Australia's national image is interwoven with the pastoral industries. For generations our economy has depended largely on these industries for its prosperity. The ideal Australian of our folklore is a rugged, honest male, a drover who loves the outdoor life, master of his horse, his faithful dog by his side.
The consumption of large quantities of meat is naturally linked to this image of the Australian because of the nation's reliance on the sheep and cattle industries for its wealth and also because of the association of meat consumption - steaks in particular - with manliness.
Yet in recent years, there has been a gradual decline in the consumption of meat - no doubt largely due to the implication of red meat in heart disease. The rural industries have fought this trend by evoking the national values. A very successful series of television commercials showed an active, likeable young lad playing sport, running to the butcher's shop and being served by a friendly butcher, running home to be greeted by a loving mother laying out for him a large steak dinner. All the while, a chorus is singing "Feed the man, feed the man, feed the man meat" the tempo of the refrain varying with the activity depicted on the screen.
A follow up series of advertisements were planned in 1982 but these were cancelled, half completed, when the ruddy-faced butcher died suddenly from a heart attack.
In October 1981, the meat industries inaugurated an annual "National Meat Week" to encourage greater meat consumption. In 1982, National Meat Week was marked with a spectacular barbecue for our politicians in front of National Parliament in Canberra. The image of our national leaders with broad beaming smiles, tending the barbecue and getting stuck into the meat was plastered on the front cover of every newspaper across the country, and broadcast on the television news of every channel. Our Deputy Prime Minister of the time (a youthful-looking cattle breeder) was quoted far and wide about the virtues of eating red meat, urging us all to increase our consumption.
Needless to say the daily newspapers had a rash of letters to the editor commenting on this spectacle and the Deputy Prime Minister's exhortations. Some supported his patriotic, redblooded stand. Others pointed out the cost of red meat or its link with disease to justify a trend to eating more chicken and fish. A spokesman from Community Aid Abroad in Perth pointed out the immorality of spending so much of the world's resources on wasteful meat production when a large part of the world's population is starved of the most basic nourishment. Lyn Carson, (publicity officer and treasurer of the Vegan Society N.S.W., at the time), put forward the vegan point of view admirably in a letter to the editor of the "Sydney Morning Herald" and a couple of radio stations.
In 1983, media attention was again drawn to a public barbecue during National Meat Week. However, this was a barbecue with a difference, a meatless barbecue on the last day of National Meat Week, at Sydney's Centennial Park, organized by The Vegan Society (N.S.W.) to celebrate "the end of National Meat Week" and figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics earlier in the month, showing an overall drop of 9.5% in meat consumption during the preceding twelve months.
The outdoor barbecue in Australia is a cherished national institution. It is seen as a happy social affair when large quantities of meat are consumed, with the virile males taking the lead in grilling the food. There is apparently a lot of science and technique involved in cooking the meat just right, and preventing the sausages bursting indecorously out of their skins as they are grilled. Obviously then this is a job just meant for the Australian he-man. And he enjoys it - even if he'd never expect to cook anything for himself in the kitchen.
Our barbecue was intended as a light hearted parody of this national pastime. At the same time, it had a serious aspect - as a protest against the meat industry, and a demonstration that you can have all the fun of a barbecue without resorting to the use of any animal products.
The concept of a meatless barbecue caught the attention of many people, because of the apparent incongruity of the term, and because of the fun that it promised. We put out a brief press release during the week prior to the barbecue (affectionately called a "barbie" in Australian English) and this was used by many radio stations and two newspaper journalists. Thanks to that publicity and support from our friends in the Vegetarian Society, Animal Liberation and the Australian Association for Humane Research, we had a turnout of over 220 people on the day. There was a lot of work for the half dozen or so individuals who spent their time cooking the food, which itself was very varied, including gluten steaks, shish kebabs, various burgers, tempeh, baked potatoes, grilled bananas, eggplant and onion, with canned vegetarian nutmeat products and sausages as a back up, donated by The Sanitarium Health Food Company.
Everyone present had a great time, especially thanks to Animal Liberation's Circus Troupe, "The Rucchini Family Circus" who gave their first public performance at the barbecue. Banners with signs like "Eat fire not animals" were sympathetically regarded. An all-human circus is a great deal of fun and shows up the cruelty involved in the usual animal acts.
One thing that surprised us was to realise how important barbecues are in the consciousness of Australian vegetarians and vegans. Our affair was in a sense "liberating" for them. They liked being able to participate in an important form of social activity - without any qualms about the ethical quality of the food. They were able to express their Australianness without compromising their standards. We received many requests on the day to organize more such barbecues.
Our message also got through on the public media. A.B.C. radio news on the day broadcast a story about the barbecue, treating it as a serious demonstration against the meat industry. The following day, the A.B.C.'s rural network broadcast an interview about veganism and the barbecue in their morning programme. Sydney's leading newspaper, the "Sydney Morning Herald" gave us a very favourable write-up with an article headed "Vegans show up the typical Aussie barbecue". One of our members, Marie Rettenmund brought her beautiful vegan Alsatians to the barbecue and they fascinated the media people. The Herald article included a large photograph of Marie feeding carrots to her dogs, along with other photographs of some of the people who participated. Although a number of other newspapers and magazines also reported the barbecue, none had the impact of the Herald article which took our message into thousands upon thousands of homes. It has helped to familiarize the Sydney public with the word "vegan" and what it stands for. The impression that it gave of vegans was itself an important achievement. We came across as decent, normal Australians opposing the use of meat on moral and medical grounds, rather than what Australians call "ratbags", a term I find hard to translate into standard English, approximating to eccentrics and extremists. In a society such as Australia's, this itself is an important breakthrough, making it easier for people to approach veganism more confidently.
If nothing else, we have discovered the value of the meatless barbecue for the mental health of the Aussie vegie.
We will have to organize another barbecue sometime in the New Year. However, more important was our achievement of
our original intention - putting a dampener on the meat industry's national promotion.
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Cross-reference: Cookery & Recipes
Cross-reference: Meat Culture
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