There is a food revolution underway in Sydney. Or at least there are regular stories in the newspapers of inner city neighbours collaborating to grow vegies on the nature strips in front of their houses. They remind me of my parents who were born in the south of Italy and as adults migrated, first to South Africa, and then to Australia. My father grew up on a farm but my mother’s family were town people.
As a child my father lived in a village that clung to the foothills of the Apennines to the south of Rome. The village food was farmed on the steep hills outside the ancient gates. The lowlands were reclaimed malarial swamps and the whole area was once the domain of brigands. Olive trees were planted on the hillsides and basic vegetables were cultivated. Broccoli, artichokes and tomatoes provided seasonal eating. This, according to my father, meant that when artichokes were in season, you ate artichokes; every day, every week, every month of that season. You ate them boiled, you ate them braised, in pasta, as soup, on bread, by themselves. You ate them warm, you ate them cold, you ate them until you never wanted to eat them again, and then you preserved them in oil or vinegar, so that you could keep eating them. And once their season was over the ritual would begin again with the next vegetable. There was always olive oil from the local press and fresh bread from the village oven. Each household would make their dough twice a week and take it to the oven where it would be baked. It was my father’s job to pick up the freshly baked bread after school. He lost count of the number of times that he got the strap for dinner because he had eaten the family’s bread on the way home.
Coincidentally my mother’s family were the bread makers. They owned and operated the wood fire oven in the Sicilian town that she grew up in. As a child it was my mother’s job to deliver the bread and collect payment. She also collected a bonus, usually freshly poached produce from the farms or gardens of the houses she’d just delivered to. These figs, eggplants and blood oranges supplemented the family diet. She learnt to be a quick runner and to avoid the physical and verbal abuse that came with being caught.
These stories were told me as I watched my parents tend the veggie patch that they insisted on cultivating in the backyard. L’Orto. I have only recently excavated this word from my memory. Every house in Australia that my parents have lived in has had a corner of the backyard, complete with compost heap, for growing vegetables. As children we insisted on calling it the veggie patch; hoping that the anglicized words would also anglicize my parents. When I say the word now it connotates dark earth and spring time fertility, but as a child, that corner of the back yard brought me out in a sweaty shame, particularly when school friends visited and saw my parents happily wallowing in this patch of dirt. It was the ultimate evidence that we were different. We were peasants. Worse still we were wogs.
We didn’t get all of our veggies from the back yard patch though. Some were gleaned from the properties of the market gardeners my parents befriended at the local Italian club; the remnants of recent harvests, the fruits and vegetables that had been missed by the machine harvesters.
Our other food staple was fresh chicory served steamed and drizzled with olive oil. When driving my father would sometimes pull to the side of the road and leap out in great excitement and I knew that Chicory had been spotted. After grabbing plastic bags from the stash kept in the boot for just such occasions, the scouring of the grass verge would begin. Doubled over he and my mother would pick frantically until the area had been stripped of any nutritional value. In Australia chicory is a green that grows wild by the roadside. It has historically been used as stock feed for foraging cattle during times of drought and more recently for relieving symptoms of homesickness in Italian migrants.
So now when I read about homegrown veggies I celebrate what were once the painful memories of an alienated childhood. In the lucky country the wheel of time makes citizens of us all.