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Has Australia Abandoned the Salad Sandwich?

Category: Food & Drink,Lifestyle

Some foods are so ordinary and ubiquitous that we fail to even notice them. This seems especially true in Australia when it comes to our more plebeian offerings. Some, admittedly, become iconic, like the meat pie or Vegemite. But while American food writing celebrates the tater tot, ranch dressing and Hot Pockets, Australia lets many edible components of its collective childhood slip by, unsung and unexamined.

Nostalgia is only heightened when you’re homesick, which might explain my preoccupation with the minutia of Australian life of the 1970s and ’80s. I left the country in the early ’90s, and spent the last two decades in a state of constant yearning. I was surprised, upon my return, to find many of the staples of my childhood gone, and was shocked that some have slipped away or languished without mention. America’s taste for Froot Loops has diminished significantly, but their waning popularity and influence and import has not gone undocumented.

Imagine then, a symbol of American childhood as common as a PB & J — and as revealing of the economic and moral climate of its creation — that few food scholars have considered, and is virtually absent from books about the national diet.

The Australian salad sandwich is just such an item. A stalwart of school lunches and milk bars and sandwich shops and cafes, the salad sandwich was unavoidable for decades. Its basic components: sliced bread, butter or margarine and layers of shredded lettuce or alfalfa sprouts, shredded carrots, sliced or shredded cucumbers, and — the key ingredient — canned red beetroot. Magenta beetroot juice seeping through white bread is instantly recognizable as a portrait of Australian lunch.

At its best, the sandwich is a thing of strange beauty, one of those foods that somehow transcends the sum of its parts — I loved salad sandwiches long before I liked almost anything that came inside a salad sandwich. In particular, I hated canned beetroot (or beets, as they’re known in the United States), but it is their sweetness, density and slight fudginess that give the sandwich its gravitas, challenging the fresh crunch of all the other vegetables and creating balance.

“For me, they say summer,” said Donna Hay, the prolific Australian cookbook author and television personality. “Like so many other Aussies, they’re a staple for when my boys and I pack up a picnic for the beach, or to take with us on a bike ride; they’re part of that whole Australian outdoor lifestyle.” Despite all this, Ms. Hay has never published a recipe for one in any of her 27 cookbooks, or in her self-titled magazine that she ran for 17 years.

Why does nobody talk about this essential Australian lunch? How did this sandwich arise and become so commonplace? And how did beetroot get such a prominent role?

The Australian love of canned beetroot is well-documented, particularly as it relates to their prominence as a component of the Australian hamburger. This beetroot affection can be traced to the 1930s, when Australia had a canning boom, and to World War II, when the New South Wales company Edgell’s was permitted to continue canning beetroot, even as production of other canned goods halted because of wartime restrictions.

“The earliest reference I can find dates back to 1887,” said Jan O’Connell, who wrote the book A Timeline of Australian Food: From Mutton to Masterchef.” Early references seemed to refer to a more American-style salad sandwich, she said, using “what you might call a salade composée, where the ingredients were chopped and mixed with mayonnaise, like the U.S. tuna salad sandwich.”

When I searched for recipes containing beetroot, the earliest example was in a salad sandwich recipe in 1905, while the first layered version I was able to find dates to 1945 (though it calls for ham). Ms. O’Connell admits to not having paid the sandwich much thought at all until I asked her about it. “I didn’t realize the salad sandwich was uniquely Australian,” she said.

School-provided lunches are not as much of a part of Australian life as they are in America — they were never legislated or mandated here — but “tuck shops” often operated a few days a week, run by parents, selling simple lunches to grade-school children. Since at least the 1960s, tuck shops have offered salad sandwiches: In 1964, as part of a campaign to protect children’s teeth, the Australian Dental Association suggested a menu that included a salad sandwich, along with some other meat-filled options.

My guess is that the sandwich came about because of a confluence of things: the Briticism of tea sandwiches, that famous love of beetroot and the Oslo diet. Introduced in 1930s Norway as a nutritious way to feed school children, the Oslo diet (or lunch) became popular in Australia in the early 1940s. It called for fruit slices, buttered bread and salad items like carrots and lettuce. Add beetroot, and you have the basic building blocks of the salad sandwich.

My American mother said that when she arrived in Australia in the mid-1970s, vegetables in general — other than potatoes and peas and boiled carrots — were seen as a bit suspicious. The salad sandwich was the exception, and one that persisted for the next decade. To be a vegetarian in Australia in the late 1980s, as I was, had considerable challenges. The options were excruciatingly slim, but I found my savior. I once took a bus ride from Brisbane to Melbourne and ate nothing but salad sandwiches at the petrol stations and lunch counters along the way.

There are still a few places to get an old-fashioned version, especially in rural parts of the country. In Melbourne, I was able to find a decent one, ironically, at an American barbecue restaurant called Big Boy’s BBQ. In downtown Sydney, The Sandwich Shop has a classic version, with the addition of hummus. At the Darlinghurst Sandwich Shop, also in Sydney, they make a wonderful version that’s not classic at all, full of grilled eggplant, lentils, sweet potato fries and about a dozen other things, including — of course — sliced beetroot.

But I was honestly shocked at how difficult it was to find this once-ubiquitous sandwich. The death of the milk bar must be a factor, and the alternative lunch options are now so diverse; Australia arguably has some of the best vegetarian food in the world these days. But it would be sad for this humble fixture of the last century to slip away unacknowledged.

Cultural cringe comes up a lot when I talk to people about Australian food — the idea that the country has been so misunderstood and undervalued by the world that we tend to want to put our best foot (and food) forward. We have serious, fancy restaurants. Why talk about the daggy old salad sandwich?

I think we’ve come far enough that it’s O.K. to relax a little. I think we can celebrate the low along with the high. I think we can be proud of all of our culinary heritage, including white bread stained pink from canned beetroot.


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