There’s a tiny lizard skull on the dashboard of Inigo’s dirty white CR-V. Plus a feather, some rocks, and a Hello Kitty charm dangling from the turn signal, a relic of the years he and I spent teaching English in Japan.
He’s steering with one hand and eating an apple with the other as we cruise down the western side of Australia’s Blue Mountains and onto the plains beyond. It’s a beautiful autumn day in April, the third morning of my two-week visit. Frankie Goes to Hollywood blares from the tape deck.
“I remember you having good taste in music,” I tease. “What’s gone wrong?” Ini just grins through a mouthful of apple.
When we spot two wild emus grazing by the side of the road, Ini pulls the car over, and two humans and two birds study each other for a while. Back on the road again a few minutes later, my old friend remarks on the fact that his fellow Australians are likely the only people on the planet to eat both of the animals that flank their country’s national seal: the emu and the kangaroo.
And this seemingly offhand comment somehow translates into this fact: my education in Australian fauna is coming to dinner.
I’m not much of a meat eater. Fish, seafood, and the occasional bit of chicken may be found on my plate, but I’ll choose the veggie burger over the all-beef patty every time. In my travels, though, I’ve made a rule for myself: An exception to my dietary preferences will always be made in the name of cultural experience.
Because of this policy, I’ve sampled everything from homemade Wienerschnitzel in the Vienna Woods to delicate strips of raw horsemeat, a gourmet specialty in parts of southern Japan.
Kangaroo? Bring it on.
That’s how I found myself standing in front of the meat cooler in a busy supermarket, looking at cellophane-wrapped packages of kangaroo. It’s still a relatively marginalized main course, and thus has been banished to the part of the meat case where the weird stuff is kept. Eyeballs. Gizzards. Kanga.
Still, some clever marketing ace is fighting tooth and nail to keep kangaroo from being dismissed as simply a bizarro foodstuff. Each cut of meat on its Styrofoam tray is adorned with cheerful green striped packaging and labeled in bright, friendly letters. Inigo, determined to give me the full Aussie experience, examines the kangaroo steaks carefully while I explore the upper shelves.
At the top are packages of what look like pale breakfast links. Kangaroo sausages. “Look,” I say to Ini. “Kanga bangers!”
He’s quiet for a long moment. Then, with an air of great diplomacy in his voice, he says simply, “Yeah. Those are a bit of a worry.”
Apparently, you don’t want to know how they make sausages in any country.
The kangaroo’s move from the outback to the dinner table has been touted as an environmental coup, since the animals don’t produce atmosphere-clogging methane gas like cows do. In fact, ’roos neither burp nor fart. And their big soft feet are suited to Australia’s terrain and do far less damage to the fragile topsoil than do the hooves of cattle and pigs. Two different studies at the University of New South Wales have even suggested farming — and eating — kangaroo instead of sheep or cattle as a way to lower Australia’s total carbon output.
As Australia’s harsh scrublands have been transformed into grassy cultivated fields for sheep-raising, the kangaroo population has boomed. Tender green grass ripe for the grazing is easier pickings than foraging for rare vegetation in the outback. The population explosion needs to be checked, and the lean, healthy meat of the kangaroo seems like the ideal dinner fare for Australia’s meat-loving yet increasingly health-conscious citizens.
Still, kangaroo hasn’t quite caught on yet. It’s hard to square even the most potent environmental benefits with the combined forces of tradition, acclimation, and cuteness. I’ve struggled to think of the equivalent main course for those of my own culture, and the best I can do is this: Imagine being told that the beast being served for dinner was a cross between a bald eagle, Bambi, and a possum. Perhaps this is why, when told of our culinary plans, even Inigo’s leftist, progressive mom was horrified: “You’re feeding her what?”
There’s a linguistic theory as to why kangaroo hasn’t found success as an entrée: We lack the language to distance ourselves from knowing that this meat used to be a creature. Words like “pork” and “venison” mask the fact that we’re really eating Babe and Bambi’s mom, but kangaroo is just kangaroo, whether in hopping or grilled form. A valiant attempt to rename kangaroo meat “australus” has failed completely, and the fact that cute furry mammals are what’s for dinner remains a point of discomfort.
No matter what the benefits, changing old habits is a slow process, especially when the process requires shifting a paradigm that separates wild friends from cellophane-wrapped food.
Inigo and I, though, are going to be brave, and ecological. When the long-awaited dinner hour arrives, Ini mans the little charcoal barbecue on the back porch of his family’s summer house while I tend to salad-making. We’ve marinated the ’roo in one of Ini’s improvisatory concoctions of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, lemon pepper, rosemary, and sage from the front garden. The meat sizzles on the grill while Ini keeps watch, a glass of his dad’s dark home-brewed beer in hand.
When we sit down at the table, I find myself thinking wistfully of the amazingly soft belly fur of the stuffed kangaroo on display at Sydney’s natural-history museum. But then, summoning my traveler’s sense of adventure, I pick up my fork and take a bite.
The meat is tender, well-seasoned, and satisfying in the smoky way of all good barbecue. It’s appetizing but somewhat anticlimactic, tasting to my unrefined protein-eater’s palate like simple, lean, well-cooked beef. Nothing altogether remarkable, especially considering the weight and shape of all the information and preparation leading up to this piece of meat on my plate.
After dinner, Inigo and I retire to the wicker chairs on the front porch. He strums his guitar while we look up at the stars. The Southern Cross is much smaller than I had always imagined. I’m happy to know that. Traveling is a good thing.
It would be easy for me to simply add the story of the kangaroo to my store of other strange food adventures from my time in Europe and Asia, and head back to my mostly-herbivorous life in the Pacific Northwest. But Australia’s slowly shifting attitude toward the kangaroo feels significant, an entire culture’s relationship to food, animals, and the shared environment undergoing gradual change.
When I pack my bags at the end of my two weeks, tucked into my carry-on are two packages of Tim Tams (the chocolate-cookie equivalent of heaven), a handful of beautiful stones, rolls of undeveloped film, and a package of “bush pepper flavor” kangaroo jerky. As a farewell and thank-you gift, I hand Inigo the plush beaver toy I’ve brought him from Oregon.
“When you come visit me,” I tell him with a significant look, “we’ll eat . . .”
His eyes get big.
I grin. “Salmon. Lots of salmon.”
Mindy Moreland has hung up her passport for a few years while she attends graduate school in Eugene, Oregon.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more
Good on everything