What is it to be a local? Is it the same as being a regular? Someone the waiters know, someone they pour a beer out for when you arrive at one minute past five o’clock? How do you know you have arrived in such a way that they care about you and wonder where you are if you don’t show up? Can you get it in many places or do they simply serve you out of customary politeness?
I was thinking of this at my local pub in Margaret River. Redgate is down by the coast and the closest town to us is Witchcliffe, just a few clicks up the road. Witchcliffe has 68 residents from what I know. There is a servo with a selection of bain marie food and the bare necessities in the fridge – bacon, eggs, milk, bread, cheese. There is an antique store, candle store, tractor store, a pie shop, liquor store and a new café called Yardbird. There is also an op shop and a tennis court where you can play for $5 an hour if you live in the postcode. If you want to go out for dinner, you need to head to Gnarabup or Margaret River. Gnarabup is a fifteen minute drive from our place and there are a couple of restaurants where you can sit and watch the waves roll in with a pint in your hand and a plate of chips. But, Margaret River is where you find the local pub that I like best.
Pubs for me can be difficult places. I often dislike the culture of drinking in Australia, especially on big holidays, Friday nights, with live music, betting and pokies. I do not feel safe in them and know how easily a place can get out of control. It is not an atmosphere I am particularly fond of, which is partly because of how I feel about alcohol. This is partly because I was a terrible drinker as a teenager. We would drink warm, cheap beers in parks around Perth until the cops chased us off; bottles of Sambuca that we stole from our parent’s liquor cabinets; goon with juice if it was white, with Coke if it was red. I never had a drinking problem and I never did drugs, but I drank in a way that I think is quite common for young people in Australia – big binges on the weekend that end up in vomiting. That was how we lived.
I kept it up in my early twenties and hit the town every night when I decided to leave graduate school during the last summer that I lived in Philadelphia. During the day I established community gardens from reclaimed abandoned blocks in the inner city, one of which is still going today with a peach and fig tree I put in a decade ago. But when it became too dark to plant, prune or brick pave, I would go out drinking. I would put down City Wide Specials, which, you will recall are beer and whiskey on the cheap. Afterwards, I would sit with neighbourhood guys drinking flagons of port on stoops, then stumble home. In the morning, I would fry up a cheese sandwich and drink a litre of orange juice and happily go to work in my gardens. I don’t think I have vomited since that era, but I have come close and sometimes I, like the best of them, get particularly loose. Now, it is more often on good bottles of wine, but it does not mean I support the culture of binge drinking that is so common here. I know I can do better, just like we all can, together.
Part of that is reducing consumption, but part of that is also appreciation. I have never been taken in by florid displays, and though I write my own poetry, I am not particularly adept at flights of lyricism that make the hairs on your neck stand to attention. That makes listening to some descriptions of wine painful because they go to great lengths to describe the way the leaves fall to the ground in autumn in the evening mists. My language is a little more pedestrian and so is my drinking taste. I prefer a lager to an IPA. I will take a shiraz over a malbec even though there was a time when all I knocked back was nebbiolo. I drink my whiskey neat and only with a touch of peat, with Glenmorangie being my choice for easy drinking. I occasionally drink cocktails, though something more like a gin and tonic than a Pimm’s lemonade. I have come round to whiskey and coke with my father-in-law but need it deadly cold or else I notice how sweet it is. Sometimes, I will go for a margarita but prefer it with lots of salt and lime, so much so that it seems like a sour, citrus gazpacho. What I love the most are the drinks my father prepares. He is no mixologist, but he can make a stiff drink that is curiously eccentric. Witness his vodka martini – it is simply vodka with lemon peel. What makes it a martini is that it is served in a martini glass. As they say on the cooking shows, your plating is marvellous here, dad. In any case, he knows how to keep a liquor cabinet.
When we go to the pub, what I drink is always determined by the food. The pub in Margaret River, which is really the tavern, has a good selection of beer on tap and a wine list that proudly shows off the region. My favourite time to go to the pub is on Sunday afternoon – in winter the footy is on, in summer they have local musicians. And, importantly, they have a smoker cranking out BBQ meat, which means I can pair it with a freshly poured Guinness. I have never been to Ireland, and I am sure the Guinness tastes better there, but for me, right here, right now, this one will do just fine. I like it because its rich, malty, bitter, chocolatey, coffee goodness helps balance the maple sweetness and hickory smokiness of the BBQ. You can forget about the two by themselves but together they make a fine combination. Other people will have their own pairings – chicken parmigiana and a rose, nachos with an IPA, steak with rum. These are all orders I see in my own circle quite often. At home, we eat vegetarian and drink wine, but when we go to the pub I want beer and I want meat.
Before smoked meat – pulled pork, brisket, ribs – became a popular thing in Australia, I like to think that the equivalent was a surf ‘n’ turf, a term first used to describe steak and prawns in the Los Angeles Times in 1961. Before that, it might have been the mixed grill, which to my mind is due for a comeback at your local. It has not gone away in the United Kingdom, but in Australia I would like to see more of it around the place. A good mixed grill really is a thing of beauty – bacon, chops, steak, sausages, eggs, tomatoes, maybe even a little offal – a true workingman’s breakfast. It is harder to find nowadays than it used to be, but I can imagine enterprising places have updated it to feel contemporary – a kofta here, some beetroot relish there, chorizo not chipolata. Just do whatever you can to keep it current and delicious, if not on trend. Mixed grill has a place on the best pub menu.
However, the best place for beer and meat has to be the backyard barbecue. You lose a little without the beers on tap, but overall I far prefer being at home and having people over. I have been involved where this has been a hangi with a side of venison, pumpkins and potatoes in a pit in the ground. I have been there where we singed hairs off kangaroo tails that were then roasted in coals. I have been there when it has meant a whole lamb stuffed with feta, oregano and lemon. You can do it so many ways that it almost does not matter what you do. Do it your own way, the way your mates love it, and watch the people come over with a carton on their shoulder.
In case you were wondering, at my perfect barbecue I would man the tongs. You always need a co-conspirator and for that I would turn to my cousin. My cousin is, incidentally, the one I like to be at the pub drinking Guinness with, but he comes into his own as a host. He is a chef by trade, which gives us an advantage if we are working together. I simply hope to be a good kitchen-hand that he can point in the right direction. Between us we could come up with a stellar menu – maybe some oysters with a little pancetta and lemon myrtle oil, maybe a fish kebab in tandoor spices, maybe a cumin rubbed leg of lamb with preserved lemon, maybe a pork chop just to sit on top with grilled pineapple and a fried egg, because we like it like that. You have to laugh a little otherwise it is just not cricket.
And, of course, we cannot forget the salads – potato salad with yoghurt and sundried tomato pesto mixed through, some leafy greens with a mustard dressing finished off with tomatoes and parsley from the garden, couscous with roast vegetables. For desert, how about a peach and raspberry trifle? Or a blueberry cobbler? Maybe even a fig clafouti? That is a good barbecue by any measure. And, with all those beers, it does not matter if it is a little burnt, or even a little raw. In any case, it is only lunch and we are due at the pub soon enough. We want to catch the rest of the game before the day’s play is over.
When we get there, we will order a cheese platter, because why not? With him I would talk about the menu of his restaurant, or touch on the politics that matters, or sit in silence as they hit boundary after boundary in their run chase. My other cousins, and some friends, would drop in – one with stories about his renovations, another on property prices, one about a conference, another on returning to work, another with stories from up north, others will talk about their kids or going fishing that morning. Someone else will buy a round and the day will edge its way to darkness once again.
It is getting late now, the cricket is over, and only you and him remain. He gets Mondays off and you are a writer so you can sleep in on any day you choose. You have exhausted your debate on the merits of bacon or ham in a quiche Lorraine. It might be time to go home, but you are feeling hungry and it will be a little while before the taxi arrives. Up the road is the kebab shop and they are open, as always. So, you stumble out and keep talking. Your cousin is good like that, a raconteur with a point of view, one of those people that likes to chat, a proper larrikin who cracks a joke about anything that comes up. He is the bloke you share a kebab with, under any circumstances. Location, time of night, cost is no barrier, for it is always worth it. Someone to talk shit with like you are both the smartest idiots in the world while there is garlic and sweet chilli sauce dribbling down your chin.
What did drunk people eat before kebabs? What did you have on the way home from the pub? My dad tells me that his dad used to drink a glass of milk before he had a big night out, something to line the stomach for everything that happened afterwards. But I never found out what he had on his way home. In Japan it is ramen; in Indonesia it is mee goreng; but in India, at least for me in Kochi, I managed to find a good kebab that hit the spot for 40 rupees on my way home from the pub. It was a little spicier but the yoghurt was garlicky and creamy, the pickles wonderfully sour, and the cabbage safe enough for me to risk when I avoided salads everywhere else. When I got home, I would fall asleep without caring about the mosquitoes buzzing overhead. This time, I will hit the hay to the sound of the wind through the trees at Redgate and the occasional plaintive call of a tawny frogmouth owl outside my open window.