When books don’t have dates, PhD students get confused. And then they get angry…

18 Jul

Dorothy Daly’s Italian Cooking has been cited as one of the first Italian cookbooks written in English. It doesn’t have a date of publication on it, but no less than the Boston Public Library (BPL) has declared it was published in 1900, at least according to the Open Library and Internet Archive, which would mean, like Janet Ross’ Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen, it was indeed one of the first:

Italian Cooking entry on the Internet ArchiveExcept it wasn’t published in 1900. It couldn’t have been. It’s wrong and it’s making me crazy. So, how do I, a lowly PhD student, dare to doubt establishments such as the BPL? Well, here’s some proof:

  • The book includes a “Table of Equivalent Oven Heats” which features heat settings for different manufacturers’ ovens. Not only does it seem like one oven, the Cannon with Autimo settings, didn’t exist until at least the late 40s, Daly’s chart also bears a striking resemblance to one published in the 1950s by British food writer Ambrose Heath in Kitchen Wisdom:
Oven temp chart in Italian Cooking

The oven temperature chart in Dorothy Daly’s Italian Cooking features some ovens that didn’t exist till after World War II…

Chart from Ambrose Heath's Kitchen Wisdom

Many of the same makes of oven appear in Ambrose Heath’s Kitchen Wisdom (1950).

  • It repeats as fact the myth that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China, a myth which a number of scholars believe came from a 1920s item in the Macaroni Journal, a trade publication for pasta makers in the US.
  • Daly uses the term “pasta” throughout the book, but this word was not in common use in English-language cookbooks until at least the 1950s, with “macaroni” the preferred umbrella term for different pasta shapes up until then.
  • Sun Books published an Australian edition in 1969 under the title Cooking the Italian Way. Except for the title, and some minor editing, there isn’t much difference between this version and the so-called 1900 edition. It seems pretty unlikely that a book would require little editing when so much has changed in the kitchen from 1900 to the late 60s, unless it was marketed as some kind of nostalgia trip, which it wasn’t. Much more likely is that the book was first published in London in the late 1950s, which British historian Panikos Panayi notes in Spicing up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food.

    Cooking the Italian Way by Dorothy Daly 1969

    The cover of Cooking the Italian Way, published in Melbourne, 1969.

  • The illusive Ms Daly also wrote a bunch of other books on Italy, all of which feature publication dates in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and even 80s. Some of these are reprints, but unless Daly was a prolific genius writing from the age of 2 until her old age, it’s difficult to account for the fact that the rest of the woman’s work was published 50 years after her first book. Incidentally, I have found very little biographical information about the mysterious Dot Daly, like when she was born and when she died, so if you know something, say something.
  • Stylistically, typographically and linguistically Italian Cooking just doesn’t look or sound like a book written at the turn of the last century. Don’t believe me? Have a look yourself and you will no doubt find a hundred other reasons why this book couldn’t have been published in 1900.

So this wrong date is now all over the Internet, with some categorising it incorrectly, even Google,  and others trying to make a quick buck. It makes me mad, not because people are potentially getting ripped off, although that’s never nice, but because a wrong date can lead a student of history to make incorrect assumptions about, well, everything. It also proves you can’t just accept what other people –  even if those people are big, established, respected libraries –  say. You have to question everything. Though, let’s be honest, we could’ve saved a hell of a lot of time if the publisher HAD JUST PUT THE DAMN DATE ON THE BOOK IN THE FIRST PLACE!

Sorry for yelling, but I was angry. I feel better now.

What happened when Romano ate Vegemite pasta

10 Jun

Romano is my dad. I’ve talked about him before, mostly to point out that his criticism of other people’s cooking is not what you’d call gentle or sensitive or, well, nice. He once made eight-year-old me cry when he told me my risotto was a gluggy, gluey, inedible mess. You see, Romano lives his life by a strict set of edicts which govern all aspects of his dietary intake.  You could call it Romano’s Code, and he expects others to understand and respect his Code. There’s Romano’s way – salads should always be dressed with olive oil and vinegar not abhorrent concoctions that involve mayonnaise or, God forbid, yoghurt – and then there’s the wrong way.

Romano’s Code doesn’t just cover cooking, it extends to dining etiquette as well. If, for example, you find yourself eating dinner at Casa Cammarano and think it is OK to just pluck a few random grapes from the requisite fruit platter that appears after every meal, you are sadly mistaken. The right thing to do is to take a small bunch, stalks and all. Romano doesn’t care if you’re a daughter, a cousin, a new boyfriend or the parish priest, commit this sin and you’ll hear about it loudly and for a long time afterwards. You might be embarrassed, but then Romano believes you should be.

So when I came across this 1950 recipe for “Noodles” with a variation that called for the adding of “a teaspoon of meat extract or Vegemite” in Wynwode Reid’s New Australian Cookery Illustrated,  I knew, in the name of Italo-Australian cuisine, it had to be tried. And I also knew the person to try it should be Romano.

Noodles Recipe from New Australian Cookery Illustrated

Note the Vegemite variation under “Savory Noodles”.

I set about making it happen. In a bid not to prejudice his palate, I decided I would keep the Vegemite a secret.  Romano, like most Italians, is not a fan of the inky black substance – he’s more a Nutella man. I’m sure if I told him I’d taken what has been the staple of his ancestors for centuries, and mixed in a spoonful of Vegemite, he would see it as a betrayal of his culture and, worse, a clear contravention of Romano’s Code.

Following the instructions proved to be as simple as mapping the human genome, but somehow I managed it. In the middle of the task mum rang to say Nonna was expecting me for dinner. Perfect, I thought, ignoring the line that said “Leave at least 24 hours to dry”, dad can try the noodles then.

Vegemite ready to go in dough

Vegemite in dough

Vegemite dough rolled out

Rolling up vegemite pasta

Unfortunately, by the time my ribbons of latte-coloured pasta had been transported in their plastic box from the city to Spotswood they had turned into mounds of stuck-together dough. “Not you worry,” said Nonna and we set about re-rolling the pasta into little twists.

Nonna and mum re-rolling Vegemite pasta

Romano entered and pointed out that they looked like something the dog did.

This was not a good start. But cooked and covered in Nonna’s sauce, Romano didn’t immediately turn up his considerably-sized nose.

Cooked Vegemite pasta twirls

He looked at it closely. He looked at me. “What’s in it?,” he asked

“Just try it”, I urged

He smelt it.

“You used chestnut flour.”

“Just try it.”

“You used wholemeal flour,” he accused.

“Would you just try it?”

He took a little. He chewed it thoughtfully. He took a little more.

Romano tasting Vegemite pasta

A second taste of Vegemite pasta

“Is it alright?”  I asked timidly.

“Hmm yeah, alright. Not bad. Not great. Not bad. Now, what’s in it?”

“Vegemite!” I proclaimed triumphantly, ready for his face to turn from apathetic to angry.

“Oh, OK, yeah, it just makes it salty. It’s alright.”

“What do you mean? Isn’t it disgusting to put Vegemite in pasta? Aren’t you appalled? It’s what Australiani put in their Bolognese, dad. It’s wrong, isn’t it? I thought you would think it was wrong!”

“No, it’s alright. It’s fine.”

So, there you have it, when Romano ate Vegemite pasta, there was no yelling of cultures double-crossed, of codes violated, of anything really.  It just didn’t seem right – who was this man? This wasn’t how my father should react to Vegemite pasta, of all things. Had I slipped into a parallel future, an alternate 1985 of sorts?  Where was the outrage? What did I have to do to provoke that? And then grapes presented themselves for dessert. I plucked a few from the stalks, and Romano did his thing. Everything was right in the world again.

A plate of Vegemite pasta

Who wrote Australia’s first Italian cookbook?

8 May

Ok, so, yes, Lamingtons & Lasagna has been less than productive on the blog front, it cannot be denied, but she hasn’t been doing exactly nothing…

I gave a presentation on Australia’s first Italian cookbook at the Museo Italiano in Carlton last week, where I baked the Siennese Little Horses again, and am happy to report they came out much better this time (note to self: convert measurements using Google, not own brain). I spruiked the talk and massacred the Italian language again on SBS Radio. And I just posted a guest blog for the Australasian Centre for Italian Studies on who (could’ve) written Australia’s first Italian cookbook.

I just wanted to thank Dr Paolo Barrachi at the Museo Italiano for all his help with the talk, everyone who came along and gave valuable feedback, and my sister Lisa for creating super awesome invitation postcard:

Food and Fascism Talk at Museo Italiano

Looking forward to getting on with some new research now, and maybe even posting about it right here… although I wouldn’t want to overdo it right?

Cooking with Nonna Christmas Special: Torrone

10 Dec

By the time I get to Nonna’s house, she’s already got the sugar and almonds out, the scales are on the table and she’s set up a make-shift stove which might be the perfect height for 5 foot nothing Nonna, but is not-so-perfect for 5 foot 10 me:

Make-shift stove

I decide it’s pointless to complain about the back-breaking height of the stove – if that’s how Nonna wants it, that’s how it will stay –  and instead ask where everyone is.

“Your Uncle Sam’s in bed, little Tony’s got work to do, and your Mum and Dad went to buy a Christmas tree. When there’s work to be done (she sighs)…you know your Mother has never been interested in making the torrone, never. To eat it, yes, to take it to the shop, yes, but to make it? No no no no….”

Poor Lila. She does the most for Nonna but being the first-born female in an Italian household means you’re expected to do everything, all the time, and if you’re waiting to be thanked for it? Well there’s more chance of me not being asked when I’m having grandchildren…

Nonna mumbles some more about my mother’s lack of interest in all things culinary and tells me to weigh out 800 grams of sugar and 1 kilo of almonds.

Really? Weigh stuff? Nonna never weighs anything and I call her on it.

“What happened to using your ‘occhio’ Nonna? You say your eye is the best measurement for everything. All you need is your hands and your eyes and you can cook?”

“Yes, that’s true but no, not for this. Weigh it.”

Weighing almonds and sugar

The sugar goes in the pan over low heat. Nonna watches it and explains we are waiting for it to turn to honey.  Not sure how sugar can turn into honey but, again, it’s not an argument worth having. I get on top of a chair and take the following pictures, and then I get in trouble.

Sugar on the stove

Nonna puts in the sugar

Nonna taken from a chair

“Get off the chair! What are you doing? You’ll fall! And put your shoes on! Why aren’t your shoes on? Why do you never wear shoes?”

Nonna has this thing about us being barefoot. I think she would be less offended if we were naked. No, actually, I know that’s not true – once I wore skin-coloured tracksuit pants (don’t ask why, I don’t know) and my brother had some friends around and Nonna came in and lost it, like really lost it:

“How can you be naked IN FRONT OF BOYS? What is wrong with you? Scustamata che non sei altra (which kind of means something like you’re the sluttiest of slutbag women to ever walk the earth)!”

“But Nonna, they’re pants, look!”

“Ah, hmm, yes, they are, but PUT YOUR SHOES ON!!!!”

Lost in memories of flesh-toned pants past, Nonna points out that the sugar has in fact turned into a honey-like syrup, so we should now add the almonds. This is where the fun starts and where you see an 89-year-old woman who only 10 minutes before said “I hurt so much, I can’t move AT ALL! Old age is awful, my granddaughter, awful!” stir the sticky mess of almonds and sugar like it’s whipped cream. Sure, she does some Monica Seles-style grunting towards the end, but I have to practically bribe her to take the wooden spoon away from her.

Sugar cooking

Nonna with sugar turned brown

Almonds mixed in

Nonna stirring

About half-way through the constant stirring, Nonna adds lemon juice. It sizzles and bubbles and splatters. I move away to avoid getting burnt. Nonna just keeps on stirring. I guess if you lived in Sicily through World War II, you’re probably not scared of hot lemon juice…

Almonds cooking

Almonds ready

Finally it’s time to tip the molten brown sugar coated almonds out on to an oiled marble slab. I don’t know how Nonna knows it’s ready.  I ask her and she says she knows it’s ready, because it’s ready.

Almonds on Marble Slab

Getting the almonds out is not so easy, as everything’s sticking to everything and it’s hot as Hades. That does not stop Nonna.  She uses a range of wooden spoons, palates and a rolling pin to get it how she wants it. Then she dips her hands in cold water and pats it down. I try to mimic her, but my hands actually feel heat, so I give up.

Sticky almonds

Nonna shaping the torrone

After a sprinkling of not-so-traditional hundreds and thousands, it’s time to cut the thing. Luckily, reinforcements arrive in the form of Mum and Dad, or Lila and Romano.  Lila scoffs some stray almonds, leaving the evidence in plain view:

Evidence of almond eating

I tell her what Nonna said about her lack of help, she sighs and starts the next lot of torrone. I think she’s used to it. Dad meanwhile takes some very menacing knives off Nonna and starts cutting the torrone into pieces. This requires a fair degree of stamina, and as we have not had coffee for at least an hour, Nonna decides that’s what she should be doing.

Nonna making coffee

Nonna with knives

Dad cutting torrone

Torrone being cut

Torrone finished

Once all the torrone is cut, we make a second lot which is slightly different because it’s made with sesame seeds and assorted nuts.  Mum and Dad take the lead this time, but Nonna is always watching, always ready to jump in, always giving instruction and always quick to point out what we’re doing wrong. At one point, she asks no one in particular:

“How on earth are you going to make the torrone when I’m gone?”

The answer to which is, of course, I have no idea.

Mum and dad working

Finished sesame seed torrone

Nonna’s Torrone

You will need a marble slab and hands that are not sensitive to heat. It’s also a good idea to share the stirring with a number of people, as it is heavy, hot and difficult.

Ingredients

  • 800g sugar
  • 1kg whole almonds, blanched
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • Hundreds and thousands
  • A few sheets of rice paper
  1. Oil the marble slab and have a bowl of cold water for you to dip your hands in nearby.
  2. Place the sugar in a large saucepan and stir over low heat until sugar has dissolved.
  3. Add almonds. Stir with a wooden spoon until the almonds start to stick together.
  4. Add the lemon juice and continue stirring until the almonds and sugar are golden brown in colour.
  5. Turn the mixture out onto the marble slab. Dip the palms of your hands in the cold water and then, using your hands, shape the mixture into a square slab. You can also use a rolling pin and wooden spoon
  6. While the mixture is still warm, sprinkle hundreds and thousands over it, cut the slab into slices, and then into small squares. Place on plates lined with rice paper.

Nonna relaxes with finished torrone

My Italian Christmas – a special encore post

29 Nov

So you know how TV networks call repeats of TV shows encores?  Well, I’m taking a leaf out of their book and posting a story I wrote for Taste.com.au  a few years ago about what an Italian Christmas is like in the little-known Italian town of Melbourne. Consider it a prequel to Nonna’s torrone recipe which we were meant to make together this week, but Nonna hasn’t been feeling the best, so it’s on next week, with a post to follow. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what will be either very familiar or completely foreign, depending on the amount of wog blood coursing through your veins:

Roast turkey, mince pies and shortbread. This is what a foreign Christmas sounds like to me. The same goes for fruitcake, stuffing, pudding and Christmas crackers. Totally exotic.

My unfamiliarity with all things Anglo-Christmas is my family’s fault. My mother is Sicilian, my father is from near Naples, and I was born in Melbourne, but if what you eat is who you are then I am definitely Italian. No question. Or, to be more precise, southern Italian.

Like all good southern Italians, our Christmas meal starts with homemade pasta. In my house, these take the form of panzerotti. Now, the thing about pasta and Italians is that one man’s panzerotti are another man’s crespelle. By this I mean that depending on where you are in the tall skinny boot known as Italy, pasta often has the same name but can be something quite different. In casa Cammarano, however, the panzerotti are made by Romano, my father, and are precise little half moons of pasta filled with ricotta, parmesan and parsley, sealed with a fork, boiled in water, and served with a fresh tomato sauce. Perfect.

However, occasionally people who are not my father get involved in the making of perfection, and things inevitably go wrong. These people, Romano’s children and his mother-in-law, in particular, don’t particularly care if a complete circle has not been cut out of the pasta, making it impossible to create a proper half moon. Or they are sloppy in the way they seal the panzerotti, meaning when you cook them, they burst open and their ricotta filling is lost to the raging boiling water around them.

Sometimes, crazy people, like my mother,  put spinach in the filling and this not a happy Romano does make. He feels that spinach compromises the clean flavours of the fresh ricotta and I think he is right. (By the way, never ever buy the ricotta that comes in the containers at the supermarket – this is a criminal act in Romano’s book.)

While panzerotti were and still are the specialty of Mr Cammarano, my mother Lidia, or, as she hates to be called, Lil, always makes ricotta cake. The recipe for this cake goes way, way back to an ancient and sacred Italian cookbook that no one can remember the name of and has since been lost. But the cake lives on in the memory of Lidia, who will not share the recipe because it’s hers and hers alone. Even though she claims the book has been lost, I think she destroyed it to protect her ricotta cake-making monopoly.

But I digress. It is a delicious cake, no doubt about it. The pastry crust is short and contains orange zest. My mother doesn’t believe in making her own pastry – she outsources it to my grandmother, who brings it to her house already rested and rolled out, in a glass Pyrex dish with crinkled edges. The filling is fresh ricotta, cinnamon, eggs and caster sugar. There might be more, but Lil isn’t telling. It’s baked in the oven and then dusted with icing sugar. We eat it during the entire Christmas period – it is the fuel that keeps us going and propels us through everything festive from gift buying expeditions and loud card games to visiting friends and midnight mass.

Whilst it is starting to sound like ricotta is at the centre of my Italian Christmas, it’s not. Torrone is. Torrone is the Italian word for nougat but my grandmother’s version is not the snowy white version you are probably most familiar with. This one is made mostly of almonds and sugar, and is caramel brown in colour. To make it you must have the strength of 21 men, four oxen and three donkeys. Your hands must be capable of withstanding nuclear plant meltdown levels of heat. Or you must be my 89-year-old grandmother. She makes it, and has always made it, by herself. True, these days, she lets me or my mother occasionally have a turn at stirring it, but she waits impatiently as you try to churn the spoon, her eagle eyes watching for any signs of fatigue. It doesn’t take long – and as soon as you pause, she’s taken the spoon and is back at it again, and you’re left wondering why you’re standing exhausted while a woman four times your age, and a quarter of your size, is moving nearly 2 kilos of sticky, heavy sugar and almonds.

It might seem a good idea, at this point, to give you some of the recipes for these tasty Christmas treats. However, my father would not give his recipe for panzarotti, on the grounds that you will not make them as well as he does. My mother would not give her recipe for ricotta cake, for the reasons stated above. My nonna, however, has provided her recipe for torrone. Because nonna is good and kind and just, and knows that as there’s no way you’re as strong as she is, trying to make it will probably kill you anyway… so look out for Nonna Maria’s Torrone in the next post (complete with pictures, I promise)! In the meantime, tell me if this Christmas is anything like yours?

Baby food, 1916-style

21 Nov

 “FOOD FOR CHILDREN OF NINE MONTHS

Raw meat juice is another useful method of feeding where for any reason cow’s milk or other foods disagree. It can be simply made as follows:­ –

After washing a quarter of a pound of lean raw beef scrape it into as fine shreds as possible, and put in a cup. Add two tablespoons of cold water, cover cup, and allow to stand for about an hour in a cool place. Now strain it and squeeze the juice out by wringing the pulp in a piece of muslin.”

- The Australian Household Guide, Ed: Lady Hackett, 1916

I can’t see Heinz adding raw meat juice to its baby food range any time soon. Mind you, you never know, especially when a baby who is presumably reared on the stuff looks like this:

Baby from The Australian Household Guide

Is this what happens when you drink raw meat juice? The Australian Household Guide, 1916

In praise of nonnas…

14 Nov

Today I went to Sabina’s nonna’s funeral.  Sabina’s nonna was everything a nonna should be. Loving, strong, could cook for 50 people without breaking a sweat and could gossip for at least two countries – Italy and Australia. She knew everything that was going on. Kind of like Google, but only for things that really mattered like births, deaths, marriages, pregnancies and, most importantly, scandals. It’s easy to forget what nonnas like Sabina’s nonna did. With maybe a few suitcases and a few kids, they moved to a country where they didn’t know the language or the culture or the customs. But did it faze them? Nup, they got right on with it and set about creating a new life, their own little empires, rich with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  So here’s to nonnas who have passed, and to nonnas who are still with us. They demand our respect. RIP Maria Curatolo.

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