“Boy, what is that smell? … It’s fantastic!”
I’ve written before about the effect on the school locker room during lunchtime. The locker room, obviously designed for a Western palate, was shocked by the introduction of an avalanche of Southern Mediterranean pre-packaged food from home.
“Hey Joe, that’s a big sandwich, what do you have for lunch today?”
“Ummm, I don’t know.”
“What? I can smell it from here.”
“Oh, let me take a look” I would innocently reply. “Ok, so my mum has made me a sandwich which has fried eggplant, onion, cheese, tomato, and lettuce.” Looking closer, I would have quietly added to myself, “Oh God, why didn’t my Mum cut the bread slices thinner.” These were doorstops. They probably contained 100% of all the food groups you needed in one enormous sandwich.
“Nah, that’s not the smell I am getting Joe.” Brian sniffs the air and licks his lips.
“Well,” I may as well try to help solve the mystery, “Giulio, over there has a slab of lasagna. And Turidu has just pulled out a couple of slices of pizza.” I look over at Brian, still sniffing away. “Does that help?” I say.
“Not really, the smells here are crazy.”
“Maybe it’s your sandwich, Brian. What do you have?”
“Ahem,” Brian looks down at his thin, square-shaped, sandwich. “It’s a …” he looks up at me a little embarrassed.
“It’s a … vegemite sandwich with a slice of Kraft cheddar cheese.”
The suburb we lived in when we first arrived in Australia was an inner-city, working class, Italian ghetto. The school, St Margaret Mary’s, was the closest Catholic School. My class had 30 primary school students of which 28 were Italian and 2 Australians. It was one of those multi-cultural hubs that are so sought after today. And with outrageous housing prices that match.
At the time, my friends were a microcosm of Europe. I had friends from Sicily (obviously), but also from Cyprus, Crete, Macedonia, Poland, Holland, Yugoslavia. Close your eyes and take a deep breath, I am sure you can imagine the fragrant odours coming out of that locker room from so long ago.
I thought for years all of Australia ate like that for lunch. One great, big melting pot (pardon the pun).
Let me be honest, I like to think the above lunchtime conversation happened (it may do so today), but it didn’t then. We were trying to fit into a new country we knew from Television. There were no swarthy Europeans on anyone’s screens. Bank Managers, Doctors, Teachers, Politicians were not Italian. They were English.
Television was filled with English accents, but they were slowly mutating over to a US west coast accent that was softening the harshness of the Australian twang.
Brian’s sandwich was already a main stalwart of the culture we were desperately trying to be a part of. And we gladly helped with the transition. All aboard, me mateys.
Giuseppe became Joe, Giulio became Julian, and Turidu became a very “bloody good-lookin man” named Sam. Brian’s sandwich and oil-free hair were highly desirable to any wannabe Australian. A few of the more fragrant lunches were often left in the lockers. They were hard to manage, and their owners were often too embarrassed to claim responsibility.
But I did find out that they made a great after-school snack for the principal’s kids. Before locking up and heading home, the principal would do a runaround to make sure everyone was out, and he would always check the lockers for leftovers. These he would take home, toast and feed his clan of growing boys.
What a treat that must have been for them.
I, and a couple of friends, would rather stop off at the local fish and chip shop, buy 5 cents of chips and 5 cents of potato cakes (always with salt and vinegar) and eat them on the way home.
My mother arrived home at 5.00 pm. And despite having worked all day, would have dinner on the table by 6.00 pm. We would be treated to two, maybe three courses. They would comprise of a pasta starter – eg: spagetti with a meat sauce, or pasta e fagioli. This was followed by a meat or vegetable main and then some sweet leftovers from the weekend.
I don’t remember going out or getting “takeaway”. Ever. It didn’t exist.
Outside the home, we dressed in American-style casual. My favourite T-shirt was one that was emblazoned with an American flag on its chest.
We watched American films. Followed Australian football. Watched cricket during hot summer days. We studied history through a British lens. Sang “God save the Queen”. Ate meat pies and sausage rolls at the football.
Today, it seems to have turned around. Even the office-catered lunch is a little more interesting than a slice of Kraft cheddar, topped with a slice of gherkin, which was normally pinned to the top of the sandwich through a toothpick.
“Wow, look Joe” says Vince, formerly Vincenzo, “there are sandwiches with eggplant and salad. Fantastic, isn’t it?”
“I’d like to say “Damn! There’s no vegemite sandwich nestled inside with a thin slice of Kraft cheddar cheese.”
Yes, that last line is pure sarcasm. I have been able to integrate a lot of Australian customs into my way of doing things, but spreading small squares of soft, white bread with vegemite and then eating it, is, fortunately, not one.