It was never going to be a happy marriage: an Italian in strange surroundings, with no knowledge of the local language, dependent on an unknown woman whose cooking probably didn’t measure up to mamma’s.
When I started primary school as a five-year-old, I had about 11 words of English. It was 1960 and we had arrived as Italian migrants a few years earlier, my parents settling in Sydney’s inner-west and mixing with other non-Australians. We spoke Italian at home and we hadn’t yet bought a television, so there were no English distractions.
The first school day was traumatic. My mother cried when she dropped me off at the local public school after the two-kilometre walk from our house, hand-in-hand. She also cried on her way home and again when she collected me in the afternoon.
I can’t remember if I was anxious during those first weeks at school, but if I was, I put all my energies into grappling with the lunches my mother prepared. Mum’s sandwiches were stuffed with either salami or mortadella. If it was dad’s handiwork, it more than likely involved a sharp, smelly Italian cheese partnered with two or three black olives, de-pipped and halved.
There weren’t many other migrant children in my class, but kids being kids, they made rude noises when I reached for my lunch. I soon realised that if I wanted to fit in, the pathway to assimilation would be food. I’d tried to work out what was in my classmates’ sandwiches and learned the pale pink sliced meat was called devon and the dark brown, salty-smelling gloop was Vegemite. But I was more interested in the stubby noodles in the orange-coloured sauce that one girl brought in most days. It was a strange thing to put in a sandwich but I figured if an Australian kid at school could eat what an Italian kid ate at home, we could become soul mates.
After a few months, I convinced my mother that I wanted to try something different for lunch and needed to place an order for the spaghetti sandwich. This was my first attempt at befriending the woman behind the tuck shop counter who I assumed cooked the pasta at home. She was very kind and only too pleased to let me try something familiar.
I could hardly wait for the sandwich to arrive. I salivated. I was finally going to be ‘one of them’. Bag opened, wax paper off, first bite completed.
“This can’t be right.” I tried again. “That woman has made a mistake. I ordered spaghetti.” I took a third, smaller bite of the overcooked pasta in the sickly, sweet, gluggy sauce and almost gagged. Should I be rude and spit it out? I hadn’t swallowed the other two pieces, so there was now a hefty ball of unwanted sandwich in my mouth soon to be deposited in the paper lunch bag.
My Australian classmates looked on and nodded when I asked if this really was spaghetti. Some corrected me and said it really was “psghetti”.
If I’d watched the tuck shop woman make my sandwich I’d have realised the pasta had come out of a tin and was scooped onto the buttered bread with a spoon. ‘Spaghetti’ and ‘spoon’ were never used in the same sentence in our Italian world. Years later I discovered that US miners introduced tinned spaghetti to Australia during the late 19th century gold rush and the nation had been enjoying it ever since, even daring to tip it onto a slice of toast for special occasions.
My mother asked about my new sandwich filling. I had to think fast: if I admitted it was inedible, it would be back to the smelly sandwiches; if I said I liked it, I’d have to keep ordering it.
I can’t remember how we reached a compromise. Maybe I convinced dad my schoolmates thought the black olives looked like cockroaches and it would reflect badly on mum’s housekeeping. Or that the mortadella would fester in a hot school case in the sun and upset my stomach. Either way, they relented and both these offending fillings were omitted from my lunchbox for a long while.
As my English improved, I gained confidence and learned to order sandwiches with egg, salad, raspberry jam and peanut butter.
But not before I was tempted by something called a ‘sausage roll’. I had visions of a crusty Italian roll with German mustard and a genuine continental frankfurter – just like my northern Italian parents, whose cooking was influenced by Austro-Hungarian heritage – served at home.
If testing the spaghetti sandwich had been a disappointment, this second experiment almost sent me running back to mum and dad’s problematic lunches. But soon after, our first television delivered me another challenge in the form of the 1960s’ American sitcom children’s specialty: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was a glutton for punishment.