Archive for October, 2012


As the Tomato Said to the Actress

October 30, 2012

I don’t know why this wasn’t plainly obvious to me, but my canned tomatoes have taken on new meaning since I discovered the brand name’s origins.

A quick internet search on Gina Lollobrigida – after finding her autographed photo in a shoebox – threw up ‘La Gina’ canned tomatoes. The story goes that Italian immigrant Carlo Valmorbida was a huge fan of the luscious Gina and upon deciding to introduce canned tomatoes to Australia in 1963, named his product after her. Am I the only person who didn’t know this?

Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida black and white image

I think this photo of Gina is either from the late 1960s or mid 1970s. She came to Australia as a Logie Awards guest in 1974 so that’s possibly the more accurate. All I remember is my father coming home from work one day with the autographed photo for me, with the inscription “To Ambra, con simpatìa, (with affection) Gina Lollobrigida”.  My late father worked in hotel maintenance in those days and would often meet visiting overseas actors and singers and bring home mementos.

I got to thinking about tomatoes in relation to women. Known as the “love apple” for its seductive colour and sensuous sweet flesh, it was believed to be the devil’s fruit by the Roman Catholic Church, offered by Eve to Adam instead of an apple. Even more annoying for the patriarchal church, the tomato was considered the very symbol of woman: tempting, bewitching and a threat to male dominance.

During the 1920s and 1930s the expression “tomato” was used in some American films to describe a good-looking woman. Sometimes women even used it to describe themselves: in Billy Wilder’s 1955 comedy The Seven Year Itch,  Marilyn Monroe’s ditzy blonde greets her downstairs admirer with “Hi. It’s me, don’t you remember? The tomato from upstairs.”

And it goes without saying that “tomayto” is a lot funnier than “tomahto”.

Gina played the lead in the 1969 screwball comedy Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell (which later was the inspiration for ‘Mamma Mia’) but I doubt the choice of name was related to Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup. However La Lollo obviously likes a tomato connection, appearing in a late 1960s’ advertisment for Leggo’s Tomato Paste.

La Gina canned tomatoes

This summer I look forward to embracing the tomato, starting with  Jamie Oliver’s Tomato Consommé

Warning: you’ll need a butcher’s hook.


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Colosseum

October 15, 2012

Q. What measures 2m x 1m, is composed of 200,000 plastic bricks and evokes a swords-and-sandals era?

Watching Woody Allen’s latest film To Rome with Love with its shots of Eternal City landmarks reminded me of an exhibition I wanted to see at Sydney University.

The thought of a Colosseum fashioned from LEGO bricks brought back childhood memories of bonding with new-found Italian cousins on a trip to my hometown in the mid ‘60s. Many cold wintry afternoons in Trieste were spent playing with LEGO, and many sessions followed back in Australia until teenage self-consciousness took over. With rare figures currently fetching steep prices, it might be worth checking the crevices of my mother’s old vacuum cleaner for hidden LEGO treasures.

Colosseum made from Lego, University of Sydney

As the exhibition centrepiece, the world’s first LEGO Colosseum ticks all the boxes. In cross-section – with half the structure in present-day ruin, the other half as it was in 80 AD – it features gladiators, chariots, rabid animals, spectators and modern touches too including tourists, ice-cream stalls and the Popemobile. But what about the CATS? With 200 of Rome’s 300,000 stray cats living happily in the real Colosseum, here we’re only allowed a solitary white moggie in the grounds of the complex.

Lonely white crouching cat

Maybe the replica’s Australian creator Ryan McNaught is not a cat person? Woody Allen certainly isn’t and considers entering a petshop a fate much worse than death. Personally, I’d have preferred more Colosseum in his film, imagining his recreation of the famous lobster scene from Annie Hall, with the neurotic director handing the cat wrangling over to Dianne Keaton. I would have happily assisted as I’m almost an apprentice “gattara” (Italian woman who regularly feeds Colosseum cats) in my co-fostering role for two desexed ginger orphan lovelies near my house. A phone call asking me “What’s New Pussycat” would suffice.

In the meantime, I’m coveting this lovely silk ‘Cats in the Colosseum’ scarf. (Available from Amazon for only $39 – and on my Christmas wishlist.)

‘The Colosseum’ exhibition continues at the Nicholson Gallery, Sydney University until January 2013.

For lovers of musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Tony-award winning romp ‘A Funny Thing happened on the Way to the Forum’ is playing in Melbourne in October and November. 


Lurking in the Cupboard #2: Toothpick Holders

October 4, 2012

An occasional post about long-forgotten household gems in my mother’s kitchen

The two swans are finally getting some attention. I hear they can get a bit haughty, so I’m extra careful before I shoot photograph them.

As novelty toothpick holders go, these little beauties are very covetable, but sadly have sat untouched in the china cabinet for many years.  Once regular stars at my parents’ dinner parties, they were for a while surpassed by a newer model – a square ‘80s timber veneer Port Macquarie souvenir, but it too sits abandoned.

Swan-shaped toothpick holders

It used to be perfectly acceptable to wield toothpicks after a meal, one hand over the mouth while the digging and poking took place with the other. They’re said to be the oldest instrument for dental cleaning, with skulls of Neanderthals showing clear signs of having teeth picked with a tool, but if they’re so useful, when was the last time you put toothpicks out for a dinner party? And when did you last see them on a restaurant table?

Every neighbourhood Italian eatery we frequented in Sydney’s inner-west in the ’60s and ’70s set their tables with toothpicks. The Tre Venezie, Moro and Miramare restaurants in Stanmore and (I’m sure) Beppi’s in East Sydney offered them beside the salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar.

Sally Galletto, manager of one of my favourite restaurants – Lucio’s in Paddington – tells me they still have them, but at the waiters’ stations, not on tables.

If the demise of the toothpick as dental accessory is complete, let’s at least pay homage to its other uses. Here’s my Top 10:

.            stabbed through cubed cheese with red pickled onions as 1960s party food

.            decorating a hotel Club Sandwich (topped with curly cellophane)

.            as a fastener for Devils on Horseback and Italian veal involtini

.            holding together a cocktail orange slice and a Maraschino cherry

.            speared through the heart of two green olives in a classic Martini

.            poked vertically on everything in an antipasto platter, creating a mini forest

.            Ray’s (Dustin Hoffman) preferred utensil for eating pancakes in Rain Man

.            as a character nickname in Some Like it Hot: ‘Toothpick Charlie’

.            as a mouth prop for cinema mobsters and cowboys

.            Ryan Gosling chewing one in 2011’s Drive to emulate James Dean              

Have I forgotten any?

But back to the beginning. In case you’re keen to start using toothpicks, I recommend honing your skills with actor/cabaret star Paul Capsis’s chance conversation webisodes ‘Toothpick Etiquette’ 101, 102 and 103.

Related posts on retro household items:

♦ I welcome your thoughts or retorts. The Comments button is only a click away…


%d bloggers like this: