimp is not what they eat. They have prawns- which is not another word for shrimp, it is in fact a different (though similar) creature. It’s like calling a crawdad a lobster. Not the same.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dried polenta
  • 3 cups water
  • Prawns- enough to make folks happy
  • 1 sweet onion, sliced thin
  • Butter or oil to sauté
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 can stewed tomatoes, with juice
  • Garlic, sliced, to taste (more = better)
  • Juice from 1/2 a lemon
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Thyme
  • Bay leaf
  • Salt & pepper
  • Green onion tops, sliced into thin rings

Instructions

  • Cook polenta according to package instructions- but double the water.
  • Sauté onions and thyme in butter until onions just start to go translucent.
  • Add diced tomato, lemon juice and garlic- cook for a few minutes
  • Add canned, stewed tomatoes, bay leaf, s&p, and cayenne pepper- bring to simmer
  • Add prawns and cook until just barely opaque through center
  • Put a hefty scoopful of runny (read: grits consistency) polenta in/on bowls or plates
  • Top with plenty of prawns and sauce.
  • Sprinkle with green onion rings
  • Add hot sauce to taste
  • Remember to breathe while enjoying the deliciousness

 

 

Succotash

This is the quintessential Southern “vegetable.” The dish has Native origins- and is closely related to the Three Sisters- which is a legend/recipe/crop growing method enjoyed across the Indigenous Americas. You can read more about the Three Sisters and get the recipe through THIS LINK -scroll down to page 49 (which is a shameless piece of promotion for my non-profit Zomppa).

You can really make succotash any kind of way, so long as you have lima beans and corn. I usually add squash or zucchini, as the ingredients combine to provide all the needed nutrients to our bodies. Tomatoes and peppers are good in it, too. And okra- because okra is good in EVERYTHING. For this one, I went simple.

Ingredients

  • Two medium-sized zucchini, sliced into discs
  • One can, or small bag frozen, corn
  • 1 bag frozen lima beans
  • Fajita seasoning (pre-mixed- not sure what’s in it, but it was delicious!)

Instructions

  • Toss zucchini in fajita seasoning and sauté until tender.
  • Throw in corn and lima beans and cook until warm through.
  • Serve hot or cold
  • Preferably with hot sauce.

 

Slaw

I’m not trying to get into any fussin’ about coleslaw here. To alleviate the Great Slaw Debate, I’ll go ahead and say that this isn’t the kind of slaw you’d want on a (*ahem* Eastern style VINEGAR based) pork bbq sandwich. This isn’t that icky-sweet industrial stuff that comes in lidded shot glasses from fast-food joints. This is halfway between mayo and vinegar based slaw. This is a side dish. And it has craisins (dried cranberries), for no other reason than that I like them in it. You can take ‘em or leave ‘em.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 head of cabbage- sliced thin
  • 3-4 carrots- shredded
  • Thin-sliced onion, if you want
  • About a handful of craisins
  • A squirt of mayonnaise
  • Some white vinegar
  • A pinch of sugar
  • Mustard powder, seed, or (in a pinch) a little prepared mustard
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  • Mix cabbage, carrots, onions and craisins together in a container with a lid
  • Put all the rest of the ingredients into a jelly jar and shake like crazy to mix it.
  • Pour sauce over veggies- not too much, not too little.
  • Cover with lid and shake the heck out of the newly-sauced veggies. This will cover them completely and bruise them up a little to optimize taste.
  • Stick it all in the fridge for a while- at least an hour or two- to let flavors mingle. It’s even better if you can let it sit overnight.
  • Eat it and experience deep regret at ever having called coleslaw “cold slop” back in elementary school, ‘cause this stuff is awesome.

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This is the meal we had the other night. With my make-shift “Southern” ingredients. I made biscuits, too, which we ate with the pimento cheese. I’ll get to work on figuring out how to make breakfast gravy and report back after I’ve ruined a few batches.

Today, I will rest easy knowing that I did me “durn best” to honour the recipes of my people back home. Gramma Dee is hollerin’ at me from the beyond about that Duke’s mayonnaise (she would have sent me a jar- express mail!), but I’m sure she would be secretly proud that I even tried to find it. Who knew those micro-lessons would ever take hold?

… and this, my friends, is when you come into your own as a true Southern “belle.”

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Reconnected

Merv showed up right on time. He came through the door with a warm hug and gentle concern for us. He had seen the Facebook post from the day before and shared our relief that the dogs had been taken care of. He asked only if everything was alright now- and I appreciated that he didn’t dig for anything more. My brain was exhausted from the drama.

We had been planning a trip out West- to the Jondaryan Woolshed– and everyone was excited to get on the road. X wanted to see “the bush” that he had heard so much about, and O was eager to see the sheep and other animals at the ranch.

So we set out several hours west to “the other side of the Black Stump,” as they say here.

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To get to Jondaryan (pronounced like the name John Darian not Jondha-rain, as I thought), you first have to cross through Toowoomba, which is on the crest of The Great Dividing Range. We chugged up the mountain, astounded by the surrounding beauty. he terrain was so different, certainly, than that which we see in the city, but also from what we saw on the way down the Gold Coast. The temperature dropped dramatically, and the sky was a much different shade of blue-grey than we had seen. We stopped at the top to take a few photos and enjoy the thin air.

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From Brisbane, it’s about a two hour drive to Jondaryan. If you don’t stop to explore fruit markets and get smoothies, cruise through historic downtown areas that survived massive flooding, and take photos of mountaintops- which, of course, we did.

The woodshed is one of the oldest and largest sheep shearing operations in Australia, if not the world (don’t quote me on that). It was also the ground for many labor conflicts that paved the way for the sheep-shearing unions that contributed to the formation of the Labor party in this country.

But enough history, let’s talk ANIMALS!!!

Our official greeting to Jondaryan came in the form of three Clydesdales. They sauntered up to the fence for snuggles, which thrilled the boys. They had been close to horses before, but none as huge or friendly as these.

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After that we explore the grounds a bit. It appeared that they had had quite a large event the day before to celebrate Easter, and were in the process of cleaning up. The sheep had been moved out to a barn far across the rise to give them a break from people. There were movers rolling tables out of the barn, and pulling down tents from the fields around it. Tents and camper vans dotted the landscape behind. It must have been quite the to-do.

O spotted a sign that read “Animal Nursery” so, naturally, that’s where we had to go next. We were delighted to find that we could go right into the pens and cuddle with the chicks, calfs, and piglets. Geese, turkeys were also nearby, but not as amenable to snuggles.

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Afterward, we went to B’s happy-place. The equipment barn!

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Through the old homesteads and school.

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Crocheted wool food even!

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After seeing those delicious-looking wool sandwiches, we had to get some nosh of our own. We ate, and then took one more swing by the nursery. And captured this adorable pig being… maybe not as cute as we thought.

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On that note, we decided to take our leave. But the road trip adventure was not quite over. Merv took us on a backroads return to the city, allowing us even more spectacular views. I cannot begin to describe, and these pictures do absolutely no justice to, the beauty of this cloudscape. It was stunning and surreal.

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From the fields and valleys that had been washed completely away by flooding a few years back, we ascended back into the mountainous region. Eucalyptus forests and lakes, signs warning us to take heed of wandering koalas, and more clouds- Oh! The clouds!!

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We visited the Wivenhoe Dam, which feeds the Brisbane River. Though there are many thoughts to think here on the impacts of dams on nature (including causing the devastating flooding here in 2011), I chose to focus on the beauty of this place. And it IS beautiful.

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This adventure took us from city to mountain to bush, fields and farms to lakes and forests and back home again. We saw more of the rich range of landscapes and experiences Australia has to offer.

Merv deposited us back on our doorstep tired and happy- reconnected to this place and re-content with the (sometimes very hard) choices we made to get us here.

Thanks, Merv! I hope you read this and know just how very much you have meant to us on our journey here. I cannot imagine it any differently.

Disconnected

I anticipated a wall. My husband and I have moved enough times, gone through enough travel and poverty and loneliness, that we knew to expect a breaking point. We knew it was coming but, maybe because we’ve done it all before, were a bit casual about our periodic malaise.

We only sort-of miss our lives back home. We keep up with friends and family via social media and video chats. We can even make international phone calls with our Optus cell plans here. My mother went through surgery, and I was able to track it and sleep easy knowing that she was fine the whole time. We missed certain things, but not enough to question being here. It was our normal.

But when we got the message that something was wrong with our dogs, we were hit by a wall of helplessness and homesickness that we did not see coming. Without spilling too much detail publicly (it’s still a source of great confusion and pain), I can say that the person we left them with was out of town and there was an incident. A lot was muddled because information was coming through an unreliable roommate to my out-of-town friend then across the world to me. Leave it at the message we heard One of your dogs may be injured, they are locked in a bathroom, everyone there is freaking out. 

Not the message you want to hear at 9am. On a holiday. When you are completely unable to help. Or get clear information/straight answers. And already having left questioning whether this was the best place to leave your beloved pets.

We put out the alert-calls. Please help! Our dogs may be in danger. Can anyone go get them? It would have been around 10pm back home. And our dogs are BIG.  As sweet as they are, it takes a hell of a commitment to welcome 200 pounds of somebody-else’s animals into your home.

Fortunately, I heard back almost immediately from my biological father’s girlfriend. They could take them… but it would take a few days. It didn’t feel like we had that kind of time.

So- while the church near our house played host to happy families in their pastel best, rolling boiled eggs across the lawn- we fretted. We cried (okay, I cried, B kept it together), and regretted coming here, feeling we had abandoned two members of our family to some uncertain darkened bathroom fate back home. Everyone we knew was asleep in North Carolina. Our dogs were frightened and confused and- maybe, as one version of the story went- “covered in blood and possibly injured.” All of this seemed stupid and harmful and pointless.

We just wanted to be there. The shared sentiment was that none of this ever would have happened if we had just stayed home. It has all been too hard. And maybe we don’t belong here after all.

By evening (early morning there), we had found someone to pick them up and give temporary shelter until my family could come get them. It wasn’t until we got word that they had been retrieved, and were on their way to a safe place, that we finally allowed ourselves to fall into bed. The sleep was deep, but not restful.

And the kookaburra outside our window seemed to wake extra early to laugh us awake. I wanted to wring his neck.