26 Feb 2009

A Post-Penal PB&J

In which the Author Discovers a Difference between the Viscosities of Australian and American Jellies

Twenty-six days after touching down in Sydney, I had made and eaten no less than nineteen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my kitchenless studio. Chicken, avocado, and Swiss on a toasted roll was a nice change of pace, as was the clean cutlery.

“This is way better than peanut butter and jelly,” I said through a mouthful, spilling crumbs and sesame seeds onto my plate.

“Peanut butter and jelly?” she nearly spit; her incredulity ran deep as Ayer’s Rocki. “Peanut butter,” she took a steadying breath, “and jelly?

I had stopped chewing well before the italics and now sat staring with my mouth slightly ajar. Surely, I couldn’t be that far from home.

“With milk?” I suggested pleadingly. To anyone listening, it was obvious that dairy products would not be coming to my rescue; the heart of the matter was clearly darker and more viscous. My Austro-Turkish companion blinked at me. Her sandwich eyed mine suspiciously, both floating on the volatile tension of cultural exchange, just above the salt.

“Do all Americans eat peanut butter and jelly?”

This she asked with great transparency, for in her eyes I saw not only fear of 300 million peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but also fear of the logistical nightmare that would be having as many dumb Yanks committed. At the very least, dietary reform would be necessary.

“Do all Australians eat Vegemiteii?” I mocked. My question was mostly rhetorical; having spent nearly a month Down Under, I’d recognized these people (they who call the world’s most lethal continent-slash-island “home” ) as certifiable, and this beyond any poisonous shadow of a man-eating doubt.

“How can you eat that stuff? It’s so wiggly and gross.” With barely a pause, her repulsion was entirely usurped by a questionable bit of physiological trivia, one which she related with grave concern: “You know the dye in it causes impotency?” Then, taking a dainty bite, she turned to watch the passersby of Broadway Shopping Center, chewing thoughtfully behind pursed lips. She was either unaware of or unconcerned by the coup de sujet to which she had been host. It had been alarmingly seamless.

“Wiggly and gross?” I asked, wary of her oblivion. “...Dye?”

“Well, yeah. You know how jelly wiggles.” She remained unconcerned.

“Pretend I don’t.”

She made a dome with her hands and wiggled them a little.

“Oh, no. Jell-O. You mean Jell-O!” I heaved a sigh of relief and adjusted my travel vernacular. “This is way better than eating peanut butter and jam. Americans eat peanut butter and jam.”

Cheerily oblivious, she peeled apart her sandwich. “So do we! That's what I'm having, see?”

i.

Roughly one seventh of Ayer’s Rock, the famous and lonely rock formation found in the Australian Red Center, sits atop the Australian outback while three and a half miles of it extend into the earth. Also, for those at all concerned with political correctness, you may want to note that the government has officially renamed it Uluru (say it, oo-loo-roo), its original Aboriginal appellation, though, in the face of such cultural genocide as that which scars the continent, the renaming of a rock (albeit a culturally significant rock) seems a poor reparation, and all the more for its loneliness.

ii.

Vegemite—a dark, oily spread used to ruin perfectly good crackers and toast—is a quintessentially Australian substance. Visitors observing the pandemic stuff might conclude that its consumption is mandated by the Commonwealth Parliament, however such is not the case. For those of you readers lucky enough never to have sampled the stuff but foolishly wishing to do so, it will suffice to close your eyes and imagine the taste of tar extracted from the lungs of a chain-smoking Marlin. The rest of you, I wager, encountered it the morning after a night spent drinking lots of something other than Foster’s (as it happens, Foster’s is not “Australian for beer”). Vegemite, a rich source of vitamin B, is last-but-not-least a hangover cure. It was invented by food technologist Cyril P. Callister on instructions from Fred Walker & Co. to invent a palatable derivative of brewer’s yeast. For the record, I would have had him fired.