Friday, July 20, 2007

American Pie

New Zealanders love pie-not the kind of pie that most North American continent dwellers love, though. Kiwi's have savoury pies, which are small pot-pie sized pastry shells filled with meat and gravy. Sometimes they are topped with mashed potato instead of a top pie shell in an effort to cut the calories, but it doesn't help all that much: they're still basically gravy and starch. They come in vegetarian varieties and gourmet varieties, like curried sweet potato or pumpkin and lentil, but these aren't as popular as the good 'ol beef flavor.

Pies are a well established high-calorie delight for much of the country, kind of like hot dogs are America's favourite nitrate flavoured fat log. They're everywhere: convenience stores, grocery store freezer isles, festival events, schools, and special bakeries dedicated just to pies and sausage rolls (a sausage wrapped in pastry crust). There's recently been moves to ban their sale in school cafeterias because they're so unhealthy. Judging from the vocal backlash to this law, though, I doubt it will get very far. Kiwi's have a pretty strong love for their pies. I know the boys I teach are practically up in arms about it.

I've eaten a few pies at this point, and I have to say that I'm not sure that I'll ever get over my preference for pie as a dessert item. They don't do fruit or sweet pies as frequetly here and certainly not the same kinds of pies that you come across in the States.

In an attempt to make pumpkin pie, we found that they don't have the ubiquitous canned pumpkin in grocery stores. What takes up the space at the back of these peoples' pantries? What do they give away during food drives? When we asked around no one had even heard of pumpkin pie. In fact, the typical response was, "ew, pumpkin in a can?" Many Americans have found this lack of canned pumpkin decidedly un-cool, especially around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and 4th of July times. Some have even resorted to buying cans of the stuff when they visit home and bringing them back in their luggage. We have to have the stuff, and most Kiwis don't understand that until they've had a taste of pumpkin pie.

Since the precooked stuff is nowhere to be seen we had to cook some of the fresh pumpkins sold in grocery stores. The best recipe for pumpkin pie we could find was on the Cooking for Engineers site. We then looked up instructions for how to cook fresh pumpkin, grabbed grandma's recipe for pie shell and set to it. It turned out perfectly. The easiest way I've found to cook raw pumpkin is to just gut and cut it, put the pieces on a plate in the microwave, and cook for 7.5-8 minutes per pound. Large hand sized chunks seem to be the optimal size for even cooking, one pound at a time. Don't worry about cutting off the skin. It's much easier to cut it off once it's cooked and the flesh is soft. One pound of raw pumpkin will yield just about 15 oz worth, which is the average size of a can 'o pumpkin.

We've since turned a number of Peter's Kiwi co-workers over to the Pumpkin Pie loving way of life. A Canadian co-worker of mine has mentioned that she really misses the stuff, so her and her British boyfriend are next on our hit list. Some of my other co-workers overheard us talking about it and now they've asked me to bring some in to the office. If I ever get sick of teaching I could probably make a good living at this.

To balance out the scales of cultural swapping we've taken to making our own Kiwi pies at home. We stuff them with Mexican mole or carne asada filling to make them healthier and much tastier, though. Gotta get our Mexican fix.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

American Independence Day in New Zealand

Happy 4th of July!

Yes, I say this after reading shocking news about "un-American" actions by our political officials. Yes, I say this as an American who's living in an country who's official head of state is The Queen of England. And I definitely say that as a person who is wholly jealous of those consuming BBQ grub and watermelon, not to mention blowing things up, on a hot afternoon.

There's something about a 4th of July parade that is quintessentially summer. Even if we had had access to a parade down here, it wouldn't be the same. On the 4th we got a freakishly heavy amount of rain, including some sleet, and our front yard is now basically a bog. At the moment we're running the heater, as it's a very humid and cold 55 degrees. Think a cold summer morning up at the cabin after a thunder storm in the early spring.

But the night of the 4th, as we were lamenting the fact that our family members were likely to start blowing things up within a few hours, we heard the thud of large explosives going off. We thought it was the nearby Naval base at first, as they're prone to holding ceremonial cannon firing practice at odd hours. (We have no fear of the sounds of artillery fire coming from the Navy base: their total fleet could probably be counted on my fingers and toes.) Instead it was a rather large and beautiful fireworks display being set off over Rangitoto Channel. We gave our dinner on the stove a stir, grabbed our glasses of wine and stepped outside to see what the fuss was all about.

We live about 5 minutes walk from a beach that looks out to Rangitoto Island not far off shore. Someone was setting off a display from a barge inbetween the beach and Rangitoto and we could see the fireworks from our front yard. Our neighbour in the apartment next to ours came outside to watch it with us and wished us a "Happy 4th of July!" I was wishing we could have watched the show from the beach. Instead we waded out onto our soggy grass with our glasses of wine and watched the highest-shot rockets bloom over the corrugated metal roof of the neighbour's house. Everything else was a masked glow below the tops of the roofs. The show was brief, maybe 5 minutes. When all was done we went inside to a quiet dinner of central asian plov, as it's the best meal to have on cold winter's night, and another glass of wine.

All in all it was a very surreal night. Here's a file photo of the channel and Rangitoto Island. I climed a hill on this shore and saw a few flat barges bobbing out in the water. I'm guessing they were responsible for the good show the previous night.

I could use this opportunity to rant about the state of Democracy in America these days, but I won't. I'll instead relate a short conversation I had with some Kiwi's a few weeks ago. Some old co-workers of mine from Wellington came to Auckland and I met them for drinks in the city. The conversation made it's way to differences between the subjects that kids study in different countries, specifically the US and New Zealand. I mentioned that I was surprised to see high school "social studies" as two seperate departments, history and geography, and that it is only required that students take two classes in either department at the school I work at. That's two classes over 5 years of high school.

One of my co-workers mentioned that she had spent a few weeks observing in a US school and was very impressed that the kids had to take at least three years of history, two of which are usually US or State history and that Civics was required. Here, it's ok if kids take two years of history about other countries. She mentioned that the US students she talked to had a very good sense of where they came from, were much more savvy about current events, and knew quite a bit about national trends and attitudes toward larger ideas or philosophies.

My Kiwi co-worker, on the other hand, said that she was never required to take a single New Zealand history class when she went through high school. The first time she leared about the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document for the country, was at University when she took a class about the professional obligations of public service sector employees. American kids, on the other hand, get a full dose of the Constitution from an early age.

It made me feel proud to know that we, as a nation, are proud of our past. Sure it wasn't all rosy, but we're able to see the good for the bad and know that we have a hand in improving whatever bad situation we happen to find ourselves in (hint, hint). Americans have a tendency to gripe and complain but our civic involvement is fairly high compared to that of New Zealand. New Zealanders vote in high numbers, but volunteerism is low and most will readily talk about how cool other countries are ("You come from America? What are you doing here?").

Americans have a good sense of ownership (or entitlement, depending on how you look at it) of their country. Most would say that they are proud to be from America and most Kiwis are quick to point out that this makes American's very friendly toward them when they visit the States. This same co-worker pointed out that the Americans she met were very wiling and able to share the history or unique characteristics of their city or region. As a tourist she appreciated the info and a friendly face.

That's something I miss here. The information I most often get from Kiwis is directions to the best restaurant in town, and then directions to closest city that is bigger than the one I'm currently in.