Tag Archives: 1930s

Update: Australia’s first Italian cookbook

4 Apr

The lovely folk at SBS Radio’s Italian program have joined the appeal to help find Australia’s first Italian cookbook – La Cucina Continentale.  Carlo Oreglia interviewed me, and you can hear the interview – and me mangle the beautiful Italian language – around the 38 minute mark of this morning’s program.

Thanks both to Carlo for the interview, and the awesome James Panichi for helping me get the word out.

The quest continues…

Related links
Australia’s first Italian cookbook – MIA

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Australia’s first Italian cookbook – MIA

2 Apr

Every so often you make a discovery. Something you think no one else knows. This makes you happy, so very, very happy.

Being a PhD student is a bit of a drudge most of the time. There are books to find, notes to take, references to record, forms to complete and reading, so much reading, some of it interesting, much of it leading to a lifelong hatred of anyone whose name comes prefaced by the words “French philosopher”.

But when that moment happens, the point of a new discovery, you forget about the references and the forms, you even forget that your annual salary is below the poverty line, and you think it’s all worth it. For you are now making a real contribution to your field. It’s you they are going to reference and your name they are going to struggle to spell correctly in EndNote or Mendeley (For the record: C-A-M-M-A-R-A-N-O).

This happened to me quite recently. It was good for a bit. And then it all went to shit. Here’s how it unfolded:

Working at the State Library of Victoria, I was examining a 1930s cookbook called the First Australian Continental Cookery Book. While the book says its about European cooking, there seem to be more Italian recipes than anything else, and after I read:

It is time for Australians to realise, in fact, that what one may call Mediterranean cookery has much to offer them. Italian cookery, for instance, embodies ideas, aims and methods that have not only been ripening for literally thousands of years, but have been doing so under climatic conditions far more closely resembling those of Australia than do the British.

I somehow deduced this book had to be written by an Italian. In fact, I half thought it might be my Uncle Tony. But with no author listed, I looked into the publisher – the Cosmopolitan Publishing Company – and found that the same company published a bunch of other Italian-related books. Dig just that bit deeper and guess what, the company is run by a group of Italian migrants who also published the principal fascist newspaper in Australia, Il Giornale Italiano.

This is seriously good stuff. I’m feeling pretty great about what I’ve found, and then the cake gets iced. By the same publisher, I find in the NLA’s catalogue, published in the 1930s as well, La Cucina Continentale. I think I may well have just stumbled upon Australia’s first Italian cookbook. All I have to do is go to Canberra and check it out.

La Cucina Continentale

Happy days! La Cucina Continentale in the NLA’s catalogue.

So off to the nation’s fine capital I go. When I get to the NLA, I become a member, request the book and spend 45 minutes looking at the exhibition next door while some hairy librarian type – they are always hairy – fetches it for me. I log back into the computer to check the status of the book, but see just one word – Missing. I think I stop breathing for a second. Missing. I go and tell the nice, bearded man (see, I told you they are always hairy) behind the desk. It’s the only known copy in the world, I say in not my usual calm way, and it just can’t be missing. He tells me that I am wrong – it can be missing. But, I say, no, it really can’t. Nice man gets the feeling this could go on all day so he tells me to go home and request an official investigation. This happens, and two weeks later the official investigation sends me a lovely email in which, it concludes, the book is not just missing now – it’s officially missing.

Excellent.

So now, dear reader, in a bid to save this discovery from the dustbin, I am launching an appeal to find La Cucina Continentale. If you know of it, or anything about it, I would love to hear from you. You know where to find me. Please, because I really want to be in EndNote…

La Cucina Continentale missing

Not so happy. La Cucina Continentale is now officially missing.

Bibliography:

  • Cappello, Anthony. “Italian Australians, the Church, War and Fascism in Melbourne 1919-1945.” Masters’ diss.,Victoria University of Technology, 1999.
  • Cresciani, Gianfranco. Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Italians in Australia, 1922-1945. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1980.
  • First Australian Continental Cookery Book. Melbourne: Cosmopolitan Publishing Co. Limited, 1937.

Spaghetti sandwiches

7 Jul
Spaghetti sandwich illustration

Spag sanga anyone? Lorraine Hannay's illustration of a spaghetti sandwich in Richard Beckett's Convicted Tastes.

I have a confession to make. I have never eaten a spaghetti sandwich. A tangle of tomato-tinged, soggy and sweet can-confined spaghetti has not ever presented itself to me as a viable sandwich filling. The concept is utterly foreign, which isn’t surprising given I grew up in a household where  a can of spaghetti was like bacon to a Jewish Rabbi – not only a banned substance, but one thought of with a fair amount of  disgust.

Not so for my eighth generation Australian husband who recalls with delight chomping down on buttered white bread crammed with slimy spaghetti.

He wasn’t the only one. Richard Beckett recalls that spaghetti sandwiches were once very much a part of the culinary landscape:

Its construction was quite basic – a spoonful of tinned spaghetti between two pieces of buttered bread. Along with baked beans, it was always an integral part of a plate of mixed sandwiches at city tearooms – now vanished – run by large department stores on their top storeys.

When exactly the spaghetti sandwich made its debut is hard to know. What we do know is that to make this historic sandwich you need a can of spaghetti, and that process was kicked off in the late 19th Century by the Franco-American company in the US.  By the 1920s it was joined by versions from Heinz and Campbells, amongst others.

Heinz, which didn’t start local production till 1934, claims that US miners introduced their canned products to Australia during the gold rush, along with their shovels and picks and dreams of striking it rich too, no doubt.

However, by 1917, you didn’t need to know an American miner to get your hands on a can of spaghetti – you would’ve found it along with other imported products like baked beans, cream of tomato soup and “many other desirable lines of distinctive quality” at HG Wilson and Co, “The Family Grocer” on Swanston Street in Melbourne, just opposite St Paul’s Cathedral.

By 1924, the spaghetti sandwich must’ve been sufficiently established as a culinary entity as to allow the Geisha Café in Townsville to advertise it as “very, very nice”.  It might sound like they employed Borat to do their copywriting, but the Geisha was keen on selling its special  spaghetti sandwich with its “special coffee”, as, well, a “special”:

Spaghetti sandwich ad 1917

"You could ask for nothing more delightful" than a spaghetti sandwich, according to Cafe Geisha's ad in The Townsville Daily Bulletin,10 September 1924.

In 1935, the Barrier Miner of Broken Hill published Miss Marojorie Mann’s recipe for Hot Savory Spaghetti Sandwiches. It was sent in as an entry for an “Afternoon Tea Delicacies” competition. It didn’t win:

Hot Savory Spaghetti Sandwiches

Slices of crisp toast, well buttered, some thin slices of ham, sliced tomato, grated cheese (if desired), 1 tin spaghetti, parsley

Reheat the spaghetti thoroughly. Heat the ham in a little milk – either in the oven or over the fire. Place a thick layer of spaghetti on a piece of toast. Cover with another slice on this. Place heated ham and sliced tomato and cover with another slice of buttered- toast. Garnish with a sprig of parsley and sprinkle thickly with grated cheese. Serve very  hot.

Which begs the question, am I game enough to try this so-called “delicacy”? I think it’s time to confront my fears about this most foreign of foods,  and while I’ve barely recovered from my last spaghetti-led carb overload, I think, as they once said about Whitlam, it’s time…

Bibliography

  • Beckett, Richard, Convicted Tastes: food in Australia. Sydney : George Allen & Unwin, 1984, 204
  • Levenstein, Harvey. “The American response to Italian food, 1880 – 1930” in Food in the USA, ed: Counihan, Carole, M, Routledge, 2002, New York, 78.
  • “Groceries.” The Argus, 23 May 1917, 12.
  • “Spaghetti Sandwiches are Very, Very Nice.” Townsville Daily Bulletin, 10 September 1924, 3.
  • “Afternoon Tea Delicacies.” Barrier Miner, 14 September 1935, 4 

Australian ricotta – Part 1

25 Feb

Some people understand the cost of living by the price of bread or milk or McDonald’s hamburgers. For me, it’s ricotta. A staple in my kitchen, I could not live without the stuff. Fresh, soft and still warm, I cannot resist scooping a few teaspoonfuls out of the container while I’m putting away the shopping. Days later, I’ll eat it with jam or honey on toast, with spinach in a pie, on spaghetti with eggplant and tomato, or stirred through pasta, made into a sauce with a bit of hot water, a handful of parmesan, a grating of nutmeg and a sprinkle of pepper. Comfort food at its best.

 But back to the index. When I lived in Leichhardt, in Sydney’s inner west, I used to buy ricotta for around $7.99 a kilo.

Later, when married life saw me move to the food wasteland that is Maroubra Beach, I had to make the admittedly-short journey to Maroubra Junction where I paid a shocking $10.99 a kilo.

Still, I realised I was better off than the poor ricotta-ripped off in Manly who were paying $15.99 a kilo. As for David Jones, in the city, they were suffering and continue to suffer similar stupid prices for a product that is not even a cheese – rather it’s a by-product of it.

In Melbourne, my home town, at the much loved Footscray Market, you can get it for $4.99 a kilo. And that, right there, is why I’m moving back to Melbourne.

All of this, however, got me thinking about when this most versatile of dairy products made its debut in the great brown land of Australia.

 The first mention of it I have found is in Tasmania’s daily newspaper, The Mercury, in 1930. In a short account of Christmas in Rome, the author describes the meal on Christmas Day as starting with soup:

…in which there are “cappelletti”, little cases of macaroni in the shape of hats, which contain a mixture of meat, brains, and “ricotta”, a kind of cream cheese.

It’s not till 1943 that there’s evidence of my favourite whey-based product for sale. The Cairns Post features an ad for Brightways Grocery where I would’ve been able to pick up 2 pounds of ricotta for sixpence. I’m not sure where that would sit on the index today, but what is surprising is that ricotta sits amongst the not-very-Italian ingredients of gooseberry jam, beetroot and the mysterious-sounding luncheon beef.

Perhaps the reason this ad wasn’t more targeted at the small Italian population of North Queensland was because many Italians there had either just been released from internment following Italy’s surrender to the Allies, or they were still incarcerated. Either way, anti-Italian sentiment in Queensland was running high.

 By 1954, however, back in Tasmania, it’s all about the Italians. A classified ad in The Mercury reads:

AAAAAA. TELL YOUR ITALIAN FRIENDS we have now BACCALA, Coppa, Bologna, Salame, Ricotta, Olio, Polenta. THE PANTRY, 37 Elizabeth St.

In the 1960s, ricotta became an ingredient that was featured in the odd Australian Women’s Weekly recipe, usually with the caveat that it could be substituted with either cottage cheese or cream cheese.

Publication in the Weekly generally means you’ve made it into the mainstream but in 1966, the Australian Dairy Produce Board thought the public still needed to be educated about the cheese and, maybe more importantly, where it’s from. An ad for “Australian ricotta” went something like this:

Ricotta ad

This ad appeared below an advertorial recipe for Heavenly Cheese Cake, which featured creamed cottage cheese, on 28 December 1966 in the Australian Women's Weekly.

The preoccupation with making sure the public understood that ricotta was now Australian continued into the late 60s. In a 1968 cookbook add-on about cheese again in the Australian Women’s Weekly, ricotta is one of many cheeses featured. Its provenance is given as “Italy” and we are told it cost “about 50 to 60 cents per lb”, however we are also told that it was one of many cheeses that used to be imported but was now made in Australia.

I find it quite hard to believe ricotta was ever imported, as it’s a fresh and highly perishable cheese. But if the bible of Australian womanhood says it is so, then it must be so:

cheeses of the world

Ricotta cheese is in the top left corner behind the glass of cottage cheese in this editorial spread from The Cheese Cook Book, an add-on to the Australian Women's Weekly on October 9,1968.

This brings us up to the 1970s which brought us flares, punk rock and a constitutional crisis. But you’ll have to wait for Part 2 to find out what happens next in ricotta’s journey from a cheese for the eye-talians to a common ingredient many of us eat and cook with all the time. Bet you can’t wait, right?

“Christmas at Rome.” The Mercury,5  February,1930, 4.
“Brightways Cairns.” Cairns Post, 30 September, 1943, 2.
“AAAAAA. TELL YOUR ITALIAN FRIENDS.” The Mercury, 14 January 1954,19. 
“Heavenly Cheese Cake.” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 28 December 1966, 6.
“Cheese adds that gourmet touch.” in The Cheese Cook Book in The Australian Women’s Weekly, October 9, 1968, p 2-15.

Retro recipe: Spaghetti patties, 19 August, 1933

15 Feb

Today we go back, way back, to 1933, to sample a prize-winning recipe that its author, Mrs Reichenbach of Quirindi, NSW says is “most suitable to serve at a bridge party or as a dinner savory.”

I have my doubts.

However, in the spirit of culinary adventure, I decide to give the intriguingly named Spaghetti patties a try…

Into a saucepan of boiling salted water throw a handful of spaghetti. Boil until very tender, strain, add a lump of butter, pepper, salt, 1/2 cup tomato sauce, and 2 tablespoonful grated cheese.

My first issue is with the “boil until very tender”. I boiled the Barilla Spaghettoni number 7 for at least 20 minutes. I felt so wrong doing it and they’re still not that soft. I’m tipping the spaghetti in 1933 was not made with durum wheat so would’ve been much softer than this. Ugh. Soft pasta reminds me of men with weak handshakes – all limp and insipid.

saucepan with boiling water

Al dente? Not this pasta.

Next, trouble with “a lump of butter”. How much is a lump? Is it like a lump of sugar? That seems a reasonable deduction to me, so in it goes:

Lump of butter

Is that the size of a "lump"?

And now for the greatest crime against my race ever. Tomato sauce mixed into pasta. My parents always told me this is how Australians ate spaghetti, and I didn’t really believe them. Until now.

I feel sick shaking the dead horse into the pasta and, as I stir it through, I imagine my nonna, who lives in Melbourne, watching over me. She is crying. And saying the rosary. And asking God if it was a mistake to bring her family to the new country, if this is what it meant for her blood-line. Sorry, nonna…

tomato sauce

Forgive me family.

After the deed is done, it occurs to me that perhaps Mrs Reichenbach didn’t mean commercially-prepared tomato sauce. Did they even have that in 1933? I must find out. Alas, for the soggy little strings of spaghetti drowning in a red sea, it is too late.

Update:  Michael Symons in One Continuous Picnic: A History of Eating in Australia, says tomato sauce was being bottled at least by 1868. So it’s possible I did use the sauce Mrs R intended. 

Pasta sauce

Just wrong.

My filling is done.

Now it’s time for the pasty:

Sift two cups flour, pinch of salt, pinch of cayenne. Rub evenly into this 1 cup butter or clarified dripping, two tablespoonsful grated cheese, and mix into a firm dough with a beaten egg and a little lemon juice.

Not surprisingly I go with the butter. I don’t happen to have any clarified dripping on hand. Does anyone?

Dough

Sweet sweet butter...

Roll out thinly, cut and line patty tins with paste. Bake until golden in medium hot oven.

This goes reasonably well, even though the amount of butter makes my arteries harden at the thought of actually eating it. Actually eating it. I wonder if this is necessary.

pastry cups

Such little cups, so many carbs.

Turn out and fill with spaghetti mixture. Serve hot.

I try to delicately twirl the pasta into the cups. I try to channel Donna Hay. She would know how to make these little bastards look good.

pasta cups

I bet Donna could make these look nice...

A little chopped parsley sprinkled on top is a pretty decoration.

If you say so Mrs Reichenbach. Now they’re ready for their close up.

close up spag patties

Ready to be eaten.

And for a tasting. I take a bite. I can taste butter and tomato sauce. The spaghetti is mushy and the pastry case is crumbly. It’s bland, dry and crying out for some proper sauce. Or some vegetables. Or more cheese. Or something else. Anything else really.

Did Mrs Reichenbach really serve these up at Bridge parties? And did she really win a prize? I don’t know about the former, but the answer to the latter is yes, she did. The Australian Women’s Weekly gave Mrs R a consolation prize and said this little carb-on-carb delight “was simple to make and will be appreciated by housewives.”

Ahh, that’s the problem then, I’m not a housewife!

pasta box

In the archive, where they belong.

Another Orange Contest with £5 Prize. The Australian Women’s Weekly (1932-1982), Saturday 19 August 1933, page 35.