La Delizia: My Story (sort of)

Every year, around Christmas, I make panforte. In a bowl I stir together flour; cocoa powder; toasted almonds, walnuts, and macadamias; nutmeg; cinnamon; ginger; chilli powder; and pepper. Then in one pan I melt chocolate, whilst in another I make syrup from sugar and honey. When both pots begin to bubble, I scrape them into the bowl and then it’s a race against time to mix it all together before the liquids turn back into solids. As the biscuit cake bakes in the oven and the smell of spices and roasted nuts and chocolate fill the kitchen, I think of Nonna. Not my Nonna, but: Nonna.

Nonna was my next door neighbour’s Nonna when I was growing up. Nonna – perpetually aproned – spoke always in rapid Italian (no doubt hoping her grand-daughter would pick it up better than her mother had) and moved in a cloud of faint flour dust that rose and fell with every gesticulation of her hands.

She also made the most magnificent food you have ever tasted. Her second-eldest grandson would go on to open a trendy cafe in the inner-city in her honour. In all of his press releases he would tell the story of how his Nonna taught him to cook. Reading about his hard-earned success from the other side of the world, I couldn’t resist a smug smile and the whispered thought; ‘yeah, same though.’ (And by the way, my pastas are also the stuff of legend).

I have no doubt that my memory of Nonna is romanticised. She was not my family, and she was also not a regular character in my childhood – it was rare that I would be at my neighbour’s house playing when Nonna was over; generally that was reserved for family time. In my more self-critical moments, I am fearful that I have simply amalgamated her from a series of Italian women who began making an appearance in Australian popular culture in the early- to mid-90s: Josie’s Nonna in Looking for Alibrandi probably would have made a heavy-handed appearance in my source material. But, at the same time, I also have no doubt that my memory of Nonna is genuine.

Nonna may not have been a regular character in my up-bringing, but she was nevertheless an incredibly important one. That smug, self-satisfied grin on the other side of the world was based in a deeply-personal truth: Nonna taught me to cook.

I come from a long line of women who couldn’t make a decent dish to save their life (and talent, ingenuity, and sheer dumb luck has meant they’ve never really had to either). My Yiayia was never the cook of her household. That honour went to her husband who – born in KL when it was still a British colony – would spend hours of a Sunday slow-cooking curries and kneading rotis. When it became necessary for Yiayia to cook, such delights were immediately replaced with over-boiled carrots (a dish that will still set me gagging at its mere thought) and hammer-and-chisel-tough strips of meat. For my mother – who lived through both the throwing off of the shackles of ‘women’s work’ that was the 70s feminist revolution and, less productively, the era of the ‘microwave dinner party’ – cooking was a much-dreaded chore frequently accompanied by ominous crashes and severe language warnings.

But in Nonna’s kitchen the crafting of a meal became an art form in which the simplest and easiest to manage processes churned out at the other end some brand new delight. She showed us how to prepare the vegetables; slicing them to different thicknesses to show us how surface area impacts cooking time, taste, and texture. She taught us how to balance simplicity with subtlety; never over-doing the number of ingredients, but always adding something extra – spice or salt or crunch – that could not be immediately discerned from looking at the plate. She taught us how to plan our order of battle; how to make sure that everything – from stews to pasta to salad – would be ready at the same time. She taught us how to balance the delights of flavour with the importance of being full, and watching her and her family delight in the eating of the food they had all prepared together, I realised that there is no ‘bad’ food.

Nonna taught me to cook, because she taught me to eat.

It wasn’t clear-sailing, and it still took me a long time to be confident in my cooking instincts; to not see food as a chore; and to realise that panforte is not ‘junk’ food: that it is love and family and sharing coated in honey and chocolate and nuts.

And so this year – as every other year – I will go to the spice shop around the corner and find the freshest ingredients I can. And then I will mix and melt and re-make them into my favourite Italian Christmas food. And then, once the cake has cooled and its exterior hardened, I will take a knife and run it through its middle. Then I will cut it in half again. And then I will find the middle points between those two cuts and I will slice two more times until I have my 8 slices of panforte. And then I will wrap them in cloth and ribbon and love, and I will distribute them to my friends and family. And together we will eat and live in joy.

A Rude Awakening: My Story

I have never been good with numbers. Maths; yes, but numbers as entities do not stick in my head. They float away before I can grasp them, and become muddled. When I used to work at the restaurant, closing the till on a late Saturday night required extra concentration, lest I fall into my old poor counting habits: 20, 40, 60, 80, 100 ; 20, 40, 60 80, 200 ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 300 ; … ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 700 ; 20, 40, 60, 80, 200 ; 20, 40, wait no… (2s and 8s have always felt the same to me).

I hate when people read phone numbers to me, always skipping too fast over the sequence, not pausing long enough for me to grasp what the number is and then re-formulate it; translate it from thought-image to written figure. I can do high-level mathematics, and working out budgets and savings or debt interest has never been an issue, but I avoid thinking of life in terms of numbers because it just gets too confusing.

And so – whilst I can tell the time – I find myself struggling with larger time-bound markers which are expressed in numerical form. I struggle with years, ages, and even months (did something happen in March or May ; June or July? The numbers are basically the same and their names too are similar).

And that’s basically how I lost my early twenties.

It started with the year of 21sts. Mine was at the beginning of the year; front-loading the celebrations and acting as a warm-up for the festivities to come. The rest of the year was a haze of work-days and uni assignments punctuated by weekends suffused with top-shelf booze, bizarre costumes, and nostalgic music. In what felt like the same year (but was really the following), I completed my final year of undergraduate and decided to move to Melbourne – a city which was strange to me, and in which I had no one: I shall be anonymous for at least a year, I thought. To justify what I thought would be my incredibly brief séjour to this ephemeral city I enrolled in an Honours degree, since it’s easier to meet people at a university (or so I believed at the time). For the first time in my life, I found that I had to buckle down and study hard and what with my studies and the distractions of a new town and new friends, that 9 months just flew by.

At the end of the Honours degree, I decided to take a brief break which somehow turned into 5 months back-packing in South America and a 3-month road trip through the USA and Niagra Falls/Montreal (it seems weird to say ‘Canada’ when I only went to two places).

Although I had sworn-off the academic life after the raging stress of Honours, this time travelling gave me enough space from it that I decided that undertaking a year-long Masters degree in Comparative Literature was just what the doctor ordered (spoiler alert: the same thing happened post-Masters, but I still ended up doing a PhD – can’t wait to see what I decide to do next…).

So in between the Americas and the Masters, I returned to what-is-now-home (Melbourne) where I met my partner’s extended family for the first time. They are truly wonderful people, and from the start we hit it off, finding shared interests in literature, philosophy, and a general approach to life. As the conversation turned towards the more personal, my partner’s cousin asked me:

‘How old are you?’

‘I’m 21.’ I told her, without needing to think about it.

There was an awkward pause as my partner turned to stare at me.

‘Kali,’ my partner said, with a look of genuine concern and confusion, ‘You’re 25.’

 

Horror Show – My Story

Growing up in Perth, one of my favourite times of year was when the Royal Show came to town. Traditionally a time for farmers to meet and sell their wares and animals, the Show has since evolved into a week-long carnival where city-folk can pat farm animals, watch a wood-chopping competition, sample fresh ice-cream, ride roller-coasters, and take home as many Showbags as they can carry.

My favourite part of the Show was always Sideshow Alley – a 2km stretch of screaming lights and flashing sounds; a cacophonous wonder of bustling bodies, terrifying rides, and rigged carnival games. Every year there was a new ride to discover. It was here that I tried my first roller-coaster, here that I learned ghost trains aren’t scary, here that I fell in love with the simplistic terror of the chair swing and chair drop. And it was here, in Sideshow Alley at the Perth Royal Show, that I learned that “Dodgem Cars” is a very misleading name for a game where one must actually hit things.

I had never heard of Dodgem Cars before, but there it suddenly was in sparkling red letters in front of me – a new addition to the Alley’s collection. On a level platform below the dazzling sign, chunky black cars stood ready to ride. It was new, and it looked fun, so, pocket money in-hand, I walked over to the ticket window.

Being a rather well-read but still quite literal child, I believed that I had grasped the object of the game from the name itself. Dodgem Cars: obviously one was meant to drive the car around the platform without bumping into anything. Clearly the difficulty – and the fun – of the game lay in the fact that the car was so big, this would be a near impossible feat to achieve.

So I jumped into my very own Dodgem and, smug in my inferred understanding, released my competitive spirit: I would be the very best Dodger there. An alarm sounded and the cars whirred to life. We were off!

I did a few laps of the platform, sharply twisting the wheel on a few occasions when I came too close to another vehicle.

And then, all of a sudden, something rammed into the back of my Dodgem and threw me against the rubber-enforced perimeter. It was amazing to me that another driver could have been so lax in their driving that they hit me that hard. Somewhat startled, I turned behind me to see a Dodgem driven by a basket-ball capped teenage boy. I gesticulated my confusion at him: ‘How did you not see me there?’ I demanded. He smirked to himself and then drove off.

Unperturbed, I continued my exquisite dodging, wondering if there was a prize for the driver who hit the least number of obstacles – most of the other drivers seemed to be having difficulty with their steering wheels.

But then it happened again! I was hit by two cars – one from either side! It was that same boy again, but this time he had a friend with him and they had come at me from opposite sides. Obviously they had been watching each other rather than where they were going.

Then they reversed and rammed into me again!

‘Hello!’ I yelled at them, confused why they had not noticed me.

One of them manoeuvred his Dodgem in front of mine, and between them they pushed my Dodgem – bumping all the way – into the wall at the other end of the platform. I tried explaining to them that they weren’t meant to be hitting the car, but they couldn’t hear me over their cackling.

Suddenly, the ride was stopped and two of the operators walked onto the platform to remove the two boys. I shrugged at them sympathetically – sad for them that they hadn’t understood the game and had thus been disqualified. The ride started again, and off I drove in my obstacle-less circles.

At the end of the ride I walked triumphantly down the stairs to where mum stood.

‘Those boys were horrible.’ She said to me, ‘You did well to not let their bullying get to you.’

I looked at her in confusion, then looked back to where a new round of Dodgem Cars had begun behind me. Everyone was bashing into each other.

And then I realised.

The object of the game was to hit as many people as you could! The boys had been ejected not because they misunderstood the rules, but because they had ganged up together to bully me. The humiliation was too much to bare. I spent the rest of the day moping trough Sideshow Alley, tears streaming down my face.