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The meat pie and Harry’s Cafe de Wheels: Two lasting Australian icons

In ever-changing times, the humble pie remains a constant in the Australian experience. And as far as pies go, Harry’s knows best.

 

 

As the foodie trends of kale, goji berries, low fat, low sugar, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, and avoiding anything genetically modified incessantly circle us, it’s humbling to know that us Aussie diners still have the meat pie to call a favourite.

For years, the meat pie has been a staple at the football on the weekend, a snack at the beach, or just something you grab from the local shop. For me, it was always an easy meal for mum to chuck in the oven (frozen, and often served with canned carrots and peas for the ‘nutrition’) – hell, even Dad could sort that out! Sorry dads, I’m talking about the ‘70s here. I’m sure that I’m not the only child of the sixties that can remember Nan making Pop his special steak and kidney pies. Nans everywhere spent hours making and rolling out the pie pastry, and for us kids, that stewing offal odour brings back a wealth of memories. Warm, comforting, tasty memories at that.

Just like some pies you buy at truckstops, the pie’s origins are somewhat sketchy. Some say the Ancient Egyptians record of honey, nut and fruit pies were the first. There is evidence in medieval England of the pye, where the shell was actually made only to preserve the filling. Others say it was the Greeks. The first documentation or recipe for a pie was in America, for their Autumnal staple, the pumpkin pie. So, historically, it wasn’t us Aussies that invented this little gem, but I’m sure many of you would agree: we have seriously mastered it.

So seriously in fact, that the Great Australian Pie Competition has been running for 30 years.

Today, you need only walk to the local bakery in any suburb or town to see an extensive menu of gourmet pies seemingly bucking the wholefoods trend and staking (or steaking) a claim in the hearts and mouths of Australian diners: mushroom, chilli, bacon and egg, old-style steak and kidney and vegetable. The list and combinations that fill these buttery and crusty shells is endless.

The gourmet end of the spectrum sees them chock full of scallops and white sauce, Thai curry barramundi, and spinach and camembert. We love them!

 

 

Pies come in many forms. They can be sweet or savoury; they can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner – you can eat them for entree, main or dessert, or all three courses if you want. They are still a valued item on any canapé list for a cocktail party; beef and Guinness party pie, anyone? Goats cheese, pumpkin and caramelised tart? Granted, tarts don’t generally have a golden crusty top, neither does a potato or shepherd’s pie. Theirs is a creamy mash with cheesy toasty peaks… sorry, I digress…but you get my point.

Outrage is bound to spring from pie-purists from across the nation. “A tart is not a pie!” I hear those diehard fans yelling at me all the way from Broome.  And they’d be literally right. According to Google, it is “a baked dish of fruit, or meat and vegetables, typically with a top and base of pastry.”

So, when did our Australian love affair with the pie start? According to Ian Arthur, research and curator for a Meat Pie Exhibition (yes, exhibition), the meat pie hit Australian shores at the same time as the First Fleet.

 

Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, an institution which marks its place as a Sydney icon. Known locally as Harry’s, they have kept the tasty, warm (and even nutritious) golden bowl of happiness at the top of their menus since 1938.

 

These days, there’s no shortage of pie makers, suppliers and distributors. So where should the people of Sydney get their fix?

Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, an institution which marks its place as a Sydney icon. Known locally as Harry’s, they have kept the tasty, warm (and even nutritious) golden bowl of happiness at the top of their menus since 1938. Set up in a caravan at Woolloomooloo, Harry Edwards caravan cafe quickly became popular with sailors, nightlife lovers, police, and cabbies, as it was open late into the night (when few others were).

In the 70s and 80s, there would be cabs stopped on Cowper St Wharf Road, with partygoers getting their pies, peas and mash fix to take home after a night of dancing. Lines of people would make the pilgrimage down the hill from the Cross for a midnight ‘Tiger’, as the discos and nightclubs closed their doors. If you wanted to stay and eat your pie, you likely had to do that standing up, there were so many people.

In 1974 Colonel Sanders famously ate three of Harry’s legendary pies and peas with one hand while leaning on his walking stick. Other famous celebs that have shared our love of Harry’s pies over the years include Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Kerry Packer, Sir Richard Branson, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Brooke Shields, Jerry Lewis, Billy Crystal and Pamela Anderson.

 

 

My dad worked on the waterfront most of his life, and when he was rostered on the docks at Woolloomooloo, he’d bring a variety of Harry’s pies home for Mum to reheat the next day for dinner. She’d even make peas and mash, too. They are happy memories, and I’m one of the many Aussies who have a favourite pie from a favourite place.

I’m off to Woolloomooloo.

 


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