To an outside observer, most of Australia's cultural quirks can be solved with a simple explanation. Men in vests are acknowledged as the universal arbiter of yuck, and yet sweaty side-moobs are almost entirely justified in a country that endures 25-degree Celsius heat on a cool day. No one likes dropping c-bombs, but if you shared your living space with bird-eating spiders, you'd probably adopt a more liberal approach to the word "cunt," too.
The same goes for The Wiggles, flip-flops with jeans, and using a Slip-n-Slide over the age of nine: all questionable until you consider the circumstances. Living on a semi-habitable island adrift in the southern hemisphere can make you a bit weird. We get it.
But there's one Australianism that can't be excused by weather or geography. And as Australians gather around their Eskys (don't ask) in the national celebration of Australia Day, it seems like an appropriate time to broach the subject.
Australia, we need to talk about Fairy Bread.
To the non-initiated i.e. the rest of the world, Fairy Bread is triangles of white bread covered with butter and topped with multi-coloured "hundreds and thousands"—the Australian term for sprinkles.
Why go to the effort of baking your child a real cake on their birthday when you can smear some butter on a slice of bread and tip a few coloured balls of sugar on there?
Yes, sprinkles. The country that gave us Wolf Creek and a man who wrestled crocodiles for a living does sprinkles—and in a big way. Fairy Bread has a place in Australia's national conscience akin to the way France thinks about its pastry. Millionaire expat Hugh Jackman still gives it to his daughter, and last year, a national breakfast television show ran a piece on the "shocking" trend among health-conscious Australian parents of swapping their children's butter-laden Fairy Bread for fruit sticks. "This is going to be really divisive and sad news for people," a sombre presenter warned before launching into his report.
Part of the Fairy Bread enigma is that no one really knows where it came from. Its closest relative is hagelslag, a chocolate sprinkle sandwich topping from the Netherlands—and yet even the Dutch stop at rainbow food colouring. Robert Louis Stevenson's 1885 book A Child's Garden of Verses includes a poem of the same name, but the culinary Frankenstein who decided to turn an innocuous kids' verse into an IRL snack is unknown.
One of the earliest references to Fairy Bread in Australia comes from an article published in a 1934 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald. "Christmas Dinner with Toddlers" advises parents to give their children "a slice of fairy bread with sponge cake and the usual drink of milk" as a festive treat, but most Australians' memories of Fairy Bread are tied to a different childhood event.
"So far as I know, Fairy Bread is particular to children's birthday parties in Australia and New Zealand," says Professor Barbara Santich, head of the Food Studies program at the University of Adelaide.
For many Australians, Fairy Bread is as synonymous with children's birthday parties as balloons and biased pass-the-parcel games. (Give it up, Linda, we know you're fixing the music so the birthday boy wins.) "I do not know how many pieces of Fairy Bread I consumed in my childhood," Angela Cee wrote in a post on her blog, The Fairy Bread Chronicles. "But I know it was (and still is) my absolute favourite party treat."
It makes sense. Why go to the effort of baking your child a real cake on their birthday when you can smear some butter on a slice of bread and tip a few coloured balls of sugar on there? Cookie cutters are sometimes used to shape the bread into hearts or stars, but no one likes a spoilt brat.
Fairy Bread's simplicity has saved it from the gentrification many favourite childhood foods undergo at the hands of consciously "quirky" chefs. It's hard to deconstruct something that only has three ingredients, after all. Sydney's Parliament on King is one of the few cafes with Fairy Bread on its menu.
"It's always a happy thing. No one that looks miserable orders fairy bread," says owner Ravi Prasad. "You'd think that it would be parents ordering it for their kids, but it's actually grown-ups that are ordering it."
"I guess she'd seen it on the menu and was curious. I'm not sure how many cafes have Fairy Bread on the menu; not many, I suspect. Which is a travesty," says Prasad. "So we make Emma our Fairy Bread and she says it's lovely and seems to mean it, and there's then there's lots of talking and hugs and hanging out in the cafe. Fairy Bread brings people together."
Regardless of how much soft focus lighting or Pinterest-friendly table dressing you throw at it, you can't escape the fact that it's a piece of soggy bread loaded with strands of refined sugar.
It's not just Australian-American relations that have been strengthened by Fairy Bread. Last year, a Sydney community centre and gender diversity group called Pride in Colour held Fairy Bread and Wings Day, an event that saw parents and their kids come together to make Fairy Bread in celebration of "the diverse families who make up our community." Not bad for a snack that looks like something Buddy the Elf would have for breakfast.
But that's the beauty of Fairy Bread. Regardless of how much soft focus lighting or Pinterest-friendly table dressing you throw at it, you can't escape the fact that it's a piece of soggy bread loaded with strands of refined sugar, designed to be eaten by someone who hasn't yet mastered chewing with their mouth closed. It's simple, it's nostalgic, and the combo of processed carbs, butter, and E numbers is a match made in minimal-effort heaven.
So as Australians unite in celebration of all that is good about their country, Fairy Bread will be up there, right next to killer arachnids and waterslides.
This article was originally published on MUNCHIES in January 2015.