In November 2017, the American sports-business journalist and stadium food connoisseur Darren Rovell tweeted a video of himself tackling a Four’n Twenty-brand meat pie with a knife. Meat pies in Australia are, without exception, a handheld food, and locals were instantly and vitriolically disturbed by the artless knifing of the national snack. Australian youth news site Pedestrian didn’t hold back: “Watch a US ESPN Reporter Murder An Innocent Meat Pie & Weep For Our Nation” was the headline. Still, Rovell had nothing on actor Will Smith, who in 2018 was chastised for a video of him fumbling his first meat pie, which he bit into straight from a fiery oven. Rookie move.
These public acts of etiquette enforcement, not to mention the whole idea that there are such obviously right and wrong ways to eat a snack food, are evidence of just how entrenched the meat pie is in Australian culture — a bit surprising in spite of, or perhaps because of, the pastry’s clear origins in our colonial British history. But nowhere has the meat pie become more deeply rooted than in the world of Australian-rules football and the Australian Football League.
To understand the connection between Australian football and meat pies, it pays to familiarize yourself with the intricacies of the sport. In relative terms, the 18-team AFL is Australia’s NFL. Devised in the mid-19th century as a means to keep cricketers fit in the winter months, the Australian game is wildly popular Down Under, but has not quite spread throughout the world as its current administrators believe it could. To Americans over 40, it might be fondly remembered as the kamikaze mashup of rugby and American-style football that dominated the programming schedule of the nascent ESPN, back before they could afford the broadcasting rights to the major U.S. sports. Today the AFL dominates Australia’s sporting landscape. During the 2019 season, 6,894,771 people (out of a population that tops just 24 million) attended AFL games, an all-time record. And in Melbourne, the self-declared cultural capital of the country, AFL is especially all-consuming: “Melbourne has no summer, only a period of hibernation between football seasons,” as the novelist George Johnston once put it.
And the meat pie? It is no exaggeration to call it the most famous snack in Australia — it’s certainly the most distinctive to outsiders. The meat pie seems to have grown popular in the postwar period, when Australians finally allowed themselves small luxuries, and since then, even amid a dining scene as sophisticated and multicultural as any in the world, it has refused to go away. There are many versions of the savory meat pie, from pre-packaged to gourmet, but the one most closely associated with Australia’s signature sport is the iconic Four’n Twenty. It is to Melbourne’s AFL scene what the Dodger Dog is to Los Angeles baseball. Unlike Chavez Ravine’s signature 10-inch frank, however, Australians can also find Four’n Twenty-brand pies outside the stadium — in gas stations, convenience stores, anywhere and anytime the craving for a hot puck of pastry-encased meat and gravy hits.
Created by former dairy farmer Leslie Thompson McClure in 1947, the Four’n Twenty long ago handed itself the title of “The Great Australian Taste.” Like so many of the best Australian inventions, the Four’n Twenty is purely functional and devoid of frills and fripperies. A plain and simple pastry shell — neither buttery nor dry, and roughly the diameter of a Big Mac — is filled with a mixture of gravy and meat, no single chunk larger than a pea. Exaggerated claims about bovine arteries and less desirable ingredients fill the comment section of most articles about the Four’n Twenty, but the facts are these: At least 25 percent of the raw materials that comprise a “classic” 175-gram (6-ounce) pie can be classified as “meat” — a blend of domestic beef and mutton, according to the ingredient list. The rest? It’s the same hard-to-read, harder-to-pronounce stuff that makes up most processed baked goods.
Whatever they’re made of, some 58,000 Four’n Twenty beef pies are consumed daily around the world. Although most of those are devoured in Australia, a recent expansion into the Japanese market and the willingness of Philadelphia 76ers fans to sample the Four’n Twenties now on sale at the Wells Fargo Center — a culinary tribute to the team’s Australian star, Ben Simmons — are currently serving as a giant international taste test. In its push to strengthen the brand, Patties Foods is currently planning an expansion that will cost 20 million Australian dollars ($13.5 million) of what it calls its “legacy bakery” in Bairnsdale, 280 kilometers (175 miles) east of Melbourne, which the company claims will be “the biggest savory pie bakery in the world.”
The secret to Four’n Twenty’s success as a stadium food is undoubtedly its architecture: It’s a meal for multitaskers. Ingeniously constructed for one-handed dining, it barely requires its red-and-yellow plastic wrapping, and you can usually get by without a napkin, too, since the filling has been formulated to minimize dribbling. At the stadium, even if both hands are committed to a beer tray, the trusty pie slides effortlessly into a jacket pocket.
Australian television actor Tim Ross has a preoccupation with Australian design and ingenuity, and thinks that what sets the Four’n Twenty apart as a classic Aussie food is the triumph of function over form. “At the footy, where they tend to put them all in the warmer in bulk, you grab that first one,” Ross says. “You only need one hand to eat them, and they hold themselves together pretty well because they’re still a bit doughy.” Mark Wilson, bassist for the Australian rock band Jet, agrees. I recently ran into him munching a fresh Four’n Twenty at an AFL finals game, and he espoused its physical attributes. “It’s not just about the pie, it’s about the structure,” he said. “Four’n Twenties don’t fall apart when the going gets hot.”
As Will Smith found out, there is also the question of temperature. “If you think about America’s stadium food, the hot dog, it’s pretty consistent in terms of its temperature and how it’s served,” says Ross. “But with the meat pie, it really depends on the length of time it’s spent in the oven and how you like it. I quite like it sort of soft, just past the texture of being microwaved, so it’s not too crunchy.”
As much as the Four’n Twenty’s esteemed status can be credited to its practicality, it’s also due to something less tangible, a nostalgic appeal and pop cultural relevance that has created a nation of meat pie loyalists. “I could have bought a gourmet pie, but instead I went ugly and got the Four’n Twenty,” Wilson said that day at the stadium. “I don’t regret it.”
It is a scene as familiar to AFL fans as any classic goal or crunching tackle in the game’s history: A Hall of Fame grouping of 1960s players are piled into the back of a bus driven by AFL legend Jack “Captain Blood” Dyer. They’ve assembled to film a black-and-white television commercial, and as the bus drives down a dirt road, the group launches into a spirited rendition of a show-tuney song:
Oh what a lovely pie, me boys, a Four’n Twenty pie
Lovely tasty pastry in a Four’n Twenty pie
Lots of lovely tender meat, the finest you can buy
Oh what a lovely pie, me boys, a Four’n Twenty pie
If it is the consistent comfort of the warm pie on a winter’s day that keeps football fans coming back for more, it is also true that this 1960s jingle cemented the Four’n Twenty’s status in Australian culture. Today, any self-respecting football fan over the age of 35 can sing it by heart.
Back in August, as the AFL season heated up, I went in search of the surviving legends who starred in that famous commercial and hit upon Des Tuddenham. In the late 1960s, he was the captain and superstar of the League’s powerhouse team, the Collingwood Magpies — the man singing loudest and most enthusiastically in the middle of the frame. How did Tuddy come to be involved, I wondered? “They wanted a superstar,” Tuddenham said, cackling with laughter, before reliving the tale of the rainy winter day he and his colleagues enshrined the Four’n Twenty pie in lore, and themselves with it.
A trim and fit 76-year-old, Tuddenham doesn’t indulge in many pies these days, but told me, “If someone’s having a meat pie, of course I’ll have one.” He is also known for reprising his choirmaster role at AFL functions and events, standing up and leading attendees through yet another rendition of the song. “I don’t know why the Four’n Twenty people don’t run another ad like that,” he said. “I should knock on their door one day and get them to reenact it. It was a beauty.”
If Tuddy or any of his comrades were partaking in the pies as part of their diet for sporting dominance, they weren’t alone. Arguably the most brilliant player in the AFL’s history, the brooding and unknowable Gary Ablett Sr., once went missing in the nervous hour before a crucial game in the mid-1990s. After a frantic search the coach found Ablett in a tiny boot-studder’s room, enjoying a moment of pre-game solitude and munching on a couple of Four’n Twenty pies. A few hours later, Ablett was kicking his sixth goal for the day.
On a freezing night in the grandstands, there is nothing quite as enticing as the smell that hits you when a pie boy wanders the aisles with a fresh batch of hot ones. And yes, they’re called pie boys, even when they’re girls. As late as the 1990s, advertisements for Four’n Twenty pies featured an entire team of pie boys dressed in their unmistakable, utterly humiliating yellow boilersuits. “Hot pies, get your hot pies!” was, is, and always will be the catch-cry from the pimply teenagers who perform this community service for hungry, impatient fans.
Melbourne playwright and poet Barry Dickins was once a pie boy, prowling the terraces of the League’s suburban stadiums in the 1960s, selling “dogs’ eyes” (rhyming slang for pies). In the Melbourne Times, he once wrote of the time a high school classmate convinced him it was the best way for a Melbournian to become a billionaire: “All you have to do is flog pies,” the boy said. “Four’n Twenty pies. At the footy. You tie a tray around your waist and sell them and buy a mansion.” So, off Dickins went, navigating the perimeter of the field with his heaving tray: “Hot pies! Get your hot pies here today,” he’d yell. “You got the words mixed up after a few hours’ worth of being told to get stuffed, getting a kick in the back, shuffling through all the busted beer bottles, mountains of sick and burning hot pie on your neck. But I liked being a pie boy.”
According to a spokesperson for Four’n Twenty, the Bairnsdale baking facility currently produces 50,000 pies per hour. The breakneck pace is necessary. Look around the 100,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground on any winter Saturday, and you’ll see thousands of footy fans happily warming themselves with a pie. But like any of the world’s most beloved mass-produced commodity foods, there are modern concerns over ingredients, sourcing, and health. That, combined with myriad 21st-century stadium snack options now available to fans — everything from pasta and sushi to degustation menus in formal dining rooms — has a certain demographic of sportsgoers looking away from the Four’n Twenty.
Within the spectatorship of AFL, the meat pie could be seen as one of the last vestiges of the game’s working-class identity, but the march of progress — and foodie culture — is not an entirely new concept. As far back as 1987, the Age’s Harvey Silver was writing about the migration of “the sportscoat brigade” to the glassed-off corporate suites and away from the riffraff of “the outer,” where the language was coarser, the seating not so comfortable, and the food stalls not as impressively stocked.
Back then, Silver’s contrast to the rising class of the seafood cocktail-eating breed of Antipodean Gordon Gekkos was this image of the everyman fan: “Downstairs somewhere, the man with the team scarf wrapped around his neck, who paid his $7.50 admission, bites into a pie. The sauce dribbles out the back on to his jeans and he curses life. He paid another $1.15 for the pleasure.” And so it remains, the average fan’s hopes for a day at the football extending no further than a win for their team and a pie — neither too hot nor cool — that hits the spot and doesn’t spill. If only Melbourne’s real estate prices had experienced such modest inflation in the decades since.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to the classic Four’n Twenty pie is the ambivalence Australians feel toward the brand’s New Coke-style sideline offerings, like Vegemite and Cheese pies, and the somehow obscene Hungry Man pie — 60 percent bigger than the classic, thus throwing out the indefinable perfection of the classic pie’s meat-to-pastry ratio. Ross puts it bluntly: “When they try and do trendy new things — put cheese in them, all that other stuff — none of it ever works. No one ever cares. You don’t want to go to chunky beef town. The classic one only has 25 percent meat? Sure, but that’s all right. You want the gravy and the other stuff they chuck in there. It’s perfect.”
Russell Jackson is a writer and publisher from the Mornington Peninsula, near Melbourne, Australia. He is the former deputy sport editor of Guardian Australia, and an editor and writer for the food magazine TMix+. His most recent book is Electrifying 80s: Footy’s Outrageous Decade in the Words of its Best Writers (Slattery Media Group).
Fact checked by Lisa Wong Macabasco
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter