A trip to a steakhouse presents a philosophical conundrum: Does it count as cultural misappropriation if you have no idea about which exact culture you’re misappropriating?
First off, I survived my first snowstorm. Winter storm Jonas came and went yesterday, dumping well over a foot of snow around Black Rock, and confining residents to their homes for most of the day until cabin fever hit and we all traipsed down to the pub for a beer. It was touch and go; the local espresso bar was closed, leaving me to dig into the emergency rations of Pocket Coffee and Kopiko (how these life saving things were procured will be saved for another blog), but we made it.
This morning was a completely different picture to the howling blizzard the day before, the sun was out, and the snow was bright. My car was blocked in by the snowdrift, but a few minutes of shovelling later and it was all clear. Yesterday any attempt at shovelling would have been futile, as the snow would have drifted back by the time you had cleared it.
In any case, this blog isn’t about the snowstorm or the horrors of nearly suffering caffeine withdrawal. It’s time for another adventure in the culinary landscape that is America.
Not the Outback that I Know
Ever since I got to the US, my friends have asked me whether Australia was anything like the Outback Steakhouse. I had never even heard of the Outback Steakhouse until I got here. But every American exhorted me to go try it and compare it with Australian cuisine.
For my Australian friends, it turns out that it’s a national chain of restaurants with an “Australian” theme, advertised on TV by people with horribly faked Australian accents. In researching the history of the chain, I discovered that the founders had never actually been to Australia. Much like Bizet, “Carmen”, and the city of Seville, the rationale was that “it would only confuse them”.
Sadly, a little basic research might have helped when their marketing team made the error of using THE WRONG NATIONAL FLAG in marketing an Australia Day special.
Oh, and they forgot to include the entire state of Tasmania in their map, though to be fair, a major supermarket chain in Australia managed that gaffe just a week ago too.
This did not set my expectations very high when after nearly three years of living in the US I finally got taken to an Outback Steakhouse in Enfield, Connecticut, on the way back from a day trip to Mass MoCA to see the huge collection of Sol LeWitt artworks.
It turned out to be a bust, for when we entered, we were asked whether we had called ahead. They were booked solid. It turns out that the Outback Steakhouse is the hopping joint in Enfield, Connecticut on a Saturday night.
Pray for Enfield, Connecticut.
Attempt Number Two
Not to be dissuaded, we then traveled further south to New Haven, and got a table at another Outback Steakhouse in a strip mall just off the interstate. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the décor when I entered, thinking that it could be anything from gaudy inflatable crocodiles on the wall and cardboard cutouts of Paul Hogan, to some nightmarish misappropriation of indigenous Australian artistic tradition. I was, in fact disappointed by how, well, non-Australian it was. It was a steakhouse, much like any other steakhouse in the US. Standard bar, college sports on the big screen TVs, light radio rock on the stereo (not even any Keith Urban). I'm not sure I spotted anything Australian in there.
We got seated in a booth, and set to examining the menu. My first stop was the signature dish of the Outback Steakhouse, the Bloomin’ Onion. Now I hate to disappoint my American readers, but this isn’t remotely Australian. I had never seen one of these before, an onion that had been sliced such that the layers “bloomed” out from the base, then dipped in a spicy batter, then deep fried and served with a chili cream sauce. Despite it being the least Australian thing I have ever eaten, it was actually quite tasty. America should be careful; like lamingtons, pavlovas, and Russell Crowe*, we might steal this and call it our own.
(*when he's winning Oscars and not assaulting hotel staff)
The rest of the menu comprised standard American steakhouse fare with the occasional Australian reference slapped on the front. For example, there was the “Alice Springs Quesadilla”. To be honest, I doubt there are more than five people in Alice Springs who even know what a quesadilla is, let alone be able to pronounce it.
It was as if they weren’t even trying, even when they had the opportunity to do something Australian. The burgers had standard American toppings, no eggs, no beetroot, no grilled onions. Even the shrimp was a tempura battered affair, not stooping to the cliché of “throwing it on the barbie” (as an aside, we don’t do this – first, they’re called “prawns”, and second, we mainly eat them cold after being bought pre-cooked (blanched in boiling water)).
Being a steakhouse, I went for the straightforward combination of steak, baked potato, and vegetables. To their credit, that’s standard Aussie pub fare, but it’s also standard Texan fare, standard French fare, standard English fare… it’s pretty universal in Western cultures. Sadly, it wasn’t that great a steak, tough and gristly. The vegies were good though, as good as any country pub.
Of course I washed it down with the one “Australian” beer on the menu. Fosters ("It’s Australian for practical joke!”). You can’t even find that in pubs in Australia.
I’m Not Angry, I’m Just Disappointed
All in all, it was an underwhelming experience. It’s not possible to criticize Outback Steakhouse for stealing Australian culture, because they haven’t stolen anything at all. I would have been more impressed had they gone the whole hog and made it an over the top Australiana-Crocodile-Dundee-Olivia-Newton-John-Where-The-Bloody-Hell-Are-Ya extravaganza with an animatronic kookaburra mascot voiced by Kylie Minogue greeting you at the door with a hearty “G’day Mate!”. But sadly it was like any other steakhouse in the US. Just with a veneer of Australian sounding names and faked accents to add flair.
What’s really sad is that it wouldn’t take much retooling of the menu to get something much more authentic and still compatible with the American palate. Steak and veg is authentically Australian, so we can leave that alone. Then add a burger with “the lot” to the menu (that means everything, including a slice of beetroot, bacon, and a fried egg). Serve a meat pie (and for real authenticity, charge 50 cents extra for sauce). Introduce Americans to the sublime joys of a Victorian-style Chicken Parma as big as the dinner plate on which it’s served (not the pathetic business card sized reconstituted possibly chicken patty excuse for a parmigiana that they shove into sandwiches here in New England).
And if you want to get really fancy, do a prawn cocktail RSL club style (i.e. served in a dinky plastic goblet with a luminescent orange cocktail sauce). Follow it with some roast lamb and gravy, then finish it off with a slice of sponge cake and it’ll be a true blue dinki-di Aussie feast.
All they need to do is watch “The Castle” (the greatest Aussie film ever made) and they’ll hit cultural gold.
Honestly, Australianizing the place would be a relatively simple job. Hmmm... maybe the Outback Steakhouse should hire me as a consultant.
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