The snack for a gator-loving ballerina
Notes on an international food feud and an unusual gift from the mayor of New Orleans
Hello, Snackers. Today we’re examining a BITTER FEUD between New Zealand and Australia, along with a slightly related story about a dancer and an alligator. You’ll want to read this one all the way to the end.
If you’re new here, this is the weekly free post for Snack Stack, a newsletter that explores the cultural history of snacks. If you enjoy this, please share it and subscribe. Thanks so much.
A Far-Reaching Investigation of Pavlova, the Dessert and the Dancer
First, a popcorn prologue
Because this is a snack newsletter, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this: Today is Popcorn Day, as every brand and organization with a social media account would like you to know. Gotta keep up with the zeitgeist! I started brainstorming some popcorn-adjacent ideas, but nothing really went anywhere (I was briefly delighted to see a reference to a “popcorn scandal” in the 1800s, but it turned out to be nothing, a soul-crushing blow). Besides, I knew everyone else would would be on it. For the online magazine Pipewrench, Marsha Gordon wrote a long, excellent examination on the links between popcorn and the movies (take some time to read that!). Over on Twitter, the Brooklyn Nets had posted about Popcorn Day, and so did everyone from Neuse River Golden Retriever Rescue to the Grand Opera House in Dubuque to Chessington World of Adventures Resort in Britain, which tweeted out photos of a snacking binturong named Jackson. Also Australia’s (most?) famous track-pants-wearing singing sensation, The Wiggles:
So I decided to stick with my original plan for today, which also happens to be an famously cheery and brightly-colored antipodean thing …
Pavlova, the dessert
If you’re unfamiliar, we’re talking about this:
Pavlova has a meringue base and a marshmallowy middle; top it with whipped cream and fresh berries. It’s creamy, it’s delicious, and it’s light. This last characteristic is, apparently, how it got its name, which is a nod to the lightness and grace of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who was an absolute icon of the entertainment world from from the early 1900s until her death in 1931. The dessert dates to 1926 or so; more on that in a sec.
(By the way: I can hear sticklers grumbling that it’s not a snack, but my ruling is that all sweet things should be considered snacks and not mere meal-enders. You can eat them at any time of day!)
Where this story gets interesting is in the nature—and nation—of its origin. Because both Australia and New Zealand claim Pavlova as an iconic dish, with dueling assertions that We invented it here, dammit. Please enjoy this large, italicized, urgent headline from The Sydney Morning Herald in 1972:
The story starts with the news that a recently-opened shop called House of Pavlova in Melbourne is selling 3,000 Pavlovas every week, then moves on to a passing diss at Kiwi cuisine:
As New Zealand is not famous for its cooking, it can’t afford to lose its Pavlova claim.
Alas, though, the headline doesn’t ever quite pay off; it’s clickbait from the days before clicking. The piece doesn’t offer any theories as to the dish’s actual origin, and it also doesn’t document, say, street brawls or impassioned speeches in the halls of government on the matter of Who Created the Pavlova.
Which is to say: this particular argument is an extremely civil one, as the rivalry between Australia and New Zealand tends to be, aside from some slightly heated scenes played for laughs in Flight of the Conchords. But it’s still an argument! When I went looking for examples of the antipodean antagonism between the two nations, one of the very first Google hits was a Quora discussion of the topic, with the top response written by a Kiwi living in Australia. His take: the competition is real and centers mostly on (1) where Captain Cook landed first, (2) sports (rugby, cricket, the America’s Cup), and (3) Australia claiming things that are actually from New Zealand, including, FIRST EXAMPLE, Pavlova, but also Russell Crowe and various bands.
Point is, Pavlova is a real generator of friction, and the question of where it originally appeared is a a matter that has kept various esteemed (not a joke, actually esteemed) academics busy for years. BBC Travel did long recap of this important work in 2020, with one researcher discussing potential roots in Germanic countries and another saying the recipe was “honed by housewives in America’s Midwest by the late 19th Century.”
Still, investigating the recipe is not quite the same as investigating the name, which is arguably the key point here—the moment that Pavlova, the dessert, arrived on the scene. For that, we’ll turn to another researcher, Dr. Helen Leach, who wrote a book about the whole thing, called The Pavlova Story, which “shows the evolution of the three pavlova types,” but ultimately concludes that Pavlova started in … New Zealand.
“I can find at least 21 pavlova recipes in New Zealand cookbooks by 1940, which was the year the first Australian ones appeared,” she told the Daily Telegraph in 2010, and her research resulted in an official conclusion by the Oxford English Dictionary. (Thank you to Evan Roberts for pointing me to Leach’s research.)
So: New Zealand it is.
This is the part of the newsletter where I would usually attempt to do my own research and prove the official accounts wrong, but I’m not arguing with the OED or someone who’s made this matter her life’s work.
When I was digging around in the newspaper archives to learn more about Pavlova the ballerina, I found something else worth noting. It’s not about food, but it was too good not to share. (I do love a good research rabbit hole that’s not directly related to the thing you wanted to know…)
The dancer and the alligator
As far as I can tell, this has not been researched or discussed anywhere else, except for a quick passing mention in a biography of Pavlova published in the 1980s, so please enjoy this Snack Stack Exclusive.
Here’s the news item that caught my eye:
If you’re unable to read all that or just can’t be bothered, here’s the summary: While Pavlova was touring the USA, the mayor of New Orleans gave her a young alligator named Goosh (a perfect name for an alligator, honestly), which she kept as a pet, assigning two maids to care for it.
Pavlova, it turns out, loved animals of all kinds. You can find photos of her with her pet swan, Jack, in the New York Public Library archives, and she had a particular affinity for that particular species of bird because she one of her favorite dances was called “The Dying Swan.”
Her list of pets and desired pets was a long one. A profile that appeared in newspapers across the USA in 1913 included this subhead:
By that point, alas, Goosh had gone to the great swamp in the sky. Pavlova had taken him on tour with her all over North America, “from the Gulf to Vancouver,” but when she brought him home to St. Petersburg, tragedy struck. The exact circumstances of his death were a matter of some debate, an appropriately mysterious end to an unquestionably curious story. Some accounts blamed the climate, the Baltic being far chillier than the Bayou and therefore a threat even to a hardy and well-traveled reptile. Other reports said his demise “was caused by consuming the handle of a glove buttoner.”
In any event, Pavlova mourned her beloved pet and honored him in exactly in the way you would expect from a wealthy and slightly eccentric ballerina of the 1910s: she had him turned into a handbag.
Which brings me to a humble suggestion for any Aussie chefs who happen to read this: while New Zealand may have claim to Pavlova the dessert, Australia comes closest, between the two countries, to having its own local version of the ballerina’s pet. Crocodiles and alligators aren’t the same, I know, but they’re close enough that you could easily make a savory dish called Goosh. Get on it now, before New Zealand beats you once again!