Australians would love to claim the barbecue. The ritual of it fits so neatly into the sunny national stereotypes we subscribe to. Men with metal tongs in their hands slowly turning the snags, women hovering over salad bowls. Kids playing cricket on the lawn. We would like to think Paul Hogan invented the art of sizzling prawns on metal, but the filmmakers behind Barbecue know differently. The grilled meat gathering is a global phenomenon.
Between 2015 and 2016, South Australian couple Rose Tucker and Matthew Salleh spent 200 days travelling to 12 different countries, documenting how different cultures approach what we'd call a barbie. They ate Swedish barbecue, they ate South African barbecue, they ate Texas barbecue. They even ate at a makeshift barbecue restaurant within a refugee camp on the border of Syria and Jordan."We kept the definition as broad as possible. Basically the two elements being meat and fire," Tucker explains. "It's the gathering together element, too. So sometimes it might not be technically a barbecue by strict cooking definitions, but culturally it's a barbecue," Salleh adds.
In the Philippines, the duo watched locals expertly roast pigs on spits, labouring to kill the pigs, wash and shave their skins, stuff and baste their bodies, then turn them by hand for hours over heat. In Mongolia, they watched as nomadic farmers slaughtered marmots, scooped out their innards, and filled the empty carcasses with hot stones. On camera, the chefs are earnest about their art.
"Everywhere we went, it was so important, like they were carrying on their culture and their traditions by performing this act that had been passed on. It's so much more than just cooking, it's bringing a part of their culture to life every time they did it," says Tucker.
As you might expect in a documentary about different cultures, there is an emphasis in Barbecue on the universality of human experience. We might be eating different animals to the Mongolians, but we're talking the same shit while we do it.
"It seems like the barbecue is where some of the most important conversations are held," says Salleh. "People talked about politics and religion, they caught up with friends who hadn't seen each other in a long time. They'd be telling the same old stories again, but also discussing important issues."
Perhaps the most universal barbecue phenomenon, though, is that of the overbearing dad. "In every culture, there's a man—always a man—turning his nose up and saying, 'I wouldn't do it that way, I'd do it like this,'" notes Tucker.
Everyone Tucker and Salleh ate with was eager to share food and culture. No matter where they were in the world, locals were filled with pride for their cuisine and community.
So which country barbecues best?
"Texas-style brisket is amazing, you can't deny it," says Tucker. "But there are some that give it a run for its money. I absolutely loved Armenian khorovats, that's pieces of pork cooked on a sword over hot coals. There's music, flasks of vodka going around, all that contributes to enjoying the food."
The tastes of home, though, always win out. Even if they're fairly pedestrian in comparison to a coal-stuffed marmot. "Matt and I have such a fondness for an Australian sausage on bread. That to us, tastes like our childhood." The comfort of the familiar is what led Syrian refugees to start a barbecue restaurant at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. "That sense of home is what refugees really lack," says Salleh. "That's why the restaurant was built—because they wanted to have something that felt like home, where people would gather. The guys that ran the restaurant had run restaurants back in Damascus. So really they were were trying to continue with their lives."
Street barbecue in Uraguay
"Barbecue" is an evocative word. For me, it brings back suburban childhood scenes that were like low-key versions of The Slap, our backyard hosting people whose families had come here from all over the world, everyone bringing something different to grill on the Weber. I've since gone vegetarian and moved to the city, but the smoky flavours of the meat are so engrained in my memory that I can almost taste them as I type. As an adult I've come to understand the barbecue as a construct—a nice story Australians, and particularly white Australians, tell ourselves.
Tucker and Salleh think it's more than that, and they're convincing.
"We started making this film about how different cultures are more similar than we think. Then, over the past year, those in power have tried to suggest that we are more different," says Salleh. "But what's fascinating is that regular people, in the midst of all this—they don't really care. What we found is that there is tolerance and diversity where you least expect it. Whether it's in a barbecue restaurant in Texas or on the Syrian border, there is this desire for everyone to get along."