I have been obsessed with food my whole life in one way or another. My obsession has run hot and hotter. There were times when I refused to eat, times when I overate, times when I decided not to eat (which is different from refusing to eat, trust me).
Food has always been a challenge. As a woman, food and body image sit side by side. I can’t eat something with cream or butter without wondering how it will affect my weight. What will I need to deny myself if I eat full fat? I’m fat and I’ve been on some sort of diet or food restriction since I was 13 (I blame Karen Carpenter, but that’s another story).
I’m Italian, Sicilian actually, and food has played a pivotal role in my life, along with the lives of millions of Sicilians over the centuries. And like so many children of migrants, I spent most of my life rejecting my heritage. Much like the Norman conquerors who devalued our tomatoes and capers to make way for a more refined French-style cuisine, I’ve thought of traditional Sicilian food as the food of paupers, the illiterates, those who don’t get the nuanced flavours of world cuisine.
I started learning to cook when I was six, old enough to stand on a chair and watch my mother at the stove. Us latch-key kids of the 70s are lucky – we were allowed to use fire and knives and toasters. Some of us got burnt, others electrocuted, and the rest of us have a few scars from sharp knives, but we also learned to cook and make do with ingredients that were wilting in the fridge. I would come home from school and make myself pasta while my parents were still at work. I was splattered by hot oil once. I survived.
In my teens, I rejected food altogether, anorexic, bulimic, all of the diseases that befall so many young girls. I preferred drinking my calories for a long time. Mostly, I wanted to distance myself from my heritage. I’ve wanted to distance myself from food altogether because it has a hold on me. Food = weight problem, fat, unhappy.
My mother was a good cook, but she wasn’t into teaching me to cook. She was always too angry, too tired and too impatient to teach me how to cook. I watched, picked things up, but she was never a teacher – she preferred me to get out of the way – and without a nonna or aunts around, I simply muddled my way through. I can cook, but a lot of the traditional food is lost to me. Mum is still not a good teacher.
Food was also surrounded by anger in my house. Mum was so impatient and tired. She just wanted to get it DONE. There was no joy. And when I think of meals growing up, even special occasion meals like Christmas and Easter, they were angry, three people arguing, fighting, me at the table reading so I could ignore my parents, the only engagement was when we yelled. Is it no wonder food is so fraught for me?
I’ve written about it before, the myth of the blended Italian family with mothers and nonni and aunts and uncles surrounding happy kids, cousins laughing and making passata – much like the opening scene of Looking for Alibrandi – man how I wanted that life. But like so many first generation migrants (I was born in Sicily), I didn’t have grandparents nearby, we rarely spoke because of the cost of a phone call, and those family who did migrate to Australia were separated – some in the city, others in the country so I didn’t get to spend time with them either. On top of that, I’m an only child. So, for me, the big Italian family myth is just that – a myth.
It has taken me a long time to start embracing food, to embrace my heritage, to go back home, to recognise that I have two cultures vying for attention, to understand that the past is just that, in the past.
Unlike my parents, I’m not a gardener. I’ll grow tomatoes if someone plants and looks after them. We grow silverbeet, celery, herbs, zucchini, but mostly I’m happy to buy what I need. Though, in recent times, I’m putting more thought into the ingredients a little more, preferring to buy meat from a small butcher a few suburbs away because they source their produce from independent small farms, that sort of thing. The Covid hoopla has made me care about small producers more. I hope the sentiment lasts.
And I’ve started thinking about Sicily. I don’t know a lot about it. I spent a couple of months there with mum when I was 7, while my grandmother was dying, and then again when I was 19, while I was getting over a nervous breakdown. I know about it, but I don’t know much. I could ask my mum, but that’s complicated. She remembers her pre-migrant life with typical rose-tinted lenses like so many economic migrants. She didn’t really learn to cook until she got married. Weird. So I don’t know what my grandmothers used to cook, what their favourite dishes were, if they made sourdough or yeasted bread, how many eggs they used in their pasta dough or if they added oil. I realise now as I watch Pasta Grannies on YouTube, and watching Evan Funke making pasta (I’ve just ordered American Sfoglino: A Master Class in Handmade Pasta), and I make my own pasta that I’ve never really watched my mother cook. Not really. Not in any valuable way.
And right now, these are the things I value.
With all of the rejection over the years, it’s really just occurred to me that these are the things I’ve been searching for my whole life.
So… I’m going to make some calls.
PS. I just grabbed my mother’s “Pettine” that she has never used but had stored away in my old bedroom for some reason, and I’m going to make these Garganelli.