I don’t know much about golf, but when Adam Scott won the US Masters in 2013 I did know that he would have the honour of choosing the menu for the following year’s Champions Dinner. A cultural minefield, Your Girl Reporter warned – look what happened when the Big Baxter suggested Vegemite to celebrate Australia’s victory in the Americas Cup.
Way back in 1997, a man called Fuzzy Zoeller earned his own special place in the annals of golfing history by suggesting that first-time Masters champion Tiger Woods would be putting fried chicken and collard greens on the menu. Here’s how it was covered by the New York Times.
I had to get my dad the Big Baxter to explain that one. I was familiar with fried chicken but I’d never heard of collard greens.
Bax was living in California by then, so was more up to speed on matters of American culture. As with most things in that nation, it turned on the issue of race.
Collard greens, according to What’s Cooking America, are members of the cabbage family which are traditionally cooked down into a low gravy.
This style of cooking originated with African slaves in the southern colonies who created the dish out of leftovers supplied, generously no doubt, by the plantation kitchens.
Zoeller’s remark, for which he apologised, was therefore instantly recognisable to most Americans as a racially based slur.
Historical note: Tiger went for cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, French fries (a menu item which was soon to take on its own cultural significance in the US) and milkshakes for his first Champions Dinner.
What will Scott choose? As the ‘collard greens’ remark demonstrated, food choices can be fraught with cultural implications on all sides.
The year 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of Australia winning the America’s Cup. Scott’s victory has been compared to that momentous occasion and rightly so.
I was in Hong Kong for that one, learning my journalistic chops in my very first job on Baxter’s computer magazine. We’d not long moved from a tiny back room behind the Hong Kong Press Club to our first proper office.
It was about mid-morning when Bax got a call from the Foreign Correspondents Club.
It was Gilbert Cheng, the FCC’s long-serving manager who, in a strange connective twist, is known to all as Tiger.
He wanted to mark the historic day by serving something Australian on the bar at lunch.
Could Bax provide any suggestions?
Vegemite was the instant response. Very good. And how is it served?
Well, the Big Baxter launched into a lengthy description of the iconic Australian spread. He recalled how in his early days in Hong Kong you couldn’t get a jar of Vegemite for love nor money.
“My beloved mother used to send us care packages, which always included a couple of jars of Vegemite and some Fruit Tingles for the kids,” he said.
“Once she sent just one big jar, but when I opened the package it had smashed on the way. Tell you what, mate, the Vegemite kept its shape perfectly, holding all those bits of glass together.
“Oh no, I wasn’t going to throw it away. We just ate it out of the middle.”
He didn’t say it, but that had also been the first time I ever saw my father cry – and what child doesn’t remember that event? Yup, with wars and bombs all around, it was a smashed jar of Vegemite that brought the tears to his eyes.
But how to serve it?
“Well, the classic of course is toast and Vegemite, but you gotta be careful about that one. The toast has got to be hot and the proportions of butter to spread have got to be just right.
“Then there’s cheese and Vegemite sandwiches, but they’re only really at their best when they’ve been wrapped in plastic and carried around in the hot sun for a few hours…
“I know, mate, you want cream crackers. Set a few of those up on the bar and a bit of the old Vegemite and that’ll do it.”
Cometh the hour, we made our way to the FCC to celebrate Australia’s great sporting moment.
The club had only recently moved to its present home in the old Ice House on the street of the same name.
It was a grand step-up for the FCC, from two floors of Sutherland House to an entire historic building to play with. The new FCC, as the Old Hands still call it, has a sweeping staircase and a bar as big as a railway station.
There on the bar were little plates of crackers, as per the Bax’s instructions, but where was the Vegemite?
Tiger pointed to a gravy boat beside the crackers. It appeared to have gravy in it, except for the silver teaspoon standing proudly in the centre.
The presentation certainly matched the elegance of the FCC’s new bar, but as a foodstuff it’s fair to say our national spread was not displayed to best advantage.
It looked disgusting.
I pay tribute to the several members who gamely tried first to spoon and then to smear a little bit of the vile looking goop on to their crackers. Only the Australians went back for seconds.
It is an acquired taste.
With that in mind, I urge some caution upon Mr Scott as he no doubt contemplates bringing an Aussie flavour to next year’s Champions Dinner.
Might be best to go with the barbie, mate. But whatever you choose, make sure you’re very clear about your serving suggestion.
It’s a cultural thing.