The first time I bought a meat pie I was in a small bakery in New Zealand looking for a quick breakfast. The muffins, with tops sagging like the hats of the Seven Dwarfs, looked wimpy, but the pie's slightly browned crust and little shell, a bit smaller than a Swanson pot pie, won me over. I ordered. I took a bite. It tasted like salty, gravied ground beef in a greasy shell.
"What the -- " My Australian travel mates started laughing at me, and I sensed a lesson coming on.
"You don't eat meat pies in the morning. That's just feral."
"You don't get a meat pie in New Zealand, you get them in Australia."
"You eat them at a footy game, not for brekkie!"
"Don't you know what a meat pie is? You Americans . . . "
Later, living in Sydney, I saw meat pies in bakeries and cafes and in the hands of Aussie blokes calling the Adelaide Crows "bloody mongrels" during an Aussie Rules football match. Meat pies seemed equivalent to hot dogs and hamburgers: Available. Affordable. Convenient. Sometimes questionable. Yet how many Yanks would order pies filled with beef bits?
The meat pies of Australia's short history were the staple fast food (fish 'n' chips aside) before Thai and Indian takeout and the like gained popularity over the past decade. The pie concept dates back to the Middle Ages, when they were the perfect traveler's fare: filling finger food that preserved well. After arriving in Australia with British convicts (who began using a pastry lid rather than a mashed potato top), the pies became the blue-collar man's lunch, a final feed after a night at the pub, and a student's lunch from the school cafeteria.
The artistic part comes with a pie's consumption.
I received my lesson in pie-eating at the Upper Crust, an award-winning gourmet pie shop and bakery north of Sydney. A patron happily enjoyed a Singapore curry pie (a takeoff of the traditional beef pie but with lots of curry sauce) and demonstrated the correct way to slide a pie from its brown paper wrapping with each bite -- with two hands and no fork or knife
Later, I tried the no-hands approach with my sun-dried tomato, chicken and char-grilled eggplant pie filling, but I ended up with chicken in my lap and reaching for a spoon.
The Upper Crust's owner and pie chef, Sylvia McGrigor, creates pies whose fillings seem more like main dishes. Her ingredients go beyond beef, salt, pepper and beef stock, and don't even mention using the animal parts once found in factory-produced pies. Instead think garlic, sauvignon blanc, asparagus, couscous.
"As soon as you bite through all that carbohydrate, what's inside has to have ooomph," she said. "On the plate is cinema, and it has to be theater in the pie."
The experience at Harry's Cafe de Wheels, Sydney's famous 67-year-old pie hot spot, is in its own category: unique but not quite gourmet, just a good feed from a vending caravan like those on Constitution Avenue but with neon signs and colorful murals of sailors and warships. Mention meat pies to Sydney-siders and they'll send you to Harry's for a Tiger, a homemade ground-sirloin meat pie that's topped with mashed potatoes, bright green mushy peas and gravy.
The Cafe de Wheels caravan kitchen, which faces Woolloomooloo Bay, once served sailors from the nearby naval base. Nowadays local workmen, drag queens, tour buses and movie stars chow down there -- even Pamela Anderson can say she's been to Harry's.
I admit that the Tiger won my heart for best basic meat pie, and I was happy to sit alongside local businessmen spooning mushy peas into their mouths just as I was. But the pie I now crave is Sylvia's tomato, chicken and eggplant combo and her light and flaky crust. At least when I go back for more I'll know how to eat them, even if I do need a spoon. And I certainly won't order one for breakfast.
-- Sara Zailskas
Pies at Harry's Cafe de Wheels (Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo) are about $1.30 to $2.30. Pies at the Upper Crust (1003 Pittwater Rd., Collaroy) are about $1.20 to $2.90. Sauces extra.