It’s Puddin’ Time

“Just a half pound of suet, thanks,” I smiled at my friendly local butcher. 
“Did you say a 10lb turkey?” 
“Haha, no- a half pound of suet,” I replied cheerfully. 
Tur-key?”
“SU-ET.”
He looked at me evenly for a beat longer than necessary, then called out over his shoulder, “Mike, your customer…”

I understood the man’s confusion. It was four days before Thanksgiving and I’d spent the last hour in a socially-distanced line of eager, well-to-do New Yorkers waiting to spend wads of cash on ethically raised, locally sourced turkeys for Thursday’s traditional nosh-up. He wasn’t expecting an order for a 3 dollar wad of beef fat. In much the same way as I’m not expecting to bring him a slice of my delicious homemade Christmas pudding. 

Christmas in Australia is a hard thing for Northern Hemispherics to grasp. We retain fairly strong emotional ties to our (almost) former overlord, the UK, and until fairly recently, our Christmas dinner was a traditional one: turkey, stuffing, roast spuds, cranberry sauce… We’d sit around on the big day, passing the gravy boat, admiring the fir tree dolled up like a chorus girl in the corner, eying off the tray of mince pies at the end of the table; all the while pretending we weren’t pouring sweat in high summer in a country with no turkeys or fir trees. For weeks down at the local shopping centre, Santa, in full North Pole get-up, had been slowly dissolving in his department store throne, flanked by ludicrous displays of fake snow and smouldering yule logs. I’m not suggesting it wasn’t joyful and heartwarming, but surely a blind denial of our surroundings. By the time I became sentient, things were changing. A burgeoning sense of individuality could be seen in many aspects of Australian life, and certainly at the Christmas table. In my family it was prawns, cold ham, and salad in the backyard, cold beers for the grownups, maybe a decorated eucalyptus branch stuck in a pot in the living room. But there was always a Christmas pud.

 The majestic Christmas pudding has never really gained a toehold here in the US. Americans don’t agree on much these days, but a distrust of dried fruit seems to cross all social and political barriers; and the word “pudding” has a baffling range of definitions. Here in the US it’s some kind of gooey gelatinous custardy thing, sometimes chocolate, vanilla, or banana flavoured. In the UK and its colonies, it’s a generic word for dessert, and any number of sweet or savoury steamed dishes, of which the Christmas pud is one. And in the case of Yorkshire puddings, a baffling and disappointing cup made of baked dough to be ignored alongside a lovely roast dinner. But as much as you think you won’t like it, because it’s chock full of gross dried fruit, held together with beef fat, and has been sitting in a corner unrefrigerated for six weeks, it is an objectively wondrous thing, and you will love it. And you will ask for more.

 The process starts on Stir-up Sunday (not to be confused with stirrup Sunday, which is an important day on the equestrian calendar), which as we all know is the Sunday before Advent. If you don’t know when Advent is, we have something in common. On this momentous day, a bunch of ingredients is chucked in a bowl and stirred up. Often this is a job for the kids, because it’s practically foolproof; plus the thing is loaded with booze and it’s fun to watch them get dizzy after licking the spoon. If you want to be really traditional, throw in a couple of coins- it’s a bit like the baby in a king cake- whoever finds it and doesn’t choke to death has good luck coming their way. My grandmother kept special old pennies for just this purpose, modern coins being poisonous, and valuable. I believe you’re supposed to give them a bath in Coca-Cola to burn off any impurities (diet Coke if you’re allowing for inflation.)

 Once the ingredients are combined, and the kids are passed out under the table, scoop out the resulting gooey wodge, ease it into your pudding basin (like an earthenware mixing bowl), seal it up tight, and steam it in a giant pot for hours. Then send it to a dark corner to think about what it’s done until Christmas Day. 

It’s the big day. The pious are groggy after dutifully attending midnight mass; everyone else is groggy because they started drinking at 11am. Santa’s crumb-flecked plate and empty beer glass languish unnoticed on the mantlepiece; disappointing presents have been gushed over, wrapping paper carefully folded for next year; lifelong family resentments are juuuust starting to make themselves known with rolled eyes and sarcastic sotto voce asides. An inadvisable amount of food has been put away, mums and aunties clear the table, uncles talk sport while Grandad snoozes quietly at the head of the table. Our pudding has been reheating in his pot for the last couple of hours, and it’s showtime. This is the fun bit.

 Unwrap your pud and invert it onto its serving plate. Stick a sprig of holly on top if you can be bothered (I’ve only ever seen this in pictures), and place it ceremoniously in the middle of the table. The chatter has died down; an expectant hush hangs in the air, and Grandad slyly opens one eye. Grab a bottle of strong booze- brandy, whiskey, or vodka will do nicely. Pour a few slugs into a large ladle or metal jug (and a few slugs down your gullet while no one’s looking), then warm it over the stove. Take the jug to the table, light the warm booze with a match, ignore the smell from your singed eyebrows, and pour the flaming lot over your pudding. Like fireworks, bonfires, and lit farts, your blazing pud will illicit appreciative oohs and ahhs from all in attendance. Portion it out with ice cream and custard, and put this ridiculous day well and truly to bed. All that’s left is to volunteer to take out the recycling so you don’t have to do the dishes. 

 As with the rest of Christmas dinner, the best part is the leftovers. Any remaining wedges of pudding can be slowly reheated in a covered skillet, generously lubricated with butter. The sugars caramelise on the surface and you’ve got the perfect sticky gooey Boxing Day breakfast. Scoff as much as you can, then sink into the couch, bloated and heavy, fingers and face streaked with custard. At this point you’re more pudding than person, and the only thing left is to douse yourself in whiskey and set yourself on fire. Oooohhh!


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Farm animals, a sex romp, and some un-Australian behaviour: Brisbane & Melbourne

I used to be Australian. Like, I was pretty good at it. I played cricket, I ate vegemite every morning, I made fun of Americans- I was an Aussie bloke. And above all, I knew how to act in a pub. I was more comfortable in a pub than in my own home. And the fact that my home is surprisingly uncomfortable doesn’t reduce the importance of that. But things have changed. Now I go into an Aussie pub and just stand there, mouth agape, like a child who’s accidentally wandered into a sex shop. The beers are all different, and suddenly American-style is a selling point. And they come in confusing sizes called pots and pints and schooners. And a schooner in one state is called a pot in another. And a pint can be fairly large or freaking enormous, depending on which end of the bar you order it from. And none of them is the size of beer I want. So you know what? Sometimes I put on an American accent. Because it’s less embarrassing to be an American than to be an Australian who doesn’t know how to order a beer.

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I tried this ploy in Brisbane, but my performance was interrupted by the explosive guffaws of Penny, one of my oldest friends, who I’d forgotten was standing right next to me. She wasn’t going to let me get away with that, and fair enough, I guess. I slunk away and let her do the ordering.

Beers in, we did a short sight-seeing drive through the streets of this famously sunny and friendly town, Penny helpfully pointing out various important landmarks, none of which penetrated the exhausted, befuddled, jet lagged fog that has inhabited my brain for the last few weeks. She dropped me at my hotel, where I checked in to the biggest room I’ve ever seen. The front-desk staff were extraordinarily friendly, and had cheerfully given me an upgrade without my asking. Maybe that’s just how people in Brisbane are, and I’ve been a cynical New Yorker for too long, but I found that deeply suspicious. If I find out I was drugged and made to perform in some kind of low-rent hotel room sex romp, I won’t be surprised. Neither should you when the video surfaces online. I mean if. Remember: drugged.

The gig was at a club that’s part of the Jazz Music Institute, and is essentially a bar with classrooms attached to it. The green room had a whiteboard in it. The institute had provided me with a couple of senior students for the gig, and even though I admit to being mildly concerned at their wide eyes and relentless bloody optimism, my fears were allayed by the end of the first tune. They dealt with whatever I threw at them, and put on a fine show. We topped the night off at a jam session at the other jazz club in town, which is brand new and feels a bit like an airport food court, but was populated with talented young musicians and drunk patrons, and what more can you ask for in a night out.

Early next morning it was off to Melbourne. Consistently voted the world’s most liveable city, Melbourne has a long-standing, and largely imaginary, rivalry with my home town, Sydney. Melbourne is known for its healthy arts scene, and they’ve always had an active and widely-supported jazz community. That’s all well and good, but my cousin is a top notch chef, and runs one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, and between you and me, that’s why I was there. A gang of family took over a corner of the restaurant and wolfed down a succession of minutely planned, expertly executed, perfectly plated delights, while being charmed by the knowledgeable and professional, yet friendly staff. There was a guy who just did cheese. CHEESE! I had the pigeon followed by the pig- a bucolic scenario if ever I’ve eaten one. The restaurant is called Cutler & Co., in Fitzroy. Eat there!!

Sunday night, and the ostensible reason for my visit- a gig at the relatively new JazzLab. Opened by the owner of famed Melbourne jazz club, Bennett’s Lane, it’s a very handsomely appointed club with a great feel. Andrew Dickeson flew down from Sydney to play drums with me, along with ace trumpeter Mat Jodrell (whom I know from his frequent NY visits), and new friend Ben Robertson on bass. A very healthy crowd, dotted with some very welcome faces from my distant past, and various wonderful, and dutifully enthusiastic, family members, made for a smooth first landing in Melbourne. Next morning, off to Bangkok, where shit is probably going to be…different…

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Stimulants, Attack Birds, and a Lovely Pie: Sydney

By my calculations, there are upwards of a metric bunch of restaurants called Bar Italia around the world. But my absolute favourite, and without doubt the only one ever I’ve been to, is Bar Italia. That place is great. It’s in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt, which despite being named after an explorer from Prussia (one of those pre-Internet countries) who got lost and was never seen again, is now home to Sydney’s Italian population. And my brother Tim. Tim doesn’t keep coffee around the house due to repeated violent run ins with the French press, so when in Sydney, my day starts at Bar Italia. It was a regular part of my life when I lived here, and then, as now, one coffee there is strong enough to keep me awake well into the afternoon.

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Legal stimulants taken care of, I had a bit of time to kill between gigs, so one day took a stroll through my old stomping ground, the Inner West. When I was a kid it was unfashionable and grotty, but it’s now one of Sydney’s most outrageously expensive areas, where locals look down their noses at blow-ins like me. I paused outside the various hovels I once called home, peered in the windows and rifled through the mailboxes. My only goal that day was to eat a meat pie (it’s as close to a national dish as we get), and drink a beer, which I achieved but not before being yelled at for taking photos of a pub (one in which I used to live, I should say), and being attacked by a large bird for, I assume, taking photos of its tree. Here’s a picture of the pie. A highlight.

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Then began three intense days of grueling toil which any mortal man would call “easy”. On Thursday, a rehearsal in which I displayed my lack of recent big band experience by not remembering any of the old jokes (“watch for my cue” “the near cue?” “no, the far cue”); followed by an hour blatantly lying about the quality of my own work on the radio; then a great night playing jazz at Foundry 616 (which, as I’m required by joke law to say, is far superior to the previous 615 Foundries). I reunited with old mates Andrew Dickeson and Ashley Turner and we swung our way through two sets of favourites in front of an appreciative crowd, some of whom I wasn’t even related to!

On Friday Andrew, Ashley, and I, along with ace guitarist Carl Dewhurst stumbled into Electric Avenue studios to put down an album the old school analogue way: direct to tape. This produces a beautiful warm sound, but unlike digital recording, means there’s no editing, and therefore no mistakes. I made lots of mistakes. We were there for ten hours, but I think we got a pretty good record. I followed this by letting my folks buy the Peking Duck I’d been denied in Peking, and it was bloody delicious.

Sunday was Manly Jazz Festival day. I rode the ferry across Sydney harbour (which I maintain is one of the loveliest experiences available anywhere), and played a quartet set with Sydney trumpet legend Warwick Alder, to a lively crowd that for the whole hour remained actively engaged and intensely focused on their fish and chips. Then a couple of big band sets in which I fumbled my way through the second alto book and tried not to be noticed; interspersed with stretches on the beach, and much longer stretches at the front bar of the Steyne hotel.

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Monday was my last day in town, and a day off, so Tim and I went back to Manly to soak up the last of the atmosphere. It’s a small but charming and well organized festival in a beautiful location, and its egalitarian approach welcomes all comers, not just beret’d jazz nerds. The night finished with a rowdy and good natured jam session where I did my darnedest on a few tunes with saxophonists Andrew Speight and Eric Alexander. I bid the cats farewell over a couple of quiet beers, and headed home to pack for New Zealand. About which I’ll tell you in a few days…

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Barbies, Big Bands, and Bolting from Bar Tabs: Sydney, Week 2

Note: this all happened ages ago. N

When we left each other last, I was dealing with my 40th birthday with calm, philosophical, zen-like acceptance. And four jugs of Illusion and a tattoo. This dubious landmark fell, as have so many before it, on New Year’s Day; and as this was a big one, my younger brother, exhibiting his trademark generosity and questionable judgment, threw me a barbecue. The barbie is a big part of Australian culture, but I can’t see much to separate it from backyard get-togethers anywhere else.

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I don’t care much about cake, but this thing was freaking amazing. Ta, Rossana!

There’s lots of charred meat, usually a couple of forlorn, neglected salads, lots of beer, and talk about weather and sports. The only difference here was that the food was seriously top-shelf (cos my bro doesn’t fuck around once he’s strapped on the apron), and a lot of said food was kangaroo. If you’ve never eaten our national symbol, it’s lean and gamey and delicious. If you can find it, try it. As a rule, I dislike gatherings of more than one person, but this really was a lovely gang of people, and I grudgingly admit to enjoying myself. Although, after everyone left, I held a private birthday ceremony wherein I stripped naked, smeared myself with kangaroo fat and charcoal, climbed a tree and sang “It Was A Very Good Year” very quietly to myself, for several hours.

 

I used to play in big bands a lot when I lived in Sydney. I don’t get called for that kind of work much in New York, and I miss it. So I was well chuffed when my old boss Dan Barnett called me to sub in his band. Dan’s a great trombonist and vocalist, as well as a charismatic and entertaining bandleader, and his gigs are always top fun. Once a month for years he’s played at the Unity Hall Hotel in Balmain- one of those classic inner-city pubs that Sydney used to be known for. Recently the gig has moved next door, to the much more comfortable Workers’ Bar- a top little venue in the former home of one of the city’s first workers’ unions. It’s a friendly joint, decorated with kitschy reminders of its Labor party heritage, and this afternoon was packed with smiley folk downing beers and piling onto the dance floor. This is really one of the most fun gigs in Sydney, and if you’re in town on a Sunday, I heartily recommend it. Here’s some of Dan’s band in action at the Unity:

and if you want to find out about the band’s new album (recorded just a few weeks ago), you can check it out here: http://www.danbarnett.com.au

I filled in a few quiet days reintroducing mIMG_2341yself to various family members, eating meat pies, drinking beer, and being a tourist. I even went to look at the harbour. I felt like a bit of a schmuck- like a New Yorker going to Times Square- but I had to remind myself of its loveliness. It was idiotic of me to attempt this during the summer holidays- from the bridge, ‘round Circular Quay, to the Opera House it was elbow-to-arsehole sunburned shouty English tourists. I gazed serenely out across the water, dreaming of flinging a few of the whining buggers in, but eventually had to seek refuge in
the cool and beery Orient Hotel.

 

And suddenly it was my last night in town, and I had a gig! Legendary Sydney drummer Andrew Dickeson is one of my oldest mates, musical cohorts, and teachers; and he’d very kindly lined up a show at a relatively new club called Foundry 616. Run by renowned jazz impresario Peter Rechniewski, it’s a well appointed, well designed jazz club in the classic supper club style. The band was Dicko and me, with bassist and old mate Brendan Clarke, and guitarist Dave Blenkhorn- a Sydney lad now plying his very swinging trade in Europe. The joint was packed to the rafters with family and friends, which was initially terrifying, but ultimately heart-warming and somewhat overwhelming. It was a terrific hang, we played as much bebop as we possibly could, and as a salute to my Sydney salad days, I ended the night by skipping out on my bar tab. Sorry about that, Peter.

Here’s a tune from that very gig!

I managed to fit in another 24 hours in Hong Kong on my way home, where I attempted to eat this:

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Righto, more soon! Cheers, Nick

Little Italy, Big Fish,and Skank in a Chinese Brothel: Sydney, Week 1

Note: the word “now” in the first sentence refers to a time about two weeks ago. Pretend I posted this then, and you’re just reading it now. I know, you’ve been busy…

I’m writing to you now (that was it) on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to New York. They’ve got a good selection of British telly onboard, and I’ve just watched two hours of Cockney sitcoms to aid in the  digestion of whatever it was I just ate, so I apologise if things go a bit how’s-your-father, if you know what I mean. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in my home town of Sydney. It’s been twelve years since I lived there, and three since I last visited. It’s an odd feeling to go back after all this time: it all feels equally foreign and familiar. Like that guy from Fantasy Island. Ricardo Montalban. Not Hervé Villechaize. He’s more Adelaide. Don’t worry- this won’t be on the test. Anyways, let’s start at the beginning.

The first thing that happens when you land in Sydney- if you’re me- is that your Australian accent comes back. Like, immediately. In my time in the US, I’ve developed a weird hybrid accent which, while saving me from having to repeat myself to cloth-eared locals, makes me the target of much scorn from visiting Aussies. But here I was, talking like a local again before I’d even collected my carry-sacks from the trundle-round. Next time you visit, try addressing your friendly immigration officer as an old c#nt- you’ll fit right in! I was staying at the home of my handsome and generous younger brother in the charming suburb of Leichhardt, named in memory of a fellow of the same name, who did something memorable. I spent many of my younger days in this area, and I was keen to revisit some of the old haunts.

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Leichhardt is Sydney’s Little Italy. It’s not overtly Italian, like New York’s cartoonish Mulberry Street, but instead it’s spread-out and residential, and lots of old people still speak Italian. If you hang out in the wrong places, you might run into the occasional “colourful racing identity”, but it’s more about old women dressed in black with sons who still live at home. I have to stop in at Bar Italia, which actually can get a bit fuhgeddaboudit, but I’ve been going there since I was a teenager, and it hasn’t changed. The food and coffee are decent, but go there for the Italian-Australian atmosphere.

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Christmas in Australia is hot. It’s just one of the things we obstinately insist on doing differently. We also sleep under our beds, comb our hair with forks, and wear socks over our flip-flops. There are a few old-timers who persist with the big traditional hot Christmas dinner, but most of us realise it’s more seasonally appropriate to spend the day shovelling the contents of the Pacific ocean into our gobs. And if you’re in Sydney, this means a visit to the Fish Markets. It’s been a while, so I’d forgotten that this is the greatest place on earth.

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It’s a big, wet, sprawling, chaotic affair, with dozens of burly vendors selling every animal that’s ever set fin in an ocean. They stay open ‘round the clock for a couple of days before Christmas to deal with demand, but it’s still insane at 3AM. I like to leave my bro to do the purchasing while I wander around inspecting the freshness of giant grouper by examining their teeth. I wish there was another way.

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There’s not much to do between Christmas and new year. Everything is closed except the pubs; and when you’ve been in town three days, and the bar staff know more about you than your family does, you’ve been spending too much time there. Anyway, this week is for Australians to lie on the couch, watch the cricket, and digest, like a snake that’s just eaten a whole goat. And then slid onto a couch to watch cricket.

Then New Years Eve rolled around as it so often does, and for the big night I was thrilled to be playing with some old chums in a Ska band called Backy Skank. I’m proud to say I was a founding member of this band 20-something years ago, and reuniting is always a gas.

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The venue was Lazybones lounge- a two story warehouse-style joint, run by a charming madman called Craig. We think Craig sleeps there. Backy Skank frontman Pete described the decor as “part Chinese brothel, part English gentlemen’s club; although I’ve never been to an English gentlemen’s club.” Dozens of vintage Chesterfield sofas for napping, bizarre nicknacks on every surface, pornographic paintings on the ceilings, and a general attitude of louche abandon- this is where you want to spend New Years Eve. We skanked it up for a few hours, playing hits from Madness, the Specials, a bit of Marley; while downstairs, I was chuffed to discover my mates Dan Barnett, Dave Blenkhorn and James Ryan playing jazz! Upstairs for beer and ska, then downstairs on the breaks for whiskey and jazz! A fabulous night. Then I turned fucking 40.

Next up, Sydney, week 2: fun, swinging Aussie jazz gigs, and the onset of resentful middle-aged bitterness!