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Why Australia's free barbecues are a national treasure

Daisy Dumas argues we shouldn't take one of our national treasures for granted.

The mercury has inched past 35 degrees as the heat slows down the day in Western Sydney Parklands. An occasional puff of smoke reaches from behind gumtrees and on the air is the unmistakable, instantly appetising smell of grilling meat.

The vast park is home to 66 barbecues, none of which can be booked and all of which are free. Beside the heavy-duty stainless steel plates, strips of concrete next to charcoal bins signal space for grilling in a more traditional and multicultural guise, over hot coals.

It is just one example of Sydney's, and Australia's, love affair with the outdoor grill, a habit so entrenched in our national psyche that free barbecues have become the norm, expected - taken for granted, even - in our public parks. 

Thirty-five kilometres away in the breezier surrounds of Bronte Park, eight electric grills can, and regularly do, cook 312 barbecues a day. The pocket of green with a spectacular view is one of the nation's most popular barbecue spots, a beloved community resource that is as intimately linked to the beach as it is our love of a charred sausage.

An attachment with a long history, our fondness for a meal cooked outdoors speaks of deep Australian connections between nature and culture. Nineteenth century stock workers, travelling, camping and yarning around a nightly campfire, are oft-touted as the origins of our barbecue culture, but that is a convenient, if romantic, story we like to tell ourselves, says Richard White, historian and author. Still, he says, imagined connections to a bush or even prehistoric past give us all a break from modern living - albeit in safely contained primitive experiences on regulated "fires" in places where our ancestors would never have made camp. Add the outdoor cooking-friendly climate, a fear of bush fires, an awareness of protecting the environment and a deep sense of shared ownership of beaches and their parks - not to mention a palate that has largely been shaped by the abundance of cheap, good meat - and formalised, taxpayer-funded barbecues make reasonable, if privileged, sense. But perhaps the most important factor in their popularity is the very element that makes the idea of the "Australian barbecue" hard to pin down. Post-World War II immigrants, mostly southern European, did more for normalising alfresco cooking and eating than swag men ever did.

The earliest images of public park barbecues (as opposed to those in national parks) in the State Library are from Brush Farm in May 1976, at about the time Warringah council, among others, began investing heavily in its barbecues, creating a competitive asset with relatively little effort, says Caroline Ford, author of Sydney Beaches: A History. Like Randwick's clearing of Coogee beach in 1859, councils have always seen their public spaces as avenues to boost the local economy.

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Nowadays, and with the almost total obsolescence of coin-operated barbecues thanks to their being targeted by petty criminals, it speaks of the Australian way of life that we are actively encouraged to cook in our parks alongside dog walkers, fitness classes, sunbathers, strollers, touch footy, children's parties, yoga groups and canoodling couples. And what was once reserved as a holiday activity is now a common occurrence. David Brodie, assets and operations officer at Parramatta Park and Western Sydney Parklands, has seen tradies cooking bacon and eggs on the grills at 6am, while Glen Carter, Waverley parks operations supervisor, says backpackers make use of the facilities, cooking dinner before retreating to their campervans. As one Dutch visitor told me, she didn't believe the existence of the free, clean barbecues she had heard about, until she saw them. In France, they might be vandalised. In England, they'd be nicked. In America, they wouldn't be free.

Carter's staff, who clean the barbecues daily between 6 and 7am, have a collection of lost tongs, spatulas and knives, left by the tens of thousands of outdoor cooks who each year make good use of the 26 barbecues on his watch. Central to the untold numbers of smoothly sizzling snags is the unwritten, tacit rule to leave barbecues in very good order.

"It's quite interesting how well respected they are," he says. "People bring their own materials and cleaning equipment and cook on foil. They expect it to be clean so they leave it clean."

At Lizard Log in Western Sydney Parklands, I watch as an Iraqi immigrant, just two months in Australia, pours water onto the plate, unleashing a fizz of steam from the blackened mess. The smell of lemon hits us as he sweeps the surface with the cut fruit, shunting crumbs into the central drain. There is no sign in English - let alone in Assyrian - asking him to do this.

"It's very, very good," Ara Makrdich, 34, from Baghdad, says in broken English as he talks about the day he is sharing with friends. "Iraq is very bad. No barbecue. No parks. No celebrations." The former gold seller appears almost shell-shocked as he describes the country he left. Does he miss it? No, he says of the "war and crazy people," as he starts cooking yet another batch of garlicky chicken thighs, he is not sad at all.  

His story may be rare in the parks of Manly or Cronulla, but it is anything but at Lizard Log. Next to Makrdich's party is a group of 34 East Timorese "evacuee" cousins, and beside them, a family of Afghan refugees who have scores of lamb skewers dripping fat onto white charcoal - the Afghan way, I am told - while the hotplates are used for three silver teapots and a massive, lidded pot of rice. It wasn't just Paul Hogan's use of the word "shrimp" that was misleading. Because, like the diverse immigrants who so deftly transplanted it to their new land, the great Australian barbecue is as much about the spiced lamb cooked in an inner-city park as it is about the overcooked steak on a beach grill.

"Sometimes I forget that I'm not at home," says Bejan Koh, who immigrated to Merrylands from Afghanistan in 2001. His party is celebrating the sixth birthday of Masih Ayoby, whose father left Afghanistan in 2006 because of fighting.

"In Afghanistan, we used to barbecue when it was peaceful … Maybe [white Australians] take it for granted," says Koh, as he offers me yet another piece from the lamb skewers. "We're enjoying the free parks and free beaches like any other Aussie."

Hasha Palani, a Kurd from northern Iraq, married into the family. "We have adapted to Australian culture but we're still trying to keep our tradition alive," he says.

That culture is less about the food, or the location, or even the company, and all about a constantly evolving community or group coming together, creating a meal, lingering, socialising, sharing and basking in the sun and fresh air, unimpeded by the size of a home, or balcony or garden or a social pecking order. And while meat may form the meal's backbone, the rest is open slather.

Edward Gago, from Bossley Park, whose East Timorese roots come with Portuguese, Indonesian, Italian, Vietnamese, Syrian and Singaporean connections, is patriarch of his family's early Christmas celebration in the neighbouring picnic area.

"Barbecues are a two-way street. Everything will mingle and one day we'll emerge with a different style, the sausage and steak will include Chinese and Indonesian pieces." His family is handing around fried wontons and spring rolls alongside "traditional Aussie chicken chippies" and tamarind lamb satays, hot from the grill. Barbecues, he believes, have a role to play in the sharing of multicultural traditions. "If we all become aware of each other, the more we have the feeling of belonging," he says. Barbecues are and always have been, a site for interaction. 

One more tangible truism, however, unites the barbecuing world, public or private: whether born in Curl Curl or Calcutta, it is the men who do the cooking. Men prod and poke, add oil and scrub down. They watch meat go from pink to grey to deep brown, they smell the onions and garlic intensify and caramelise. And, as they do so, they talk. It is, says White, possibly one of the many reasons barbecuing works so well here - Australian men aren't famed for their ease at social chat. Beyond the footy scores and house prices, even a soulless electric grill appears to have the ability to stir genuine yarning and conversation in the way a camp fire might once have done.

Jannan Petros arrived in Sydney in 1999, a Christian refugee from Iraq. After sharing a marinade recipe with me - soya, garlic, chilli - he tells me that West Hoxton has truly become his family's home.

"I'm trying to put my sons in good schools and give them a good education so I can secure their future, give them a better life than we experienced," he says as he hovers over the hotplate.

The leap from grilling techniques to his children's future is, I can't help thinking, something that mightn't happen over a formal dinner or a picnic. To Petros, one of 11 siblings who were forced to leave Kirkuk, the opportunities wrapped up in a simple day of barbecuing in the park won't ever be taken for granted.

Grilled

- Public barbecues are designed not to have space immediately around the hot plates to encourage sharing.

- Most coin-operated barbecues have been phased out owing to the costs of vandalism by thieves.

- Barbecues tend to replaced every 10 to 15 years.

- Councils clean the barbecues at about 6am every day.

Communities self-manage the grills, the tacit rules being:

- Clean up after yourself: Scrape material off with a spatula, wipe down with paper towels

- Queue: There may be a waiting line for the grill, talk with other park users to check

- Team up: Share hotplates and picnic areas with others