As a kid from a family of Italian migrants, Saturdays were hell.
From 9 am to midday, I was sent to Italian language school. This is where, although we could already speak Italian, we learnt how to speak Italian. Actually, we learnt how complex Italian grammar was, and that in fact we were second language speakers in both Italian and English. However after a protracted campaign of whinging, lasting several years, that excruciating experience was abandoned. Never believe anyone that tells you whinging doesn’t get you anywhere, but do believe people that say be careful what you wish for. My mother relieved me of one tedious activity only to enslave me in another. I discovered that her favourite day was Saturday. Her favourite day for cleaning that is.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, was allowed to happen until the house had been cleaned.
I was in charge of dusting the living room and vacuuming the carpets. Doesn’t sound onerous? Try a combination of wall to wall, wall cabinets, filled wall to wall, with little porcelain figurines collected at hundreds of weddings; these are little gifts for guests to take home so they can remember the event long after the divorce.
I would remove each figurine from the shelf, wipe it down gently, being careful not to damage the sugared almonds, which were not for eating but forever. Before replacing the figurine, I’d carefully shake out the lace doily it sat on, wipe away any surrounding dust and replace the doily and figurine exactly as they were. Then I’d repeat this, one hundred thousand times. Next I would take the industrial sized vacuum cleaner out of the cupboard and push it mindlessly over every inch of super deep seventies pile carpet for about an hour. My mother didn’t replace the carpet with cold hard Italian tiles until after I moved out of home.
In the afternoon, while most Australian children were outside playing, I was inside, enrolled in a Bolognese Sauce Master Class. This was a recipe for a future I vowed never to need. As I sweated over the hot stove I found myself hankering for the tediousness of a simple progressive and perfect past tense. I promised never to marry an Italian man and never to cook at home. I wasn’t going to be stuck eating wog food. I was going to be in a restaurant eating real food. Little did I realise that by the time I became an adult, wog food would be real food.
And so it came to pass. At a deli recently I was gobsmacked by the exorbitant price of a small jar of pasta sauce. I thought, surely I can do better than this? Or at least do it more cheaply. Inspired by the Slow Food movement, with its philosophy of locally sourced ingredients and traditional cooking, I decided to make it myself from scratch.
On a low flame, I warmed some olive oil in the pan and added onion and garlic finely chopped. Have you noticed how garlic likes to be undressed with the sharp edge of the knife? But an onion, on the other hand, struggles against the blade, punishing you with her tears. I stirred until they were soft and golden. The aroma was divine. I added minced beef, a dash of salt, pepper and a little curry powder. Why not? Traditional cuisine need not be hampered by innovation. And why not a little white wine as well? I stirred and stirred and my tummy began to rumble, so I poured myself a glass. Rediscovering my heritage wasn’t proving as difficult as I’d thought it might be.
Once the meat was cooked I added one of the jars of preserved tomatoes that my mother had gifted me when I moved out of home. I crushed them with a fork, stirred them through and let it all simmer for about twenty minutes. An opportunity to refill the wine glass and think about time. Or at least use by dates. I remembered that there was leftover thickened cream in the fridge. I added it to the sauce and it turned a lovely rose pink.
They say that aromas dislodge memories, that scents remind us of times and places from the past, and so it was, that as the sauce simmered, I thought of those long ago Saturday afternoons with a little more affection. I realised that, even though I hated it at the time, I was glad that my mother had attempted to teach me how to cook a traditional pasta sauce. And although it only took about forty five minutes to make, I realised that it had taken me twenty five years to appreciate it. Perhaps that’s why it’s called the Slow Food movement. Or perhaps it’s just this particular cook that’s a bit slow.