If Australian accents weren’t already hard enough for foreigners to understand, there’s a whole bevy of inscrutable (though often hilarious) terms and phrases to sift through to figure out exactly what the hell Australians are attempting to communicate. Further compounding this issue, the trademark Aussie humor – rooted in dry British wit and shaped by enduring harsh weather and wildlife – makes it hard to figure out whether what’s being said is even true (looking at you, drop bears).
So the first time you hear about fairy bread, it’s perfectly normal to question whether Australians are just messing with you. But this colorful Australian snack is somehow completely legitimate. Steeped in nostalgia, fairy bread is relatively simple with only three low-brow ingredients, yet it is a ferociously defended part of the country’s national identity (and New Zealand’s, too).
So what exactly is fairy bread? Well, here’s the big reveal: it’s white bread sliced into triangles, spread with butter and topped with rainbow sprinkles. That’s it. Australians take it seriously, but have a sense of humor about it all at once.
"Fairy Bread" This image was so fun to create (although not very fun to clean up afterwards haha!!!) & received a silver at the AIPP NSW awards in the Portrait Category ✨ A huge thank you to Karen Dyer Makeup & Hair – I always love collaborating with you & bouncing around ideas (like this crazy one! 😜) Model : Soul Orth 💖 #shannoncotterillphotographer #fairybread #colourpop #model #silveraward
It’s the inherent lack of complication that contributes to fairy bread’s army of ready defenders. There have been attempts to describe the treat as something more haute than it actually is, which undermines its simple existence as an indulgent, sugary food. Those three ingredients are considered sacred and unchangeable; should anything be added or altered, the dish turns into something else entirely.
A corollary with which Americans may be familiar is the grilled cheese, the comfort food of comfort foods: bread, butter or mayonnaise, and melted cheese grilled together in an irresistible sandwich. Attempts to cuisine it up causes contention among aficionados, the most serious of whom know that a grilled cheese with any added filling is no longer a true grilled cheese (many call it a melt).
The same hard limits are apparently applied to fairy bread as well, whether it’s being prepared in Australia or neighboring New Zealand. The first thing to note is that what Americans call sprinkles are referred to as “hundreds and thousands,” but not just any colorful bits of sugar will do. “The hundreds and thousands have to be the hard, round kind, none of this sugar string crap,” says Simon Thomson, a Kiwi travel writer and fairy bread aficionado. “And if it’s not quartered in triangles with the crusts removed, it’s bullshit.”
The bread itself can’t just be any old loaf of gluten; it has to be standard white bread from the grocery store, pre-sliced. “Preferably thick,” adds Aussie cookbook author Mardi Michels, and “spread with butter, [also] thick.”
This inflexible yet whimsical snack was first noted in 1929 in an article for the Hobart Mercury in reference to “a party for child inmates of the Consumptive Sanitorium,” which described how “the children will start their party with fairy bread and butter and 100s and 1,000s, and cakes, tarts…” according to the Australian Food Timeline. Although it’s possible that fairy bread referred exclusively to the bread itself, the combination stuck, becoming a staple of Australian children’s cuisine.
“It’s the stuff of everyone’s childhood birthday parties,” Michels explains. “It’s also an easy party food for kids to prepare themselves – although watch out if you spill those 100s and 1,000s – and I remember being allowed to do this and feeling very accomplished!”
The simplicity in its construction is enjoyed across the Tasman Sea as well. “I definitely remember taking full sandwich versions of fairy bread to school for lunch,” shares Claire Adamson, another writer and fairy bread fan from New Zealand.
Today fairy bread is experiencing something of a moment. In 2014 the first ever National Fairy Bread Day was held on November 24th, an annual tradition that continues to be observed. There are almost 30,000 posts on Instagram tagged with #fairybread, showcasing the breadth of interpretations – or bastardizations, depending who you ask. It helps that the treat is so inherently photogenic.
Qantas, Australia’s national airline, recently added its own version of fairy bread – which is just the classic recipe formed into a kangaroo shape – to a trial pop-up buffet in its Sydney lounge. The airline also runs an art series showcasing Australian art on its amenity kits, and one features artist Billie Justice Thomson’s painting of fairy bread, a result of her “obsession with the kitsch, nostalgic and iconic food imagery.”
Even though fairy bread won’t be found alongside Tim Tams and Cheezels in Australian grocery stores, this classic snack will undoubtedly continue to occupy the imaginations and children’s birthday parties of our friends down under. As it journeys across oceans and into the Instagram accounts of cultures worldwide, one can only hope new adopters will stay true to its preferred configuration. It’s not like it’s that hard.