Food Safari 13: Street Food

One of the most exciting things about being in a new country is trying out the local food. There will always be cafes and restaurants and bistros, but nothing beats the thrill of bolting an exotic dish sold by a surly street vendor with a rudimentary understanding of personal hygiene.

There are few opportunities for such occasions in Yuwaalaraay country, but street food does occasionally appear, comet-like, before vanishing in a trail of dust and saturated fat. Opal Festival is one such occasion.

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But there are others, and here are a few examples from around the traps. Food Safari ratings have been applied.

The Supa Sausage / Curly Spud

I remember the thrill I got at last year’s Opal Fest when I saw my first curly spud-on-a-stick. I’d already smashed my face with salty fatty goo and so, while I meant to come back and get a curly spud later on, I got distracted by a shiny milk bottle top or a balloon or something and forgot. So I’ve been kicking myself hard in the nuts for 365 days as punishment for my stupidity.

But – at last! – the kicking stopped: the curly potato lady was back in town!

Her van wasn’t with the main stalls but was tucked away near the entrance to Spider Brown Oval. I was drawn towards it by an attractive sign. I have friends who work as designers and typographers: look on and learn, boys and girls.

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The supa sausage was tempting but I kept my resolve and got the curly spud. It took a while for the lady to cook it, and that’s one of the differences between fast food and street food. This was a mum-and-dad operation and so each curly spud was individually battered, dropped into a ridiculously small vat of moderately hot oil, and cooked slowly – sloooooowly – until ready. A hearty shake of chicken salt and a hose down with red sauce and it was good to go.

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My dining companion went down the supa sausage route.

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But I’m glad I stuck to my guns. The curly spud ticked all the street food boxes: tasty, a bit weird, potentially life-threatening, yum.

Food Safari rating: 8/10

Bruno’s Pizza

I don’t really think of pizza as street food, but Bruno’s has a mobile trailer with a genuine wood-fired pizza oven bolted on the back. They deserve points out of ten just for having a crack.

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I went for the margherita, which was really just a sauce base with a massive coating of melty cheese. Again, I was ably assisted by my dining companion, to whom a supa sausage was no more than an appetiser.

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It’s a bit hard to judge this one. What am I comparing it to: a regular Bruno’s pizza or a curly spud on a stick? Sure, the cheese was a bit burnt, but not enough to make me not eat it. And inside that creme brûlée top there was a molten core of stringy mozzarella (or mozzarella-type product). If I say, “It did the job” then that sounds a bit unflattering, but … well, it did the job.

Food Safari rating: 7/10.

Kebab truck

This thing appeared overnight and was quickly the talk of the town. A night of catastrophic binge drinking isn’t complete without a fistful of foil-wrapped kebaby loveliness. Manys the time I’ve wobbled away from the Orient Hotel in Cooks Hill, only to find that my trusty bicycle has taken me to the Oasis in Hamilton, as though it knows that I need a kebab. How do bicycles know that stuff?

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The Ridge kebab van had a bit of a queue when I arrived. A couple of coppers had pulled up their Toyota and were making an order. The interaction did not fill me confidence. The man copper asked for tabouli, but the kebab people did not have tabouli because “Khan’s can’t get it in” or something. WTF? Don’t you just chop up a bunch of parsley and mint and throw in a few bits and pieces? The salad consisted of an iceberg lettuce, some tomato and maybe a Spanish onion. The man copper looked understandably forlorn. “I’ve just come here from Fairfield” he muttered, to no-one in particular.

I ordered mine. No felafel were available but there was meat. Well, beef. So I got beef. There was some interaction about the salad; though I didn’t realise it at the time this led to further misunderstanding. Just for the record, here is the salad bar at the Oasis kebab shop in Hamilton. I’m getting EVERYTHING, and being served by a man who is impeccably polite in spite of having to serve people like me and the shrieking drunks who fall out of the Kent Hotel at 2 in the morning.

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I know that street food should be eaten on the street but I took my kebab home. When I unwrapped it I found myself frozen in a state of disbelief. The kebab had been baked in a sandwich press into a kind of flattened meat biscuit. And there was no salad at all! It was just meat and cheese!

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It was absolutely crap, of course, and most of it went in the bin.

As an aside, I stopped in Walgett recently and bought a ham and cheese croissant and a coffee. Again, they put the croissant in a sandwich press. Is it a western NSW thing? I’d always thought that the point of a croissant was the lightness of the fluffy flaky pastry. But at least the Walgett croissant tasted like a croissant. Ridge kebabs? Nope. Just, nope.

Food Safari rating: 1/10

Steak Sandwich

The steak sandwich, along with the sausage sizzle, must be the pinnacle of Australian street food. And yet it is, like any classic, so easy to stuff up. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been given a piece of boot leather slopped between a couple of sheets of doughy pap, all smeared with sugary sauce.

The Men’s Shed were having a fundraising BBQ on Opal Street one morning: Grassy and (I think) Peter were hard at it, frying away on the mobile trailer they use for these things. I’d been hearing good things about the new butcher and thought what the hell, I’ll give it a go.

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I’m so glad I did. The steak was from the butcher and the bread from the baker next door, fresh that morning. There’d been a slow down in custom and so my steak, when I got it, had been rested, just like real food. It was THE BEST STEAK SANDWICH I HAVE EVER EATEN IN MY ENTIRE LIFE.

Food Safari rating: 11/10

Chicken Tender Pizza Roll

Yes, you read that right.

This doesn’t really qualify as street food as it came from the school canteen. I was on duty in the gym; the usual boys were playing basketball and the usual girls were slumped at the side watching the usual boys. There’s a “no food or drink” rule in the canteen but one of the usual boys arrived late and, in the way of boys that age, was pressing fuel into his mouth. (At what age does that end, that ability to eat two pies then play a game of football immediately after, without wanting to vomit?)

I was so startled at this thing that I asked him to deconstruct it for me. It consists of:

  • 1 x ham and cheese pizza roll
  • 5 x chicken tenders
  • 1 x tomato sauce squeezy sachet

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A cousin who lives in the shadier part of the Edinburgh docks told me about a thing called, in those parts, a “pizza supper”. You go to the chip shop and they get a frozen pizza, fold it in half, put hot chips inside the folded pizza and then deep fry the lot.

There’s a kind of genius logic in there, and I have to admit that there was a time when I would have thought that the chicken tender pizza roll was also the work of genius, rather than a starving 15-year-old boy.

Food Safari rating: untested and so unmarkable, but 8/10 for innovation.

Food Safari 12: Walgett Sporto

It was time for a Federation meeting again, so in the bus we got and off we set, down the Castlereagh, braking hard for the 64 trillion emus that thought it was a good idea to meander across the road without warning.

There was a change of venue for the meeting, and so it was that at about half five in the afternoon we pulled into the gravelly car park of Walgett Sporto.

Like lots of clubs in small regional towns, the Sporto was something of a memorial to lost glories. Even the smell in the foyer – a mixture of cigarette smoke that’s somehow got into the aircon, ageing carpet fibres, schooners of Tooheys New – brought upon me a Proustian moment, my own club land Remembrance of Things Past. The honour boards were filled with winners in singles and doubles events for year after year after year until, in recent times, the names are replaced by those two poignant words “Not Played”.

Inside, the club was almost empty. The Chaser was on the telly and its gravitational pull was as strong as that of a black hole. A Federation meeting or … $2,000 if you choose to take four steps, or [dramatic pause] $45,000 if you choose to take six steps. And against The Beast!

But I am, if nothing else, a dutiful person. The meeting was in a side room and was, essentially, two hours of a growing rage that was as impotent as it was intense. Teachers being defunded from prisons. TAFE being torn apart. NAPLAN. But we motioned and resolved and, at the end of it, staggered towards the bistro safe in the knowledge that we’re just a bunch of irrelevant piss ants a long, long way from Decisionsville.

But, hey, it was Parmy Thursday!

This is where I make an unAustralian confession. I’m not a fan of the parmy. When did they become a Thing? For as long as I can remember the burger was the benchmark in pub tucker. The modern parmy is a gigantic object that could not possibly have come from a single creature but must have been stitched together with fencing wire or blended into a smooth pulp before being reconstituted, like a meaty Pringle. Being “of my time”, I went for the burger. In this case the $15 Texas burger.

I wasn’t sure what to expect (I should have read the description on the menu but, like, who does that?). In what way was it “Texan”? What actually is Texan cuisine? I know that Dubya once nearly choked on a pretzel but then I think that happened in Washington, where he’d been seduced by fancy Yankee snacks. I’d have guessed maybe a kind of smokey rib sauce. And Cajun. Do they have Cajun stuff down there or is that somewhere else? Must Google.

The Walgett interpretation of the Texas burger had onion rings, which I didn’t immediately connect with Texas. Though I could imagine Dubya choking on an onion ring. It also had barbecue sauces and melted cheese. It was grand!

Which was the general consensus all round. The lady at the counter was lovely and cheerful and made us all feel welcome, and the food was pretty quick to arrive. They even catered for S’s bizarre request to accompany his parmy: “mashed potato and salad”. I didn’t think of myself as a food snob till now but that’s just wrong.

Chuck stole the show with his mixed grill. It had everything, including corn on the cob, which neither Chuck nor I had seen on a mixed grill before. It was becoming quite a night.

The piece de resistance was, however, the dessert cabinet. There were no madeleines, so I couldn’t extend my weak Proust metaphor, but there were …

… profiteroles and Snickers cheese cake!!!! Here is our expert dessert fondler Mr B about to tuck in. How was it, Mr B?

I think that face says it all. Out of shot, his leg is kicking like a dog having its belly scratched.

The Sporto bistro belied the down-at-heel feeling I felt when I first went in. It was a really friendly place. If my Texan burger didn’t truly evoke the wide-open plains or the Sierre Madre, I’m frankly buggered if can say what, if it didn’t taste of onion rings, it should have tasted like.

The winner was of course the dessert cabinet. Well, we were all winners on the night. Apart from those sacked teachers, dismantled TAFEs, NAPLAN coordinators, etc etc.

Food Safari 11: Bruno’s

When Fancy Folk from Out Of Town land in the Ridge, they will often ask their host: “Where can one dine out in style?” If your guests are on a budget there’s the Bowlo, and if they’re looking for something with a little more atmosphere there’s the bistro at the pub. But if you really want to roll out the red carpet there’s only one place to go: Bruno’s. (Possessive apostrophe optional.)

The first time I came to Bruno’s I was deeply tickled to receive, with my menu, a drinks list. But it wasn’t called a “drinks list”, it was called the “alcohol menu”. It makes me smile every time I see it. When the waitress comes to take my order I’m always tempted to say, “Don’t think I’ll bother with solids tonight. I might just work my way through the alcohol menu, thank you.”

Bruno’s is nicely presented. It has a little chained off area that leads into a tobacconist, but other than that it’s like any Italian restaurant: a bit loud and clattery, a bit heavy on the Dino and Sinatra. But that’s ok, it’s what you expect and it’s what you get. Nobody wants nasty surprises in their Italian.

The fancy folks from out of town in this occasion were children’s book illustrator Craig Smith, and publisher / artist Erica Wagner. Of course, if you’re going to take an illustrator to a restaurant with paper tablecloths, only one thing is going to happen.

I mean, come on. I don’t start writing blogs on the tablecloth!

I was taking this photo when I had one of those Homer Simpson “D’oh!” moments. It’s a food safari! And I’d been enjoying myself, and the food, so much that I’d forgotten to take pictures of it. Here’s the leftovers of what was a pasta dish with prawns and a creamyish tomato-y sauce called, I think (yes, it’s all a bit vague) penne monte mare, or something like that. Does that sound right? It was good!

I think we all drank a bit too much, or maybe that was just me. But at least I didn’t go tearing up the tablecloths.

Apart from Wednesdays at the Bowlo I never ever go out to eat in the Ridge. And yet, two nights later, I was back at Bruno’s. Unprecedented! The fancy folks included another illustrator and yet this one showed great restraint and did not draw on anything.

We started off with the pizza base with cheese on it, and fortunately Trevor reminded me to take a picture. We then had more pizzas – a supremo and a diavolo – and a Greek salad but I forgot to take pictures of those. They were good too.

However! What did I say about not wanting any nasty surprises? My fancy out-of-town friend was perplexed when he went to add seasoning to his salad. In my world, and his, there’s an unspoken agreement between people who go to restaurants and cafes, and people who run them: salt comes out of a pot with one hole in it, and pepper comes out of the pot with lots of holes in it. This situation, the one pictured below, caused great consternation and a distressingly large amount of discussion. It was like turning on a tap expecting cold water to come out but getting hot custard. Pepper pot with ONE hole? Salt with LOTS OF HOLES and a label? Woah! Just not right, Bruno’s!

Thankfully we regained our equilibrium. Steve got the afogato, with kaluah. It was already late at night and I warned him against it but he claimed to know what he was doing. He was wrong and was awake for a long time. But the afogato was very, very nice indeed (I had a bit).

Mmmm.

BTW, here’s a picture of Trevor struggling to understand which pot to shake over his salad. Can you see how perplexed he is?

On Sunday morning we went to Morilla’s, the cafe next door to Lost Sea Opals. This deserves a food safari of its own, but who can be bothered. Anyway, it was all very good (I know I’ve described the food in both places as “nice” and “good” which is massively lame but I’m typing this late Sunday arvo during the Tigers – Eels game and I’m not paying as much attention to my writing as I should do. Bite me.)

The point is this: at Morilla’s they have salt pots with ONE hole and pepper pots with THREE. Look at the picture of Trevor, Bruno’s: he is now content and the social contract between customer and cafe owner has been restored.

But, pepper/salt dissonance apart, Bruno’s is a classic country town Italian restaurant. Great service, lovely food, stereotypical soundtrack, tearable tablecloths and a good atmosphere. Bellissimo!

Food Safari 6: Griffin’s biscuits

I’ve got a friend who has an on-site van at the Sunset Caravan Park in Woolgoolga, the town the locals call “Woopie”.

Woopie is famous for its Sikhs and for its massive Sikh temple and its frozen berry industry, but when I think of Woopie I think of one thing. You know Jatz crackers? They don’t call them Jatz crackers there – they call them “Savoys”. Savoys! I know!! A savoy is a fucking sausage!!!

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Why such a small thing should affect my sense of balance in such a way is totally baffling, but affect me but it does. If I’d bought a box that was packaged completely differently and they were called Bazookas or something and then when I opened them up and found they were just plain old Jatz I’d’ve been a bit meh. I’d have gotten over it. But when everything else is just how you expect it to be yet there’s this wee tweak, it sets a man back on his heels.

Nearly all the big brands that you can get at Coles and Woolworths back in Big Town you can get at Khan’s IGA, Lightning Ridge. But there is something you should know: the Ridge is differently biscuited.

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Griffin’s Biscuits, to be precise. When I first saw them on the shelf I was a bit like woah! What do we have here? I do not know you.

From whence do they come, these Griffin’s biscuit people? I’ve never heard of them, and I’ve lived in Australia for 30 years.

To my credit, I steadied myself and accepted the challenge. I picked a packet from the shelf and set to the job of working my way through their moderately extensive range, a packet per week for however many weeks it might take.

First up was the “Chit Chat” (note jolly quote marks), which appears to be the freckly love-child of a TimTam and an English Penguin biscuit. It was alright, but I must admit to feeling slightly underwhelmed. The biscuit part was fine but the chocolate had that plasticky taste about it, if you know what I mean.

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Next up was the Afghans (no cheerful quote marks for these guys). The picture on the packet doesn’t do them justice; in a remarkable visual pun each biscuit actually looks like a tiny turban! How cute is that?

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I realise that this is the kind of comment that would have my kids rolling their eyes and accusing me of racism, but (like many racists) I don’t mean to be. Hopefully it’s the benign non-aggressive form of racism that, as Louis CK points out, we all caught simply by growing up in the Seventies. Sorry, Afghans!

Anyway, Afghans (the biscuity type) are (again) alright. I think I’d built my hopes up and – for no good reason, it’s not on the label – expected maybe some toffee in there underneath the turbany bit, but no luck.

The other Saturday I found myself caught between the Squiggles, the Mallow Puffs and the Krispie, but none of them were doing it for me. When I was a lad, the term “top shelf” was usually reserved for the row of nudie magazines at the paper shop, and so anything where I have to make an effort and reach up high has always made me think it’s a bit wahey, a bit sexually charged. Even biscuits. It reminds me of the thrill of pretending to leaf through this month’s Electronics Now! or Trout Angler while peaking longingly at Readers’ Wives and Penthouse.

So top shelf it was: Jaffa Thins. Phwoar.

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Well, I’m sad to report that the Jaffa Thin is … alright. As a biscuit it’s, well, thin. And vaguely jaffa-ery. But you have to eat about a dozen of them to get the same feeling of one Scotch Finger.

I did some research. Where are they from, these Griffin’s biscuits? Mount Isa? Gullargambone? Tennant Creek?

Noooooo! Griffin’s are actually a Kiwi company! Could it really be true that, as their website claims:

Our biscuit factory is located in Papakura and a savoury/wrapped snacks factory in Wiri.

I was set back on my heels again. With this devastating news I decided that I could no longer support Griffin’s Biscuits. Just think of the food miles to get a packet of Afghans from Wiri to the Ridge! I’ll stick to Arnotts from now on as I do have standards.

“Alright” is simply not all right.

Food Safari 5: Garlic balls

When I’m driving the school bus on an excursion it does not seem to matter how far the intended journey – Coonamble, Sydney, Kwazululand, Riems Cathedral – it’s a given that first stop will be Walgett Road House.

The Ridge’s lack of franchised fast food outlets means that the kids have a fixation for deep-fried tat of any kind, and the road house seems to provide the next-best experience of driving in (if not thru) and getting some scalding hot saturated fat.

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We were off to Dubbo the other week and pulled in around morning tea time. The glass cabinets were filled with rows of those yellow paper cups with hot chips and wedges and bits of chickens’ limbs. It looked like an installation and I’m sure if there’d been a artist’s statement next to it the National Gallery would have acquired it.

There were also rounded food-like objects in those yellow cups, about six of them to a serve. The kids told me they were “garlic balls”. They sounded delicious! I handed over my money and scampered back to the bus, like Gollum with his ring.

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I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got. I sank my teeth into the crusty breadcrumb coating and I hit a spongy layer of  … huh? Chicken? For some reason I’d thought it might be a vegetarian dish, like deep-fried balls of garlic bread. Oh no! Oh very no! How wrong was I! It was chook, all right, followed by a molten core of gooey garlicky … stuff.

It was really hard to work out what that middle bit was made out of. A mate came up from Newcastle this weekend and I tried to explain it to him and it was impossible. It defied my every attempt to describe it, even when I brought up the picture on my phone and we zoomed in.

Is it even a food? Maybe it’s something else, like a colour or a half-remembered dream or the strange nostalgia you have for something that happened not all that long ago, like when I think of the nights I spent this cold winter when I didn’t have a telly, sitting in bed and working my way through Game of Thrones and House of Cards on my laptop.

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I think that’s it. I think garlic balls are not a food, they are a feeling. They’re a material representation of the sense of remorse and nausea-inducing anxiety you get when you make a Bad Choice. That and the dark, lonely sadness of knowing that not only have you taken a wrong path but that you’ll continue on that path until you’ve finished, no matter what good sense and bitter experience tells you.

This I know to be true because, in spite of everything my body told me, I finished all of my garlic balls. All six of them.

I do not want to have that feeling ever again.

Food Safari 4: Goodooga fried scones

This month’s Teachers Federation meeting was at Goodooga, a drive and a bit up the Castlereagh Highway. We set off in the little bus, as  the sun started to slip down the western sky. It’s flat out this part of the world. Acres of grass and saltbush with the occasional line of trees marking a creek line. Pools of water from winter’s rain still hugged the edges of the bitumen.

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The road to Goodooga is quite possibly the bumpiest stretch of road in all of Christendom. Within the first couple of kays we were all suffering the early stages of jogger’s nipple.

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Goodooga is not a big city. Its school is the usual rural hotch-potch of demountables clustered around the core of an older building, one that belongs to an era when fifty kids would sit in front of one teacher and be shouted at all day.

There’s something indefinably depressing about the labelling of modern school buildings, something that makes me feel like the autonomy and self-determination is slowly draining from my soul.

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I understand the impulse, the desperation, to decorate these buildings but somehow that only magnifies the institutional aspect of the place.

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Anyway, we had our meeting, in K Block. We all got pissed off about the government and what it’s doing to our education system, and we made resolutions about Stuff, and we changed the world in teeny-tiny ways. There was a restless energy in the room: people had travelled long distances to be here and to sit and listen to the Bad Things that were happening.

Some of this energy rubbed off on me but at the same time the energy-sapping environment of the school, the pathos I felt when I looked at the decorated demountables, the knowledge that the loathsome politicians in Sydney would not even be able to find Goodooga on a map let alone care about the kids who go to school there, it all left me feeling sad and troubled.

But then came dinner. The people at Goodooga school are wonderful. Whenever there’s a meeting at their school they put on a spread for the teachers who’ve trekked from Walgett and Collaranabri and the Ridge and elsewhere: wholesome food that fills you up and makes you feel good again. And the crowning glory of Goodooga school’s catering is its world famous fried scone.

The fried scone is incredibly versatile. I had one with my main meal; it’s kind of like a doughy Yorkshire pudding, perfect for scooping up gravy and curry goo.

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It also works perfectly as a dessert. With a slather of margarine and a scoop of golden syrup you have something that kicks Adriano Zumbo’s arse from Goodooga to Bondi and back. It triggered lots of wistful talk about the Olden Days, when a tin of golden syrup was staple in every pantry across the Commonwealth. At our house we had a tin of syrup and a tin of thick, black treacle. Oh my God, how I miss treacle.

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I left Goodooga restored, with the sense that there were still places in the world where Goodness and the Right Way prevailed. I bet Adrian Piccoli and Mike Baird have never eaten a fried scone. Forget resolutions and petitions: this is how we should change the world – make them travel down the bouncy road to Goodooga, sit in K Block and eat fried scones. THAT would be change. THAT would work.

Food Safari 2: Spider Brown Memorial Oval

The footie. It’s as Australian as hand-crafted organic pale ale and biodynamic goat’s cheese roulade.

Or not. Fact is, Australia’s changed a lot, even in the time since I washed up in ’85. But one place you’ll find old-school Aussie tucker is the country footie, and the Spider Brown Memorial Oval is a bastion of Proper Australian Food. No lah-de-dah Adrian Zumbo macarons here.

Over the course of the home games this season I’ve worked my way through the canteen’s finest. At the peak of the food chain is the king of footie food: the steak sandwich. At Spider Brown you don’t get no ordinary steak sandwich: you can get a steak sandwich with gravy. Fuck yeah.

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I’m not sure where the gravy comes from. I’m guessing there’s some secret artesian gravy bore out on the Three Mile Road, a place where thick, hot, gloopy gravy bubbles out of the ground like Texas tea in the Beverley Hillbillies. Who cares. It’s dark and rich and runs down your forearm so you have to lick it off in big I-don’t-care-who’s-watching slurps.

The sausage sandwich is a kind of not-food food. The time I had a snag sanger I had to go right back and get a steak sanger because, well, snag sanger’s just don’t cut it. Having said that, the Spider Brown snag sanger’s no bad thing: your standard sheet of wheat-based fluff with a paper rag posing as a serviette.

sanger snag

This “serviette” doesn’t have the oomph to soak up anything more than a droplet of fairy spit and, within seconds, it’s a sodden and scrunched up piece of tat stuck to the side of your bread so that it looks like Norman Gunston’s chin after a bad shave. But the snag was grand for what it was supposed to do. And the onions. I don’t care what Ivan Argustiera’s says about the great Australian sausage sizzle, onions ARE a food too.

Oh, and that gravy …

The food at Spider Brown is proper football food, Proper Australian Football Food. Geddit India.