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This may be the only place on the planet I can say that I am sick of being crook and expect some degree of understanding and sympathy.  “Crook” has taken an evolutionary twist on its way to the Southern hemisphere, its meaning leaning towards “ill” or out of sorts. I am guessing now that what I thought was a cold or an allergic reaction may, in fact, have been the flu.  I probably picked it up at the Writer’s Festival.  Everyone knows that writers are solitary creatures and should never get together except in bars or at Irish pubs. Only bad things can come of it.

The strain that latched itself on to me came on like Sarah Palin’s proverbial bulldog and I am still suffering from the symptoms, which seems hardly fair.  I eat right, exercise, and usually start each day with Uncle Toby.  For those of you unlucky enough to have been born somewhere other than Australia, or those who may not have read Laurence Sterne’s 18th Century novel, Tristam Shandy, the name may not trigger instant recognition.  A briefing is in order.

Captain Toby Shandy, Tristram’s uncle, and brother to Walter Shandy. retires to a life of obsessive attention to the history and science of military fortifications after sustaining a groin-wound in battle.  Much of the action of the novel is concerned with domestic upsets or misunderstandings, which find humour in the opposing temperaments of Walter – splenetic, rational and somewhat sarcastic – and Uncle Toby, who is gentle, uncomplicated and a lover of his fellow man.  (According to Wikipedia’s Sterne expert)

Which brings us around to breakfast cereal.  When Clifton Love, an entrepreneur from Sydney, decided that his family-owned spice grinding business should branch out into milling oats, his sister, Nellie was enlisted to come up with a name for the new product line.  She latched on to Uncle Toby and devised the logo, which has barely changed in 115 years.

The company was listed on the Sydney stock exchange in 1919 and went on to stardom in the breakfast cereal firmament.  In 1993, Uncle Toby was the number two brand of breakfast foods in Oz, right after Kelloggs.  Two years ago, the brand was gobbled up by the Swiss company, Nestle.

The thing about breakfast cereals in Australia is that the boxes get really big, there is a huge variety on offer, and there are a  number of cereals without excessive amounts of sugar.  I am not sure why that is.  Australians certainly have a sweet tooth, but they appear to indulge their penchant for sweets with cookies (biscuits), chocolate and the like, rather than load their breakfast cereals with sweeteners. The Uncle Toby pitch is about good health and nutrition, not about selling fructose to toddlers.

Over the years, the brand has made use of various athletes, including the swimmer, Grant Hackett, as a spokesman.  I wish they would have chosen Cliff Young instead.  He grew up on a sheep farm outside Melbourne which did not have horses or four-wheelers.  He would play sheep dog and run down the sheep.  In 1983, at the age of 61, he decided to enter an ultra marathon foot race between Sydney and Melbourne, a distance of 700 kms, or 442 miles, 17 marathons in a row.  Cliff showed up in gumboots and overalls.

Cliff was not flashy or fast, but five days and fifteen minutes later, he won, finishing the race two full days ahead of his competitors.  He did the one thing that the others had not thought possible, not sleeping.  Cliff never repeated that success, but he went on to run more than 20,000 kms in his career.  What a great Australian story.  Just like Uncle Toby.

Now, If only I could get over feeling crook, I’d be right as rain.  Ready to run down a few sheep, or, at the very least, get back on the bike again.


At least once a week, usually more often, I drop in at the local supermarket to stock up. I may make the trip on foot, with a two-wheeled cart limiting my load. On more ambitious days, I’ll hook up the bike trailer I purchased specifically for the purpose. It will hold a week’s provisions, but the route to the store is tricky unless I ride on the sidewalk.

I would have to guess from the reaction that I may have the first bike trailer that has ever been seen at the supermarket. Almost everyone else arrives by car. Our Subaru can carry enough foodstuffs for a small army, but green guilt interferes, so I’m usually on foot.

There are two stores that are pretty accessible from here– Safeway and Coles. I go to Coles. Not only is it closer to where I live, it is larger and has more variety. In addition, the building houses a Chemist, a greengrocer, a fishmonger, coffee merchant, butcher, specialty foods shop, Italian kiosk, etc. Not to mention a “bottle” shop.

Coles has been in the news a lot lately since it has been “in play.” That seems to have finally been settled with the purchase of the company by a corporate entity called Wesfarmers. Safeway is owned by Woolworths (no relation to the US retailer). There is a discount war going on now between the two supermarket giants.

I have no idea what that will mean to the price of milk at the checkout counter, but I suspect that in the long run, prices will go up. There are all those shareholders to satisfy and the drought shows no sign of ending anytime soon. It is easy to justify higher prices when farmers are going under due to lack of rain.

When the first fleet landed on these shores, they brought their provisions with them. It was a good thing. The aboriginals had managed to sustain a substantial population on marginal land, but few of the new settlers showed any inclination to learn from them, or to eat what they ate.

For years, Australian “cuisine” meant nothing more than a slightly modified English cuisine, and we all know how dismal that was. During a year I spent in London, I remember staring in astonishment at a jar of peas that had been boiled to such an extent that the peas were absolutely translucent. All the chlorophyll had settled at the bottom of the jar.

I once watched in horror as a British workman slathered mayonnaise on two pieces of thick white bread to make himself a sandwich filled with nothing but greasy french fries. He was mainlining cholesterol.

Then came the immigration boom after the war. Suddenly, Australians woke up to good coffee (thanks to the Italians). Then came ethnic restaurants. Waves of Greeks, Chinese, Indians, Germans, and Vietnamese triggered a sea change in cooking.

If you are partial to “ethnic” food, you will drool in an Australian supermarket. There are shelves devoted to all the Asian cuisines and European specialties, as well as local “tucker” like lamingtons, tim tams, pavlova, emu and kangaroo. Aside from wine, the biggest success as an export seems to be the lowly macadamia nut.

Peanut butter is not popular but huge boxes of breakfast cereals tower over one entire aisle. Popcorn is only available in small packets; bulghur wheat impossible to find. Silverbeet(which I call Swiss chard) is astonishingly popular. Likewise pumpkin, which appears to apply to almost any squash, and “rocket” salad, which I would call Arugula.

The seafood selection is limited. Flathead, salmon and a fish called the blue grenadier are popular. Judging from the amount of space given over to meat, seafood devotes would seem to be few and far between, but I’ve been told that locals buy their fish from fish vendors.

And then, there is the amazing attraction to Vegemite. How does one explain the appeal of a concoction dreamed up to use leftover yeast from the beer making process. Australia’s favourite breakfast spread (now owned by Kraft, an American company) has been dropped from the menu in Victoria’s prisons. Last year, around Christmas time, several prisoners extracted the yeast to ferment fruit stolen from the kitchen. They were found severely drunk. “The issue…is not about banning Vegemite. It’s about basic safety.”

I’m sure Kraft is screaming bloody murder. Just think of the lost opportunity for prison movie product placement, “star prisoner” endorsements. Ban Vegemite? What’s next?

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