Canada vs Australia triple-layered dessert face-off

Caramel kiss

Canada doesn’t have caramel slices. At least, not exactly. When I was growing up, my mom made a dessert called Eagle Brand squares.

These had a graham cracker base (a kind of sweet plain biscuit), not ground up but simply dropped into the pan, like floor tiles. The middle was a sort of oozy, pale caramel made from Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk, and the top was chocolate.

We had this after-dinner dessert on rotation with a few others, including marshmallow dream squares (chocolate cake base, mini-marshmallow centre and chocolate topping) and whatever it’s called when you coat rainbow mini-marshmallows in chocolate and refrigerate it.

Nostalgia might be a factor in my adult self’s love of caramel slices. That and lifelong sugar addiction.

What Canada lacks in caramel slices, it makes up for in Nanaimo bars. This is a national tragedy.
Stacks of Nanaimo bars
Nanaimo bars (I don’t know why this Winnipeg cafe calls them ‘squares’, this is patently wrong) are named after a small city on Vancouver Island. Their main insult is a middle layer of  custard. Usually the custard is bright yellow, but it can be neon green or even pink. What this has to do with Nanaimo, I don’t know. Maybe it’s custard capital of Canada.

My family never made Nanaimo bars, but whenever I went to potlucks or community events as a kid, there was always a tray of them waiting to disappoint. The base was crumbled nuts and and coconut, and the custard was slimy. The only part worth eating was the chocolate, so I would scrape that off and discard the rest, thinking I was being sneaky.

Discovering caramel slices in Australia felt like the universe making up for a childhood full of Nanaimo bars.  When I wrote my memoir of moving to Sydney, I included a lot of caramel slice references, particularly once I discovered that the caramel slice is as Australian as lamingtons, Anzac biscuits and fairy bread.

If you’re keen to hear more discoveries from expat life in Australia, join me for an online author talk with Katherine Tamiko Arguile. Thursday 1 October, 11am AEST (10:30am Adelaide time) RSVP here >>

Author headshot and book cover

Ep 10: Progressive weakness and loss of sensation

In episode 10 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we get real serious – or as serious as it’s possible for James and me to get.

We talk about our respective diagnoses and how these illnesses erupted in our lives. James has chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a neurological disorder that’s quite rare.

CIDP has had a significant and ongoing impact on his life, but James is determined not to make it part of his identity. His challenges in even speaking about it are why it took us three separate attempts over multiple months to record this episode.

And while this episode was recorded remotely as usual, we actually got to hang out in person in Coonabarbran, proving that we don’t stay at home all the time (even if it often feels that way).

It’s been a big podcast week! Two interviews about How to Be Australian were also released.

The first, with superhost Dani Vee of the Words and Nerds podcast (which is coming up to 200 episodes), is possibly the most cross-cultural Australian/Canadian conversation imaginable, with a strong focus on the weather and spider stories.

Dani shares an excellent spider story that settles one of the great Aussie debates: whether or not hunstmans bite. She also shares a story about visiting family in the Netherlands, who announced, “We’re all going to the beach today because it’s 16 degrees!” As a Canadian I can imagine myself saying this. As an Australian, I think it’s nuts.

As someone who has grown up in Australia, it was such an insight to see how we’re perceived from the outside. 

Dani Vee, Words and Nerds episode 196

Dani also asks what is perhaps my favourite question ever: why do you write?

The other interview is with Paul Barclay for ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas.

This in-depth discussion gets into Australia’s cultural quirks, the concept of belonging, the importance of uncovering and acknowledging buried histories, and of course, the Hollywood kookaburra con.

We also talk about adulthood, and get into the core of the book: ‘Part of the process of really settling into adulthood was realising that these images I’d held in my head, the things that I’d believed were going to make me happy — were not actually going to make me happy.’ 

Paul asks a great question about my search for identity in Australia, and how it connects to a childhood spent moving around.

Something had happened that had disrupted my ability to belong. And I think that’s partly what propelled me to go live in places like South Korea and Peru and Mexico, because of course I didn’t belong there, that was obvious to everyone, and we could just move forward from that understanding.

If these conversations make you keen to get into How to Be Australian, you can get a copy now wherever you are in the world.

Order the book now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia

An overdue caramel slice confession

Caramel slice at the beach

Since How to Be Australian was released in June, I’ve been waiting for someone to point out the book’s glaring inconsistency.  Caramel slice at the beachIt started when I first arrived in Sydney. One of my favourite discoveries was caramel slices, and particularly their wide abundancy at cafes everywhere.

Australia is a country that takes its desserts seriously, as evidenced by the existence of a one-dollar coin featuring Iced VoVos. This is actual Australian currency.
Iced Vovo one dollar gold coin
Yet while I learned about the Aussie origins of lamingtons, fairy bread and pavlova soon after arriving, it took almost a decade before I learned the Down Under origins of the caramel slice.

The first known caramel slice recipe appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly in October 1970 under the name caramel shortbread.
Variety of desserts on platter and jug, cups and saucersScotland understood how amazing caramel shortbread was, because a couple of decades later, the recipe became popular there under the name millionaire’s shortbread.

While that name gives you no indication of what’s in the dessert, I appreciate the implication it’s a dessert of millionaires.

In Australia, I’m not sure when the name shifted from caramel shortbread to caramel slice, but this Google Ngram shows the steep rise in the term’s use.
Caramel slice Ngram graph
You can see I’ve done my research. After the book came out, I found myself talking about caramel slice a lot.

I ended up in a cross-country caramel slice showdown with author Monique Mulligan. (She won easily, since her slice was homemade.)
Laptop and caramel slice
Readers made caramel slice and dropped it off at my home.
Homemade caramel slice on booksAnd author Josephine Taylor created an incredible deconstructed caramel slice decorated with grevillea blossoms in honour of the book. (She has a weekly project pairing newly released books with homemade desserts, check it out.)
Deconstructed caramel slice and How to Be Australian
I’ve even started to incorporate caramel slices into my wardrobe. Check out these earrings, which were a hot tip from another lovely reader.
Caramel slice earringsWhen I started giving author talks, I was using this photo from my own archives. I reckon this caramel slice is perfect. It has a significant layer of chocolate, not too thin, an ideal consistency in the caramel, and a chocolate crumble base with – notably – no dessicated coconut. Caramel slice with creamA reader who attended that talk pointed out that a proper caramel slice shouldn’t have a chocolate base.

But so far no-one has pointed out the inconsistency in the book, which is that while I love caramel slices, I strongly dislike dessicated coconut. I refuse to eat both Iced Vovos and lamingtons because of it. Look at this coconutty mess smothering otherwise delicious cake. Bowl of lamingtonsI’ve been prepared to defend myself on this, to insist that the dried-up coconut nubs in the base of caramel slices are negligible (though still unpleasant and woefully unnecessary), and that I’m very much aware of them, but my love of caramel slices overcomes my dislike of dessicated coconut in this instance (even if sometimes, when I’m alone, I eat the base first so I can enjoy the chocolate and caramel without the pesky interference of other ingredients, proving I haven’t matured much since childhood).

So far no readers have challenged me on this very important and serious matter, nor has it come up in any reviews. But I’m bracing for it. Like I said, we take our desserts seriously here.

 

Order How to Be Australian now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia

If this Australian animal is after you, it might be personal

How Deadly
How Deadly is a series of short videos featuring ABC’s resident ‘nature nerd’, Ann Jones, available on iView. Ann answers all the pressing questions: how realistic are the crocodile scenes in movies like Lake Placid and Crocodile Dundee? Are snakes cannibals? How do kangaroos feel about parachutes? How many people have been murdered by emus? And how did they train Skippy to perform all those stunts?

How Deadly is worth watching to hear Ann refer to snakes as ‘bush tinsel’, and for the revelation that swooping ‘maggies’ have particular proclivities: some hate bike riders, some go after posties because of their hi-vis gear, and – because they can recognise faces – some target specific individuals. So if you’re getting swooped, remember – it might be personal.*

Ann says that emus have never murdered anyone, but emu expert Stephen Schmidt disagrees. According to him, ‘people have been killed by them.’

In a recent ABC article about emus being banned from a western Queensland pub after ‘toileting’ all over the place, Schmidt said, ‘I’ve had them chase me up onto the top of the truck.’ Meaning, presumably, that if he hadn’t managed to get up there, the oversized birds would have murdered him.

Schmidt doesn’t mention how many days he had to wait atop his truck before the homicidal birds finally scuttled off to find someone else to terrorise.

Nor does he offer any evidence of emu murders. But he must know what he’s talking about, since he works with the birds daily. His farm name, Try It Emu, seems like a direct taunt (this might explain the truck scenario). So maybe magpies aren’t the only Australian birds with a personal beef.

These sorts of Australiana facts are among my favourite things to discuss, and soon I’ll be doing just that on Zoom with author Cass Moriarty. Join us! Two female authors and book cover
Ashley Kalagian Blunt in conversation with Cass Moriarty
Thursday 6 August, 6:30-7:30pm AEST, online
Avid Reader
Free, RSVP here >>

*This was first published by Writing NSW

How do you know if you’re really Australian?

Two memoir book covers
Jay Martin is the author of Vodka and Apple Juice, a memoir of living in Warsaw, Poland as a diplomat’s wife – or more accurately, an undiplomatic wife. Jay also lived in Alberta, Canada, for two years, and has recently moved back to Perth.

I recently had the chance to chat with Jay about Canada, Australia, writing other cultures, pumpkin spice season, being married, and the all-important question: How can you tell if you’re really Australian?

Jay: Both of us wrote books about moving to other countries. I really wanted to introduce people to Poland through writing my book. I felt like it was a really unknown country that had a lot to offer and that there was no one doing it justice. So I wanted to write a book that would make people want to go there. I also think I wrote it as a kind of therapy, processing what had been a very intense period for me with coming to terms with not working, and trying to make sense of myself in the expat world.

Ashley: Your book definitely made me want to go to Poland! Not in winter though. IMG_6517.JPGJay: And that’s coming from a Canadian! Now, of course, you’re an Australian of Canadian origin, and your book is about the process of adding the Australian to that. What was the strangest or most unexpected thing for you about moving to Australia?

Ashley: I still haven’t found a snake hiding in my dishwasher – venomous or otherwise. Australia’s got a reputation to hold up, and frankly, it’s failing. What about for you as an Australian moving to Canada?

Jay: One of the strangest things for me was that it was so similar. It was possibly partly because I moved from Western Australia to Alberta, both of which are described as the Texas of the respective countries. I got there and found crazy right-wing politicians, a boom-bust economy based on digging stuff out of the ground and a city that from some angles looks like an endless series of strip malls and thought, ‘I’ve moved to the other side of the world and this is just like being home’. I tried to introduce the term “cashed-up bogan,” but it didn’t stick. When I explained it everyone knew exactly what I meant, though.

Ashley: How was the process of writing another culture for you? Were there things you felt like you had to modify or leave out?

Jay: Is it too early in this conversation to comment that that’s probably a very Canadian question – because Canadians wouldn’t want to be seen to be impolite? Canadians are polite, though. I used to love the signs in our apartment building that told people they had to not open the door to people. It was like they needed to be instructed how be rude. Is this too stereotypical?

Author Jay Martin in Canada winter

Ashley: That’s funny, because we have the same signs in our Sydney apartment building! Aussies are also very polite, in my experience – although maybe they’re just being very polite around me because they’re concerned their natural brusqueness will offend my delicate Canadian sensibilities? I once had a friend break off in the middle of telling a story about an encounter she had at work, turn to her husband and exclaim, ‘I can’t say the C-word in front of Ashley and Steve!’

And now I’ll politely remind you that you didn’t answer my question.

Jay: Yes, there were so many sensitivities in what I was writing about. The war, Poland’s Jewish population, concentration camps, they all get a mention because they were a part of what I was experiencing, what I was learning. There was also the ridiculousness – to me – of communism. But it’s easy for me to say it’s ridiculous and make a joke about it, when I never had to live under that system. And I did tone the humour down in parts, in deference to that. What about for you? Australia calls you map and tourism adAshley: I felt the same. I felt I couldn’t write about Australia without bringing up topics like Indigenous rights, the treatment of asylum seekers, racism (an Indian reader recently said to me, ‘I can’t believe you used the R-word’). But it was tricky to do this, especially in a book that’s full of jokes about seven-legged spiders, inappropriate tattoos, and Iced VoVos.

Jay: I particularly liked that you covered all the ‘usual’ Australian stereotypes, like sharks and spiders, but you also talk about some of the more complex things, like Australia’s cultural cringe. My husband and I ended up having a long conversation about that, and discovered we both had very clear understandings of the term – that were completely different. It prompted me to think about how reading about your own country can help you see it differently.

Ashley: I wish someone had written a book called “How to Be Canadian” that revealed all the magical things that I’d grown accustomed to overlooking as a Canadian. If I could have read that as a teen, I probably would have appreciated everything around me more. Is there anything else in the book that really struck you, as an Aussie?

Jay: Well I’d never thought about the other meaning for the world “bush”. I can almost hear you giggle every time you write it. Although now I’ve seen it, I’ll never unsee it.

Ashley: You’re welcome.

Jay: Hmm. It was sort of the same for me with “beaver”, though, you know. I couldn’t talk about them with a straight face. Maybe Canadian Australians should be called bush beavers? What do you think?Couple with turquoise lake, mountain peak, evergreens
Ashley
: I once suggested at a local trivia night that our team name be the beaveroos and was promptly shouted down. Bush beavers is even better!

Jay: That person has no sense of humour. It’s interesting to talk with someone else about choosing what to include and exclude when you’re writing about a country and culture. I know some of the things I wrote struck a chord with Polish people – like shop assistants never having any change. Some of them cry from laughing at that. I also write about the difference between narodowość and obywatelctwo in Polish, which can both be translated into English as citizenship, but really describe different concepts – one being the nationality you have on your passport, and the other a deeper notion of belonging to a place, a land, which is you carry in your heart. I’m not sure that those of us from settler cultures can really understand this. What do you think?
Couple shadowed on sandAshley: I spent a lot of years researching and writing about Armenia, because my great grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide of World War One. And that research taught me a lot about the deep notion of belonging to a place, which I think in turn helps give me some insight into Aboriginal connection to land. And I agree, for me, especially because my family moved all over when I was a kid, I feel more like a pot plant, able to be picked up and relocated. And yet I am very Canadian (hence the politeness) and in Vodka and Apple Juice, you explore your Australianness.

Visit Jay Martin’s website for the continuation of this conversation, including her definitive quiz testing my Australianness!

Follow her on Twitter at @jaymartinwrites and check out her fabulous memoir,Vodka and Apple Juice.

 

Cross-country caramel slice showdown

When WA author Monique Mulligan prepares for an author interview, she really prepares.

And by that I mean she convinces her husband to go to the shops for condensed milk so she can make homemade caramel slice. Look at these beauties.pile of caramel slices Monique interviewed me for the Koorliny Arts Centre’s program Live: Stories on Stage this week, and she was definitely in the spirit of How to Be Australian.

Her baking prowess made me realise I’ve never made caramel slice. It also made me realise there’s a good reason for that: I would eat the whole pan in a day. As much as I’m a strong advocate for Australia embracing its place in world history as the homeland of the caramel slice, I’m also aware that too much caramel will one day give me diabetes.

Instead I bought a single gigantic caramel slice from a local cafe. What it lacks in flavour it makes up for in size.
Laptop and caramel sliceMonique shared her own experience of moving from Sydney to Perth. She also asked some excellent questions, including how I would convince Canadians to visit Australia once we can all travel again. The answer to that is four simple words: “Australia – now spider-free!”

(Technically Australia isn’t spider-free, but that discovery can be part of the fun once visitors arrive and walk into a human-sized golden-orb spider web.)

She also asked if she were going to move to Winnipeg for a year, what three things would she need to know. One of my key tips is about driving in snow.

Swirling snow decreases visibility and the streets get icy slick unless the gravel trucks have been around to spray grit at the intersections. The key rule in these circumstances is to never slam your brakes. Slamming your brakes causes your tires to lock. When that happens, your vehicle becomes a two-ton metal cannonball on an unknown trajectory and you’re just along for the ride. When driving on ice, you’re meant to triple your braking distance and pump your brakes gently, like you’re giving CPR to a baby with your foot. Caramel Slice on How to Be AustralianOne of our audience members also asked how my husband feels about being a central character in the book, and if he had veto power, which is an excellent question. Steve told me that he didn’t want to read the book because, to quote, “I was there, I don’t need to read it”. But I made him read it anyway, because that’s what marriage is about.

Order How to Be Australian now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia

 

When life gives you lemonades … just eat them

Woman holds Romanesco cauliflower
Remember back in January, when many of us made new year’s resolutions, as if 2020 was going to be any old year where we could make plans and go about our everyday lives?

I found this especially ironic because, back in 2019, I made a list of resolutions that I planned to fail at (and I did an amazing job of that). In 2020 however, I made a list of genuine resolutions that I earnestly planned to follow.

One of my resolutions was to ask better questions, advice I took from author David Sedaris. My plan was, when I was out and about interacting with people, to try to ask interesting and random questions a few times a week, just to see what people might tell me. This meant breaking out of the usual polite script we use for interactions, which was a good personal challenging.

I’d started getting in a bit of a rhythm with this, and was delighted by many of the resulting interactions. Often people are really keen to talk and have something interesting to tell you, if you give them a chance.

After months of lockdown though, I’ve found this impulse has shut down, and my interactions are really stitled, especially as I’m still not going out much.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about my latest Australiana discovery – lemonades!
4 Lemona
Keen followers of this site will remember that back in January, I asked a fruit store cashier about the strangest fruit they stock, and she got all excited telling me about lemonades, a type of lemon that tastes exactly like lemonade.

I promised to follow up the tip, and here we are.
More lemonades
I went back to the fruit shop and found these beauties.

As my mom observed, lemonades look like lemons crossed with oranges. They’re rounder, and their skin is mottled. According to a random produce website, this fruit is “a hybrid cross between a Meyer lemon and New Zealand grapefruit, though some claim it is a cross of a lemon and a mandarin”.
Woman cuts lemonades in kitchen
Wikipedia claims lemonades were “discovered” in New Zealand in the 1980s, so technically speaking they’re not Australian. But apparently they’re grown here, so I’m counting them among my Australian discoveries.

(Side note: I recently found out that some Aussies call magpies “maggies” and I think that is fabulous.)

You can eat a lemonade just like you would an orange. They’re sweet with a lemony tang. I’ve personally eaten a few bagfuls.

And when I was out searching for lemonades, I also discovered this beast.
Romanesco cauliflower on cutting board
If I’d gone to the store with my usual shopping list, in my usual frame of mind, I might have missed it. But because I was on the lookout for something new, I spotted the one and only monster cauliflower and immediately had to have it.

Turns out it’s a romanesco, a cross between cauliflower and broccoli. I wanted to keep it as a pet, I loved it so much. But it was going a bit off, as you can see on some of the tips, so I whipped it up into one of my favourite recipes, and it was delish.
bowl of cauliflower soup on table
Next time you’re in the produce section, I highly recommend asking what strange and offbeat fruit and veg might appear on the shelves. Unless you’re someone who already knows all about strange fruit and veg, in which case, please tell me about it!

If you enjoyed this post, you’d definitely enjoy one of my upcoming author talks. I’d love to see you there!

Ashley
xo

 

Be Nice to Australians Month

Part of learning how to become Australian has meant trying to figure out the relationship between Australian and New Zealand.
Woman stands on hilltop bench above Auckland
Growing up in Canada, I never thought much about NZ. Australia had a defined character, a national brand, thanks to Crocodile Dundee and Foster’s beer ads. New Zealand was just a place on the map, like Wales or Delaware.

One article described Aus and NZ as “two warring children with the same parents“, which is a lengthy way to say siblings. The author couldn’t pinpoint the origins of the rivalry, though a lot of it has to do with sport – and possibly the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

My most significant insight came from the March 2007 Tourism New Zealand marketing campaign Be-Nice-to-Australians Month.

The campaign was created in earnest, and involved “painting New Zealand green and gold” in honour of Australia. It also encouraged Kiwis to cut back on the snide remarks: “While one comment is pretty innocuous, if every second Kiwi makes a comment about the cricket or about the rugby, it will start to grate on them.”

New Zealanders didn’t respond well to it. An article in the NZ Herald describing the initiative was headlined “Through gritted teeth”. The Herald ran a follow-up article of collected responses.

What I found most interesting about these comments is that you could substitute Canada/America for New Zealand/Australia in most of them. Take these:

“I am all for a Be-Nice-To-Australians month. And from the 1st of April, I will be looking forward 1000 years or more to the next one.”

“How can you be nice to people whom 90 per cent of do not know where NZ is or even that it exists? To the average Australian, New Zealand means zilch.”

Works both ways! A Canadian political TV show used to have a segment called Talking to Americans. In it, a reporter travelled to the US and interviewed Americans about fake Canadian news stories, like the dome we had to install over the igloo that serves as our capitol building, to prevent it from melting. At one point, the governor of Arkansas congratulates Canada on preserving their national igloo.

I’ve enjoyed getting to know New Zealand as part of our Australian experience. It has some of the most unique places I’ve ever visited, like Hot Water Beach, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, and Hells Gate Mud Spa. (Smearing that mud on my face was a mistake though, I had a splotchy face rash for the rest of the trip.) 

I wonder if, as Canadians, we would have fit in better in New Zealand. But I suspect much of the ‘rivalry’ stems from both nations’ habit of expressing affection (and many other feelings) through needling sarcasm – and that’s something I’ll never adjust to.

 

4.5 minutes of fame

It’s ironic that my first appearance on national TV would be on breakfast news, since an actual line from my memoir How to Be Australian reads, “The breakfast news was on (it was always on at the gym, like some sort of curse).”

Regardless, here I am! Wearing my Iced VoVo earrings and exposing the Hollywood kookaburra con to the entire country.

In case you haven’t yet read the book, let me summarise: kookaburras have been putting Hollywood monkeys out of work for years.

The first time I heard real live kookaburra laughter, I started looking around for monkeys. Later I discovered I could blame Hollywood for this. At some point, an American producer decided kookaburras sounded more like monkeys than monkeys themselves. The birds have been creating jungle ambiance in blockbusters ever since, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park to Jumanji.

Thanks to the power of the internet, however, I discovered that the conspiracy goes way deeper than that.

Or, to be accurate, someone else discovered it, and a third excellent person informed me of it:

It turns out kookaburra sounds effects were used in The Wizard of Oz way back in 1939! I guess at the time, Hollywood producers figured the average American film audience wouldn’t know what either monkeys or kookaburras sounded like, and went about creating their own version of reality … which then seeped into my understanding of actual reality.

But this article breaks down the early Tarzan movies, and finds that kookaburras were conning audiences even earlier than that – in 1938. This means for more than eight decades, overseas audiences have trained to believe that Australia’s riotous avian laughter is actually produced by primates. It’s the ultimate interspecies con.

Now that How to Be Australian is out, people have been getting in touch to share all kinds of fabulous Australiana I wasn’t even aware of, and I’ve been delighting it. Like the fabulous Kristy Diffey, who shared this important revelation with me:  

In 2019, the Royal Australian Mint released millions of $1 coins featuring Australian themes. Not just Iced Vovos, but also meat pies, lamingtons, Vegemite, Weet-Bix and something called Zooper Dooper, which doesn’t sound like something dignified enough to appear on any national currency.

There’s no equivalent to this in Canada. We don’t have loonies (yes, our $1 coins are called loonies. There’s a loon on them. And our $2 coins are called toonies) with nanaimo bars on them, or Timbits, or even tiny bottles of maple syrup. Maybe we should, but we don’t – and I believe that’s a significant cultural distinction.

If you’d like to hear about my upcoming events and other exciting news, you can sign up for my monthly-ish newsletter.

Ashley
xo