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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.