Food can be the best time machine in the world. Excitement tastes like dagwood dogs and fairy floss at the Royal Show. One bite of the deep-fried mystery meat and I can feel face paint thick on my skin, the thronging of thousands of people around me as they line up for sideshows and Dodgem Cars. Churlish resentment tastes like thick marzipan on fruitcake from my flower girl debut at my aunt’s wedding, which I attended instead of my reception school concert. Being popular tastes like chocolate crackles at my birthday party – sweet for a time, then sickening.
But home? What does that taste like?
Every now and then I visit the place I still call home: Murray Bridge, South Australia. It’s a riverside town of about 22,000 people. If I still lived there, I’d probably be thrilled at the shopping centre developments, sanitised parks and playgrounds, and new smorgasbord service stations that eclipse old stalwarts. Instead, it leaves my heart a little cold and sad – like the starchy paste of day-old mashed potato. The 24-hour Shell servo, with its $3.65 hot dogs and microwavable Hero sandwiches at 4 am on a Sunday, was a crucial ingredient in my teenage search for identity and belonging. Does anyone else miss it like I do?
Meat pies are an intrinsic part of Australian (and especially South Australian) identity. Roy Morgan data suggests that 52.8 per cent of South Aussies love to eat a pie. That’s more than the national average of 47.5 per cent. In rural towns across my state, it jumps up to 61.6 per cent: the highest in all of Australia. Robert Macklin wrote in The Great Australian Pie Adventure that ‘a picture of the perfect pie ... drifts across the inner landscape of Australian psyche’. In our collective unconscious, we of the golden soil and boundless plains share a vision of perfect rolled pastry, crowned with a gently flaking crust. We envisage a glossy gravy filling, rich with tender, slow-cooked meat and rendered-down fat – soft waves of steam emanating from each bite.
If you’ve lived in my old stomping ground, you know that the pie often comes off second best to a little-known challenger: the formidable ‘savoury slice’. It’s a perennial favourite in rural pockets across the state. A strange riff on the standard pie, it’s made of two thick pastry sheets held together tenuously by meaty glue, topped with cheese and bacon. Who needs an architecturally sound meat-filled shell? Residents have their own opinion on who invented it, though it’s usually a tiebreaker between two chief bakeries: McCue’s and the Arcade Bakery that burned down in 2001.
McCue’s is just a barefoot walk across the road from the public swimming pool, on one of the four main arteries that flow from the heart of town (also known as Bridge Street). The McCue family has managed the business since 1987. On Saturdays they open the pie cart next to the bakery proper. It’s a small trailer van with the side-window propped up. There’s a pie warmer inside and a small fridge glutted with cartons of Farmer’s Union iced coffee. Brightly coloured sauce bottles and plastic cutlery decorate the counter. The shop is rendered cream brick, coloured like their custard tarts. The side of the shopfront is a hipster’s dream where tourists can photograph themselves in front of the bakery’s name, while biting into their own savoury slice.
Local diehards argue that the McCues version is the undisputable champion. Nearby challengers include a slice from the Tailem Bend Bakery, another town 20km away. There’s also a variation from Balhannah, even further away, towards the trendier Adelaide hills region. But the bakers at McCues are confident they’re on a winner, and so their recipe hasn’t changed since its inception in 1975.
Clean eating trends have evicted the slice from local primary school canteens. Even so, McCues didn’t change a thing. Their slice tastes exactly as it did when I first tried it in 1998: soft cheese-crusted pastry speckled with pieces of bacon, held together by gel-like meat gravy. Years before my initiation, kids at one of the town’s many public primary schools invented a “right way” to eat it. You’ve got to pop it in a flat buttered bread roll and drown it in tomato sauce. Resistance is futile; you must taste it to believe it. Eating it ‘naked’ is tantamount to outing yourself as an outlier.
The savoury slice’s cult following has earned it unprecedented loyalty among a niche group, but not enough to force it into the mainstream. And the locals like it this way because it will always remain ‘their’ dish: their secret handshake, a way to identify those who belong. And those who leave home, but return from time to time? Are they still part of the community just by ‘knowing’? Am I? Maybe the communal bond must be consummated in the eating. In remembering, through experience, what home tastes like. We don’t always eat together at the dinner table anymore, but if we occasionally make a special journey to eat the same thing… maybe on some level it can draw us back together.
Words and photos by Sharmin Paynter