I got a text from my niece recently asking me to help her with her homework: an assignment on migration. It reminded me that I’m a migrant. In fact this year is the 40th anniversary of my family’s arrival in Australia. These were the questions she asked me to answer:
- Who is the person that migrated to Australia and where did they migrate from?
- When did they migrate to Australia and where in Australia did they settle?
- What was life like for them in their new country?
- Any other information?
So I told her that I’d arrived in Australia with my mum and dad and younger sister from South Africa in 1977. And that we’d sailed for 17 days from Cape Town to Sydney on the cruise liner S. S. Ellenis and eaten a lot of food from the buffet. I said that because I already spoke English when I arrived, my life as a migrant has not been as hard for me as for others who didn’t speak English very well; such as my parents who’d originally moved to South Africa from Italy. But then I remembered that because I had a South African accent when I arrived I was teased by the boys in my third grade class. And that reminded me of high school, when because of my Italian background I got called a wog. But who wasn’t called something they didn’t like at school. My friend in Year 10 was called a ‘chook’ by our maths teacher. Good old Mr Cook meant it as a term of affection like ‘petal’ or ‘possum’ but as you can imagine the rest of the class didn’t get that.
But it was the last question that had me stumped. Any other information? The rule in homework, and in exams, and in job interviews, is answer every question. Don’t leave anything blank. But I really couldn’t think of anything else. Until a few days ago. And although it’s too late for my niece’s homework assignment here’s my answer:
My family came to Australia with everything we thought we would need for life in a new country. In the hold of the ship we had our car, our TV and a giant trunk filled with clothes, manchester and household appliances. But it wasn’t until almost 40 years later that I discovered what we’d left behind.
Gem squash. Not quite pumpkin, not quite zucchini.
I’ve lived in Australia for all this time without so much as seeing a single gem squash. And then the other day while in a fruit shop I spotted a pile of little green canon balls and knew them immediately. The last time I’d eaten these little vegetables I was seven years old. I was so excited to see them again that I bought three of them which I immediately regretted because not only did they look like little cannon balls, they were each about as heavy as one. But I managed to carry them home without herniating the discs in my spine.
I had no idea how to cook a gem squash. After all, as a seven year old I didn’t have to do my own cooking. They would arrive in front of me, stringy, soft and with lashings of butter, ready for me to dip my spoon and sink my teeth into. I rang my mother. A waste of time; being a busy pensioner, with life membership of various community clubs, she wasn’t available for advice. So in the absence of an elder I searched the internet. I was in luck. A very handsome website advised me to ‘cut the squash in half and steam for five minutes’. I placed the squash on my chopping board and got out the heavy duty knife that I use on pumpkins but succeeded only in jamming the knife into the side of a very hard vegetable. After about fifteen minutes of grunting, groaning and smashing I almost took off my hand but the squash remained whole. A few more swings of the chopping board and a swear word or two and I finally managed to ease the knife back out of the squash. I used my remaining fingers to google again, this time taking the advice to ‘puncture the squash several times with a fork and boil for five minutes.’ By this time I was beginning to wonder if re-enacting this childhood memory was worth the effort. Perhaps these little vegetables, and not Apartheid, were the real reason we’d left South Africa.
After fifteen minutes of boiling and a few more pokes with the fork there was still no sign of softening. This was obviously going to take a little longer than I’d been led to believe. I would need to while away some time. I got a book and stood next to the stove so as not to forget about my boiling pot and burn the house down. I read several chapters about an English couple who bought an olive farm in Sicily. The frustrations they faced paled into insignificance once they uncorked the first bottle of their very own olive oil. But it had taken a lot of effort to get there – they’d had to renovate the farm house, prune the olive trees, harvest the olives and transport them over the hills to the mill. It gave me hope. My own culinary adventures were a little less difficult.
After 30 minutes I checked the squashes. There seemed to be some give. I took them out and placed them on the chopping board and tried again to cut them in half. This time the knife slid in and after a little hacking, and a bit of banging, the squash cleaved in two. But alas much of the inside remained rock hard. So back into the pot they went, and on with another few chapters of the book I went. I had just reached the beginning of their second olive harvest when the smell, no scent, emanating from the pot began to play tricks with my mind. I was transported back to my three foot self standing next to my mother at the stove in our Johannesburg kitchen.
I dragged myself back to my life as a five foot two inch adult and lifted the half squash out of the water. It was soft. I remembered to be patient and laid it upside down on a plate to drain. Then I placed it in a bowl, spread butter onto it and tasted. I had waited forty years to relive this experience. And for the last hour had begun to suspect it wouldn’t be worthwhile, but the nutty, stringy consistency was exactly what I remembered. As a seven year old I could only have described them as ‘yum’; now I could only say ‘more’.