"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Have you ever eaten roo? Not many Australians have either, but we Aussies
do insist on serving it in any restaurant we open overseas. You can try it
with salad in downtown Manhattan at the newly opened Eight Mile Creek,
recently praised by the New York Times for its fabulous food and restrained
decor. Or you can order it from the joey menu at the Outback
Steakhouse in the form of a “Grilled Cheese-A-Roo” or the inexplicably
hyphenless, “Mac A Roo ‘N Cheese.” To compare the two restaurants is also to
compare different conceptions of Australia, from the sophisticated to the
crass, from the real to the fake. The carefully prepared culinary
exotica at Eight Mile Creek is without doubt worth the trip, but is it
really any more Australian than the American food with funny names at the Outback Steakhouse?
National identity and authenticity are deeply complicated issues.
Discovering that schism between who we are when we are at home and who we are when we are away can come as a shock. Uniting the two and working out what it means to represent a nation, an ethnicity and a family can be a
desperately confusing task, sometimes as painful as it is exciting. And
measuring the reactions of others who see us as the bearers of strange food
and diphthongs — seeing ourselves through their eyes — is an important part
of grappling with this issue. Unless, of course, you are just
in it for the money, which — if you are the Outback Steakhouse — means that you take the issue and cheerfully wad it into a tiny little ball before shoving
it as far up a roo’s bum as it can go. That’s right, right up its arse.
Before I discuss the real thing at Eight Mile Creek and whether it really is
the real thing, before I explain the inauthenticity of the Outback
Steakhouse’s “kookaburra wings,” “prime minister’s prime rib” and
“walkabout soup,” I am obliged to point out that if anyone tried to serve a
dessert called “chocolate thunder from down under” in Australia, the very
planet itself would tilt as my nation stood in one frenzied rush to milk the
dessert name for all of the scatological jokes that it invites.
Invites? Gets down on its chocolatey knees and pleads. Color, sound, lame
metaphors for your bum — it has everything, but it is not even remotely
Syllabic exotica temporarily aside, what does a roo actually taste like and
what is the etiquette for eating an animal that stands proudly on your
national crest? Well, it tastes great. It is rich, dense and chewy, but as
served in the seared kangaroo salad at Eight Mile Creek, it somehow manages to be tender, too. The marinated vegetables (zingy peppers and cucumber)
and the mint leaf, crisp shallots and lettuce provide the perfect
counterpoint to the meat. Light and bursting with moisture, they prevent
the appetizer from being too heavy. You eat the salad Asian-style, rolling
up the roo and the vegetables in the lettuce leaf and eating the roll with
your hands. The other animal on Australia’s crest is the emu; it is served
as an emu carpaccio at Eight Mile Creek. The translucent red slice of emu
that sticks to the plate appears at first to be a jelly, but closer
inspection reveals the wide grain of the meat. If the roo is rich, the emu
is much more so. The carpaccio is an intense and delicious experience. As
with the salad, crisp vegetables and a black truffle vinaigrette provide
lighter moments so that the taste is full but not overwhelming.
While a bald eagle starter would almost certainly provoke a few letter bombs,
it seems that we Australians have fewer misgivings about eating the animals
from our currency than do Americans. We love the kangaroo no less for
eating it: It is a symbol that inspires affection and awe, but we are also
intensely proud of its uniqueness, and this pride is easily extendable to
its unique taste. Emus, on the other hand, are crabby, pecking, dangerous
buggers, and no one would really think twice about cooking one up for
dinner. But of course, we don’t. These national emblems are national
dishes only in the sense that no one else can serve them up and claim them
as indigenous. Most Australians do not eat them on a regular basis, and
many Australians today have never tried them. For tens of thousand of
years, these animals were game for the continent’s indigenous people, but
they are only beginning to gain popularity as exotic meats in urban
Lamb, on the other hand, is what your Mum put in the oven on Sunday morning.
As it slowly roasted over the day, it sent out Looney Tunes fingers that
beckoned you to the oven door and drove you mad with desire. The lamb shank
at Eight Mile Creek is so tender it practically falls off the bone. It is
succulent and juicy and the serving is large, almost as good as Mum makes.
Examples of other genuinely Australian fare offered at the restaurant are
the yabbies in the yabby bisque — even city dwellers know how to catch
relatives of these little freshwater crustaceans in the local creek or park
pond — and the pavlova. If you were lucky as a child, pavlova (“pav”) is
what Mum used to serve after the lamb roast on special occasions.
Allegedly named for the famous ballerina, a pavlova is a meringue, brittle on the
outside, sticky on the inside and served with varying combinations of cream
and fresh fruit. At Eight Mile Creek, it is served with passion fruit
cream; it is classic birthday fare.
So what does it mean when you live as an expatriate and the food you grew up
eating has suddenly become the cuisine de jour? I feel a distinct pride,
and in many ways I feel personally responsible for
this boom. Sure, the most I can take credit for is eating, but this
particular incarnation of Australian food is my personal Australia, it’s my
“real thing.” I feel, therefore, that a little thanks from the United States wouldn’t go astray. I also am very proud of and would
like to be thanked for vegemite, for koalas and for Dame Edna Everage. I
have a powerful urge to invite everyone I know in the U.S. back to my Mum’s
in Melbourne for a Sunday roast (note to self: Call Mum tonight).
Little bubbles of hysteria surge inside when I witness people paying $30
for the solid Aussie fare I grew up eating.
Of course the commodification of one’s cultural heritage, even if it is
genuine, leaves as much out as it includes. A good friend who grew up a
Catholic Italian Aussie would identify her default Australian meal as
lasagna. And other friends — Greeks, Vietnamese, Chinese and New Zealanders
– also have their different default dishes. So, along with the pride and the
unjustifiable sense of accomplishment comes an irritation at the
simplifications and inaccuracies that occur. But this is not an entirely
bad thing. Years ago, the last time my Mum tried to serve sheep’s brains for
dinner, I faked a dramatic bout of flu and spent dinnertime lying, grateful,
on the couch while my siblings groaned through their meal. Even though the
American economy is booming right now, it would without doubt stagger
horribly in the wake of an invitation to share in this Aussie experience.
Much better to stick to roasts and seafood.
Fortunately, the diversity of seafood on offer at Eight Mile Creek and the
ingenuity of its presentation also parallel the experience that most
Australians have eating out or at home. And all of this is made more
exciting by the extensive antipodean offerings on the wine list. Eight Mile
Creek is small (smoking downstairs, non-smoking upstairs), and seating will
be tight on busy nights. That’s OK, the friendliness of the waiters and
the owners as they prowl through the evening guarantee a relaxed and happy
I have to admit that when I ate at the Outback Steakhouse, everyone seemed
pretty happy there, too. The restaurant was crowded, and I had to wait an
hour to be seated, but what did that crowd know? They probably think that Paul
Hogan is Australian. Well, OK, he is, but I wish he would shut up
about it. His appeal to international audiences is oddly inexhaustible, and
he wouldn’t be a problem for Australian expats if there were other popular
representations of Australians to balance him out.
But witness the insidious effect of Dundee and types similar to the “Croc
Hunter:” I was recently in an emergency room in the Midwest to get treated for a finger wound, and when the doctor stuck my thumb with an excruciating series of needles, for the first time in my life I screamed aloud and then passed out from pain. “Just pretend it’s a croc bite,” the doctor said.
It is true that Aussies themselves love that romantic image of the
Australian as a rural, no-worries Jack or Jill of all trades — probably
because most of the country’s 18 million citizens live in cities that cling
to the coastline. It’s hard to resist contributing to the misinformation
when someone asks you quite sincerely if kangaroos hop through the back yard.
A friend in New York recently convinced an associate
that the Melbourne rains are particularly dangerous because that’s when the
crocs come up out of the sewers. The big mutant crocs, that is, not the
small ones — those are around all the time. Because of jokes like this, we have to take
the blame for Hogan’s iconic status. I draw the line, however, at the
pottage of marsupials, place names and misappropriated jargon
that litters the Outback Steakhouse menu. It’s hard to explain why I
happily eat kangaroo, but I am offended by the suggestion of eating
so-called kookaburra wings (a.k.a. Buffalo wings). Any Australian would
agree: The P.R. people got that one horribly wrong.
A few more pointers: No Australian has ever said “Down under dinnies.” We do have the word “dunny” though: It is an
outhouse toilet. There is no such word as Aussie-tizers, but the attending
trademark, courtesy of Outback Steakhouse lawyers, no doubt, probably gives that one away. Regarding “Russell’s Marina Bay,”
as in “A bloomin’ onion … from Russell’s Marina Bay,” there is no such place.
As for “Hooley Dooley,” as in “a hooley dooley portion of our Caesar salad.”
Hmmm. Hooley dooley salad, perhaps with some squiggely squaggley sauce and
some yippety jippety croutons. Take note, Eight Mile Creek. Other
travesties: “Darned,” as in “The Wallaby Darned.” Used about as often as
wily (in the coyote wily) and grizzly (as in the bear grizzly). And the
“‘Shrooms” in the “Sauteed ‘Shrooms” is just not an Australian word. In
fact, this diminutive defies the rules of abbreviation in Australian
English. Mushrooms are, of course, “mushies.”
Offering the prime minister’s prime rib is like serving up loin of Clinton.
And it must be said that when Australian Aboriginals go walkabout,
they are generally not known to take soup. I’m pretty sure they have no
soup bowls for this purpose. The crap de resistance of the menu is the
startling use of the word “Aboriginal” to describe fried onions, as in “An
Outback Ab-original.” Get it? I can barely convey the hysteria and
distaste that this phrase provokes in me.
The food itself, standard American, not Australian, franchise fare –
grilled chicken, shrimp, burgers and Caesar salads — is served in a room
with stuffed koalas, pictures of Hogan, hanging akubras, whips and cans of
Fosters. The cutlery is comprised of a fork and a huge Dundee-like steak
knife, the likes of which I have never eaten with before. Still, there is
clearly a big market for such bullshit-a-roo. In the words of its own
publicity, the Outback Steakhouse has “bloomin’ boomed, mate.” Not only does it have restaurants in 48 states, it has others in
locations as diverse as Canada, Brazil and Guam. And apparently, it plans
to open a restaurant in Australia. There will be chocolate thunder down
under, mark my words.
Will this year’s Olympiad in Sydney and the attendant international focus on
Australia provide an opportunity for pseudo-exported Australiana
to become any more sophisticated? Perhaps. The instantaneous success of
Eight Mile Creek suggests that there is a hunger to connect with the real
Australia. The word of mouth about the restaurant is huge and there is a
sense that New Yorkers want the business to succeed. The brothers who own
Eight Mile Creek must be tired already of being compared to a franchise (who
would compare new American cuisine to McDonalds?), but it is hard not to
comment on the casual sophistication that the restaurant achieves against
the pretty shameful backdrop of so-called Australian food in the United States. It will stop and eventually it will be Eight Mile Creek that
newcomers are compared to — the restaurant sets a brave new standard that will be hard
to meet, no matter how many crocs you’ve wrestled.
All right then, to aid you in your Olympic TV watching and advertisement
discrimination this year: Yes, we do say, “G’day” and yes, it is a barbie.
No, they are not shrimp. We call the big ones prawns. Shrimp are small,
hardly worth the chewing, and we barbecue our prawns on television more
often than anywhere else. For your average barbie, we often prefer snags
(sausages) with tomato sauce (ketchup) and white bread (white bread). OK,
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)